Looking out from the edge of the world: Bristol, Gascony and Iberia in the later Middle Ages

Bristol's first 'Golden Age' took place in the Later Middle Ages, when it was England’s second port and its second biggest provincial town. Much of that growth was based on overseas trade, particularly with south-western Europe. These links are remembered to this day, through Bristol's twinning with Bordeaux and Porto.

In this talk Peter Fleming examines the roots of this relationship, and discusses how and why the regions of south-west France, northern Spain and Andalucia, and Portugal, formed one trading network with Bristol. This commercial network was subject to the vagaries of international diplomacy. From the English crown’s acquisition of Gascony in 1154 until its loss in 1453, good relations with neighbouring Castile, a power definitely in the ascendant during this period, were of utmost importance to the security of this English possession.

So, the English were drawn inexorably into the politics of Iberia, and it is against this background that the old alliance with Portugal should be understood. Foreign relations were but one dimension to Bristol’s links with these southern regions, and consideration is also given to the conduct of the business of importing French, Spanish and Portuguese wine, dyestuffs, iron and dried fruit, among other southern products, and the export of wool and cloth. This is seen very much in human terms: what were the experiences of the merchants and their agents, and the sailors, in this complex and sometimes perilous trade? An important and fascinating aspect of this subject is the establishment of an English colony in and around Seville at the end of the fifteenth century, a colony some of whose members dealt in human beings – slaves – as well as inanimate commodities. Finally, we shall be considering what lasting influence these Iberian links may have had on Bristol, with particular reference to the architecture of St Mary Redcliffe.

Peter Fleming is Principal Lecturer in History at the University of the West of England, Bristol

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