Many of England's largest and most elaborate parish churches were originally part of Catholic monasteries, converted to Anglican institutions after the 1539 Dissolution, but St Mary Redcliffe is an exception, owing its great size and imposing, Perpendicular Gothic architecture to a series of wealthy benefactors in the 13th and 14th centuries. The church is recognised as one of the finest in the country, cathedral-like in scale and design, and it has been relatively little modified since medieval times.
For much of its life the building was surrounded by the narrow streets of the Redcliffe district, just south of Bristol city centre, lined by closely spaced houses, but most were cleared during the last century, leaving the church rather incongruously sited, now right beside two dual carriageways. There is a proposal to reroute both roads and replace the former sections with lawns and walkways, but this seems unlikely to succeed. Because of the busy, modern surroundings the church is perhaps a little less imposing than it was before, and much of the masonry is rather dark, stained by environmental pollution, but the interior is still beautiful and authentic.
Redcliffe village developed on the inside of a broad, 270 degree bend along the tidal River Avon, and was named for the red sandstone cliffs that border part of the western channel. All of the bend is now part of the floating harbour, the river having been re-routed in 1809 through a constructed channel to the south. Although a church had existed in the middle of the district since Saxon times, on the highest part of the land, the current building was started in the 12th century. Most though dates from between 1290 and 1370, a time when many of the Bristol merchants and manufacturers were becoming very wealthy, in part because of increasing overseas trade. Chief among the early benefactors was William Canynges, MP and mayor of Bristol, and it was his grandson, also William, who oversaw the final stages, early in the 15th century, including addition of the stained glass in the windows. The church had only been complete for a few years when a lightning storm caused the top of the spire to collapse (in 1446), and a replacement was not in place until 1872, however William was able to repair the other damage, caused by falling masonry, and there have been no other substantial changes since. One other significant event was the Civil War, as fighting in the vicinity caused loss of many of the windows and damage to the interior, this latter put right sometime after the Restoration, partly funded by Queen Anne.
St Mary church has the standard cruciform layout, with several unusual features; extra wide transepts (with three bays instead of one), a two-stage porch, and an asymmetrically placed tower, at the northwest corner. The tower was added shortly after the rest of the building, early in the 13th century, and is notable for its great height (292 feet) - the third tallest church spire in the UK, and the tallest structure in Bristol. The tower, and all the exterior, is heavenly buttressed, and liberally decorated with pinnacles. All is constructed from Dundry stone, a buff-coloured limestone from quarries in north Somerset. The main entrance to the church is through the north porch, the outer section of which was added in the mid 14th century; it is hexagonal in plan and has an especially ornate exterior, adorned with statuary and fine window tracery. The outer enclosure links to the Early English-style inner, rectangular porch from around 1190, which has two side doors leading to stairways, and the main doorway, opening into the west end of the nave.
The ceilings of the nave, chancel, aisles and transepts all retain the original medieval vaulting, employing a variety of geometric designs, with ribs painted gold and red, and over a thousand bosses at the intersections. The nave and chancel are equal in height and width, and when viewed from the west end seem to merge, giving the impression of a single space. The lady chapel forms the easternmost section of the church, and there is another, smaller chapel (St John's, or the American chapel) off the north choir aisle. Most of the windows contain Victorian stained-glass though some of the original medieval panes survive, especially in the upper level windows, as these more readily escaped the Civil War damage. Along the aisles and in the transepts are numerous monuments to local people including both William Canynges. The later William has two memorials, a coloured canopy tomb and an effigy tomb, the latter originally created for Westbury Priory (where William served as dean), and transferred to St Mary after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, in 1544. Another notable monument, in the south aisle, is to William Penn (died 1670), a renowned naval officer.