St Mary Redcliffe

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St Mary Redcliffe
St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, north side.jpg
St. Mary Redcliffe from the north
Basic information
Location Bristol, England
Geographic coordinates 51°26′54″N 2°35′24″W / 51.4482°N 2.5899°W / 51.4482; -2.5899Coordinates: 51°26′54″N 2°35′24″W / 51.4482°N 2.5899°W / 51.4482; -2.5899
Affiliation Anglican
Province Canterbury
District Bristol
Ecclesiastical or organisational status parish church
Architectural description
Architectural style Perpendicular Gothic
Completed 15th century
Length 240 ft (73 m)
Width 44 ft (13 m)
Width (nave) 59 ft (18 m)
Height (max) 54 ft 9 in (16.69 m)
Spire height 292 ft (89 m)

St. Mary Redcliffe is an Anglican parish church located in the Redcliffe district of the Bristol, England. The church building was constructed from the 12th to the 15th centuries, and it has been a place of Christian worship for over 900 years. The church is renowned for the beauty of its Gothic architecture and is classed as a Grade I listed building by English Heritage.[1][2] It was famously described by Queen Elizabeth I as "the fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England."[3][4]


The first church on this site was built in Saxon times, as the port of Bristol first began. The present building is probably the fourth or fifth church that has been built on this site.

In medieval times, St. Mary Redcliffe, sitting on a red cliff above the River Avon, was a sign to seafarers, who would pray in it at their departure, and give thanks there upon their return. The church was built and beautified by Bristol's wealthy merchants, who paid to have masses sung for their souls and many of whom are commemorated there.[5]

St Mary Redcliffe in an 1882 engraving

Parts of the church date from the beginning of the 12th century. Although its plan dates from an earlier period, much of the church as it now stands was built between 1292 and 1370, with the south aisle and transept in the Decorated Gothic of the 13th century and the greater part of the building in the late 14th-century Perpendicular. The patrons included Simon de Burton, Mayor of Bristol, and William I Canynges, merchant, five times Mayor of Bristol and three times MP. In the 15th century Canynges' grandson, the great merchant William II Canynges, also five times Mayor and three times MP, assumed responsibility for bringing the work of the interior to completion and filling the windows with stained glass. In 1446 much of this work was damaged when the spire was struck by lightning, and fell, causing considerable damage to the interior. Although the spire was to remain damaged for the next 400 years, Canynges continued in his commitment to restore and beautify the church. He took Holy Orders after the death of his wife, and is buried in the church.[6] Other families associated with St Mary Redcliffe include the Penns, the Cabots, the Jays, the Ameryks and the Medes.[5]

The nave of St Mary Redcliffe

In 1571, the school that was to become St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School was formed in a chapel in the churchyard. The church and school have remained closely linked in many aspects of their operations.

The 17th century saw the loss of many of the church fittings and much of the stained glass during the Reformation and the English Civil War. During the reign of Queen Anne, and partially funded by her, the interior of St. Mary Redcliffe was refitted in the Baroque style.[7]

Thomas Chatterton, whose father was sexton of St Mary Redcliffe, was born in the house next to the church in 1752. He studied the church records in a room above the south porch, and wrote several works which he attempted to pass as genuine medieval documents. He committed suicide in London at the age of seventeen.[3] In 1795 the church saw the marriages of Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Sarah Fricker and Robert Southey to Sarah's sister Elizabeth.[8]

The upper part of the spire, missing since being struck by lightning in 1446,[9] was reconstructed in 1872 to a height of 292 ft (89 m).[3] The spire is internally divided into three separate chambers. A mobile telecommunication mast is fitted inside the spire.

During the Bristol Blitz in the Second World War a bomb exploded in a nearby street, throwing a rail from the tramway over the houses and into the churchyard of St Mary Redcliffe, where it became embedded in the ground. The rail is left there as a monument.[10]

Architecture and fittings[edit]

The monument to William Penn

St Mary Redcliffe is cruciform in plan, with a chapel extending to the east of the chancel, and a large tower placed asymmetrically to the north of the west front.[11] There is a rectangular 13th-century porch on either side of the nave, that on the north side having been extended with a more elaborate polygonal outer porch in the 14th century.[5]

St Mary Redcliffe is one of the largest parish churches in the England, and has been recorded as being the largest parish church in the country.[12][13] The spire is also the third tallest among parish churches[citation needed], and it is the tallest building in Bristol.

The north porch has an inner component dating from 1200, with black Purbeck Marble columns, and an outer hexagonal portion built in 1325 which is ogee-cusped with a Moorish appearance.[3] A wrought-iron chancel screen built by William Edney in 1710 still stands under the tower.

