St James Priory is the oldest building in Bristol. It was originally founded as a Benedictine monastery in 1129 and retains some rare original architectural features.
Construction took about 35 years and involved some of the finest artists and craftsmen of the day. Sadly only fragments of their skilful work remain to be seen today.
This includes the spectacular west end of the nave which is where the general public (“lay people”) worshipped. The oculus is thought to be the oldest one in England.
In the past, the Priory was longer and extended to the east, but this section of the Church no longer exists. This was where the monks performed the “divine office” – the daily ritual of prayers, psalms, hymns and Bible readings that structured their days.
To the north of the church, there used to be a covered walkway of cloisters leading to domestic buildings and a chapter house – a room where the monks held meetings. To the south there was a “Lady Chapel” – a smaller chapel within the Church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The Priory was altered significantly after its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1540, and extended during the Victorian period as the local congregation grew. The extensive restoration of the building in 2010-11, made possible by a £3.2 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant, conserved much of this historic fabric for future generations. Images revealing this process can be seen here: