BRISTOL: Introduction

Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1541-1857: Volume 8, Bristol, Gloucester, Oxford and Peterborough Dioceses. Originally published by Institute of Historical Research, London, 1996.

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'BRISTOL: Introduction', in Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1541-1857: Volume 8, Bristol, Gloucester, Oxford and Peterborough Dioceses, (London, 1996) pp. 3-6. British History Online [accessed 11 April 2024]


The four dioceses in this volume were all established by Henry VIII within months of each other in 1541 and 1542 as part of his reorganization of dioceses in the wake of the dissolution of the monasteries. A statute of 1539 declared that 'it is most expedient and necesarie that moe Bisshopriches Collegiat and Cathedrall Churches shalbe establisshed, in stede of these ... Religious Houses, within the foundacion whereof this other titles ... shalbe established', and it authorized the king to set them up. (fn. 1) As many as twenty-two places were suggested as centres of new dioceses, (fn. 2) but apart from the short-lived diocese of Westminster, these four were the only entirely new ones in the province of Canterbury. They were taken in the main out of the large medieval dioceses of Lincoln, Worcester and Salisbury. They had several similarities. Each consisted of a bishop, dean, archdeacon and six canons. Initially, the Crown presented to the deanery and prebends in each. (fn. 3) Each was established in a former abbey and in most of them, there was some continuity of personnel from the abbey to the new cathedral. Neither the cathedrals nor the dioceses themselves were particularly well endowed, and only Gloucester and Oxford formed adequate centres of diocesan administration.

The Augustinian monastery of St. Augustine, Bristol, with its abbot and eleven canons, surrendered to the king's commissioners on 9 December 1539. Jewels and silver plate were reserved to the king's use, and other ornaments and goods were sold. (fn. 4) The custody of the abbey church and its houses and buildings was committed to the king's farmer, and they were not to be defaced 'untill the kinges magesties pleasure be therein further knowen'. (fn. 5) On 3 Sept. 1541, the diocese of Gloucester was formed out of the medieval diocese of Worcester, including the larger part of the town of Bristol. The three Bristol parishes south of the River Avon remained in the diocese of Bath and Wells. However, during the next nine months, it appears that the Crown had second thoughts. On 4 June 1542, the diocese of Bristol was established, consisting of the city and county of Bristol (taken from Gloucester and Bath and Wells dioceses), together with the county of Dorset (from Salisbury diocese) and the parish of Leigh or Abbot's Leigh, Somerset (from Bath and Wells), which had formerly been a manor of St. Augustine's. (fn. 6) Although Bristol was now united as a single diocese, one part was separated by forty miles from the other main part, the county of Dorset, with the diocese of Bath and Wells coming in between. Rational administrative efficiency does not seem to have been the motive in the diocese of Bristol's creation, and the king does not appear to have originally included Bristol in his scheme for new dioceses. (fn. 7) It therefore seems plausible - though hard evidence is lacking - that it came about as the result of local pressure from Bristol's governing class, concerned about unified diocesan administration for the town and out of rivalry with Gloucester. Bristol, after all, was the second port of the realm after London, and the third most populous town, numbering some 10,000 inhabitants compared with Gloucester's 4,000. (fn. 8) It was the only town of its size not to boast a bishopric. (fn. 9) The endowment of the new bishopric consisted of some of the lands in Bristol which had belonged to St. Augustine's, and other former possessions of St. Oswald's priory in Gloucester, Beaulieu abbey and Christchurch priory in Hampshire, and Edington priory in Wiltshire. The abbey church of St. Augustine became the cathedral of the new diocese, with a new dedication to the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Unusually for the new cathedrals, neither the bishop nor any of the canons was from the previous abbey. Bishop Paul Bush was the former prior of Edington, and Dean William Snow that of Bradenstoke, Wiltshire. None of the canons was a former religious. The diocese had one archdeacon, that of Dorset, while the parishes of the city and deanery of Bristol were under the direct administration of the bishop of Bristol and his officials.