The church is adorned with monuments to individuals from the history of the city, including Sir William Penn (the father of William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania). His helm and half-armour are hung on the wall, together with the tattered banners of the Dutch ships that he captured in battle. The church also displays a rib of a whale that John Cabot brought back from one of his voyages.[14]

Little of the early stained glass remains. In the west window of St John's Chapel, for instance, the medieval glass barely survived the destruction (said to have been caused by Oliver Cromwell's men). Most of the higher portions went untouched, but others were severely damaged. In some cases the windows were impossible to repair, and clear glass was eventually introduced to replace the missing scenes. The Victorian stained-glass windows were created by some of the finest studios of that period.

The church bells[edit]

The highly decorated vaulted ceiling in St Mary Redcliffe

The tower contains a total of 15 bells, one bell dating from as early as 1622 cast by Purdue and two cast by Thomas I Bilbie of the Bilbie family from Chew Stoke in 1767, the remainder were cast by John Taylor & Co at various dates, 1903 (9 bells), 1951 (1 bell), 1969 (1 bell) and 2012 (1 bell). The larger Bilbie (10th) bell along with the 1622 Purdue (11th) bell are included in the 50cwt ring of 12 bells.

The bells are hung in a cast iron and steel H-frame by John Taylor & Co dating from the major overhaul of 1903. A number of small modifications have taken place when each additional bell was added. A later (8th) bell cast by John Taylor & Co in 2012 for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee replaces the smaller of the 1767 Bilbie bells in the ring of 12 bells. The 1767 smaller (old 8th) Bilbie bell is the only non-swinging bell retained in the tower and has an internal hammer fitted for use as a service bell chimed from within the body of the church.

The 50cwt tenor bell is the largest bell in a parish church to be hung for full-circle English-Style change ringing and the 7th-largest bell in the world, only surpassed by Liverpool Cathedral 11th (55cwt), Wells Cathedral Tenor (56cwt), York Minster Tenor (59cwt), St Paul's Cathedral Tenor, London (61cwt), Exeter Cathedral Tenor (72cwt) and Liverpool Anglican Cathedral Tenor (82cwt).

The ring of 12 bells is augmented with two additional semi-tone bells. A sharp treble bell cast by John Taylor & Co in 1969 is the smallest bell in the tower and a "flat 6th" cast by John Taylor & Co in 1951 and allow different diatonic scales to be rung.

The bells are renowned for their fine tone which travels across the floating harbour and surrounding area.

All the bells have been tuned on a lathe; the tenor bell was tuned in 1903 and strikes the note of B (492 Hz). The tenor bell is 1.625m in diameter and at nearly 1.3m weighs 2575 kg.

The clock chime can be heard striking the quarter chimes on the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 8th bells of the ring of 12 with the hours being struck on the largest 50cwt (12th) tenor bell. The clock chime strikes the "Cambridge Chimes", commonly known as the "Westminster Chimes", every quarter of an hour daily from 7am to 11pm. The chimes are disabled outside of these hours. If the bells are in the 'up' position, the chimes are also disabled (normally during the day on Sundays). The clock was fully converted to electric operation during the 1960s. It is now driven by a Smith's of Derby synchronous motor. The old pendulum, gravity escapement and weights, etc., were removed when the clock was automated. What remains of the clock movement and electrified chiming barrel is housed in a large enclosure in the ringing room. The clock face is approximately 3m in diameter and is on the northern elevation.

Tours of the tower and bells are not available to the general public, although the church does participate in the annual Doors Open Day, when tours are available to the public.

The St Mary Redcliffe Guild of Change Ringers[edit]

The St Mary Redcliffe Guild of Change Ringers was founded in 1950 to foster the spirit of fellowship among its bell ringers. The Ringers have about 40 members from all walks of life, ranging in age from 12 to 80, and welcome visiting bell ringers. The ringing chamber is recently decorated (2012) and is a large spacious room, which has an 8 m (27 ft) high ceiling with rope guides; good 'bell handling' is essential for any bell ringer.

The bells are normally rung before the 9.30am and 18.30 services every Sunday and on Thursdays for the practice, normally from 18.45pm to 9pm by the Guild. The bells are also rung by the Guild for other church events throughout the year such as weddings, church fetes, Christmas carol concerts along with visiting bands of bell ringers on Saturday Mornings. Other weekday evening ringing does take place at the church; when this is taking place it is listed on the church website.

At least 6/7 full peals are rung annually on the bells, which consist of over 5000 changes. Each full peal takes approximately 4 hours and a high level of concentration by every bell ringer taking part. Each peal at is rung starting no earlier than 10am and will be finished no later than 14.30. Normally the full peals are rung around the following dates: the Saturday between Christmas and New Years Day, a Saturday at the end of January/beginning of February, Easter Monday, Spring Bank Holiday Monday (May), Summer Bank Holiday Monday (August), a Saturday at the end of September/beginning of October and around the Remembrance weekend (November) however the exact peal dates are published on the church website well in advance. Any prospective new resident of the St Mary Redcliffe area should be aware that the church bells are rung weekly by the St Mary Redcliffe Guild of Change Ringers and for the full peals and other events every year.

