Like most similar buildings in the UK, Bristol Cathedral has been expanded and modified on several occasions since its foundation in medieval times, both before and after the Reformation. Also in common with other such places, the site was initially occupied by a monastery, dedicated to St Augustine, which shortly after the 1539 Dissolution was re-opened as a cathedral for the newly created Diocese of Bristol. At this time the nave was in the process of being rebuilt, but the structure was never completed and was soon removed, the space later taken by assorted smaller buildings; not until the late 1800s was a new nave constructed, and yet despite the large difference in age between this and the original sections, from the 12th to 15th centuries, the building as a whole is consistent in design, the majority in the Decorated Gothic style, and its architectural elements are as impressive as any other cathedral in the country.
Bristol Cathedral is located a short distance southwest of the old city centre, on an elevated site overlooking the harbour and the River Avon, adjacent to College Green, the council house, the central library and Bristol Cathedral Choir School, which incorporates parts of the subsidiary monastic buildings. Other structures from this time to survive intact are the gatehouse, chapter house and part of the cloisters.
The cathedral is open all day, every day. Admission is free and there is no pressure to give donations, though they are of course appreciated. The nearest parking area is along St George's Road, two minutes walk away.
A church has existed at this prominent site since before the Norman conquest (as shown by the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon religious carving underneath the chapter house, in 1831), though St Augustine's Abbey dates from around 1140, when it was founded by local lord Robert Fitzharding, ancestor of the Berkeley family, who became the wealthiest landowners in this part of the country (resident at Berkeley Castle). A Romanesque church was constructed by 1148, soon followed by the gatehouse and chapter house, both of which survive essentially unaltered. The church was further expanded later in the 12th century after patronage by Henry II, as a reward for support by Robert Fitzharding during a period of national unrest, and again during the first half of the next century, the major surviving structure from this time being the elder lady chapel, which adjoins the north aisle of the choir. Not much changed over the next hundred years, until a rebuilding project begun under Abbott Knowle (died 1332). The chancel and transepts were reconfigured, using the Decorated Gothic style, and significant changes were made to the cloisters and several other monastic buildings. Again another century passed, before the central tower was added and work commenced on the new nave, a task which proved difficult and expensive, and this part of the church was still not complete by the time of the 1539 Dissolution. After the partly-built nave was demolished, and the abbey church reopened as a cathedral, there were no further major alterations until 1860, when the decision was made to build a new nave, using the original 15th century plans, and this was complete by 1888, the last element being the west front with its intricately carved doorway.
The most notable design feature of Bristol Cathedral is that the aisles are the same height as the central portion - both the 14th century choir and the Victorian nave. This layout is known as a hall church, and is most unusual in the UK, though more common in Germany and other European countries. As a result there is no clerestory above the nave, and all illumination is from the aisle windows, which are correspondingly larger than usual. The cathedral appears rather wider than others, since the aisle and nave seem to merge, to give an impression of a single space. The nave has five bays and its west end adjoins two square towers at the corners, forming part of the west front, which is centred on a rose window, another unusual element. Entry to the nave is through a square porch on the north side. All these sections of the cathedral date from the period 1860 to 1888, the only more recent additions being the windows of the north aisle, after the originals were destroyed during the Second World War.
Chancel, Transepts and Lady Chapel
The nave leads to the crossing, beneath the central tower and between the two transepts; that to the south is rather small, its size constrained by the 13th century chapter house beyond, while the north transept is larger, and the walls are lined with dozens of plaques commemorating local people of eminence. The north transept links to the elder lady chapel, a very elegant structure of four bays beneath a vaulted ceiling, the ribs supported by slender columns of blue lias. Contained within is the tomb of Maurice de Berkeley (died 1368) and mother, plus assorted medieval carvings and artworks. Away from this chapel, the eastern half of the cathedral is dominated by the choir, set beneath a particularly impressive ceiling, supported by an unusual arrangement of vaults - it lacks a central, longitudinal rib, supported instead using transverse ribs with lierne connectors. The reredos behind the high altar is medieval though greatly altered during a Victorian restoration. This separates the choir from the (eastern) lady chapel, of which the most impressive feature is the huge window at the far end, containing medieval stained glass. Within the lady chapel walls are several star-shaped niches holding tombs of medieval abbots; a similar niche occurs in the wall of the south choir aisle, separating this from the Berkeley chapel. The chapel was built for the Berkeley family in the 14th century, and is entered via a small antechamber, originally a sacristy.