History of Bristol

The rich and eventful history of Bristol stretches back over many centuries. We have detailed some of Bristol’s history in the timeline below.


Roman Bristol

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The major Roman settlement in Bristol was the town of Abona at Sea Mills. The site may have a military origin but a civilian town had been established by the early second century.

Explore Kings Weston Roman Villa

Bristol in the Saxon, Norman and Medieval periods

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Bristol began life as a village called Brigg Stow (Brycgstow), which means the meeting place at the bridge in the old Saxon language. At some point, a wooden bridge was erected across the Avon somewhere close to where Bristol Bridge now stands. (Avon is a Celtic word meaning ‘water’). The bridge was used as a meeting place and a village grew up by it. In time the name Brigg Stow changed to Bristol.


1051: Saxon Bristol

The original town was listed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 1051 as a port trading regularly with Ireland, Somerset and North Devon. Wool and leather were exported from Bristol.


1067: Bristol surrenders to William the Conqueror

Bristol submitted to William the Conqueror without a fight. William the Conqueror built a wooden fort in Bristol. In the early 12th century it was replaced by a stone castle in what is now Castle Park.


Norman City Walls

The "Walled City Walk" follows the town walls of Norman Bristol. With the walls no longer visible, their route is little understood or used, and the rich architectural heritage of the Old City often goes unnoticed.


1129: The Priory of St James was built in Bristol

St James Priory was founded around 1129 by Robert, first Earl of Gloucester, who owned the castle at Bristol. To start with, there were 11 or 12 monks and a Prior, who lived under the rule of the Benedictine Abbey of Tewkesbury. Robert died of fever in 1147 in Bristol and was initially buried in St James Priory.


1140: St Augustine's Abbey is founded and later becomes known as Bristol Cathedral

Bristol Cathedral is one of England's great medieval churches. It originated as an Augustinian Abbey, founded c. 1140 by prominent local citizen, Robert Fitzharding, who became first Lord Berkeley. The transepts of the church date from this period, but its most vivid remains can be seen in the Chapter House and Abbey Gatehouse.


1216: Magna Carta is revised in Bristol

The Magna Carta showed that the king and government were not above the law, but it is reissued in Bristol on 12 November 1216 after the death of King John, who had signed the first version a year before.

The first Bristol mayor was appointed.


1373: The Great Charter of Liberties

In 1373, Bristol became an independent county. Before this, Bristol was divided geographically and administratively by the River Avon. The parishes to the west and north of the river lay in Gloucestershire, while those to the south were in Somerset. The charter of 1373 gave Bristol and its suburbs jurisdiction independent from those county authorities, making it a county in its own right. Courts sat in Bristol, so people didn’t need to go to the towns of Gloucester or Ilchester (Somerset) for Quarter Sessions (local courts held at four set times each year). The Great Charter of Liberties was granted by Edward III.

Take a look at the Bristol County Boundary 1373 Map and follow the route of the county land boundary of Bristol according to its 1373-1835 boundaries. From at least the 16-18C this was a civic ritual performed annually between the election of the new mayor and sheriffs and them taking office at Michaelmas. And it continued to be performed occasionally after that - the last occasion being in 2007 by Lord Mayor Royston Griffey. This map was created by Dr Evan Jones, Associate Professor in Economic History at University of Bristol.



Tudor and Elizabethan Bristol (1485-1603)

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1497: John Cabot sailed out of Bristol

On 2 May 1497 John Cabot sailed out of Bristol on The Matthew to try and find a new route to Asia and discovered Newfoundland. A replica of The Matthew can be seen in Bristol's Harbour today and you can go aboard and learn about the voyage.

  • The story of The Matthew of Bristol


1511: Building work begins on Thornbury Castle

Building work began on this grand castle in 1511 – it was intended as a home for Edward Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham and was almost finished by 1521, when the Duke’s distant cousin, Henry VIII, accused him of treason, had him beheaded and confiscated his castle. Fourteen years later, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn enjoyed a ten-day retreat at Thornbury Castle as part of a honeymoon tour.

  • Tudor Bristol


1558 - 1625: Elizabethan and Jacobean Bristol

This map shows Elizabethan and Jacobean buildings and parts of buildings you can visit, including the Red Lodge Museum as well as describing what happened at some places in Bristol the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages.

