Behind an un-prepossessing lean-to, now housing a bin store, at 97 Redcliff Street is a surviving fragment of medieval arcade belonging to a wealthy merchant’s house. Most passers-by could be forgiven for not noticing this rare survival of medieval walling in the City, heavily disguised as it is. Moreover, they could easily miss another section of wall to the rear of the same plot, where further medieval fabric, albeit much altered, can be seen from Redcliff Backs. These walls are believed to belong to the great house of the Canynges family, who dominated the political and economic life of Bristol in the 14th and 15th century, and were major benefactors of St Mary Redcliffe church. The younger William Canynges (1402-1474) was mayor of Bristol five times, and is reputed to have entertained the first Yorkist king, Edward IV, at his great house in 1461.
The house stood until 1937, when much of it was demolished, and various antiquarian records record the former ornateness of it in some detail, including photographs and drawings. The hall was richly decorated, and had a stunning carved four-bay, arch-braced roof springing from corbels shaped in the form of angels. Drawings of 19th-century date show a gallery along the south side of the hall, and an altar and religious scenes painted on the walls, suggesting use as a chapel. Set further back from the street, a possible parlour room had a fine late 15th or 16th-century pavement, which was removed in 1913, and displayed in the British Museum. A long through-passage connected the rooms of the house, and courtyards, possibly separated by ranges comprising kitchens, extended back (west) from Redcliff Street. At the extreme western end of the plot, near to the 15th-century riverfront, was reputed to be Canynge’s Tower, described by William Worcestre in around 1480 as a ‘very beautiful building’ with four bay-windows, and measuring 18.3m x 13.7m (60ft x 48ft). This may well be the structure still visible from Redcliff Backs.
Remarkably, not only do we have the survival of parts of this building above ground, but also archaeological evidence for what preceded it, in the form of excavations undertaken between 1983-85 by archaeologists of the City Museum and Art Gallery. One of a number of hugely important archaeological excavations along the riverward side of Redcliff Street in the 1980s, this revealed a succession of earlier river frontage structures sealed several metres beneath Nos 95-97. These included wicker fences, harbourside buildings and stone slipways of 12th to 13th-century date close to the existing Redcliff Street frontage, and evidence for extensive land-reclamation from the former river channel.
Later medieval docks and quaysides extended towards Canynge’s Tower and the line of the 15th-century waterfront, which runs approximately along the modern-day line Redcliff Backs. In all, some 50m of land was reclaimed from the river between about 1200 and 1450. Timbers, and well-preserved organic remains from these excavations have enormous potential to tell us about diet, industry, economy and trade from the suburb in the medieval period, and it is hoped the publication of the Archaeological Assessment will give new impetus to the publication of the group of Redcliff Street waterfront sites excavated in the 1980s.
References: Bristol Know Your Place website; Jones, R. H. 1986 ‘Excavations In Redcliff 1983-5: Survey and Excavation at 95-97 Redcliff Street, Bristol, an Interim Report’. Published by City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.