Ricart's View of Bristol

The greatest treasure among the city archives is the 15th-century chronicle by Ricart illustrated with the earliest town plan in the country.

Robert Ricart's bird's-eye view of Bristol.

The earliest plan of an English town is this one of Bristol by Robert Ricart. It shows the inner city, packed with houses and churches and protected by massive walls and gates. The four main streets: Wine Street, High Street, Corn Street and Broad Street - form a St Andrew's Cross.

Robert Ricart broke new ground with his plan of Bristol. Any kind of medieval depiction of a town is rare. Matthew Paris's 13th-century history of England included little images of London and a few other English towns, just indicating one or two major buildings. In the 15th century we begin to see far more realistic illustrations of places, but none resembles a map except Ricart's bird's-eye view of Bristol.

It may not look much like a modern map, but Ricart shows the city layout. He even orientates his plan in the modern style with north at the top. At the centre is the medieval High Cross. In many a town, such a cross presided over the market. In medieval towns without a market place, stalls lined the wider streets on market days. In Bristol the four main streets spread out from the High Cross, each leading to one of the main city gates.

At top right Ricart shows the Porta Nova (the New Gate) at the end of Wine Street. At bottom right is St Nicholas's Gate, by St Nicholas's Church at the bottom of High Street. The church is still there, though the gate is long gone. Bottom left appears St Leonard's Gate at the end of Corn Street. Top left is St John's Gate at the top of Broad Street.

St John's is the only one of Bristol's city gates to survive. The rest have been swept away as impediments to traffic. Looking at St John's Gate today, it is easy to see that Ricart has not attempted an accurate portrayal. St John's Church is built into the gate; its nave runs over the gateway. We can imagine similar arrangements at St Nicholas's Gate and St Leonard's Gate. Yet Ricart shows each one as a simple archway, flanked by towers. You certainly can't miss the fact that these are city gates. Presumably that was the aim. It is the layout of medieval Bristol that leaps out at the viewer.

Ricart's painting of the mayor-making ceremony.

Ricart's illustration of the mayor induction ceremony. The focal figures of the scene are painted larger than the rest to draw the eye. In the centre of the row of red-robed worthies, the outgoing mayor holds the bible on which the incoming mayor places his hand, while the Town Clerk (dressed in brown) reads the oath that he must repeat.

Who was Robert Ricart? He was appointed common clerk of the town of Bristol on 29 September 1478. That was Michaelmas, the day on which each new mayor of Bristol was sworn in by his predecessor in the Guildhall. Ricart himself illustrated and described the ceremony. It took place every year from the time of Edward III down to the passing of the Municipal Reform Act of 1835. Did Ricart depict himself in the role of Town Clerk?

Ricart was appointed the day that William Spencer took over as mayor. It was Spencer who instructed Ricart to compile a register of information useful to himself and future mayors. The result was The Maire of Bristowe is Kalendar. Ricart began with a history of England. Its chief interest is the way in which he wove in the story of Bristol, making use of the city's own records. He left some blank pages at the end to record current events as they happened. The last entries in his handwriting were made in 1506. (Later officials maintained the chronicle for centuries.)

Next Ricart listed Bristol's mayors, sheriffs, and bailiffs from 1217. Then he provided a guide to official procedures, which he wisely praised as the laudable customs of this worshipful town. There followed a note of city charters. At the very end he copied out London's city ordinances, which would be helpful for comparison. The whole compilation was invaluable to city officers. The fact that they continued to use it for so long is proof enough of that. It is fascinating now to historians.

The original manuscript is held by Bristol Record Office, but to avoid wear and tear, it is available on microfilm, and postcards can be bought of Ricart's map and picture of the mayor-making ceremony. A transcript was published in Victorian times: Lucy Toulmin Smith (ed.), The Maire of Bristowe is Kalendar by Robert Ricart, Town Clerk of Bristol 18 Edward IV, Camden New Series Vol. 5 (1872).