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Half a cathedral is better than none

12 March 2012

A masterly architect was at work in Bristol, Nicholas Orme finds

Medieval glory in Bristol Cathedral: St Augustine’s Abbey, Bristol, south-aisle vault looking east. From the book reviewed below CHRISTOPHER WILSON

Medieval glory in Bristol Cathedral: St Augustine’s Abbey, Bristol, south-aisle vault looking east. From the book reviewed below CHRISTOPHER WILSON

The Medieval Art, Architecture and History of Bristol Cathedral: An enigma explored
John Cannon and Beth Williamson, editors

The Boydell Press £55
Church Times Bookshop £49.50

ENGLAND does not regard Bristol Cathedral as one of its greatest churches. There is no soaring spire, magnificent dome, or incredible lantern. It is not even a proper cathedral, but a medieval abbey adapted for the purpose by Henry VIII in his parsimonious Reformation. Or, rather, half an abbey; for the nave did not survive its change of status. When the dioceses of Bristol and Gloucester were briefly united in Victoria’s reign, it was said that half a cathed­ral deserved only half a bishop. But, by 1900, there was a bishop again and a very good nave by Street.

In one sense, then, the title of this book may mislead you, because, apart from two good chapters on the Reformation period, it is chiefly a study of a medieval abbey: St Augustine’s, of the Augustinian Order. Even this was a house of the second rank, not the wealthiest of its family. Placed as it was outside the kingdom’s third largest city, it could not dominate local life in the way that monasteries did in Bath, St Albans, or Gloucester.

We have Henry to thank, however, that the abbey was preserved when otherwise it would have been closed, plundered for stone, and now be occupied by one of Bristol’s nondescript tower blocks — because St Augustine’s was, and in its eastern half still is, an aston­ishingly original and compelling assembly of architecture.

The cream of this is the choir, built as a hall-church with a magni­ficent Lady chapel, aisles as high as the choir, and buttress bridges across the aisles, supporting little vaults. The effects are unexpected and dramatic, leading Pevsner to call the architect “the Bristol master”, and to accord him and his work outstanding places in the history of European architecture.

The 11 contributors to this volume have produced a valuable work in well-researched detail that greatly advances our knowledge. They analyse the cathedral’s site, buildings (including the wonderful Norman chapter house and gate­ways), lay patrons, and monastic community. They reconsider Pevsner’s assessment, consider the criticisms levelled against it, and conclude in his favour. The Bristol master did exist, and did fashion one of England’s most intriguing and beautiful churches, a church that has many wonderful things to show you.

Now, go and see it.

Professor Nicholas Orme has written widely on English religious and cultural history.

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