David M Bruce ‘THE BRISTOL HIGH CROSS – Hidden in Plain View’



The Bristol High Cross is plain for all to see so long as they do not look for it in Bristol or expect it to look much like a cross. It is to be found almost in Dorset and so starts this discussion of how heritage may lose its significance by being taken out of context and therefore become hidden.

There may be many reasons why heritage has been relocated out of context: Relocating a heritage object to a national or global museum is probably the most common cause. The effect may be to lose particular, even major, aspects of its significance. It might almost be said that museums, especially national and global museums, are designed to hide heritage, at least local heritage. Larger objects may be lost by fragmentation – medieval town walls and later town fortifications in Britain have usually suffered this fate. They are often much more complete and visible elsewhere in Europe.

By hiding the High Cross, Bristol managed to hide its own medieval centre point and in time its whole Old City. That walled town at the core of Bristol is or, until very recently, was obscured; the town walls themselves lost even to the archeologists. With that loss was also lost the heritage of the medieval ‘Free City’ of the County and City of Bristol and its place in the rollcall of great historic cities.

DMB 2016





Hidden in Plain View

The Bristol High Cross is plain for all to see so long as they do not look for it in Bristol. Originally it was indeed at the centre of the medieval walled city as shown on the Ricart iconic city map of 1479. The basic form and imagery of the Cross dates it to the early 15th Century (Liversidge 1978 p.11). It seems to have been on the site of an earlier presumably simpler cross.

It does not look much like a cross. Gothic and slender, it is nearly 18 metres high with a portico topped by first a set of four standing regal figures and then, wedding cake like a further storey of four seated monarchs, added in 1633; only from two perspectives is the small topknot of a cross visible. When first set up in its current position in 1765/6 it must have created a stark contrast with the rounded domes and wide prospects within which it was to be set

So where can it be found?  Almost in Dorset, on a grand estate, whose folly tower certainly overlooks both Dorset and Somerset, it is in the grand landscaped grounds of the Palladian mansion of the Hoare banking family at Stourton or Stourhead in Wiltshire (Garnet 2000). Now owned by the National Trust, Stourhead is visited by thousands of visitors each year, most of whom will see the High Cross. Hardly any will be aware of or even be made aware of the significance of this Gothic oddity as there is no mention of it in the National Trust Handbook (2016, 94). It appears to have some visual connection to the adjacent medieval church but also stands above a bridged inlet of a large artificial lake. The High Cross is out of sight and therefore out of mind for Bristolians. Its fate has hidden in turn significant parts of the history and even geography of the City and County of Bristol


The High Cross is of course not alone among heritage artefacts to be dis-located out of context and thus forgotten. It is an essential attribute of most museums to collect together objects to allow for comparative study but valuable as that may be for archaeology and anthropology it can be at the cost of local heritage, of local historical awareness and of its local exploitation for tourism.


So would argue the Greeks in the case of the Elgin Marbles, although those artefacts can hardly be said to be forgotten, so notorious and blatant was their removal from the Acropolis of Athens by Lord Elgin in the early 19th Century. Rather like the Bristol High Cross, the Elgin Marbles were apparently obtained legally from their purported ‘owner’ (St. Clair 1999) In the case of the Elgin Marbles that was the local Bey of the Ottoman Empire, In the case of the Bristol High Cross, it was the Dean of Bristol Cathedral. In neither case was the ‘community’ ownership or value given any weight. Retrospectively arguments have been made to keep the Marbles in the British Museum.

So much of that great collection, like that of the Louvre in Paris and many other world-renowned Museum collections, derive from looting, larceny or ransack and therefore the precedent of restitution threatens the Museum itself.



It might be said that museums, especially national and global museums, are almost designed to hide heritage, at least local heritage, in the interests of creating, reinforcing or protecting national heritage. UNESCO does little to protect such local interests as the ‘N’ in its acronym expresses the power of the Nation state in its make-up. The interest of this paper is not so much in the rights or academic advantages of relocating and collecting heritage artefacts but in the effects – namely the loss of local significance for the artefact itself and the loss of the intangible heritage and history associated with the ‘hidden’ dis-located object.



To return to case of the Bristol High Cross – how did it become dis-located? From earlier times and in common with many chartered towns and cities in England and across Europe, it was the symbol of civic power over the market and the zero point for distances from the city. As such it was probably in existence at least from the time of the earliest Charter, granted by King John in 1216. The earliest specific reference to the “hyecrois of Bristow” dates from 1403-4 (from the ordinances of the blacksmiths in the city’s Little Red Book (quoted in Liversidge 1978, 11) and, Liversidge suggests, probably referred to the predecessor of the High Cross.



However to understand how it eventually became embroiled in local politics to the point that its very existence and original location was compromised, we need first look in a little more detail at the High Cross itself. Uniquely it incorporates the statues of eight English and British monarchs. Three of the originals are in the Victoria and Albert museum and represented by replicas on the Stourhead monument. There is some dispute about which monarchs are represented and until the 17th Century there were only four – all Norman Plantagenet Kings of England. Edward III (possibly and plausibly), John, Henry III and Edward I (either twice – instead of Edward III or implausibly Edward IV) (Liversidge 1978).


Edward III should take precedence because there is little doubt the essential form and design of the Cross, dates it to the early years of the 15th Century and seems to celebrate Bristol’s independent allegiance to the Crown, unmediated by any (other) County or Lord. We might speculate therefore that it was set in its final medieval form around about the fiftieth anniversary of the unique status of ‘City and County’.





Earlier County dominance was in the hands of the local (Norman) magnates or the Church. Bristol’s increasing trading prosperity allowed it, in the 14th century to take on these lords and prelates – the Bishop of Worcester was in any case based far away to the north. After four years of open rebellion 1312 to 1316  and direct confrontation with the Norman Castle and the power of the Earls of Gloucester, submission to Edward II’s court was negotiated for a heavy fine. Within a few years one leading rebel was, remarkably, a Member of Parliament. Within the life time of older citizens, the equivalent of ‘Free City’ status in 1373 had been conferred in return for 600 Marks (a large sum of money) (Jones 2000). The charter of Edward III in 1373 created the unique City and County of Bristol.



Even though considerably smaller, this put Bristol on a par with cities of the Holy Roman Empire including then the Low Countries, which also bought their independence from the territorial magnates by paying the Emperor to become Imperial Free Cities – like Regensburg, Antwerp, Hamburg or Bremen (the latter two remaining as independent Länder within Germany to this day).



Bristol by becoming its own County with a self-appointed Corporation electing its own Mayor and nominating to the Royal office of Sherriff, was free to control Redcliffe on the south bank of the Avon and the river access to its port and free from having to face, or submit disputes to, justice in either Gloucester or Ilchester (Somerset). For over two hundred years right through the wars of the roses and the Reformation the High Cross remained as a tribute to medieval English Kings and as a symbol of independence under the Crown. It remained too the clear centre point for trade and Civic Government where the High Street, Corn Street, Wine Street and Broad Street meet. Within the cast of its shadow lay the Guild Hall, seat of the Mayor and Corporation. Practically under its shadow were the famous ‘Bristol Nails’ where bargains were struck in full view of the city and market (‘to pay on the nail’).



In the 1630s the High Cross celebrated Charles I by having an extra tier of seated monarchs added. The English Civil War (so-called though massively involving Scotland Ireland Wales and arguably part of the European 30 Years War conflicts) broke out very soon afterwards. Bristol changed hands twice over between Parliamentarians and Royalists and was quite heavily damaged when taken by assault (Porter1994). In the end however the city probably benefited from the conflict as the Royal Castle (still then formally part of Gloucestershire) was taken down in 1656 and replaced by streets which become the city’s main shopping centre. The turmoil also led to the weakening of the monopoly of the London based Royal African Company, allowing Bristol’s Merchant Venturers to enter the African and West Indian trades, legally after 1698, and to prosper from the notorious triangular trade in goods, slaves and sugar for the next hundred or so years.


