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The site of the Royal Fort has a long and interesting history. During the Civil War (1642-46) it became the central link in a chain of fortifications thrown up around the city of Bristol. Windmill Fort was built here in 1642, but in 1644 the Royalists defending the city decided to construct a larger fort here.

Throughout the second half of 1644, local men were drafted in to act as forced labourers on the site. Money for the project was borrowed from some local citizens and extorted from others. By December 1644, a large pentagonal fort had been built on the summit of St. Michael's Hill, deeply entrenched and mounted with 22 guns. By the time the city was invested by the Parliamentarian army in July 1645, the Royal Fort was heavily garrisoned and provisioned, and had been made the headquarters by Prince Rupert.

The fuller story of the Parliamentarian siege and capture of Bristol, and its aftermath, can be read in Latimer's ‘Annals of Bristol', Volume 1 (see references). In 1655, the Council of State ordered the Corporation of Bristol to demolish the Royal Fort, and once again local labourers were forced to work on the site. It took many weeks to demolish the huge fortifications.

In 1737, the site of the Royal Fort was leased by the Corporation to Thomas Tyndall, and he set about consulting architects about possible designs for a fine mansion to stand on the summit of the hill. From 1753 onwards, Tyndall acquired the leases of various fields and properties adjacent to the Fort. His house, which still stands, was completed in 1761 to the design of James Bridges, with stone and wood carvings by Thomas Paty and plasterwork by Thomas Stocking.

Whatever Tyndall did with the surrounding land was more than off-set by the huge building works started all around the Royal Fort in 1792. Tyndall had sold his house and park to a syndicate headed by T.G. Vaughan, who planned to build there a whole series of crescents and terraces. However, work had progressed no further than the foundations before the financial collapse of 1793 put an end to all construction.In 1798 the property reverted to Colonel Thomas Tyndall, who had succeeded on his father's death in 1794. Tyndall engaged Humphry Repton to re-design the park and gardens in 1799.

Repton wrote, ‘When I first visited the Fort I found it surrounded by vast chasms in the ground, and immense heaps of earth and broken rock'. He also found a further difficulty. There was a public right of way through the park that allowed people to walk right through the grounds of the house.

Repton was also concerned by the recently-constructed buildings in Park Street and Berkeley Square, which to his mind rather degraded to view. Nevertheless, he saw at once the potential of the site, and was struck with the possibilities it offered. He wrote that ‘few situations command so varied, so rich, and so extensive a view as the Fort'.

Repton devised a scheme to use all the rubble and earth lying around the house to raise up a large bank to the south of the house, thus excluding the public path from view and allowing the observer's eye to travel unobstructed to more distant views. This also prevented the public from seeing into the park around the house, restoring privacy and seclusion. Repton was so pleased with this that he used it as an example in his ‘Observations of the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening'.

The small area around Royal Fort House was carefully landscaped and planted. The rubble and earth was used to carefully shape the ground. This small area survives. The surrounding parkland was carefully planted to provide pastoral views. Repton drew up a Red Book for the Royal Fort in 1801, but not all of the suggestions were implemented, notably that to gothicise the mansion house.

Much has changed at the Royal Fort since Repton's time. All of the outlying areas of Tyndall's park were sold off and built over in the 1850s and 1860s. The Tyndall family lived in the Royal Fort House until 1916, when the site was acquired by the University of Bristol. Fortunately, a plan to build a huge L-shaped building to the south of the Royal Fort was rejected in the 1920s, but University buildings have encroached on the site from all sides. The view from the garden is now completely obscured by nearby buildings, and a perimeter screen is being planted to give seclusion and privacy to the remaining garden areas.

People associated with this site

Designer: Humphry Repton (born 21/04/1752 died 24/03/1818)

Features

rockery

Feature created: 1850 to 1899

The rockery is probably a late-19th century garden feature.

pond

Feature created: 1850 to 1899

The pond is probably a late-19th century garden feature.

planting

Feature created: 1976

This feature is the centenary garden. It is a small garden area created in 1976 to celebrate the centenary of the founding of Bristol University.

gatehouse

Feature created: 1644

This feature is the Civil War gatehouse. Although much altered and extended, this gatehouse with its small archway is the largest surviving fragment of the fortified military complex built here in 1644.

Designation status: The National Heritage List for England: Listed Building Designation Grade II