As the second most important port in England (London being the first), the parliamentarian city of Bristol was a likely target for Royalist forces at the beginning of the English Civil War.

Diagramatic map of the Parliamentarian fortifications of Bristol in 1643. This map is party conjectural. There is some uncertainty as to whether the water fort was a large bastion (as shown here) or a full-blown fort with bastions (as shown on the map below).

Its existing defences were medieval and would have been unable to hold out against modern siege warfare techniques. So it was decided to build an outer line of more modern earthworks to strengthen the city. Work first started on the fortications in November 1642.

Firstly, the medieval defences of the town were strengthened - the castle was surrounded by earthworks, and a small redoubt was built next to the river. The defences of the part of the town on the southern bank of the river Avon were left in their medieval state, with a battery on the opposite side of the river to enfilade any attack on the southern walls.

As de Gomme put it, "The city of Bristol stands in a hole", being dominated by three hills to the north-west and redcliffe hill to south. For this reason, the Parliamentarians decided to fortify the eminences to the north to prevent an enemy from using them to bombard the city.

The remains of earthwork fortifications on between Brandon Hill Fort and the Water Fort. A redan can be seen in the middle of the picture. The remains of the Water Fort would be in the distance on the right, but are obscured by trees.
The line of defences between the Water Fort and Brandon Hill. Brandon Hill Fort is in the background and a redan can be seen with a tree growing on top of it.

A series of forts, connected by lines of earthwork ditches and redans, formed the defences to the north of Bristol. The line began in the west on the bank of the river Avon with the Water Fort. There is some uncertainty as to whether this was simply a large bastion or a full-blown square fort with bastions.

It is possible that the form of the Water Fort was changed by the Royalists after they captured the city, so both could be true. Another possibility is that it was some cross between the two states - earthwork fortifications built in the Civil War frequently had confused, irregular layouts.

The remains of the Water Fort are overgrown and confusing, but seem to suggest a large bastion rather than a self-contained fort.

From the Water Fort, the line ran northwards to Brandon Hill Fort, the highest point in the defences. The line ran north-east from here to Windmill Fort, which was on top of St. Michael's Hill, then to Colston's Fort and finally Prior's Hill Fort, the most northerly point of the defences. The line from Prior's Hill Fort to Lawford's Gate was straight and had no forts along it apart from a small redoubt at Stoke's Croft. From here the line ran southwards to the river.

Various mounds around Royal Fort House could be the remains of the Civil War fortification, but are likely to have been altered since.

In July 1643, Royalist forces under Prince Rupert assaulted Bristol and captured it. De Gomme, who was with the Royalist forces, decribed the forts as being pallisaded, but having shallow ditches on account of the rocky ground.

The Parliamentarian failure was mainly due to the difficulties of defending an extremely long perimeter (4 miles in length) with a relatively small garrison. The lines themselves were in a poor state, having not been raised to the full height and in some places there was no firestep. The forts they had built had little or no flanking capacity, and there was dead ground between Brandon Hill Fort and Windmill Fort - this was where the Royalist troops broke into the city.

After the Royalists had captured Bristol, de Gomme made improvements to the defences. The main changes were made on St. Michael's Hill, where the Windmill Fort was replaced by a larger pentagonal fort called the Royal Fort, also known as the Great Fort.

Diagramatic map of the Royalist fortifications of Bristol in 1645. Again, partly conjecture - the alternative form of the water fort is shown here.
Plan of the Royal Fort, from Millard's map of Bristol, 1673.

The Royal Fort had two bastions on the inside of the lines and three on the outside. It was considered as the strongest work in the defences of Bristol, and functioned like a citadel in some ways (after the Parliamentarians had broken through the lines in the siege of 1645, the Royalists retreated to the Royal Fort).

Elsewhere, the trace was altered slightly and emphasis was placed on raising the works at the weak points, although this work was still not complete in 1645 when the Parliamentarians assaulted the city. Avoiding the strong point of the Royal Fort, they attacked the lines between Prior's Hill Fort and Colston's Fort. The Royalist defence of Bristol failed for much the same reasons as had the Parliamentarian, that is; the perimeter was too long to be defended adequately.

Visiting Bristol

The remains of the castle, in castle park.

As with most Civil War fortifications, urbanisation and weathering have taken their toll on the fortifications of Bristol. The best remains are between the Water Fort and Brandon Hill, where a section of the line including a redan can be made out.

The Water Fort itself is just south of this line, but is rather overgrown and it is quite hard to gain an impression of its form. Brandon Hill Fort is just to the north, and it seems to be in good condition, though it may have been altered in later years. On the top of Brandon Hill is the Cabot Tower, which can be ascended free of charge, and offers fantastic views of the city. All these remains are in Brandon Hill park.

The Royal Fort has been built over (Fort Royal House), but some mounds could be the remnants of the fortifications. There is a masonary gatehouse, 'Rupert's Gate', also called 'Royal Fort Gate', which was supposedly the entrance to the fort.

The old church, castle park.

However, it seems unlikely that such a substantial construction would have been built for an earthwork fortification in such a short time. I believe this gatehouse was built at a later date, perhaps when the fort was turned into a park, shortly after the War.

View over the floating harbour from the Cabot Tower.

Other remains are in castle park, where the foundations of the castle can be seen. Colston's Fort is built over (Montague Place), as is Prior's Hill Fort (Fremantle Square). Bristol Temple Meads is a mainline station, about 20 mins walk from Brandon Hill park.

Condition Access to fortifications Size of fortress Accessability of town Museum/Info Overall score
2 10 4 10 3 5.8
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