After his Execution in 1649, Charles I’s image was summarily removed and destroyed, only to be replaced after the Restoration in 1660. This politicisation of the High Cross seems to have been its undoing. Parliamentarians morphed into Whigs and dissenters, Royalists into Tories and High Churchmen. Whigs found reason in 1733 successfully to petition that this “ruinous and superstitious Relick’ be removed for “the opening of a passage to four of the principal streets in this City” “When we consider that we are protestants and that popery ought effectually to be guarded against in this Nation” was part of the justification given by the 28 neighbouring people and traders, including a silversmith “who out of enmity to this structure so esteemed by others, offered to swear before the magistrates that every high wind his house and life were endangered (though it was not generally then believed)” Barrett 1789, 474 in Liversidge 1978, 2)



Within a generation, further petitioning had the High Cross removed again from outside the cathedral and it was left in pieces to languish in the vaults. It could therefore be handed over in 1762 to the Dean’s rich friend Henry Hoare, who did at least value it enough to send three carts on a six day return journey over the ghastly West Country roads to transport the pieces to Stourhead. By December 1765 it was being put together and erected. 2016 is arguably its 250th anniversary year. There it still resides, a Gothic (a la Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill,) link between Palladian landscape and the remnants of a medieval village and church.



By hiding its High Cross far away in the countryside, Bristol managed to hide its own medieval centre, its actual Old Town (or ‘Altstadt’  – as revered, protected and restored in most German towns (Ashworth and Bruce 2009) – helped by the capacity for economic development to hide even larger objects for example by overbuilding absorption into later buildings and fragmentation. Medieval town walls and later town fortifications in Bristol and more generally in Britain have usually suffered this fate.



Because of the small population and poverty of medieval England, there were few towns capable of bearing the cost of building and maintaining fortification. London maintained and restored its Roman walls, as did York, Chester, Chichester, Canterbury, Exeter and Colchester. On the Welsh Marches and towards the Scottish border lands, defences were kept in reasonable order for instance Chepstow, Ludlow and especially Berwick-upon-Tweed. Successful post Roman towns like Norwich or Bristol were dominated by Norman castles, which acted as citadels, as much to overawe the urban population as to offer external defence.






The medieval castle of Bristol was intentionally dismantled after the Civil War by the orders of Cromwell in 1656; the town walls of Bristol were mainly just obscured within later buildings and as the city expanded and outer defences they were constructed for the Civil wars were lost to sight and almost to memory. One very fine medieval gate remained partly because it was incorporated into a church (St John’s), partly because it had a ceremonial purpose – Queen Elizabeth I entered the City by it in 1572 – but mostly because it was not the barrier to traffic that condemned the other gates and indeed the building encrusted Bristol Bridge.

Even so the form of the ancient city remained reasonably clear and even itself expanded by absorbing the area of the Castle, whose masonry was mercilessly quarried to support a post civil war building boom and whose site became the principal shopping centre.

“When we think of walled towns, places like York or Chester with their extensive battlements … but Bristol is unlikely to receive even a mention. Yet our city also possessed its medieval Walls, even though few obvious traces remain. The Walls, built originally outside possible Saxon defences, were later extended and after the Norman Castle was pulled down, that area was also included. To the South they stretched along the modern Portwall Lane, defending the city from aggressors in the Temple and Redcliffe areas and also acting as a Customs barrier. Medieval walls contained the whole city except for the gated medieval ‘faubourg’ of Old Market” as the Bristol Civic Society reported in 2011 Bristol (Mason 2011).

With a population of some 10,000 people, Bristol had been labelled ‘la plus renommee & marchande d’Angleterre excepte Lodres…” by Hoefnagel (1581) – ie the ‘second city’ – and was, quite literally put on the map, in the vast German publication ‘Cities of the World’ that appeared in six volumes over nearly forty years. Here Bristol appeared one of 475 separate towns and cities, almost all walled and fortified, to take its place among European historic cities (detail Braun and Hogenberg 1572-1618 shown).




