Norman invaders had built a simple timber and earthwork construction to reinforce their authority and ensure physical security but Robert, Earl of Gloucester, transformed it into a more substantial building, with a massive stone keep and walls. According to tradition the stone was shipped to Bristol from Caen in Normandy. In some places the walls were over seven metres thick, and the Rivers Avon and Frome protected it on three sides by forming a natural moat.
Over time it served several different purposes, sometimes many at the same time. It was built as a defensive fortress against outside invaders as well as to subjugate the people of Bristol. It was a royal treasury, a mint where money was manufactured, a prison and a symbol of royal authority. For most of this period, Bristol was the second largest and second-wealthiest town in England, and control of the Castle meant control of this vitally important town. It was finally demolished after the end of the English Civil War in 1656 having played a wider role in the history of England on more than one occasion.
Empress Matilda Edit
Bristol Castle was the focus of civil war during the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154). It was used as a stronghold for those who felt that Stephen had improperly claimed the throne on the death of King Henry I in 1135. Henry had designated his daughter, Matilda, as the rightful heir to the throne, but her cousin, Stephen, rallied support from those who didn't want a woman to rule over them.
Matilda gathered her forces and was joined by her half-brother Robert Fitzroy, Earl of Gloucester and owner of Bristol Castle, which was used as a base for their supporters. Earl Robert was in France when the revolt started but his castle was used as a base from which to carry out raids so the King and his army marched on Bristol to put a stop to it.
Stephen called a council of war to discuss how to take the Castle with his barons. They discussed damming the rivers with
"a huge mass of rocks, beams, and turves at the point where the approach to the town narrowed."
This would mean that the castle could no longer be supplied by water. They also discussed building fortifications around the town to stop supplies coming in and starve the castle garrison out. Unfortunately for Stephen, Robert had rebuilt the original Norman castle with a powerful stone keep. In some places the walls were over seven metres thick, and on three sides it was protected by the Rivers Avon and Frome which formed a natural moat. Stephen was advised it was impregnable and instead of besieging it decided to withdraw.
The country was soon subject to open civil war. Stephen was captured in Lincoln in 1141 and imprisoned in Bristol Castle but sometime later his supporters captured Robert and negotiated a complicated prisoner-swap. A Church council held in Winchester proclaimed Matilda 'Lady of the English', and although she was never crowned, she did live to see her son become King Henry II.
In 1654 Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, authorised the demolition of Bristol Castle.
During the English Civil War (1642-1645), Bristol experienced punishing levels of taxation, forced labour and two bouts of bloody fighting. In 1647, Joshua Sprigge MA commented that
"Bristol looked now more like a prison than a city, and the people more like prisoners than citizens, being brought so low with taxations, so poor in habit, and so dejected in countenance, the streets so noisome, and the houses so nasty."
It was hardly surprising that the city fathers and general population were only too glad to comply with the demolition orders. In fact the Corporation was so delighted that it gave the messenger who brought Cromwell's letter a substantial gift of £4.
The demolition served both the Bristol Corporation and Parliament's purposes. Before the war, the Corporation profited from rent on houses within the castle itself and afterwards wanted compensation for lost income. Parliament meanwhile wanted to destroy all fortifications that could be used against it in the future.
After Cromwell approved the demolition, a Corporation committee oversaw the work and let the land for building. Many individuals took advantage of this and soon new streets and homes were springing up where the castle had once been. It might be argued that this redevelopment was the first major step in the city's post-war recovery.