Most medieval cathedrals grow younger from west to east. The western portion, almost invariably the nave, was built first. Fancy add-ons—choirs, presbyteries and lady chapels—were tacked onto the east as energy, war-free interludes, and funds permitted.
Bristol is the reverse—the nave is Victorian, the transepts are Norman, and the east end is medieval. Oh – and the chapter house is Norman, too, from around 1160. What is going on here?
It gets even odder. Originally an Augustinian Abbey, it was founded in 1140 by a prominent local citizen, Robert Fitzharding, later the first Lord Berkeley of Berkeley Castle fame. In many ways, it was the Berkeley family’s private monastery. So let’s start there.
By 1164, several more buildings were added, including the abbey gatehouse above (now the diocesan office) and the magnificent Norman chapter house below.
The glass is modern. If you look carefully, you can see the names of the deans engraved on the windows on either side of the stained glass centre panel.
The ribs supporting the vault are covered with a zig-zag pattern.
A profusion of decorated columns and blind arches fill the wall above the door.
One side of the cloisters remains; the glass in the windows is both medieval and Victorian.
Looking from the windows of the cloisters back towards the vestibule into the Chapter House, you can see the round Norman arches.
Let’s orient ourselves on the map below. We’ve visited the chapter house and the cloisters at the bottom of the floorplan below. Next, let’s go through the south transept and work our way east (right) to the eastern Lady Chapel.
As we pause at the south transept, look up to the vaulted ceiling.
And then let’s turn and look down the south aisle.
Wait – what is that beam running across the top of the pointed arch? The vaults above seem to be standing on tiptoe, perched on the beams. This is the subtle but profoundly important feature of Bristol Cathedral. A Hall Church, the aisles are the same height as the choir and nave, with no clerestory windows to light the central space, as is usually the case in Medieval English churches. Instead, all the internal light comes from the substantial aisle windows; it’s a very rare design in England, though often featured in German Gothic churches.
Walking down the south aisle towards the east Lady Chapel is a small space, about four metres by two, which was used as a sacristy (where the clergy prepare for Mass). No longer a sacristy, this highly decorated piece of real estate is now known as The Berkeley Vestibule because the opening beneath the centre ogee arch leads to the Berkeley Chapel Crammed into this tiny space beneath the three arches is an oven for baking communion bread, a wash basin, and a large hole whose purpose is unknown.
The elaborate skeleton roof structure is purely decorative; it doesn’t hold anything up! There is nothing above the ceiling, which is why it’s identified as a roof, not a vault. Why was so much decorative effort put into a primarily utilitarian space? Another mystery of Bristol Cathedral.
Lining the walls in the south aisle are starburst-shaped tomb recesses filled with medieval effigies— tombs of the successive fourteenth-century lords Berkeley.
Here we are in the east Lady Chapel, added in 1298; It’s one of two lady chapels at Bristol Cathedral (yet another unusual feature). The other one is the Elder Lady Chapel, added in 1220. The east Lady Chapel is the same height as the presbytery; the sides are lined with a full complement of star-burst tombs, with which the Cathedral is stuffed.
The east window was largely replaced and restored in the mid-19th century, but it does contain some medieval glass.
The walls are lined with tombs, including Bishop John Newland, who died in 1515.
And Bishop William Hunt, who died in 1481.
Entering the choir, we now look down toward the western end of the cathedral, through the crossing and towards the nave, constructed in the 19th century, resides.
The choir, built in 1298, is at the heart of the medieval church. Abbot Knowle rebuilt the original Norman choir in the 14th century,
The baroque organ casing, which houses the organ built by Renatus Harris in 1685, is one of the finest in the country.
The current choir current stalls date from the 19th century and incorporate some of the 16th-century carvings, including the original misericords (more on those later).
Bristol’s misericords are kept firmly down and out of sight; they reputedly contain vulgarity and nudity, oh my! The milder secular themes of “reverse world” animals, bear-baiting and wrestling are echoed in the seat cushions, and kneelers, which I suspect are positioned to distract us and discourage lifting of the cushions to peek at the misericords beneath.
The original nave fell into ruins by the 15th century; rebuilding had begun in the 1530s but had not been completed at the onset of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. All might have been lost had Henry VIII not begun to create a series of ‘New Foundation’ Cathedrals, including Bristol in 1542, and for the next three centuries, the newly formed Bristol Cathedral had no nave at all.
A Gothic Revival nave was constructed by G E Street in the 1860s, incorporating the same “hall church” design as the medieval east end of the Cathedral. The elaborate reredos, below, designed by J.L. Pearson in 1907, stands behind the high altar.
To get the complete picture of how this all ties together, let’s now walk into the new nave and look back. Incredibly, you can see from one end of the entire Cathedral to the other; the large stained glass window in the East Lady Chapel peeks above the screen leading into the choir and the glistening white carved reredos behind the high altar. How wide and spacious the area is.
The vault is not as high as many other cathedrals – about half as tall as Westminster Abbey, for example.
In the aisles are more cross-tie beams—note how large the windows are.
The screen, with its three ogee arches, was also created in 1905. It marks the entrance to the choir, just east of the crossing, where the transepts meet and from which the tower rises above. The dark tiles with the white cross in the centre mark the spot!
Its elaborate carving is consistent with the Gothic Revival when the new Nave was built.
The windows are relatively recent, by Bristolian Arnold Wathen Robinson, installed to replace glass damaged during the heavy bombing of Bristol in 1940 and 1941. They include depictions of local civil defences during WWII, including St John’s Ambulance,
the Wardens Services,
the Nursing Services,
the British Red Cross,
the Fire Services,
and the Police Services.
Looking down the Nave to the western doors, we can see the elaborate stone carved surround and the rose window above it.
The colour of the stained glass is evident when you get closer.
Let’s walk around the north aisle now and work our way toward the north t ransept.
On the west (left) wall is the tomb of Sir John Newton, slave ship captain turned abolitionist.
You can’t go far in Bristol without running into a reminder of slave trading, as Bristol was a major port through which many of the slaves bound for the Caribbean were shipped. This ended in 1808, when the UK outlawed the Atlantic Slave Trade, making it illegal for British ships to transport slaves.
The ceiling in the North Transept.
From there, we enter the Elder Lady Chapel, so called because it was built in about 1220, before the east Lady Chapel (around 1298).
The chapel contains many artworks, including the medieval tomb of Lady Margaret Mortimer and Lord Maurice Berkeley.
Charming, isn’t he?
Leaving the Elder Lady Chapel, we can exit through the west doors. J. L. Pearson added the French Rayonnant-style west front with twin bell towers, completed in 1888.
And that’s it for Bristol Cathedral! I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour.