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St Mary Redcliffe

The tall spire of St Mary Redcliffe is an impressive and well-known feature of the harbour area. Yet for four and a quarter centuries it presented quite a different appearance.

In 1446 the spire was struck by lightning and two thirds of it fell, causing considerable damage. The church tower was oddly topped by the truncated remnant until the 1870s, when this new spire was constructed.

There had been a previous church on the site, the present building being founded in 1292 by Simon de Burton, three times Mayor of Bristol. Often, building work on a church would start with the east end or choir part, so that this could be consecrated and used for masses.

As bequests of money were given, so the rest of the design could gradually be finished. William Canynges senior was responsible for completion, seventy-five years later, of the work on the church then known as St Mary de Radeclive.

In 1442 his grandson William Canynges 'kept masons and workmen to repair and edifye, cover and glaze the church of Redcliffe.' It must have seemed that no sooner had this work been carried out than the lightning struck and he had to make good the damage.

After his wife died, Canynges gave up his wealth and took holy orders. His first celebration of mass at the church in 1468 is still commemorated annually. At this ceremony, called the Rush service, the church floor is strewn with rushes and rosemary, in memory of those ancient times. There is a richly-decorated Canynges tomb where his wife is buried and also a simpler one, showing him in his priest's robes.

Like many mediaeval churches St Mary contained side-chapels. The Chapel of St John the Baptist is now known as the American Chapel, as it was restored through money donated by people in the USA. Most of the remaining mediaeval glass has been set into its windows.

A Second World War bombing raid caused this piece of tram rail to be lifted from the road (behind the trees in photo) and hurled into the churchyard, plunging end on into the ground where it remains today. Buildings close by were completely destroyed in the raid, so the rail serves as a reminder of how near the church (at right) came to destruction..

For years St Mary Redcliffe suffered from smoke pollution caused by the close proximity of the railway, with its coal-yards and the surrounding industrial activity.

The railway no longer passes the church, and the industrial premises have been swept away. As a result of cleaning off the grime some years ago, the old church proudly reveals a wealth of carved detail.
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