Yet that walled town at the core of Bristol is or, until very recently, was obscured and the town walls themselves lost even to the archaeologists Enemy action in 1941 gravely damaged a quarter (actually and in the figurative sense) of the walled city. The so-called Dutch House landmark building that in the seventeenth Century had shared the centre point of Bristol with the High Cross was knocked about – not necessarily irretrievably – and then promptly demolished. (The blitz demoralised Bristol as a civic entity for a generation. Commercially, even corruptly, re-developed, Bristol lost its sense of pride and at its low point in 1970s was absorbed by the County of Avon no longer ‘City and County’. The City Docks closed at the same time and urban motorway plans nearly filled in the Floating Harbour.(Byrne 2013).The City and County forgot that its coat of arms referred to a fortified port City rather than simply to a castle.(Parker 1999, 337). Not unil the 1990s did Avon disappear to become C.U.B.A. (the County that Used to be Avon) and Bristol was again ‘City and County’.


With the loss of the High Cross had also been lost the heritage of and pride in the medieval ‘Free City’ of the County and City of Bristol; its loss contributed to the loss of the Dutch House and the sense of centrality for the walled town. Haydn Mason in the BCS Newsletter (2011) reporting a presentation on ‘Lost walls of Bristol’ (Bruce 2011) added:

“This lost domain, could be rediscovered. So one came away inspired by the hope that this might be achieved in the not too distant future, thereby adding to the richness of Bristol’s heritage. Might the Council and the Tourist Bureau be prepared to take it on?”

Perhaps partly in response, The Old City is now self-consciously and proudly marketed by its traders, artists and community. When eventually the lost ‘quarter’ of St Mary-le-Port is redeveloped could either the Dutch House or the High Cross or even both be re-created? But whether they should be, remains a fair question.



































Ashworth G. and Bruce D. 2010 Walled towns, town walls and tourism: paradoxes and paradigms’ Journal of Heritage Tourism 4:4 299-313.

Baedeker K. 1906 Gross Britannien England (Ausser London) Schottland und Irland Handbuch fuer Reisende [Travellers Handbook ]Karl Baedeker Verlag  Leipzig.

Bruce D. 2011 How Bristol Lost Its Walls (and might find them again) Presentation to Bristol Civic Society accessible at http://www.walledtownsresearch.org/p/dmb-walled-towns-publications.html (accessed Feb 2016).

Braun G. & Hogenberg F. 1572-1617 Civitates Orbis Terrarum (Cities of the World) Cologne. [Civitates Orbis Terrarum or ‘Cities of the World’. Skelton R.A.(Ed.) 1966 ‘The Towns of the World’: Braun and Hogenberg’s Civitates Orbis Terrarum 1572-1618 (Facsimile), The World Publishing Company. Cleveland, Ohio (three volumes); Fuessel S (Ed) (2008) Braun and Hogenberg Cities of the World: complete edition of the colour plates 1572-1617 Taschen Cologne.]

Byrne E 2013 Bristol Unbuilt the city that might have been 1750-2050 Redcliffe Press Bristol.

Garnet O. 2000 Stourhead Landscape Garden National Trust Warrington

Hoefnagel G 1581 Brightstowe [with French text on reverse] in Braun & Hogenberg (qv) possibly based on William Smith 1568 [with some errors or variants].

Jones D. 2000 Bristol Past Phillimore Chichester.

Liversidge M.J.H 1978 The Bristol High Cross Local History Pamphlet 42 Bristol Branch of the Historical Association Bristol University Bristol.

Mason H. 2011 The lost walls of Bristol BCS Newsletter Autumn p5 Bristol Civic Society.

National Trust 2016 National Trust Handbook National Trust Swindon.

Parker A.J. 1999 A maritime cultural landscape: the Port of Bristol in the Middle Ages, The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology,  28.4 323-342.

Porter S 1994 Destruction in the English Civil War Alan Sutton Stroud

St. Clair W 1999, The Elgin marbles: questions of stewardship and accountability, International journal of cultural property,  8, 2.



Heritage Matters both now and in the future !

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