Church of St James Priory


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Statutory Address:
Whitson Street, Bristol, BS1 3NZ


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Statutory Address:
Whitson Street, Bristol, BS1 3NZ

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

City of Bristol (Unitary Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


Church, formerly part of the church to St James Priory. Founded in second quarter of C12 as a Benedictine cell, from when the nave survives; tower c1374 that was raised in C15. Various phases of additions, alterations and restoration in C17, C18, and C19; further repairs, additions and refurbishment in C20 and early C21.

Walsingham House which is to the south-west and attached to the church, and the modern, early-C21 link corridor parallel with the outer north aisle of the church are not of special architectural or historic interest and are not included in the listing.

Reasons for Designation

The church of St James Priory, the remains of a C12 monastic church with later phases of additions, alterations and restoration is listed at Grade I for the following principal reasons: * Architectural interest: for the survival of a significant proportion of medieval fabric which is of high quality and which contributes to an understanding of Romanesque church architecture in England; * Historic interest: as part of the priory, the church serves as an upstanding reminder of the importance and influence of monastic houses on the social and economic life of medieval English society; * Interior: the C14 chancel roof is one of the earliest dated church roofs in the South-West and an important example; * Artistic interest: it contains a medieval recumbent effigy and a considerable number of good-quality memorial monuments and tablets dating from the C16 to the C19, some of notable artistic merit.


St James Priory was established sometime between 1124 and 1137 as a dependency of the Benedictine Abbey of Tewkesbury and was founded by Robert, Earl of Gloucester and illegitimate son of Henry I. The priory was the first of eight religious houses founded in Bristol to the north and west of the River Frome in the C12 and early C13. At the Dissolution, Tewkesbury surrendered in January 1540, one of the last monasteries to be dissolved, along with all its dependents, including St James. In the mid-C16 the antiquarian, John Leland, described the east part of the church (the monastic end, comprising north and south transepts, crossing, chancel, and possible side chapel) and the other monastic buildings as ruinous. They were subsequently taken down, presumably for the value of their building materials. The slightly later western part (the church of St James Priory), however, which had served as a parish church since at least 1180 survived, probably because of this. The church retains a significant amount of medieval fabric, including the nave arcades, clerestories and west front; the south aisle was widened in the C14. The earliest phase of the south-east tower which replaced an earlier belfry is considered to date from 1374; its upper stage from the mid-C15.

Alterations to the church were undertaken during the second half of the C17 when the south aisle, which retains some medieval fabric to its lower parts, was partly rebuilt, re-roofed and re-fenestrated. A south-west porch and vestry (the predecessor of the existing early-C19 porch/vestry) were also added in the 1690s. Much of the work carried out in the C18 was gallery improvements as a result of increases in the size of the congregation. The south-west porch/vestry was rebuilt in 1802 to the designs of James Foster, while the south gallery was installed and the west front was repaired in 1804. The church underwent substantial restoration in 1846 at which time the south aisle was re-roofed and the north and south galleries and other Georgian fittings were removed. Plans for enlarging the church were produced by TS Pope in 1862; at first these proposed removing the narrow north aisle and replacing it with a wider aisle to provide additional seating. The proposals were condemned by the eminent Gothic Revival architects George Gilbert Scott and John Loughborough Pearson on the grounds that the work was unsympathetic to the medieval fabric and would result in structural problems. The plans were subsequently revised and a second aisle was built alongside the existing north aisle with a new arcade between the two. To allow for this new aisle the south range of the adjacent Church House was demolished. A north-east vestry which incorporates C12 and C14 fabric and a new organ chamber were also added. Substantial repairs and refurbishment took place in the 1950s when the roofs were repaired, the west wall was reinforced and the north-east vestry remodelled; the west gallery was also removed in the mid-C20. In 1972 a fireproof muniments room (now lavatories) was added to the east end of the church.

St James became redundant in 1984 due to a decline in the size of its congregation, but in 1993 the Little Brothers of Nazareth (originally a small Roman Catholic monastic community) signed a 99-year lease on the church and the courtyard to its west in order to establish an addiction treatment centre. Since then the outer, north, aisle has been partitioned off from the body of the church to serve as meeting rooms accessed from a modern link corridor, and the north-east part of the church has been converted to a café, including the addition of a first floor.

To the south of the church is the former lay cemetery of St James Priory. It was enclosed in the early C19 and was purchased by the Corporation of Bristol in 1925; it serves as a public garden.


Church, formerly part of the church to St James Priory. Founded in second quarter of C12 as a Benedictine cell, from when the nave survives; tower c1374 that was raised in C15. Various phases of additions, alterations and restoration in C17, C18, and C19; further repairs, additions and refurbishment in C20 and early C21.

MATERIALS: the church is constructed of limestone ashlar, pennant sandstone and Brandon Hill Grit stone rubble, with limestone dressings under slate-clad roofs.

PLAN: a nave and chancel of five bays, with multi-phase north and south aisles, a south-east tower and a south-west porch. Former vestry and store (now cafe) to the north-east and east respectively.

EXTERIOR: the C12 west front has stone rubble to the lower part and coursed limestone ashlar above. It is gabled with graduated pilaster buttresses originally surmounted by pinnacles. The C19 Romanesque doorway, probably a replica of the original, has a segmental-arched head with lozenge decoration, a segmental inner arch, and jambs with scalloped capitals and moulded plinths. The ashlar upper part is divided into three stages with drip ledges; the lower one has a blind arcade of intersecting arches pierced by three C12 round-headed windows; the middle one is taller and slightly wider. The central stage has a heavily-weathered, c1170 oculus of plate tracery with central round light surrounded by eight smaller roundels with intersecting geometric straps, set within a zigzag patterned moulding. To the upper gable is a C19 slit window. To the left are the two unequal bays of the north aisle which are divided by a short buttress. The narrower, C12 inner bay has a round-headed window on jamb shafts and scalloped capitals with a quatrefoil above; the mid-C19 outer bay has a central doorway with arched head and shafts with foliate capitals. There is a three-light window above and a trefoil-headed lancet in the gable apex. The north elevation of the north aisle is Early English Gothic in style. It has five gabled bays (its west bay hidden by the Church House) and full-height, two-stage buttresses. Each bay has a three-light window with trefoil heads and three quatrefoils under a two-centred arched surround and a hoodmould. To each gable apex is a trefoil-headed lancet. An early-C21 single-storey link corridor has been built against the north elevation and is accessed from an inserted opening beneath the window in the easternmost bay. To the north-east corner is the former vestry (now a café) which is one bay wide and has been raised with an additional storey of brick; the ground floor is rendered. Its east elevation has a round-arched blocked doorway, a window with square head and to the right a further arch-headed doorway. The curving south wall has a large, early-C21 curved window.

The C12 monastic church originally extended further east. The lower part of the east wall which is hidden by a late-C20 flat-roofed, single-storey extension is considered to retain the remains of a C12 low partition screen across the nave. The upper part which was altered or largely rebuilt in 1846 has three neo-Romanesque windows and an oval oculus in the apex. The south aisle, which was widened in the C14 and partly rebuilt and refurbished in the C17, is of five bays. Its south elevation is rendered and topped by an embattled parapet. There are four C17 windows of four lights with trefoil heads in plate tracery under four-centred arched heads, separated by narrow buttresses. The window in the eastern bay is shorter and is set above a doorway (rebuilt in 1802) with roll-moulded arched head and square-headed hoodmould with delicately-carved foliate design to the spandrels. The plank doors are C19. The clerestory has a continuous round-arched and unmoulded blind arcade carried on engaged half-shafts without bases on a plain sill. The capitals have plain chamfered impost blocks and are decorated with palmette, volute and scalloped designs; 11 are of C12 date and the rest are C19. Part of a C12 corbelled eaves course also survives. The arcade is interrupted after every fifth bay by a C12 recessed, single-light window, except for a C19 restored window set within a blocked C17 pulpit window. The four-stage, unbuttressed tower is square on plan, rising to a c1900 crenellated parapet with gargoyles and crocketted corner finials. Its lower stage has a north door with two-centred arched head and a square-headed and a single-light window in the south elevation; the second stage has a single light with trefoil head; and the third stage has a square-headed window below a clock. The upper stage has Perpendicular louvered two-light belfry windows of c1460. The tower has an octagonal stair tower to its south-west corner which rises to a spirelet. The embattled, two-storey, south-west porch of 1802 has a south doorway with two-centred arched head and moulded surround with carvings of fruit and leaves to the spandrels. The doorcase is surmounted by a frieze of blind-arcaded, trefoil-headed panelling with a quatrefoil at each end and a moulded cornice. Above the doorway is a square-headed window of four lights with trefoil heads and a matching window in the east elevation. The west end of the south aisle has a C17 two-centred arched headed window of three lights. Beneath is a sill of a probable C12 single-light window.

