St James' Priory, Bristol

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St James's Priory
Church of Saint James
St James' Priory, Bristol is located in Bristol
St James' Priory, Bristol
Location within Bristol
General information
Town or city Bristol
Country England
Coordinates 51°27′31″N 2°35′37″W / 51.458522°N 2.593669°W / 51.458522; -2.593669
Construction started 1129
Client Robert Rufus

The Priory Church of St James, Bristol (grid reference ST588734), is a Grade I listed building[1] in Horsefair, Whitson Street.

It was founded in 1129 as a Benedictine priory by Robert, Earl of Gloucester, the illegitimate son of Henry I. The early nave from 1129 survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries because an agreement in 1374 between the Abbot of Tewkesbury and the parishioners stated that the nave would become the parishioners responsibility,[2] and the tower was added around 1374. The south aisle was widened and rebuilt in 1698. The porch dates from the late 18th century, and the north aisle was rebuilt in 1864.[1][3]

Legend has it that every 10th stone brought from Normandy to build the Castle was set aside to build the Priory.[4]

Before the recent restoration (see below) the building was on the Historic England Buildings at Risk Register and described as being in very bad condition.[5] However, substantial restoration and reordering work was completed in 2011 [6] and as of 2014 St James Priory is not on the Heritage Buildings at Risk Register.[7]

St James's Fair[edit]

From 1238 an annual fair held over fifteen days, was held here.[8] Originally starting on 25 July (the feast day of St James) it was later changed to the first fortnight in September. The fair, which was held in the Churchyard and adjoining streets, was regarded as the most important of the Bristol Fairs. By the 17th century it was so prominent that merchant ships sailing in to Bristol for it were frequently attacked by Turkish pirates in the Bristol Channel. The last fair was held in 1837.[9] It also subsequently left its mark on the geography of Bristol as a nearby road in Broadmead is called the Horsefair.

St James Priory Project[edit]

A plan of the priory from 1882

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the nave of the priory church continued in use as an Anglican parish church. It fell into disuse in the 1980s but in 1996 the Little Brothers of Nazareth re-established it as a Catholic church, and set up the St James Priory Project ([2]) which offers support to vulnerable people especially those with a history of substance dependency and mental illness.


Following the award of a Heritage Lottery Fund ( grant of £3.2 million to conserve, repair, and develop the Priory, building work started in November 2009. The St James Priory charity [3] had to fundraise a further £1.2 million of matched funding toward the restoration work. Conservation, restoration and development lasted 21 months and the Priory Church was re-opened on 25 July 2011.[10][11] Archaeologists from Bristol and Region Archaeological Services were on site during the restoration works, and uncovered a fragment of what may be the earliest scientific sundial in Britain. The sundial is a block of Bath stone carved with hour lines and medieval Arabic numerals in a style that suggests it was probably made in the 15th century.[12][13] The discovery that a statue in the church had originally been topless made headlines around the world.[14][15]

Burials at St James' Priory, Bristol[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Church of St James". Images of England. Retrieved 2006-10-25. 
  2. ^ M Q Smith, "The Medieval Churches of Bristol", University of Bristol (Bristol Branch of the Historical Association), 1970, p5.
  3. ^ Burrough, THB (1970). Bristol. London: Studio Vista. ISBN 0-289-79804-3. 
  4. ^ Page, William. "Houses of Benedictine monks: The priory of St James, Bristol". British History Online. Victoria County History. Retrieved 11 October 2015. 
  5. ^ "St James Priory, Whitson Street". English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register. Retrieved 2007-10-26. 
  6. ^ website re st-james-priory-church
  7. ^ publications including Buildings at Risk Registers for 2014 (see section for SouthWest)
  8. ^ 'Houses of Benedictine monks: The priory of St James, Bristol', A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 2 (1907), pp. 74-75
  9. ^ All the fun of the fair
  10. ^ "Priory restoration work to begin". BBC News. 2009-11-16. Retrieved 2009-11-16. 
  11. ^ [1]
  12. ^ Medieval stone sundial.
  13. ^ 'A medieval equinoctial dial excavated at St James's Priory, Bristol.'
  14. ^ "Topless statue in Priory Church restored after being hidden by John Wesley for 3 centuries"
  15. ^ "Wesley church restoration reveals statue of topless woman whose modesty the Methodists had covered for centuries "

External links[edit]