Bristol Cathedral in an 1873 engraving, still incomplete.
Foundation and 12th century
Bristol Cathedral was founded as St Augustine's Abbey in 1140 by Robert Fitzharding, a wealthy local landowner and royal official who later became Lord Berkeley. As the name suggests, the monastic precinct housed Augustinian canons. The original abbey church, of which only fragments remain, was constructed between 1140 and 1148 in the Romanesque style, known in England as Norman. The Venerable Bede made reference to St Augustine of Canterbury visiting the site in 603ACE, and John Leland had recorded that it was a long-established religious shrine. 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 World War Two and the site built on by the Royal Hotel, but archaeological finds were deposited with Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. The dedication ceremony was held on 11 April 1148, and was conducted by the Bishops of Worcester, Exeter, Llandaff, and St Asaph.
Further stone buildings were erected on the site between 1148 and 1164. 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. T.H.B. Burrough, a local architectural historian, describes the former as "the finest Norman chapter house still standing today". 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. By 1170 enough of the new church building was complete for it to be dedicated by four bishops - Worcester, Exeter, Llandaff and St Asaph.
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. This building, which still stands, was to become known as the "Elder Lady Chapel". The architect, referred to in a letter as 'L', is thought to have been
Adam Lock, master mason of Wells Cathedral. The stonework of the eastern window of this chapel is by William the Geometer, of about 1280. 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 being given by Edward I.
Under Abbot Edward Knowle (1306–1332), a major rebuilding of the Abbey church began despite financial problems. Between 1298 and 1332 the eastern part of the abbey church was rebuilt in the English Decorated Gothic style. He also rebuilt the cloisters, the canons' dining room, the King's Hall and the King's Chamber. 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 monsatery 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. Abbot John Newland, (1481–1515), also known as 'Nailheart' due to his rebus of a heart pierced by three nails, 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).
The partly built nave was demolished and the remaining eastern part of the church closed until it reopened as a cathedral under the secular clergy. In an edict dated June 1542, Henry VIII and Thomas Cranmer raised the building to rank of Cathedral of a new Diocese of Bristol. The new diocese was created from parts of the Diocese of Gloucester and the Diocese of Bath and Wells; Bristol had been, before the Reformation, and the erection of Gloucester diocese, part of the Diocese of Worcester. Paul Bush, (died 1558) a former royal household chaplain, was created the first Bishop of Bristol. The new cathedral was dedicated to the Holy and Undivided Trinity.
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. The church itself was protected from the rioters by William Phillips, sub-sacrist, who barred their entry to the church at the cloister door.
Between the merger of the old Bristol diocese back into the Gloucester diocese on 5 October 1836 and the re-erection of the new independent Bristol diocese on 9 July 1897, 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 medieval misericords in the choir stalls. 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, clearing the houses which had been built, crowded onto the site of the former nave, including Minster House. In 1829 leases for these houses were refused by the Dean and Chapter because the houses had become 'very notoriously a receptacle for prostitutes'. The rebuilding of the nave was paid for by public subscription including benefactors such as Greville Smyth of Ashton Court, The Miles family of Kings Weston House, the Society of Merchant Venturers, Stuckey's Bank, William Gibbs of Tyntesfield, and many other Bristol citizens. The opening ceremony was on 23 October 1877. However, the west front with its twin towers, designed by John Loughborough Pearson, was only completed in 1888. 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 "Catholic" design. 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. 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.
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.
In 1994 the ceremony took place in Bristol Cathedral for the first 32 women to be ordained as Church of England priests.