Those of you who follow my blogs are probably thinking “Oh no, not another cathedral”, and even though it doesn’t quite match the grandeur of some of England’s other great religious houses, it’s the one that made my home town a city, and there’s no way I’m not including it in my historical chronology of Bristol.
On the plus side, it means that this won’t be a long post, and it’s just possible that I might be able to reveal a fact or two that you weren’t aware of, including perhaps, the fact that you didn’t even realise Bristol had a cathedral at all.
When it was founded in 1140 it wasn’t even a cathedral, but a monastery dedicated to St. Augustine of Canterbury, the missionary who brought Christianity to England. One of his companions was a man called St. Jordan who, legend has it, was buried in a chapel on what is now College Green. There has never been any evidence to substantiate this claim, but experts believe that there was a church here during Saxon times thanks to the discovery of a stone carving beneath the Chapter House in 1831. It now hangs on a wall in the South Transept.
If any of you read my post Where Bristol Castle Once Stood Pt 2 you will already know that King Henry II spent much of his childhood in Bristol under the protection of the 1st Earl of Gloucester during the civil war known as The Anarchy. Henry never forgot the support he received at Bristol, and one of the beneficiaries of his gratitude was Robert Fitzharding, a powerful local merchant who was given the title of Lord Berkeley – and it was Robert Fitzharding who founded St. Augustine’s Monastery. The Chapter House and Abbot’s Gatehouse still survive from Fitzharding’s monastery, but unfortunately, his tomb, hasn’t.
The canons continued to make improvements, but that all came to a grinding halt when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries; but it wasn’t all gloom and doom because in 1542 King Henry appointed a Bishop to administer the newly formed diocese of Bristol, and turned the former abbey into the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity.
At the time of the dissolution, the Nave was in the process of being rebuilt, but was then demolished altogether to make way for houses. This meant that for the next 300 years the building was basically half a church with the congregation crammed into the East End and Transepts.
The problem wasn’t rectified until the mid-19th century when the houses were cleared and a new Nave and West Front built. This all explains why the church has two distinct parts to it – the Medieval East End and the Victorian West End.
To the untrained eye (like mine) it’s not easy to see the join, but now that I’ve had a closer look, it all starts to make a bit more sense. Entry into the cathedral is through the West Door under the Twin Bell Towers, and although not completed until 1888, the West Front certainly doesn’t look out of place with the rest of the church – and neither does the Nave, or at least not as far as I’m concerned. That’s probably because the architect, George Edmund Street, based it on the original plans. That said, the Nave doesn’t offer up much in the way of anything historically interesting, except perhaps, the odd medieval tomb or two that were re-positioned here.
At the end of the Nave, we start to approach the older part of the cathedral, and although the Choir Screen is Victorian, the Tower is 15th century as are the vaulted Transepts, which it has to be said, have been altered a fair old bit.
Beyond the Choir Screen we come to the East End, and the oldest part of the church. The original Romanesque monastery would have been quite austere, and the canons were involved in an ongoing plan to brighten things up a bit, especially around the Presbytery and High Altar.
The Ribbed Vaults originate from around 1298, but the Choir Stalls, with their elaborately carved misericords, were installed between 1515 and 1525. The Reredos is a Victorian addition by John Loughborough Pearson, who was also responsible for designing the Choir Screen – and Truro Cathedral.
Unlike most churches, the side aisles are the same height as the Nave, a style that developed in Germany during the Gothic period. A religious building that used this design became known as a Hall Church, and Bristol Cathedral is probably the best example in England.
The North Choir Aisle is overlooked by a rare 17th century enamelled glass window and includes a variety of interesting tombs and memorials of local notable people. Look out for the bust of Robert Southey, the well-known poet, who was born in Wine Street.
Following the aisle around the back of the altar leads to the magnificent Eastern Lady Chapel, which was constructed when the East End was built around 1298. There are several features here that demand closer inspection: An elaborately carved stone parapet sits above a much-restored reredos, and although the rich colours may look a bit garish, they were applied in the 1930s to show how the chapel would have looked back in the 14th century when churches were often a lot more colourful.
Paul Bush, the first Bishop of Bristol is buried here, as are three 15th century abbots who did much of the monastery’s rebuilding and embellishment.
Moving on round to the South Choir Aisle we come to the Berkeley Chapel, which could well have been intended for use as the family mausoleum. Before we get too engrossed in the Berkeley family history though, don’t forget to look up at the South Choir ceiling, where the ambient light shows off the vaulting of the Hall Church to great effect.
The Berkeley family are inextricably linked with Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, a place I shall be writing about in due course; but for now, I think it’s sufficient just to discuss the relevance of the connection.
From the time Robert Fitzharding died in 1170, until the death of Maurice the Valiant in 1368, all but one of the nine Berkeley barons were buried in the abbey, but only three of the tombs have survived. Two of them – Thomas the Wise (d 1321) and Maurice the Magnanimous (d 1326) are in the starburst recesses of the South Choir Aisle wall.
Robert Fitzharding was not only responsible for founding St. Augustine’s Monastery, but also for building Berkeley Castle. Some of you will already know that the castle was the location for the murder of King Edward II in 1327, and some say, in the most horrific way. I’m not going into any more of that here, but there’s not much doubt that the Berkeley family were at least involved in the king’s well-being – or lack of it – whilst he was being ‘looked after’ in the castle after his abdication.
By taking the steps from the South Transept down into the East Cloister you’ll find a doorway that leads into the Chapter House.
Here you can see what the original Romanesque monastery would have looked like with its intricately carved stonework. The room was where members of the abbey held daily readings, and is still used for cathedral community events today, but I do wish they wouldn’t choose to hold them when I’ve come to take a look around. The one photograph I was able to take doesn’t do it justice, but such is life!
According to Britain Magazine there are 42 cathedrals in England, and looking around the internet for England’s Top 10, Bristol never figured in any of them. I can’t say I’m surprised because the country has so many wonderful examples, but that doesn’t mean to say that it’s not worth a visit. Apart from the fact that there are still some interesting things to see, it’s also slap bang in the city centre and, unlike some cathedrals, it doesn’t cost a bean to go in, so why wouldn’t you not want to come in and see another integral part of Bristol’s history?
My next post about Bristol will feature College Green, an area that used to belong to the cathedral, but is now a popular public open space. I hope you’ll join me for yet another look at the city that made me what I am. Thank you for visiting.