  • Find out more about Elizabethan Bristol


1574: Elizabeth I visits St Mary Redcliffe

On her visit she is said to have referred to it as “The fairest, goodliest and most famous parish church in England” Visit St Mary Redcliffe Church today.



English Civil War (1642 – 1651)

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1643: Royal Fort built and the Battle of Lansdown Hill

Despite Bristol’s reluctance to participate in the war and a wish to remain neutral, the Royal Fort was made to be the western headquarters of the Royalist army, but it was demolished in 1655. The Royal Fort House, now part of the University of Bristol stands on the site. Visit Royal Fort Gardens.

In July 1643, The Battle of Lansdown Hill was a hard fought Royalist victory fought near to Bristol, just outside Bath.


Rupert Street and Fairfax Street

Two of Bristol’s city centre streets are named after key figures in the English Civil War. Rupert Street for Prince Rupert of the Rhine, a royalist commander. Fairfax Street after Thomas Fairfax, general and Parliamentary commander-in-chief.



Bristol in the 17th Century

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1680: Infamous pirate Blackbeard was born in Bristol

Bristol's most famous pirate, Blackbeard, was allegedly born in the city, near the old harbour. Also known as Edward Teach, the infamous sailor led a reign of terror over the Caribbean Sea and the islands that inhabit it.

  • Pirate themed day 


1698: Bristol’s first slave ship The Beginning sails from Bristol to the African coast

Between 1698 and 1807, 2,108 known ships left Bristol to make the trip to Africa and onwards across the Atlantic with enslaved people aboard. An average of 20 voyages set sail a year. Approximately 500,000 enslaved were brought into slavery by these ships, representing one-fifth of British Transatlantic slavery during this time. Bristol was already a comparatively wealthy city prior to this trade; as one of the three points of the slavery triangle (the others being Africa and the West Indies), the city prospered. This triangle was called the Triangular Trade. The Triangular Trade involved delivering, as well receiving, goods from each stop the ship took.

  • Bristol and the legacy of Transatlantic Slavery




Georgian Bristol (1714 – 1837)

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Georgian architecture

Bristol has many examples of fine Georgian architecture across the city, but the Clifton area has perhaps the highest amount in the city. Explore other impressive Georgian buildings and streets including The Corn Exchange at St Nicholas Market, Royal York Crescent, Portland Square and Queen Square.

Discover what a Bristol sugar plantation and enslaver’s home might have looked like around 1790 at Georgian House Museum.


1739: John Wesley established the first Methodist chapel in Bristol

In 1739 John Wesley was asked by the members of two religious societies in Bristol to create ‘a new room’ where they could meet. The resulting building became the first Methodist chapel in the world. Visit John Wesley's New Room in the heart of Bristol.

  • The story of John Wesley's New Room


1752: Thomas Chatterton was born in Bristol

Nicknamed Bristol’s Shakespeare, Chatterton was the boy poet who died at just 17 years old, having already penned an incredible array of work – from poems and elegies to political letters and satires.

  • Bristol’s Shakespeare: The life and legacy of Thomas Chatterton


1766: Bristol's Theatre Royal opened and later becomes known as Bristol Old Vic

Built in 1766, Bristol Old Vic is the oldest continuously working theatre in the English-speaking world, and remains a place of joy, discovery and adventure to this day.


1774: Edmund Burke’s Speech to the Electors of Bristol and Robert Southey the poet is born

Edmund Burke, the Irish philosopher and politician, represented the city of Bristol in Parliament between 1774 and 1780. Having been a Whig MP for almost ten years, representing the Constituency of Wendover in Buckinghamshire, Edmund Burke campaigned to become MP for Bristol. He was elected alongside another MP from his own party, Henry Cruger. On 3 November 1774, Edmund Burke gave a speech to the people of Bristol who had elected him. The speech, known as ‘The Speech to the Electors of Bristol’, defined Burke’s view that an MP’s role and opinion is independent from those who had elected them.

  • Literary Bristol


1788: Bristol established the first committee for the abolition of the slave trade outside London

Following a visit by abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, Bristol became the first city outside of London to set up such a committee. Women took a prominent role in helping lead campaigns, one of the first political campaigns in which they were allowed to play an active role. 


1795: Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave an anti-slavery lecture in Bristol

In 1795 Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave a series of radical lectures in Bristol. They questioned religion, attacked the slave trade, condemned the war with France and criticised taxation. They promoted wide debate and were censured by the city’s merchants and slave traders.


1809: Bristol Floating Harbour opens

In 1809 Bristol was transformed by the opening of the Floating Harbour. 80 acres of tidal river was impounded to allow visiting ships to remain afloat all the time. Over the next two centuries the Harbour grew as a busy commercial port until it closed in 1975. Since then, it has been regenerated for leisure, commerce and residence.


1823: Bristol Institution for the Advancement of Science and Art and The Bristol Chamber of Commerce were founded. Later known as Bristol Museum & Art Gallery and Business West. St George's Bristol opens as a church

The collections of the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery date back to 1823 when the Bristol Institution for the Advancement of Science and Art was founded at the bottom of Park Street as a home for collectors and a space for lectures and debates.

The Bristol Chamber of Commerce was set up in 1823 and had its first meeting on the 25th February 1823. Members were merchants, manufacturers, bankers, tradesmen and others centred around Bristol’s port. Today, Business West is active across Bristol, Bath, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire and aims to make this area the best place to live and work. They work with 24,000 businesses to help them start and grow, as well as lobbying the government on their behalf. Profits are reinvested back into the business.

The Grade II* listed building and concert hall now known as St George's started its life as a church in 1823.


1831: Riots for political reform broke out in Bristol following the House of Lords rejecting the second Reform bill

In March 1831, the Whigs attempted to introduce a Reform Bill to solve the issue of the large discrepancies in the size of the constituencies of the House of Commons. This was defeated in Parliament, resulting in the resignation of the prime minister, Charles Grey. He subsequently returned to office and introduced a second Reform Bill. Despite being passed in the House of Commons, it was defeated in the House of Lords in October 1831. There were riots around the country in cities that weren’t fairly represented in Parliament. Bristol was represented by just two members of Parliament, so riots quickly broke out in the city centre. 


1836: Bristol Zoological Gardens opens

The Bristol, Clifton and West of England Zoological Society opened the Zoo’s doors to the public for the first time, on Monday 11th July 1836. Bristol Zoo’s situation within a port greatly helped with the acquisition of animals when it first opened. Some famous residents of the zoo include Alfred the Gorilla, who dies in 1948, was an animal celebrity in his day and is still remembered with affection by the people of Bristol.

Bristol Zoo Gardens closed on 3 September 2022 after 186 years in Clifton. Their work continues as they create a new Bristol Zoo at Bristol Zoo Project, and deliver their conservation projects across the world.

  • The story of Bristol Zoo Gardens



Victorian Bristol (1837 – 1901)

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1837: Brunel’s Great Western steamship was launched

Brunel’s Great Western steamship was built in the city harbour and launched in 1837. It was on this launch that she became the first of Brunel's passenger ships to travel between England and New York.


1841: Bristol to London Paddington rail service began

The line between Bristol and London was built by the Great Western Railway and engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It was opened in stages between 1838 and 1841. The final section, between Chippenham and Bath, was opened on completion of the Box Tunnel in June 1841.


1843: The SS Great Britain is launched

Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, built in Bristol and launched in 1843, the SS Great Britain  made voyages to New York and Australia and was used as a freight and cargo ship during the Crimean war.

She was called ‘the greatest experiment since the creation’. No one had ever designed so vast a ship, nor had the vision to build it of iron. Brunel fitted her with a 1000 hp steam engine, the most powerful yet used at sea. Perhaps most daring of all, Brunel rejected using conventional paddle wheels to drive his ship. Instead, he gave the SS Great Britain a screw propeller. This was the newest invention in maritime technology.


1844: The Royal West of England Academy (RWA) opens

The RWA has been bringing world-class visual art to Bristol since 1844. Located in a spectacular Grade II* listed building in the heart of the city, the RWA is the UK’s only regional Academy of Art housed in its own, purpose-built gallery.


1864: Clifton Suspension Bridge opens

Clifton Suspension Bridge was also designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He was 24 when he was appointed for the project which came about through a competition. The bridge took 33 years to complete and opened to much fanfare in 1864. It is arguably Bristol's most famous landmark to this day. Brunel never got to see the bridge finished as he died in 1859, age 53.

