Early 12th century England was a dangerous place. The civil war known as ‘the Anarchy’ was raging as the two grandchildren of William the Conqueror fought for the English throne.
The country was governed largely by its warrior nobility – Barons who may be loyal to either side, both (as it suited them) or neither. Bristol was England’s second city, and the peace there was kept by Robert Fitzhardinge, who held Bristol Castle against King Stephen. Descended from an ancient line of Saxon nobility, Fitzhardinge had made a fortune trading wine through the busy port of Bristol, and he used this money, as well as his talent with a sword, to support the claim of Stephen’s cousin Matilda. It was during this time that Fitzhardinge, a great patron of the city, founded an Augustinian Abbey, just outside the city walls, in 1140.
It eventually became clear that, despite marrying the powerful Duke of Anjou, Matilda would never wrest the crown from Stephen. The country had been devastated by war, famine and lawlessness. Peace was therefore established, on the condition that when the childless Stephen died on the throne, Matilda’s son would become King of England. Within a year, Stephen was dead, and the 21-year-old Henry of Anjou – close friend of Robert Fitzhardinge – became Henry II, first Plantagenet king of England.
Fitzhardinge had put his neck on the line for Henry’s claim, and it was time to reap the rewards. Henry made Fitzhardinge Baron of Berkeley, ensconcing him in Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, which Fitzhardinge rebuilt and which stands to this day as the seat of the Fitzhardinge-Berkeley family and the oldest inhabited fortress in the UK. From their home in Berkeley, the Fitzhardinges went on to become one of the most influential noble families in England and beyond, lending their names and patronage to Berkeley Square in London, and the University of California, Berkeley, to name only two.
Robert Fitzhardinge – the great patron and defender of the city of Bristol – was buried in the Abbey he founded and to which he retired as a Canon in his old age. The Abbey is now Bristol Cathedral, and his body lies there still, in an unknown spot, probably below the central tower (where the Choir used to stand). Several of his knightly descendants are buried in the Cathedral, and some striking stone effigies stand as testament to the legacy of their ancestor. When you next visit the Cathedral, keep an eye out for their coat of arms, which is dotted all over the building. Good luck trying to count all of them – we couldn’t. While his grave is lost somewhere beneath the marble, you can still come face-to-face with Robert, in a beautiful stained glass window in the Cathedral’s South Transept, where he is depicted beside his wife Eva and his life-long friend, Henry II.
The Fitzhardinge Consort honours Bristol Cathedral’s great patron and we take his name with us wherever we go.