Bristol Cathedral

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Bristol Cathedral

Cathedral Church of the
Holy and Undivided Trinity

Bristol, Gloucestershire

Status: cathedral
West front of Bristol Cathedral.jpg
The west front of Bristol Cathedral
Church of England
Diocese of Bristol
Location: 51°27’6"N, 2°36’3"W
Built 1220–1877
Norman, Gothic, Gothic Revival

The Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Bristol, usually known as Bristol Cathedral, is the Church of England cathedral for the Diocese of Bristol and it stands in that city.

The church was founded in 1140 and consecrated in 1148,[1] it was originally 'St Augustine's Abbey' but after the Dissolution of the Monasteries it became in 1542 the seat of the newly created Bishop of Bristol and the cathedral of the new Diocese of Bristol.

The cathedral is a Grade I listed building.[2]

The eastern end of the church includes fabric from the 12th century, with the Elder Lady Chapel which was added in the early 13th century. Much of the church was rebuilt in the Decorated Gothic style during the 14th century despite financial problems within the abbey. In the 15th century the transept and central tower were added. The nave was incomplete at the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 and was demolished. In the 19th century Gothic Revival a new nave was built by George Edmund Street partially using the original plans. The western twin towers, designed by John Loughborough Pearson, were completed in 1888.

Located on College Green, the cathedral has tall Gothic windows and pinnacled skyline. The eastern end is a hall church in which the aisles are the same height as the Choir and share the Lierne vaults. The late Norman chapter house, situated south of the transept, contains some of the first uses of pointed arches in Britain. In addition to the cathedral's architectural features, it contains several memorials and an historic organ. Little of the original stained glass remains with some being replaced in the Victorian era and further losses during the Bristol Blitz.


Bristol Cathedral in 1873, still incomplete

Foundation and 12th century

The church was founded in 1140 as a monastery of the Augustine Order, known as St Augustine's Abbey. The founder, Robert Fitzharding, was a wealthy local landowner and royal official who later became Lord Berkeley.[3][4] The original abbey church, of which only fragments remain, was constructed between 1140 and 1148 in the Norman Romanesque style. The Venerable Bede made reference to St Augustine of Canterbury visiting the site in AD 603, and John Leland had recorded that it was a long-established religious shrine.[5] William Worcester recorded in his Survey of Bristol that the original Augustinian abbey church was further to the east of the current site, though that was rebuilt as the church of St Augustine the Less. That site was bombed during the Second World War and the site built on by the Royal Hotel, but archaeological finds were deposited with Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.[5] The dedication ceremony was held on 11 April 1148, and was conducted by the Bishops of Worcester, Exeter, Llandaff, and St Asaph.[6]

Further stone buildings were erected on the site between 1148 and 1164.[7] Three examples of this phase survive, the chapterhouse and the abbey gatehouse, now the diocesan office, together with a second Romanesque gateway, which originally led into the abbot's quarters.[8] T.H.B. Burrough, a local architectural historian, describes the former as "the finest Norman chapter house still standing today".[9] In 1154 King Henry II greatly increased the endowment and wealth of the abbey as reward to Robert Fitzharding, for his support during The Anarchy which brought Henry II to the throne.[5] By 1170 enough of the new church building was complete for it to be dedicated.

13th century to dissolution

Under Abbot David (1216–1234) there was a new phase of building, notably the construction in around 1220 of a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, abutting the northern side of the choir.[10] This building, which still stands, was to become known as the "Elder Lady Chapel".[11] The architect, referred to in a letter as 'L', is thought to have been Adam Lock, master mason of Wells Cathedral.[12] The stonework of the eastern window of this chapel is by William the Geometer, of about 1280.[13] Abbot David argued with the convent and was deposed in 1234 to be replaced by William of Bradstone who purchased land from the mayor to build a quay and the Church of St Augustine the Less. The next abbot was William Longe, the Chamberlain of Keynsham, whose reign was found to have lacked discipline and had poor financial management. In 1280 he resigned and was replaced as abbot by Abbot Hugh who restored good order, with money given by Edward I.[6]

