At some uncertain date soon after this a commune was established in Bristol on the French model, Robert FitzNichol, the first mayor of Bristol, taking the oath in 1200. The mayor was chosen, not, like the reeve whom he had displaced, by the overlord, but by the merchants of Bristol who were members of the merchant gild. The first documentary evidence of the existence of the merchant gild appears in 1242. In addition, there were many craft gilds (later at least twenty-six were known to exist), the most important being the gilds of the weavers, tuckers and fullers, and the Gild of the Kalendars of Bristol, which devoted itself to religious, educational and social work. The mayor of Bristol was helped by two assistants, who were called provosts until 1267, and from 1267 to 1311 were known as stewards, and after that date as bailiffs. Before this time many religious houses had been founded. Earl Robert of Gloucester established the Benedictine priory of St James; there were Dominican and Franciscan priories, a monastery of Carmelites, and an abbey of St Augustine founded by Robert FitzHardinge.
In the reign of John, Bristol began the struggle to absorb the neighbouring manor of Bedminster, the eastern half of which was held by the Templars by gift of Earl Robert of Gloucester, and the western half, known as Redcliffe, was sold by the same earl to Robert FitzHardinge, afterwards Lord Berkeley. The Templars acquiesced without much difficulty, but the wealthy owners of the manor of Redcliffe, who had their own manorial courts, market, fair and quay, resisted the union for nearly one hundred years. In 1247 a new course was cut for the river Frome which vastly improved the harbour, and in the same year a stone bridge was built over the Avon, bringing Temple and Redcliffe into closer touch with the city. The charter granted by Henry III. in 1256 was important. It gave the burgesses the right to choose coroners, and as they already farmed the geld payable to the king, Bristol must have been practically independent of the king. The growing exclusiveness of the merchant gild led to the great insurrection of 1312. The oligarchical party was supported by the Berkeleys, but the opposition continued their rebellion until 1313, when the town was besieged and taken by the royal forces.
During the reign of Edward III. cloth manufacture developed in Bristol. Thomas Blanket set up looms in 1337, employing many foreign workmen, and in 1353 Bristol was made one of the Staple towns, the office of mayor of the staple being held by the mayor of the town.
The charter of 1373 extended the boundaries of the town to include Redcliffe (thus settling the long-standing dispute) and the waters of the Avon and Severn up to the Steep and Flat Holmes; and made Bristol a county in itself, independent of the county courts, with an elected sheriff, and a council of forty to be chosen by the mayor and sheriff. The town was divided into five wards, each represented by an alderman, the aldermen alone being eligible for the mayoralty. This charter (confirmed in 1377 and 1488) was followed by the period of Bristol's greatest prosperity, the era of William Canyng, of the foundation of the Society of Merchant Venturers, and of the voyages of John and Sebastian Cabot. William Canyng (1399-1474) was five times mayor and twice represented Bristol in parliament; he carried on a huge cloth trade with the Baltic and rebuilt St Mary Redcliffe. At the same time cloth was exported by Bristol merchants to France, Spain and the Levant. The records of the Society of Merchant Venturers began in 1467, and the society increased in influence so rapidly that in 1500 it directed all the foreign trade of the city and had a lease of the port dues.
It was incorporated in 1552, and received other charters in 1638 and 1662. Henry VII. granted Bristol a charter in 1499 (confirmed in 1510) which removed the theoretically popular basis of the corporation by the provision that the aldermen were to be elected by the mayor and council. At the dissolution of the monasteries the diocese of Bristol was founded, which included the counties of Bristol and Dorset. The voyages of discovery in which Bristol had played a conspicuous part led to a further trade development. In the 16th century Bristol traded with Spain, the Canaries and the Spanish colonies in America, shared in the attempt to colonize Newfoundland, and began the trade in African slaves which flourished during the 17th century. Bristol took a great share in the Civil War and was three times besieged. Charles II. granted a formal charter of incorporation in 1664, the governing body being the mayor, 12 aldermen, 30 common councilmen, 2 sheriffs, 2 coroners, a town clerk, clerk of the peace and 39 minor officials, the governing body itself filling up all vacancies in its number.
In the 18th century the cloth trade declined owing to the competition of Ireland and to the general migration of manufactures to the northern coalfields, but the prosperity of the city was maintained by the introduction of manufactures of iron, brass, tin and copper, and by the flourishing West Indian trade, sugar being taken in exchange for African slaves.
The hot wells became fashionable in the reign of Anne (who granted a charter in 1710), and a little later Bristol was the centre of the Methodist revival of Whitefield and Wesley. The city was small, densely populated and dirty, with dark, narrow streets, and the mob gained an unenviable notoriety for violence in the riots of 1708, 1753, 1767 and 1831. At the beginning of the 19th century it was obvious that the prosperity of Bristol was diminishing, comparatively if not actually, owing to (1) the rise of Liverpool, which had more natural facilities as a port than Bristol could offer, (2) the abolition of the slave trade, which ruined the West Indian sugar trade, and (3) the extortionate rates levied by the Bristol Dock Company, incorporated in 1803. These rates made competition with Liverpool and London impossible, while other tolls were levied by the Merchant Venturers and the corporation. The decline was checked by the efforts of the Bristol chamber of commerce (founded in 1823) and by the Municipal Reform Act of 1835. The new corporation, consisting of 48 councillors and 16 aldermen who elected the mayor, being themselves chosen by the burgesses of each ward, bought the docks in 1848 and reduced the fees.
In 1877-1880 the docks at the mouth of the river at Avonmouth and Portishead were made, and these were bought by the corporation in 1884. A revival of trade, rapid increase of population and enlargement of the boundaries of the city followed. The chief magistrate became a lord mayor in 1899.
See J. Corry, History of Bristol (Bristol, 1816); J. Wallaway, Antiquities (1834); J. Evans, Chronological History of Bristol (1824); Bristol vol. of Brit. Archaeol. Inst.; J.F. Nicholl and J. Taylor, Bristol Past and Present (Bristol and London, 1882); W. Hunt, Bristol, in "Historic Towns" series (London, 1887); J. Latimer, Annals of Bristol (various periods); G.E. Weare, Collectanea relating to the Bristol Friars (Bristol, 1893); Samuel Seyer, History of Bristol and Bristol Charters (1812); The Little Red Book of Bristol (1900); The Maior's Kalendar (Camden Soc., 1872); Victoria County History, Gloucester.