St Mary Redcliffe: the church and its people



Reflected in the waters of the Floating Harbour and looking over Redcliffe Wharf stands an ancient church of astonishing beauty. The spire stands high above the surrounding buildings. The church is full of smaller spires, its architecture Perpendicular and lavishly decorated, the walls supported by flying buttresses. It has beauty, age and symmetry. A church on the Red Cliff has dominated the area for a thousand years and the present building has been there for nearly seven hundred of those years. St Mary Redcliffe lies on the south bank of the river Avon. It was built outside the walls of the ancient city of Bristol, yet through the centuries it has played an important part in the city’s history. And when we come to study the parish history we find not only local happenings but world shattering events. In the late fifteenth century, a parishioner called John Cabot sailed from Redcliffe to discover New Found Land across the Atlantic Ocean. Christopher Columbus notwithstanding, true Bristolians believe that America was named after Cabot’s contemporary, Richard Ameryk. In the seventeenth century, when America first became colonised by the English, William Penn of St Mary Redcliffe had the state of Pennsylvania named after him. There is a long-standing tradition that in Tudor times Good Queen Bess admired the church so much that she declared it to be ‘the fairest and goodliest parish church in England’. The queen’s exact words cannot be confirmed but it is impossible not to agree with the sentiment. The church proved to be a great attraction for artists, musicians and poets. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Coleridge, Wordsworth and Southey were drawn to it, not least because of its connection with the local boy-poet Thomas Chatterton. All three poets felt that they owed much of their inspiration to the boy who died a generation before them. Painters such as the young J M W Turner, Thomas Girtin, Sell Cotman, William Muller and T L Rowbotham painted memorable studies of the church in its Romantic setting. But it is not just the celebrated and artistic, but also the ordinary people of the parish who are celebrated in this book. Peter Aughton’s lively text does justice to a rich parish history spanning many centuries, his words complemented by a selection of marvellous illustrations.