Under Abbot Edward Knowle (1306–1332), a major rebuilding of the Abbey church began despite financial problems.[6] Between 1298 and 1332 the eastern part of the abbey church was rebuilt in the Decorated Gothic style.[14] He also rebuilt the cloisters, the canons' dining room, the King's Hall and the King's Chamber.[5] The Black Death is likely to have affected the monastery and when William Coke became abbot in 1353 he obtained a papal bull from Pope Urban V to allow him ordain priests at a younger age to replace those who had died. Soon after the election of his successor, Henry Shellingford, in 1365 Edward III took control of the monastery and made The 4th Baron Berkeley its commissioner to resolve the financial problems. In the late 14th and early 15th centuries Abbots Cernay and Daubeney restored the fortunes of the order, partly by obtaining the perpetual vicarage of several local parishes. These difficulties meant that little building work had been undertaken for nearly 100 years. However, in the mid-15th century, the number of Canons increased and the transept and central tower were constructed.[6] Abbot John Newland, (1481–1515), also known as 'Nailheart' due to his rebus of a heart pierced by three nails,[5] began the rebuilding of the nave, but it was incomplete at the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. Newland also rebuilt the cloisters, the upper part of the Gatehouse, the canons' dormitory and dining room, and the Prior's Lodging (parts of which remained until 1884 as they were built into Minster House).[5]

The new cathedral

In 1539, the abbey was dissolved, as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The partly built nave was demolished and the remaining eastern part of the church closed.

In an edict dated June 1542, King Henry VIII and Thomas Cranmer raised the building to rank of cathedral, for the new Diocese of Bristol.[15] The eastern part of the church served as the cathedral church.

Paul Bush, (died 1558) a former royal household chaplain, was created the first Bishop of Bristol.[16] The new cathedral was dedicated to the Holy and Undivided Trinity.[17][18]

19th century

In the 1831 Bristol Riots, a mob broke into the Chapter House, destroying a lot of the early records of the Abbey and damaging the building.[5] The church itself was protected from the rioters by William Phillips, sub-sacrist, who barred their entry to the church at the cloister door.[19]

Between the merger of the old Bristol diocese back into the Gloucester diocese on 5 October 1836[20] and the re-erection of the new independent Bristol diocese on 9 July 1897,[21] Bristol Cathedral was a joint and equal cathedral of the Diocese of Gloucester and Bristol.

Giles Gilbert Scott was consulted in 1860 and suggested removing the screen dated 1542 to provide 'a nave of the grandest possible capacity'. The work at this time also removed some of the more vulgar mediæval misericords in the choir stalls.[3] With the 19th century's Gothic Revival signalling renewed interest in Britain's ancient architectural heritage, a new nave, in a similar style to the eastern end, based on original 15th-century designs, was added between 1868 and 1877 by George Edmund Street,[10][22] clearing the houses which had been built, crowded onto the site of the former nave, including Minster House.[3] In 1829 leases for these houses were refused by the Dean and Chapter because the houses had become 'very notoriously a receptacle for prostitutes'.[3] The rebuilding of the nave was paid for by public subscription. The west front with its twin towers, designed by John Loughborough Pearson,[23] was only completed in 1888.[24] The niches around the north porch originally held statues of St Gregory, St Ambrose, St Jerome and St Augustine, but their frivolous detail invoked letters of protest to their "Romish" design.[3] When the Dean, Gilbert Elliott (1800–1891) heard of the controversy, he employed a team of workmen without the knowledge of the architect or committee to remove the statues.[3] The next edition of the Bristol Times reported that 'a more rough and open exhibition of iconoclasm has not been seen in Bristol since the days of Oliver Cromwell.' The sculptor, James Redfern, was made the scapegoat by the architect and the church, he retreated from the project, fell ill, and died later that year. As a result of the Dean's actions, the committee resigned on mass and the completion of the works was taken over by the Dean and Chapter. The Dean's drop in popularity meant that raising funds was a harder and slower process and the nave had to be officially opened before the two west towers were built.[3]

Several of the bells in the crossing tower were cast in 1887 by John Taylor & Co. However, earlier bells include those from the 18th century by the Bilbie family and one by William III & Richard II Purdue made in 1658.[25][26]


Bristol Cathedral is a grade I listed building which shows a range of architectural styles and periods.[2] Tim Tatton-Brown writes of the 14th century eastern arm as "one of the most interesting and splendid structures in this country".[27]

Most of the mediæval stonework, is made from limestone taken from quarries around Dundry and Felton with Bath stone being used in other areas. The two-bay Elder Lady Chapel, which includes some Purbeck Marble, lies to the north of the five-bay aisled chancel or presbytery. The Eastern Lady Chapel has two bays, the sacristy one-bay and the Berkeley Chapel two bays. The exterior has deep buttresses with finials to weathered tops and Battlement|crenellated parapets with crocketed pinnacles below the Perpendicular Gothic crossing tower.[17]

