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St Mary Redcliffe

St Mary Redcliffe is a large Anglican parish church located in the Redcliffe district of the English port city of Bristol, close to the city centre.


The church is Grade I listed,

The church was described by Queen Elizabeth I as "the fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England.",


Parts of the church date to the beginning of the 12th century. However, most parts are the work of 15th century masons. The strong vertical lines of the gothic church direct the eye upwards giving the impression of great space and height. The upper part of the spire, missing since being struck by lightning in 1446, was replaced in 1872 to a height of 292ft (90m).

In 1571, what was to become St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School was formed in a chapel in the churchyard. The church and school have remained closely linked in many aspects of their operations.

Thomas Chatterton was born in the house next to the church in 1752 and his writings were inspired by the church in which he acted as Sexton and used a room over the south porch as a study.

During the Second World War a bomb exploded in a nearby street, throwing a rail from the tramway over the houses and into the churchyard of St. Mary Redcliffe, where it became embedded in the ground. The rail is left there as a monument.

Architecture and decoration

The north porch has an inner component dating from 1200, with black Purbeck marble columns, and an outer hexagonal portion built in 1325 which is ogee-cusped with a Moorish appearance.

Much of the medieval church decoration was lost during the Reformation and the English Civil War, however a wrought iron chancel screen built by William Edney in 1710 still stands under the tower.

The church is adorned with monuments to many individuals from the history of the city including: Sir William Penn (the father of William Penn the founder of Pennsylvania). His helm and half-armour are hung on the wall, together with the tattered banners of the Dutch ships that he captured in battle.

Little of the stained glass remained. In the west window of St John's Chapel, for instance, the mediaeval glass barely survived the destruction (said to have been caused by Oliver Cromwell's men). Most of the higher portions went untouched, but others were severely damaged. In some cases the windows were impossible to repair, and clear glass was eventually introduced to replace the missing scenes.

In the times of Queen Anne, and partially funded by her, the interior of St. Mary Redcliffe was decorated in the flamboyant Baroque style.

The Victorian stained glass windows were created by some of the finest studios of that period.

The tower contains four bells dating from 1763 and made by Thomas Bilbie of the Bilbie family.

Hogarth's tryptych

A great altarpiece tryptych by William Hogarth was commissioned in 1756 to fill the east end of the chancel. The Churchwardens paid him £525 for his paintings of the Ascension flanked by The Sealing of the Sepulchre and the Three Marys at the Tomb. This was removed from the church by mid-Victorian liturgists and stored at a various sites, including a tobacco warehouse (as this provided suitable humidity), before being displayed at the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery; it is now stored in the redundant church of St Nicholas, Bristol.


The first pipe organ in the church, built by Harris and Byfield in 1726, was of three manuals and twenty-six stops. In 1911 a four manual seventy-one stop organ was built by Harrison & Harrison. Towards the end of his life Arthur Harrison said that he regarded the organ at St. Mary Redcliffe as his "finest and most characteristic work". This view has been echoed since by other notable organists. Kevin Bowyer recorded Sorabji's First Organ Symphony on it in 1988, for which the organ was an 'ideal choice'; the notes to the recording describe the church as 'acoustically ideal, with a reverberation period of 3 1/2 seconds', and notes that the organ has 'a luxuriousness of tone' and 'a range of volume from practically inaudible to fiendishly loud.' This organ was restored most recently in 1990, but remains essentially as Arthur Harrison designed it in 1911.


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