Avon Stories #3 – Bristol and the Medieval Avon, part 1 – the City and the Rivers

This is the first of a two-part podcast where I met with Dr Peter Fleming of the University of the West of England, who told me all about Bristol in Medieval times, and how the River Avon and the River Frome were integral in making it one of the most important cities of the time in England and Western Europe.

In Part 1, we talk about the physical city and the infrastructure, how the geography made Bristol so important, as well as how people lived, who had the power, and what the city would have looked (and smelled) like.

Part 2 looks at how Bristol survived some of the big sweeping events of the time, with more about who lived and worked in the city, including the Knights Templars, the Jewish communities, women in Bristol, and Icelandic slaves.  We also talked about what Bristolians did for fun, including music, plays, sport and drinking.  Listen to that one here.

Of course, I have maps to give you an idea of what things looked like, with lots more links below.  First, my own map, with my rough approximations of where the city walls were, as well as the path of the River Frome as it runs through Bristol.  All errors are my own!

UPDATE!  There’s also the official Bristol City Council map of the Medieval city, overlaid on top of modern-day streets

I’ve also added photos of what the places look like now, and you can also find these in my flickr albums of walking the Frome line, walking the inside of the Medieval Wall, and what’s left of the Bristol Castle.

But what did Medieval Bristol look like?

We talked about William Worcestre‘s book, The Topography of Medieval Bristol, which was written in 1480 and describing daily life in the city – if you want to read Franced Neale’s translation, it’s available in a PDF on the University of Bristol website.

The earliest known map of Bristol is in Robert Ricart’s The Maire of Bristowe is Kalendar, which was compiled between 1480 and 1508, by Ricart, a Town Clerk.  You can read the 1872 translation on the Bristol Archives website (the map from that version is on page 10), and buy Peter’s version from the Bristol Record Society.  Read more about it, with some of the amazing illustrations, on this blog by Peter.

Ricart’s map shows the city gates and the High Cross, erected in 1373 to celebrate the Charter that made Bristol a county in its own right.  This used to stand at the highest point of the town, at the junction of High Street, Corn Street, Broad Street and Wine Street.

The next maps were made after Medieval times, but clearly show the town walls and gates, which were still standing, as well as the street layouts, which haven’t really changed in the oldest parts of the city.  Joris Hoefnagel‘s Map of Brightstowe is from 1581, while James Millerd’s Exact Delineation of the Famous City of Bristoll is from 1673 (this was adapted from the 1671 map, and is the first map of Bristol taken from surveys).  You can see how the city had changed and grown within the 90 years between the creation of the two maps – for example, how the Castle had been demolished, Queen Square developed, and the City had grown.

Joris Hoefnagel's 1581 Map of BrightstoweThere are more historic maps of Bristol to explore on the Bristol Museums website – and of course you can explore later maps of Bristol and overlay them with lots more information, on Know Your Place, which I talked about in the first Avon Stories podcast.


If you want to know more about Peter Fleming, his UWE staff page is here, including the list of his articles and books he’s written and contributed to.   You can find more articles he’s written here, with links to read them.  And you can also follow Peter on his twitter.

We talked about books Peter has written, including:

  • Discovering Cabot’s Bristol: Life in the Medieval and Tudor Town, with Kieran Costello, which is out of print, but available in libraries and online retailers
  • Later this year, Peter’s latest book, Time, Space and Power in Fifteenth Century Bristol, will be published by Brill – tell your library to order it!

If you’d like to take a walk around Medieval Bristol, Bristol Old City has a Heritage Trail map with information about things you’ll see along the way, which Peter was involved in producing.  There’s also more information about Bristol’s town walls on Gatehouse.


You can download this podcast directly from the Avon Stories Soundcloud, and sign up to the Avon Stories RSS and subscribe on iTunes, to make sure you hear all the future stories.  Make sure you’re also following on twitter and instagram, for regular photos of the river.

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