The History of Bristol
All, or nearly all, of Bristol’s history is interwoven with its function as a port. The very name of the place, corrupted from the Anglo-Saxon Brycgstow or Brigstowe, arguably means meeting place by the pier/jetty, though ‘brig’ it could also refer to an early bridge. It is a history full of merchant adventurers, explorers, and of course slavers.
With its position by the Avon and Frome rivers the area that is now the city of Bristol naturally was settled in prehistoric times; plentiful evidence of such habitation has been found by archaeologists, though Iron Age hill forts are found in the surrounding area rather than what is now Bristol itself.
The Romans too settled the area, building a port in the current Sea Mills suburb of Bristol, known to Rome as Portus Abonae, or sometimes simply Abona, complete with wharves to serve the boats sailing to Wales and doubtless further afield. As elsewhere in Britain, with the departure of the Romans in the early 5th century this settlement was probably abandoned; unusually it seems to have taken several centuries for the place to attract re-settlement; indeed the large village called Brycgstow that sprang up on the slopes of a small hill in the early 11th century was in effect new. Other villages nearby pre-dated this proto-Bristol, notably Westbury-on-Trym, where a land grant by Offa of Mercia prompted the building of a Minster in the 8th century.
Brycgstow in the early 11th century had a mint and it seems a market, and the port evidently developed, with records showing Harold Godwineson used it in 1052 and 1062. As would be the case several centuries later, Brycgstow before the Normans invaded was a slaving centre, captives from Wales, the North and possibly other regions were brought there to be bought and sold, many shipped to the ready market in Viking Dublin.
The Normans saw the potential of Bristol, and its strategic value, building soon after the Conquest a rudimentary fort of motte-and-bailey construction. This is thought to have been improved with stone walls quite early in the Norman era, probably during the reign of William himself by Geoffrey de Montbray, a knight in his service and also Bishop of Coutances. This castle was further improved by its next owner Robert Fitzhamon (de Montbray having retired to Coutances after the unsuccessful rebellion against William Rufus ), his son-in-law Robert of Caen finishing the task before his death in 1147, and founding the Priory of St James and an Augustinian Monastery completed after his death into the bargain.
The future Henry II was protected by Robert de Caen in Bristol Castle, and in part educated there. This service was rewarded by Henry III , who indeed became the Castle’s owner, with Bristol given trade and residential rights in Dublin after its subjugation in 1172, making it for a period almost a colony of the port town.
Increased trade with Ireland saw Bristol’s port grow further. In the following century the wine trade with England’s territory in Aquitaine boomed, woollen cloth being exported in return. This business extended soon to Spanish and Portuguese wineries, founding a trade route still significant for the city to this day, though the most famous Bristolian sherry house, that begun by John Harvey, was not established until 1796. Such diversification showed great foresight, as the Hundred Years War ended in the mid-15th century with English defeat and loss of our wine growing territories in France.
Ships from Bristol did not only head south: Iceland was a vital trading partner in the Middle Ages, largely for fish, such an important element of the diet in those times for religious reasons; so too was Ireland. Wine, steel from Toledo, fish, cloth, and numerous other goods shipped in and out of Bristol saw the town in the Middle Ages become one of the four most prosperous in England along with London , York and Norwich .
The fish trade from the port produced what remains an intriguing historical mystery. In 1475 action by the Hanseatic League cut off the supply of cod to the town. Two Bristol merchants, John Jay and Thomas Croft, financed an exploratory mission across the Atlantic, purportedly searching for a mythical island, but resulting soon thereafter in salt cod being imported by them into the town. As Mark Kurlansky points out in his excellent Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, cod could then only be dried and salted on land – it is highly likely that Jay and Croft’s fleet were fishing in the Grand Banks, and salting their catch ashore in North America a decade before Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic. To protect their trade coup the Bristolians it seems kept quiet about this New World. It may be no coincidence, though, that it was from Bristol John Cabot set sail to discover Newfoundland in 1497, though his patron Henry VII in fact hoped for a route to the Asian spice trade.
Henry VIII with his Dissolution in the 1530s changed the face of the city with various religious houses being sold off and closed, but his actions gave Bristol a cathedral – in the form of the old St Augustine’s Abbey – when he granted the place city status in 1542. In the reign of Elizabeth I Bristol increased its trade links overseas, though it was also the base for less equitable exchange – Tudor houses still extant in Bristol are said to have been built with privateer funds. Three Bristol vessels joined the English fleet facing the Armada in 1588, the city’s prosperity very much threatened by what would happen should Spain conquer the country.
The Castle which had been so important in the early life of Bristol had by Tudor times faded in significance. But in the Civil War it again came into its own, Prince Rupert seizing it from Parliament in 1643, though his primary target was surely the merchant vessels taken in the harbour which gave Charles I a fleet; in September 1645, however, Rupert lost the city to Sir Thomas Fairfax, a severe blow to Royalist fortunes. As with so many other fortifications around England, Cromwell ordered the destruction of Bristol Castle in 1656 to make armed insurrection more difficult.
Cromwell’s almost inadvertent expansion of British power in the Caribbean and the subsequent development of previously existing colonies on the American mainland created another boom period for the port of Bristol in the 18th century. But this trade was not merely import-export; it was the triangular trade that exchanged cloth, metal goods and trinkets from Bristol for African slaves, shipped those slaves across the Atlantic, and brought sugar, molasses, rum and cotton back to the city.
The inhumane trade in human beings was hugely profitable – merchants could triple their investment, bringing great wealth to the city. It also spurred the growth of metal industries in Bristol and the surrounding area, giving Bristol a specialised niche during the Industrial Revolution , developments supported by the establishment of collieries in the area in the 17th and 18th centuries. Abraham Darby worked in Bristol for a time; Brunel brought the Great Western Railway to the city; built SS Great Western and SS Great Britain there, and provided the inhabitants with the Clifton Suspension Bridge too.
But as other ports like Liverpool and Whitehaven out-competed the city for the American trade, and the mercantile mentality lost out to the industrial, Bristol declined in importance in the second half of the 18th century. The end of the slave trade in 1807 was a further blow; and the town gained something of a radical reputation which perhaps deterred investment: it was in Bristol that John Wesley founded his first Methodist Chapel in 1739; in 1793 11 died during rioting provoked by an increased bridge toll; again in 1831 major riots broke out when a reform bill was blocked.
The industries that prospered in Bristol in the 19th century were again thanks to its port: tobacco from the Americas supplying W.D. & H.O. Wills; paperworks taking in American and Canadian timber and pulp. Even in the 20th century and into the present one the port has influenced local industry: engine making and aircraft engineering benefitting from the ability to ship overseas without long rail or road journeys to embark their bulky and heavy goods.
As with other British cities the academic sector has become very significant for Bristol, yet even there links with the port are discernible, at least in the case of The University of the West of England, whose roots lie in the Merchant Venturers’ Navigation School, which in turn became Merchant Venturers’ College in 1894 and later Bristol Polytechnic.
Bristol’s port is now at Avonmouth, but the city is still packed with historical sites that merit exploration, and several very noteworthy museums which help in that task.