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SCT visit to churches in Bristol

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The Somerset Churches Trust runs regular tours of churches – often with a theme. In July Rob Harding organised a trip to three Bristol churches, which date back to Norman times, including the magnificent St Mary, Redcliffe. The picture shows Cecile Gillard the head warden of St Mary Redcliffe pointing out the medieval stained glass.

A small but select band of Trust members gathered for the July church crawl which visited three churches of Norman foundation which had all originally been within Somerset and under the Bishop of Bath and Wells. 

Temple Church 

The tour started at Temple Church. The land upon which the church stood was originally given to the Knights Templar sometime before 1147 by Robert, First Earl of Gloucester. The Order of the Knights Templar was an organisation of warrior monks dedicated to the protection of pilgrims and the sites of the Holy Land. It modelled its churches on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Thus their building at Bristol has a round nave incorporating an ambulatory and a chancel with a round apse. Twelve such churches are known in Britain, the one in Bristol being one of the earliest and largest. 

The area around Temple Church, south of the River Avon, developed as a suburb of the town of Bristol to the north and was particularly important for weaving. In 1299 Edward I gave land and a chapel at Temple Church to the Weavers Guild and it is thought that the extended chancel, with similar Decorated style windows, and possibly the south chapel were constructed at the same time. 

Around 1307/8 the Knights Templar were supressed and their lands handed over to the Hospitallers. While the Church’s importance to them declined, it became a centre of religious life for the local population. This led to the small round nave being replaced in the fourteenth century by a large aisled hall nave in Perpendicular style. From medieval wills we know that the Church’s massive tower was under construction between 1441 and 1460. Although built off wooden piles, it soon began to sink into the formerly marshy ground and, despite attempts to correct levels part way up, is still 5ft out of true. It is said to have swayed when the bells were rung! 

The church was completely refitted in the eighteenth century with box pews, a new reredos, plastered ceilings and a new west porch. Many of these fittings were then swept away in a series of reorderings between 1872 and 1909 which sought to return the Church to its supposedly medieval appearance. 

On 24 November, 1940 the church was burnt out by German bombing and left a roofless shell. The Army was only prevented from demolishing its leaning tower by an architect on home-leave who persuaded them that it had been like that for near-on 500 years. The site is now in the care of English Heritage who kindly opened it for us. 

Church of St Thomas the Martyr 

Members then walked a short distance to the Church of St Thomas the Martyr. There we were met by Bob Hendy, a volunteer guide with the Churches Conservation Trust. Although retaining its medieval tower, the Church was substantially rebuilt between 1792 and 1793 following a survey into the condition of the old church and, as Tom recounted, a surprisingly fast decision to demolish the body of the building. It was rebuilt in a light and airy classical style by James Allen, a local mason/architect. Besides the tower, the church did retain much 

of its earlier, magnificent woodwork. Particularly of note, is the carved, classically adorned reredos and Doric style west gallery. The Church is once again known as St Thomas the Martyr having had to temporarily change its name to St Thomas the Apostle following Henry VIII’s matrimonial difficulties and religious reforms. ( St Thomas-a-Becket being “ a promoter of the enormities of the Bishop of Rome”). 

St Mary’s, Redcliffe 

After a refreshing cup of tea, members were met by St Mary’s Head Warden, Cecile Gillard who expertly guided us around this very substantial church. Parts of the present building are C13th but it was substantially rebuilt in the C14th with donations from Bristol’s increasingly prosperous merchants, particularly the Canynges family. 

Externally the Church has an exceptionally fine C13th tower topped by what was originally a C14th spire; it was struck by lightning and largely rebuilt in Victorian times. St Mary’s also has a very interesting octagonal north porch, built in front of an earlier C13th porch. Its intricately decorated outer entrance is framed by a series of multiple concave arches leading some to suggest Islamic architectural influences perhaps via Portugal, with whom Bristol had strong trading links. 

Pevsner particularly commends the “splendour” of the lofty interior with the nave’s high clerestory and stone vaulting in a variety of styles to all ceilings. It is here that the transition from the Decorated style to Perpendicular is very evident, occasioned by the length of time the Church was under construction. 

St Mary’s has some very interesting fixtures and fittings. Cecile pointed out the remains of the medieval glazing which Joseph Bell, a local, Victorian glazing firm, had reset in the windows to the room beneath the tower. These include a series of roundels of saints monks and kings. At the other end of the church, in the Lady Chapel, is a complete set of windows depicting the Life of Christ, boldly and colourfully designed by Harry J. Stammers and installed in 1965. On the wall of the north side of the nave is the monument and armour of Sir William Penn, whose son went on to found Pennsylvania. Also in the nave is some intricate C18th ironwork, some reused from Temple Church where we had started our tour. 

Rob Harding


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