After only sixteen years, on the death of the second bishop of Bristol, the see was left vacant for three years and then granted to the bishop of Gloucester to hold in commendam. The next bishop was called 'bishop of Gloucester and Bristol'. After twenty-seven years of union, a separate bishop of Bristol was appointed in 1589, although from 1593 to 1603 the see was left vacant. Despite the vacancies, during 1541-1857 Bristol had forty-three bishops, the rapid turnover indicating the poverty of the see. For purposes of comparison, among the richer bishoprics, Winchester had twenty-five bishops, London twenty-nine and Salisbury thirty-one in this period.

The six prebends, all in the king's gift, were initially referred to by their numbers. This was still the practice in 1628 (fn. 10) and possibly later. By the eighteenth century, new canons were installed into the lowest prebend and everyone moved up one place. In order to demonstrate the sequence, the prebends are here given under the original numbers.

No further changes were made in the constitution of the diocese and cathedral until 1836, by which time new dioceses were needed in view of the enormous population growth in industrial northern England. As it was considered undesirable that the number of bishops in the house of lords be increased from thirty, the ecclesiastical commissioners decided to restore the archdeaconry of Dorset to the diocese of Salisbury and to annex the remaining part of Bristol diocese to the diocese of Gloucester. This was henceforth to be called 'the diocese of Gloucester and Bristol'. It was augmented by the deanery of the Forest (formerly in the archdeaconry of Hereford), the two deaneries of Cricklade and Malmesbury in north Wiltshire (formerly in the archdeaconry of Wiltshire in Salisbury diocese) and the parish of Bedminster (formerly in the archdeaconry of Bath in Bath and Wells diocese). The archdeaconry of Bristol was created, consisting of the deanery of Bristol with Cricklade and Malmesbury deaneries and Bedminster. Bishop Joseph Allen of Bristol had been translated to Ely in August 1836, so Bishop James Henry Monk of Gloucester became the first bishop of Gloucester and Bristol. Warrants for the election of subsequent bishops were to be sent alternately to the dean and chapter of Bristol and that of Gloucester. (fn. 11)

Although this was the situation in 1857, at the terminal date for this volume, the relationship of Gloucester and Bristol was not yet finally resolved. The suppression of an independent diocese of Bristol had been resented from the start. A strong local movement, supported by the city's two members of parliament and the mayor, campaigned for its restoration and raised money by subscription for its endowment. In 1884, the Bristol Bishopric Act was passed, making provision for a new see of Bristol when an endowment providing an income of not less than £3,550 could be secured. Speaking in support of the Bill in the house of commons, Mr. W.E. Gladstone referred to the earlier 'ill-omened union' as having been a 'very great disparagement to Bristol' which possessed 'five times the population' of Gloucester. The diocese of Bristol was eventually reconstituted in 1897, consisting of the deaneries of Bristol and Stapleton, of North Malmesbury, South Malmesbury and Cricklade (with a few small exceptions) and of Bitton in south Gloucestershire. (fn. 12)

John Le Neve, whose Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae was published in 1716, produced substantially complete lists for Bristol up to 1714. He had clearly made a thorough search of the registers of the archbishops of Canterbury for the confirmation and consecration of bishops up to 1660. Printed works cited include Francis Godwin's De Praesulibus Angliae Commentarius (1616), Thomas Fuller's Worthies of England (1662), Anthony À Wood's Historia et Antiquitates Universitatis Oxoniensis (1674) and Athenae Oxonienses (1691-2), Thomas Rymer's Foedera (1704-13) and John Walker's Sufferings of the Clergy (1714). For the bishops after 1685 he seems to have relied on personal information. For the deans and canons, he acknowledges the 'care and pains' of Mr. Thomas Forde, a minor canon, (fn. 13) who supplied him with referenced details from the chapter books. Unfortunately these, though still in existence in 1752, (fn. 14) have since disappeared. In this volume, where alternative sources of information on cathedral clergy are lacking, references to the chapter books are given within square brackets to indicate that they cannot be verified.

