Royal Fort, St Michael’s Hill, Part 1

Following the demolition of Nos. 26–28 Tyndall Avenue on University land, St Michael’s, Bristol, archaeological investigations by BaRAS exposed part of a purpose-built Civil War citadel, constructed during the Royalist forces’ occupation of Bristol from 1643–45. The site of a smaller Parliamentarian defensive work called the Windmill Hill Fort was strengthened and used as Prince Rupert’s headquarters, an association that has been preserved through the centuries by the name ‘Royal Fort’. In 1656 the Commonwealth Government ordered the fort to be dismantled, the ramparts were levelled to backfill the ditches and masonry elements robbed for re-use. The hillside was rapidly reclaimed for houses and gardens. Discoveries have been made concerning the route and form of the Fort ditch, one of its angled bastions and also part of a contemporary stone building in the south-western corner of the site.

The earliest historical plans and sketch views of the fort, such as those by Stainred (1669) and Millerd (1673), are highly stylised and give no real indication as to its precise layout or location. Millerd’s map (Fig.1) does show that within 17 years of the Fort being dismantled redevelopment had already taken place on the site. A cartouche from the edge of his map has frequently been used as the basis for interpretation of its area and design and may be responsible for many erroneous descriptions and assumptions, such as the Fort having a defensive ‘wall’.

cartouche from millerds map showing the royal fort in bristol

Fig 1a. Cartouche from the edge of Millerd’s map of 1673 showing a stylised view of the Royal Fort.

Fig 1b. Section of Millerd’s map of 1673 showing redevelopment on the site of the Royal Fort.

Rocque’s plan of 1742 depicts the outlines of the north, south and west bastions of the fort, evidently these were preserved within the lines of property boundaries (Fig.2). The line of the eastern side of the fort was only vaguely depicted on Rocque’s plan although the possible remains of a bastion are shown in a field that was known since the 16th-century as Joachim’s Close.

outline of royal fort, bristol, from a map of 1742 by rocque

Fig 2. Outline of the Royal Fort from Rocque’s plan of 1742.

Evaluation trenching in 2007–2008 and the recent investigations between February and April 2009 are the first time that professional, open-area archaeological fieldwork has taken place on the site of the Royal Fort (Plate 1). A 32m length of the Fort ditch was exposed, up to 8m wide at the top, 4m wide at the base, over 2m in depth and with sides sloping between 35°–45°. The ditch ran diagonally across the site area from north-west to south-east. In places the ditch was cut through bedrock and elsewhere through the undisturbed clays and followed the natural downward slope of the hill. At each end the ditch turned sharply, at the southern end, part of the footings of a projecting bastion were revealed.

excavation of a royal fort ditch

Plate 1. Excavation work on the site of the Royal Fort showing part of the Fort ditch.

The footings are in the form of two layers of a pinkish, lime mortar mix over a bedding of stones and clay (Plate 2). Above this there probably would have been a revetted face of masonry, although any useful materials were robbed out after the ramparts were levelled. It was more usual to use brick for revetting because it would not shatter under impact the way that stone does. To create this bastion the hillside had to be artificially built up as previous stone quarrying had left steep, smooth faces of bedrock.

footings for a projecting bastion within the site of the royal fort

Plate 2. Part of the footings for a projecting bastion within the fort.

At the base of the Fort ditch were extensive deposits of organic-rich, silty clay, A sondage into these deposits recovered a piece of iron shot weighing 9lbs 2oz (Plate 3). Cannonballs of this weight are diagnostic of siege gun ammunition, for a gun known at the time as a ‘demi-culverin’. Such a gun would have been up to 11ft in length with a range of approximately 1800 paces and intended for the destruction of buildings rather than anti-personnel use. 7lbs of gunpowder were required to fire the shot, residues from the shot are being analysed to indicate whether or not it was fired at the fort or accidentally dropped from the rampart.  The historic records concerning the fighting around the Fort show that it was not directly assaulted in 1645 but was kept under fire by the Parliamentarian forces.

siege gun cannonball recovered from site of the royal fort in bristol

Plate 3. Siege gun cannonball recovered from the site of the Royal Fort in Bristol

A length of stone wall in the south-western corner of the site may also be associated with the Fort (Plate 4). A good assemblage of early clay tobacco-pipe bowls dating from the mid to second half of the 17th-century, a musketball and a lead cap from a gunpowder flask have been recovered from stratified deposits associated with this wall. Assessment of the accompanying pottery assemblage will clarify the dating of this feature.

excavation of a wall within the site of the royal fort in bristol

Plate 4. Excavation of a wall within the site of the Royal Fort in Bristol

From the early 1760s extensive landscaping activities eventually obliterated the visible traces of the Royal Fort. The area of the recent excavation was used for horticultural purposes, initially with both formal and kitchen-gardens, associated with Thomas Tyndall’s mansion (the present Royal Fort House). These gardens were surrounded by substantial walls and by 1785 had greenhouse-type structures that may have had a heating system. In the early 19th-century further episodes of landscaping altered the layout of the garden areas, vast quantities of humic soils were imported and two large rectilinear buildings were constructed before 1828. Sometime between 1854 and 1883 these were converted into a greenhouse, an orangery and a fernery, with a detached, subterranean furnace room providing heating. Stretches of Tyndall’s garden walls and some of the garden areas survived until the early 20th-century. Following the sale of the Tyndall family estate in 1917 and division of the site between the University and the Bristol Children’s Hospital, the orangery and fernery were demolished in the early 1930s and replaced with a nurses’ accommodation block. The remaining gardens were eventually covered with car-parks, walkways and extensions to the children’s hospital.

Fieldwork due to begin in late 2009 may reveal more of the Fort’s defences and evidence of internal structures, although apart from the position of the Fort gate, the rest of its location remains open to conjecture (Fig.3).

 site plan for part of the University of Bristol with an overlay showing a possible layout for the Royal Fort.

Fig 3. A site plan for part of the University of Bristol with an overlay showing a possible layout for the Royal Fort.

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