  • The story of the Clifton Suspension Bridge


1868: The Bristol and West of England Society for Women’s Suffrage established

Outside of London, Bristol had the highest level of activity for the suffragists and suffragettes. The Bristol and West of England Society for Women’s Suffrage was one of the earliest groups to campaign for votes for women. Together, they continued to work for women’s suffrage until the vote was won in the early 20th century. 


1897: Cabot Tower is built

Cabot Tower was built right on top of Brandon Hill to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot's voyage to Newfoundland. Climb the 105ft tower for breathtaking views across Bristol and the Mendip Hills beyond.



Bristol in the 20th Century

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World World I and World World II in Bristol

1939-1945: A network of spies

During WWII the Mercure Bristol Grand on Broad Street was the base for a network of spies who operated out of the building on behalf of the British government. Hotel employees would pass them encrypted notes which provided them with information about where they were required to travel while Temple Meads station provided covert trains that transported them around the country to secret locations.


1940: Start of the Bristol Blitz

The longest period of regular bombing, known as the 'Bristol Blitz', began in autumn 1940 and ended the following spring. The first bombs of the Bristol Blitz fell at around 6pm on Sunday 24 November 1940. A further six bombing raids took place until the last major attack in April 1941. The bombing changed the landscape of the city forevermore.


1943 - 1944: Plans for the D Day landings devised in Bristol

It was here in Bristol, that the plans for the D-Day landings were drawn up by US First Army commander General Omar Bradley and his staff. Bradley and his team were based at Clifton College between 1943 and 1944 and used the Council Room for much of their detailed planning. Whilst all of this was happening, the site of what is now the Bristol Botanic Garden became a hub with a large property (The Holmes) in the centre of the grounds and was turned into a home for American Generals, including General Bradley for ten months.

The operation itself needed 156,000 troops with 73,000 from the US. So, in the lead up to the invasion, thousands of American GIs were stationed across the South West and many throughout the areas of Bristol. Huge amounts of the American war machine came into the country through the port of Bristol.


1947: Bristol becomes twinned with Bordeaux and Hannover

Bordeaux in France and Hannover in Germany both started their partnerships with Bristol in 1947 in the dark days following the Second World War. The twinnings were agreed in a spirit of reconciliation and friendship with the aim of building a stronger Europe and avoiding any future conflicts.


1957: New Bristol Airport opens at Lulsgate

Built on the site of a former RAF airfield, Bristol Airport opened in 1957 as Bristol (Lulsgate) Airport, replacing Bristol (Whitchurch) Airport as Bristol's municipal airport. Now Bristol Airport offers direct services from over 100 destinations across Europe.


1963: Bristol Bus Boycott

A major civil rights campaign and bus boycott forced the Bristol Omnibus Company to end its colour bar and paved the way for Race Relations Acts. Raghbir Singh was appointed as Bristol’s first bus conductor of colour a month later.


1967: St Pauls Carnival was held for the first time

The first St Pauls Festival was in 1968. The organisers were local residents and activists who aimed to bring together the European, African-Caribbean and Asian communities. They wanted to challenge negative stereotypes of the area. In the early days, it was very much a community event with local residents selling home-cooked food from their front gardens. Over time, it became known as St Pauls Carnival and in 1991 was renamed St Pauls Afrikan Caribbean Carnival to put greater emphasis on the African-Caribbean community. By this time, the event was attracting thousands of revellers from across the city with its spectacular parade, booming sound systems, and food stalls.


1969: Concorde makes its maiden flight from Filton

The first flight of the British-assembled 002 Concorde took place on 9 April 1969. Crowds of reporters came to watch the flight from the airfield at Filton, South Gloucestershire. Watch archive footage of the flight here.


1970: The SS Great Britain returns home to Bristol for the last time

After 47 voyages and 88 years working as a luxury transatlantic passenger liner, emigrant steam clipper, cargo ship and, later, a floating store, the SS Great Britain was finally scuttled in the Falkland Islands on 12 April 1937. In 1969 a rescue mission costing £150,000 was launched by Ewan Corlett, a British naval architect. The aim was to bring the ship back to Bristol, where she was originally built. The SS Great Britain was towed on a giant floating pontoon (raft) across the Atlantic Ocean. The journey was 8,000 miles and took nearly three months. In July 1970 as she was towed up the River Avon and under the Clifton Suspension Bridge. The ship’s return drew an excited crowd of approximately 100,000 people, who came to witness the return of Brunel’s great ship to her Bristol birthplace.