Hogarth's triptych[edit]

A great altarpiece triptych by William Hogarth was commissioned in 1756 to fill the east end of the chancel. The churchwardens paid him £525 for his paintings of the Ascension flanked by The Sealing of the Sepulchre and the Three Marys at the Tomb. This was removed from the church by mid-Victorian liturgists and stored at various sites, including a tobacco warehouse (as this provided suitable humidity), before being displayed at the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery; it is now stored in the redundant church of St Nicholas, Bristol.[3]



The choir have released numerous recordings, as well as touring Europe and North America.


In St Mary Redcliffe, the Harrison & Harrison organ console of 1911, restored in 1990
The pipes of the church organ

The first pipe organ in the church, built by Harris and Byfield in 1726, was of three manuals and 26 stops.

In 1912 a four-manual, 71-stop organ having over 4,300 pipes was installed by Harrison & Harrison.[15] Towards the end of his life Arthur Harrison said that he regarded the organ at St Mary Redcliffe as his "finest and most characteristic work". The organ remains essentially as he designed it in 1911.

Kevin Bowyer recorded Kaikhosru Sorabji's First Organ Symphony on it in 1988, for which the organ was an "ideal choice"; the notes to the recording describe the church as "acoustically ideal, with a reverberation period of 3½ seconds", and notes that the organ has "a luxuriousness of tone" and "a range of volume from practically inaudible to fiendishly loud".[citation needed] William McVicker, organist at the Royal Festival Hall, has called the organ "the finest high-Romantic organ ever constructed".[16]

November 2010 saw the first performances on the organ after an 18-month renovation by its original builders Harrison & Harrison, costing around £800,000. The organ had been disassembled and some of it taken away to the builders' workshop in Durham.[17] The pipes were cleaned and the leather of the bellows was replaced. The manuals were also fitted with an electronic panel for storing combinations of stop settings.[18]

List of organists[edit]


Organist and Choirmaster


  • Peter Fowler 1968
  • Bryan Anderson 1968–80
  • John Edward Marsh 1980–87

Director of Music and organist

  • John Edward Marsh 1987–94
  • Anthony John Pinel 1994–2003
  • Andrew William Kirk 2003

Assistant Organist

  • John Edward Marsh 1976–80
  • Colin Hunt 1980–90
  • Anthony John Pinel 1990–94
  • Graham Alsop 1994–2003
  • Graham and Claire Alsop 2003

Rail Access[edit]

The nearest station is Bristol Temple Meads.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Church of St. Mary Redcliffe". Images of England. Retrieved 16 March 2007. 
  2. ^ English Heritage. "Church of St Mary Redcliff  (Grade I) (1218848)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 26 October 2014. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Burrough, THB (1970). Bristol. London: Studio Vista. ISBN 0-289-79804-3. 
  4. ^ Little, Bryan (1967). The City and County of Bristol. Wakefield: S. R. Publishers. ISBN 0-85409-512-8. 
  5. ^ a b c Jenkins, Simon (1999). Britain's Thousand Best Churches. The Penguin Press. ISBN 0-7139-9281-6. 
  6. ^ About Bristol – St. Mary Redcliffe
  7. ^ "18th century". St Mary Redcliffe. Retrieved 13 May 2007. 
  8. ^ "Chatterton". St Mary Redcliffe. Retrieved 17 January 2011. [dead link]
  9. ^ "St Mary Redcliffe". About Bristol. Retrieved 13 May 2007. 
  10. ^ "Memories of Bristol's Trams". Bristol Archived from the original on 23 December 2007. Retrieved 28 July 2007. 
  11. ^ Plan at Medieval Bristol – St. Mary's Redcliffe
  12. ^ Brackett, Virginia (2008). The Facts on File Companion to British Poetry: 17th and 18th Centuries. Infobase Publishing. p. 67. 
  13. ^ Ireland, William Henry (1812). Neglected genius, a poem. London: W. Wilson. p. 148. 
  14. ^ Brace, Keith (1996). Portrait of Bristol. London: Robert Hale. ISBN 0-7091-5435-6. 
  15. ^ Aughton, Peter (2008). St Mary Redcliffe: The Church and its People. Bristol: Redcliffe Press. p. 127. ISBN 978-1-904537-83-0. 
  16. ^ Aughton, Peter (2008). St Mary Redcliffe: The Church and its People. Bristol: Redcliffe Press. p. 154. ISBN 978-1-904537-83-0. 
  17. ^ Fells, Maurice; Harris, Dominic (6 November 2010). "'Masterpiece' church organ will play again". Bristol Evening Post. Retrieved 7 February 2011. 
  18. ^ "Why cleaning Bristol St Mary Redcliffe's organ is like working on a 4,500-piece jigsaw". Bristol Evening Post. 10 March 2010. Retrieved 8 February 2011. 

External links[edit]