The west front has two large flanking three-stage towers. On the rear outer corners of the towers are octagonal stair turrets with panels on the belfry stage. Between the towers is a deep entrance arch of six orders with decorative Purbeck Marble colonnettes and enriched mouldings to the arch. The tympanum of the arch contains an empty niche.[17]

Hall Church

The "lierne" vaulting of the choir and tower

The eastern end of Bristol Cathedral is highly unusual for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was conceived as a "hall church", meaning that the aisles are the same height as the choir. While a feature of German Gothic architecture, this is rare in Britain, and Bristol cathedral is the most significant example. In the 19th century, Street designed the nave along the same lines.[17] The effect of this elevation means that there are no clerestory windows to light the central space, as is usual in ritish Mediæval churches. The north and south aisles employ a unique manner where the vaults rest on tie beam style bridges supported by pointed arches.[28] All the internal light must come from the aisle windows which are accordingly very large.[29] In the choir, the very large window of the Lady chapel is made to fill the entire upper part of the wall, so that it bathes the vault in daylight, particularly in the morning.[30]

Because of the lack of a clerestory, the vault is comparatively low, being only about half the height of that at Westminster Abbey. The interior of the cathedral appears wide and spacious. Pevsner wrote of the early 14th-century choir of Bristol that "from the point of view of spatial imagination" it is not only superior to anything else in Britain or Europe but "proves incontrovertibly that English design surpasses that of all other countries" at that date.[31]

The choir has broad arches with two wave mouldings carried down the piers which support the ribs of the vaulting. These may have been designed by Thomas Witney or William Joy as they are similar to the work at Wells Cathedral and St Mary Redcliffe.[32] The choir is separated from the eastern Lady Chapel by a 14th-century reredos which was damaged in the Reformation and repaired in 1839 when the 17th-century altarpiece was removed. The Lady Chapel was brightly painted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries following existing fragments of colour. To the south east of the choir and Lady Chapel is the Berkeley Chapel and an adjoining antechapel or sacristy, which may have been added in the 14th century, possibly replacing an earlier structure.[33]


Street's design followed the form of the Gothic choir. On a plan or elevation it is not apparent that the work is of a different era, but Street designed an interior that respected the delicate proportions of the ribs and mouldings of the earlier work, but did not imitate their patterns. Street's nave is vaulted with a conservative vault with tierceron ribs, rising at the same pitch as the choir.[34]

Decoration, monuments and burials

The south transept contains the important late Saxon stone panel of the Harrowing of Hell, dating from before the Norman Conquest and may have been carved around 1050. Following a fire in 1831 it was found being used as a coffin lid under the Chapter House floor.[10][35][36]

The reredos behind the Lord's Table is by John Loughborough Pearson of 1899. The three rows of choir stalls are mostly from the late 19th century with traceried ends in the Flamboyant style. There are also 28 misericords dating from 1515–1526, installed by Robert Elyot, Abbot of St. Augustine's, with carvings largely based on Aesop's Fables.[37] In the Berkeley chapel is a very rare candelabrum of 1450 from the Temple church in Bristol.[38][39]



The organ

The organ was originally built in 1685 by Renatus Harris at a cost of £500.[40] This has been removed and repaired many times. However, some of the original work, including the case and pipes, is incorporated into the present instrument, which was built by J. W. Walkers & Sons in 1907, to be found above the stalls on the north side of the choir. It was further restored in 1989.[41][42]

Prior to the building of the main organ, the cathedral had a chair organ, which was built by Robert Taunton in 1662,[43] and before that one built by Thomas Dallam in 1630.[44]


The choir consists has twenty-eight choristers, six lay clerks and four choral scholars. The choristers include fourteen boys and fourteen girls, who are educated at Bristol Cathedral Choir School, the first government-funded choir academy in England. Choral evensong is sung daily during term.[45]

The Bristol Cathedral Concert Choir was formed c. 1963 and comprises sixty singers who present large-scale works such as Bach's St Matthew's Passion.[45] The Bristol Cathedral Consort is a voluntary choir drawn from young people of the city. They sing Evensong twice a month.[45] Bristol Cathedral Chamber Choir was reformed in 2001 and is directed by assistant organist Paul Walton.[45]

In popular culture

Bristol Cathedral was used as a location in the 1978 film The Medusa Touch under the guise of a fictional London place of worship called Minster Cathedral.[46]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Bristol Cathedral)


  1. Smith 1970, p. 6.
  2. 2.0 2.1 National Heritage List England no. 1202129: Cathedral Church of St Augustine, including Chapter House and cloisters (Historic England)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 J H Bettey, Bristol Cathedral the Rebuilding of the Nave, University of Bristol (Bristol branch of the Historical Association), 1993
  4. Walker 2001, pp. 12-18.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 J H Bettey, St Augustine's Abbey Bristol, University of Bristol (Bristol branch of the Historical Association), 1996
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Page, William, ed. "Houses of Augustinian canons: The abbey of St Augustine, Bristol". Victoria County History. Retrieved 15 March 2015. 
  7. Harrison 1984, p. 2.
  8. Bettey 1996, pp. 1, 5, 7.
  9. Burrough 1970, p. 2.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 National Monuments Record: No. 1007295 – Bristol Cathedral
  11. Ditchfield, P. H. (1902). The Cathedrals of Great Britain. J.M. Dent. p. 138. 
  12. "Elder Lady Chapel". Bristol Cathedral. Retrieved 9 March 2015. 
  13. Hendrix 2012, p. 132.
  14. Godwin 1863, pp. 38-63.
  15. "Bristol: Introduction Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1541–1857: Volume 8, Bristol, Gloucester, Oxford and Peterborough Dioceses". Institute of Historical Research. Retrieved 10 March 2015. 
  16. Nicholls & Taylor "Bristol Past & Present" 3vols. 1881
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 National Heritage List England no. 1202129: Cathedral Church of St Augustine, including Chapter House and cloisters (Historic England)
  18. Bettey 1996, pp. 7, 11–15, 21, 24–5.
  19. "Photo of plaque commemorating William Phillips' actions". Retrieved 18 February 2016. 
  20. London Gazette: no. 19426, pp. 1734–1738, 7 October 1836. Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  21. London Gazette: no. 26871, p. 3787, 9 July 1897. Retrieved 5 September 2011.
  22. "George Edmund Street". Royal Institute of British Architects. Retrieved 12 March 2015. 
  23. "Brief History". Bristol Cathedral. Retrieved 10 March 2015. 
  24. Bettey & Harris 1993.
  25. Moore, Rice & Hucker 1995.
  26. "Bristol Cathedral Church of the Holy & Undivided Trinity". Dove's Guide for Church Bell Ringers. Retrieved 20 March 2015. 
  27. Tatton-Brown & Cook 2002.
  28. David Pepin, Discovering Cathedrals, Osprey Publishing, 2004
  29. Clifton-Taylor 1967, pp. 191-192.
  30. Masse 1901, p. 40.
  31. Pevsner 1958, pp. 371-386.
  32. Foyle 2004, pp. 52-54.
  33. Foyle 2004, pp. 53-56.
  34. Foyle 2004, pp. 56-57.
  35. "South Transept". Bristol Cathedral. Retrieved 15 March 2015. 
  36. Smith, M. Q. (1976). "The Harrowing of Hell Relief in Bristol Cathedral". Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 94: 101–106. 
  37. Perry, Mary Phillips (1921). "The Stall Work of Bristol Cathedral". Archaeological Journal 78 (1): 233–250. doi:10.1080/00665983.1921.10853369. 
  38. Burrough 1970, p. 11.
  39. "Holy Cross (Temple Church)". Church Crawler. Archived from the original on 17 May 2005. Retrieved 15 March 2015. 
  40. Crotchet, Dotted (November 1907). "Bristol Cathedral". Musical Times (The Musical Times, Vol. 48, No. 777) 48 (777): 705–715. doi:10.2307/904456. 
  41. "Organ". Bristol Cathedral. Archived from the original on 19 January 2007. Retrieved 28 June 2007. 
  42. "Bristol Cathedral". Bristol Link. Retrieved 28 June 2007. 
  43. "Letters to the editor – July 1981". British Institute of Organ Studies (BIOS). Retrieved 28 June 2007. 
  44. Lehmberg 1996, p. 4.
  45. 45.0 45.1 45.2 45.3 Bristol Cathedral Choirs, retrieved 1 March 2013
  46. The Medusa Touch (1978) - locations on the Internet Movie Database
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