Thomas Duffus Hardy's revision of Le Neve (1854) brought the lists down to 1851 and added further details from the public records (patent rolls, bishops' certificates, Home Office church book and Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills) and from later archbishops' registers. Nothing suggests that he looked at the records in Bristol after 1715, and the earlier Bristol references are repeated verbatim from Le Neve.

The records of the see and chapter of Bristol have suffered several disasters. Le Neve refers to 'the havock that was made of Records in the Civil War' (fn. 15). A fire at Blandford Forum in 1731 destroyed many of the archdeaconry of Dorset records in the bishop's registry there. In October 1831, during the Bristol Riots (occasioned by the house of lords' rejection of the Reform Bill), the mob burnt down the bishop's palace next to the cathedral with many of the records kept in it and then broke into the Chapter House where the cathedral library was kept, removed the records and held a bonfire of many of them. (fn. 16) As a result of these catastrophes, and probably some earlier neglect, episcopal act books and registers of institutions survive only from 1762 although there are two tabulated institution books for the period 1714-61. (fn. 17) Much of the information on which the present lists are based was drawn from the good series of annual chapter accounts and from loose deeds.


  • 1. Stat. 31 Hen. VIII c. 9.
  • 2. H. Cole, King Henry VIII's Scheme of Bishopricks (1838), pp. 73-4.
  • 3. Although at Peterborough the right of presentation to the prebends was granted by Queen Mary I to the bishop, and this remained in the bishop's gift.
  • 4. Gloucester Public Library, Hockaday Abstracts, 428.
  • 5. P.R.O., E 315/495 p. 48.
  • 6. L. & P. XVII no. 443 (9).
  • 7. Brit. Libr., Cotton Cleop. E. iv fo. 305. The fact that a suffragan bishop to the bishop of Worcester was given the title of Bristol in 1534 also suggests that at that date there were no plans to make Bristol a diocese.
  • 8. W.G. Hoskins, 'English provincial towns in the early 16th century' in The Early Modern Town, ed. P. Clark (1976), p. 93.
  • 9. M.C. Skeeters, 'The creation of the diocese of Bristol', Trans. Bristol & Glos. Archaeol. Soc., ciii (1985), 175-8.
  • 10. Institution of William Norris to 6th preb., 12 Nov. 1627 (P.R.O., E 331 Bristol/3).
  • 11. Stat. 6 & 7 Will. IV c. 77; Orders in Council 5 Oct. 1836, Lond. Gaz. nos. 19426 (pp. 1734-8), 19429 (pp. 1807-8) and 19 July 1837, Lond. Gaz. no. 19533 (pp. 2174-6).
  • 12. Speech by the prime minister, W.E. Gladstone, giving the history of the bishopric's suppression and the arguments for its restoration (Hansard, Parliamentary Debates, ccxcii, cols. 358-64, 9 Aug. 1884); Bishoprics Act 1878, Stat. 41 & 42 Vict. c. 68 (s. 4); Bishopric of Bristol Act 1884, Stat. 47 & 48 Vict. c. 66; Bishopric of Bristol Amendment Act 1894, Stat. 57 & 58 Vict. c. 21; Bishopric of Bristol Amendment Act 1896, Stat. 59 & 60 Vict. c. 29; Order in Council 7 July 1897, Lond. Gaz. no. 26871 (p. 3787).
  • 13. DC/A/8/1 f. 8.
  • 14. Extracts from them were copied into DC/A/8/1 in 1752.
  • 15. Le Neve, p. 54.
  • 16. However some documents were later recovered. The chapter minutes of 26 June 1832 record the payment of £5 to one James Wood 'for his exertion in securing and returning to the dean and chapter upwards of 130 deeds belonging to them and taken away from their muniment room during the riots in October last' (DC/A/8/5 f/ 13).
  • 17. Bristol Record Office, Ep./A/1/1-6; Ep./A/5/1-2.