“the steep hill of St James’ Priory past the jousting-place of olden days”, William Worcestre, 1480
The Priory of St James was founded in 1129AD by Robert Earl of Gloucester and is widely regarded to be Bristol’s oldest surviving building (pre dating the Abbey of St Augustine’s, now Bristol Cathedral by about 15 years). During the medieval period in addition to the church that can be seen today there were cloisters where the bus station now stands and many other buildings including dormitories for the Benedictine monks who lived here.
The monks of St James owned most of the land that is now the area of Kingsdown, Stokes Croft and St Pauls. In the 1200s the monks founded Broadmead as a suburb of Bristol and the priory church became Broadmead’s parish church.
St James Priory had an extensive burial ground that extended across the area now occupied by some of the Broadmead buildings. When Broadmead’s new department stores were being built in the 1960s, many people believed that the workmen were disturbing plague pits because of all the bones that were found. However, this was just part of the medieval graveyard. Now, just a small area of the graveyard survives as a park outside the priory.
St James Barton
St James Barton was the priory farm to the east of the priory. The square that can be seen on the historic map was essentially the farm yard that survived as an open space and is now the site of what is commonly called The Bearpit.
Benedictine monks remained the owners of St James until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1534, after which the lands were sold to a London merchant, Henry Brayne. The priory church remained a parish church until 1984 and was leased to the Little Brothers of Nazareth in 1993.
In 1995, Bristol and Region Archaeological Services (BaRAS) carried out an excavation of part of the priory and graveyard, before new building works took place. During the excavation over 250 skeletons dating back to the medieval period were discovered. The archaeologists made a detailed record of these remains and the study of the bones has provided more of an insight into life at the priory during this period. The full report was published by BaRAS and the skeletons were then reburied at Canford Cemetery, Westbury on Trym.