INTERIOR: a C20 screen encloses the west door and has a painted Royal Coat of Arms over. The nave and chancel are of five bays; the eastern bay forming the chancel. The C12 arcade has composite piers, though the second pier from the east on the south side is more elaborate. There are wide, scalloped capitals which carry round-headed arches with an inner roll moulding and an outer band of raised lozenge and billet decoration, retooled in the C19. Below the clerestory is an ornamented string course with matching decoration. The east end has a C19 Romanesque blind arcade of round-arched, interlaced mouldings below an arcade of round-arched niches springing from shafts with scalloped capitals; the triple window above has jamb shafts with carved capitals and an interlaced lozenge pattern to the arches. To either side of the chancel are decorative metal screens which were originally part of the 1890s chancel screen and re-sited to their current positions. The arch-braced wagon roof to the nave has been dated to between 1411 and 1436 and chancel roof, which has arch-braced, common-rafter trusses, has been dated 1327-52. The roof timbers rise from carved limestone corbels. The north aisle is two bays wide, comprising the narrow C12 inner aisle and a C19 outer aisle, and the two are divided by an arcade which probably follows the line of the outer wall of the former. It is carried on piers of polished granite with shaft rings of unpolished marble, and richly-carved limestone capitals. An early-C21 part-glazed partition wall has been inserted just to the north of the arcade and the outer aisle has been sub-divided into meeting rooms. The south aisle has a mid-C19 kingpost tie-beam roof carried on painted limestone corbels carved as grotesque heads which remain from an earlier roof. Towards the east end of the aisle, within a niche in the south wall, is a stone effigy of a recumbent male, reputedly Robert, Earl of Gloucester, d.1147, but it is now considered to be C13 (Foyle, 2004) and to be that of another man. The former vestry of 1864 incorporates some C12 and C14 fabric, including a narrow archway which may represent the entrance from the cloister into a passage which would have given the monks access to both the west and east parts of the priory church.

FITTINGS: within the nave is a richly-carved pulpit on a composite base of four polished granite shafts and pews with doors hung on elaborate H hinges; both mid-C19. Towards the west end of the south aisle is a Norman-style pedestal font with a column stem with chevron moulding; its stem and base may incorporate C12 fabric.

MEMORIALS: late-C19 and early-C20 stained glass memorial windows to north and south aisles, including some by Bell of Bristol. Numerous wall memorial tablets dating from the C16 through to the C19, many re-sited. Among them, the west end of the north aisle has a monument to Sir Charles Somerset (d.1598), former owner of part of the priory site. It has a two-tier base with kneeling figures of Somerset, his wife and their daughter at prayer above, flanked by Corinthian columns supporting a frieze surmounted by a cartouche and corner obelisks. At the west end of the nave, the marble memorial to Henry Dighton (d.1673) and family members has a broken pedimented top with a shield and winged cupids above; adjacent monument to Sir James Russell (d.1674), first governor of Nevis, has a marble aedicule with Corinthian columns, apron and side panels with military motifs, cannon on top and a central heraldic cartouche. Memorials in the south aisle include marble wall tablet to Isaac Baugh (d.1713) and his wife, in the form of a sarcophagus on animal feet with a bowed tablet above and surmounted by a swagged urn, set on a slate backing; tablet to Mary Edwards (d.1736), on brackets with apron and scrolled sides and a high panel with female bust in roundel and a shell; memorial to Thomas Edwards (d.1727) by Michael Sidnell, has a Corinthian aedicule on brackets with broken pediment and cartouche; and memorial to Martha Noble (d.1754) and her husband, has a panel on brackets bearing a sarcophagus with a skull, an open pediment with a crown and open book above. Bust of Thomas Biddulph by E H Bailey, 1842. Marble memorial to Joan Wood (d.1713) and family members, has brackets to a Corinthian aedicule with scrolled brackets supporting the sides and moulded cornice; re-sited in the former organ loft (now part of café). In the south porch are two First World War memorials; one is a bronze plaque commemorating the Fallen of the parish of St James and the other is a sculptured stone tablet with a depiction of the crucifixion which was originally in St Peter’s Church in Castle Park and was re-located to St James after St Peter’s was ruined as a result of bomb damage in the Second World War.

Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) it is declared that Walsingham House which is to the south-west and attached to the church, and the modern, early-C21 link corridor parallel with the outer north aisle of the church are not of special architectural or historic interest and are not included in the listing.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Foyle, A, Pevsner Architectural Guides: Bristol, (2004), 97-98
Jackson, R, Excavation s at St James's Priory, Bristol, (2006)
Thorp, J R L, 'The Wagons Roofs of St James’s Priory' in Vernacular Architecture, , Vol. 44, issue 1, (2013), 31-45
A Arnold and R Howard, Church of St James, Whitson Street, Bristol. Tree-ring analysis of timbers of the nave and chancel roofs, Research Department Report Series no.86-2011, Historic England
Keystone Historic Buildings Consultants, Conservation Management Plan, St James Priory, Bristol, October 2006


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

The listed building(s) is/are shown coloured blue on the attached map. Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’), structures attached to or within the curtilage of the listed building (save those coloured blue on the map) are not to be treated as part of the listed building for the purposes of the Act.

End of official listing

Images of England

Images of England was a photographic record of every listed building in England, created as a snap shot of listed buildings at the turn of the millennium. These photographs of the exterior of listed buildings were taken by volunteers between 1999 and 2008. The project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Date: 17 Mar 2007
Reference: IOE01/15341/25
Rights: Copyright IoE Mr Ben White. Source Historic England Archive
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