1971: The first Bristol Harbour Festival was held

On the weekend of 26-27 June 1971, the first Bristol Water Festival, later known as Bristol Harbour Festival took place. The festival's main aim was to show that the inland waterway of the city was a perfect location for people to enjoy leisure. The festival now attracts thousands of visitors every year who come to enjoy the free festival and the harbourside.


1973: Bristol 600 celebrations

On the 600th anniversary of Bristol becoming an independent City and County in 1973, Queen Elizabeth II came to open the celebrations, being driven through the cheering thousands on the Centre to be greeted by the Lord Mayor at the Council House. Later she visited an exhibition on the Downs, being driven through more crowds while standing behind the cab of an open-back vehicle. Amongst the events were medieval jousting and a display by the Army Motor Cycle Team. 


1977: The first Bristol Gay Festival is held

The Bristol Gay Festival was one of the earliest regional queer events outside of London, and featured events and film screenings at Arnolfini and Bristol Arts Centre. It was organised as a fundraiser to help Gay News, a newspaper for LGBTQIA+ people, in its legal battle against Mary Whitehouse, who had accused the paper of blasphemy.

  • Landmark tales from Bristol’s LGBTQ+ past


1979: The first Bristol Balloon Fiesta takes place

The first ever Bristol Balloon Fiesta took place in September 1979 after Don Cameron and others came up with the idea over a pint. Just 27 balloons took off.


1982: Watershed Media Centre opens

Established in 1982, Watershed was the United Kingdom's first dedicated media centre and the first full-time multi-screen independent cinema outside London.


1997: Local artist Banksy paints his first major mural

Banksy's first known large wall mural was The Mild Mild West painted in 1997 to cover advertising of a former solicitors' office in Stokes Croft in Bristol. It depicts a teddy bear lobbing a Molotov cocktail at three riot police.


1998: Tobacco Factory Theatres opens

The theatre space at Tobacco Factory Theatres was created on the first floor of the building in 1998 and the first performance was staged by theatre company Show of Strength who presented ‘A Journey to Bristol’ - a short 18th century comedy set in the city and performed in promenade across the whole building. 




Bristol in the 21st Century

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2003: Concorde makes its last ever flight to Filton

Concorde Alpha Foxtrot G-BOAF flew into Filton in November 2003. She was the last Concorde ever to fly. You can visit Concorde Alpha Foxtro at Aerospace Bristol, a centre dedicated to Bristol's amazing aviation achievements.


2008: Bristol becomes the UK's first Cycling City, the first Upfest is held and Cabot Circus opens

International graffiti artists paint the city in the first–ever Upfest.


2012: Bristol Pound launched

The Bristol Pound was launched as a form of local currency, encouraging people to spend money in local, independent businesses around the city. It ceased operating in August 2020.


2012: Bristol votes for its first elected mayor

Bristol became the only city to vote for a directly elected mayor in a day of referendums in ten cities: Birmingham, Bradford, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield. George Ferguson was sworn in as mayor of Bristol in November 2012. 


2015: Bristol is European Green Capital for 2015

Bristol was the first UK city to ever be awarded the accolade of European Green Capital in 2015. Bristol’s year as European Green Capital was a a city-wide initiative with many organisations involved.


2020: Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate

Tens of thousands of people attended a Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate event addressed by activist Greta Thunberg in February 2020. Bristol’s climate strikes began in February 2019.


2020: Black Lives Matter protestors topple statue of slave trader Edward Colston

In response to the murder of George Floyd in the United States, protests took place around the globe. In June 2020, Bristol joined the protests tied to the Black Lives Matter movement. It was during this that the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled, graffitied and pushed into Bristol Harbour. Four protesters were later cleared of criminal damage, the statue is currently being exhibited in the M Shed museum.


2023: Bristol 650

Bristol marked the 650th anniversary of Bristol becoming an independent City and County.



Find out more about Bristol's history by using Know Your Place

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Know Your Place is a website that allows you to explore a town through historic maps, images and linked information. It is about learning and sharing information about historic Bristol.

Know Your Place allows:

  • wider access to Bristol's historic maps
  • you to share your own information and images about Bristol

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