History & Heritage

Brief History

From the Twelfth Century this has been a place of daily prayer, and an extraordinary building, created for the glory of god.

Bristol Cathedral is one of England's great medieval churches. It originated as an Augustinian Abbey, founded c. 1140 by prominent local citizen, Robert Fitzharding, who became first Lord Berkeley.  The transepts of the church date from this period, but its most vivid remains can be seen in the Chapter House and Abbey Gatehouse.  The Chapter House is a stunning Romanesque gem dating from c. 1160, one of the most important buildings of its era in the country, with stone walls decorated with a series of intricate, patterned, carvings.  It is still used for important community events and can be hired out for corporate entertaining and candlelit dinners - see more.  The exquisite Elder Lady Chapel was added to the church in c.1220 and includes some beautiful features - watch out for the carvings of beasts playing at being people.

The main glory of the Cathedral is its east end, described by the famous architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as 'superior to anything else built in England and indeed in Europe at the same time'. This is one of the finest examples in the world of a medieval 'hall church', with the vaulted ceilings in the nave, choir, and aisles all at the same height.   This creates a lofty and light space with extraordinary vaults that seem to stand on tiptoe on little bridges; amazing 'starburst' recesses line the walls beneath, and some contain the tombs of the Berkeley family. For more information about the Berkeley Family, past and present, click here

In the 1530s the medieval nave was being rebuilt, but it was never finished because Henry VIII dissolved the abbey in 1539.  The buildings might have been lost at this point but Henry began to create a series of 'New Foundation' Cathedrals, and Bristol was included in 1542 - possibly due to successful lobbying from the citizens of the most important trading city after London. The church, like other cathedrals created at this time, was then rededicated, in this case to the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Other surviving features include the baroque organ casing, which houses the organ built by Renatus Harris in 1685.

For the next three hundred years the Cathedral functioned without a nave, but in 1868 noted architect, G.E. Street, created a fine replacement in a Gothic Revival design.  The work was completed by J. L. Pearson who added the French Rayonnant-style west front with twin bell towers, and a magnificent series of furnishings which included a stone screen at the entrance to the choir, a reredos (or screen behind the high altar), and the pulpit.  These were done in a grand and distinctive style in keeping with the original medieval features.  Twentieth century enrichments include the organ, one of the finest in the country (sustantially dating to 1907), windows from the 1940s and 50s by Arnold Robinson, some commemorating the roles people played in war time, and the abstract window in the south choir aisle on the theme of the Trinity, designed by Keith New and installed in 1965.

For a more detailed summary of the Cathedral's history, art and architecture, written by Jon Cannon (Architectural Historian), click here

The Cathedral's archives are held at the Bristol Archives office and can be viewed by the public.To visit, or for more information click here