3. St Augustine's Abbey

By far the wealthiest of Bristol's monastic houses was St Augustine's abbey, which was later to become Bristol cathedral. It was founded in 1140 by Robert Fitzharding, a major landowner in Bristol, who later became Lord Berkeley. The Berkeley family were to be generous benefactors to St Augustine's abbey and many members of the family were buried there.

St Augustine's Abbey
Bristol Record Office

The abbey was founded for Augustinian canons, and was endowed with numerous estates and churches in Bristol, Somerset and along the Severn valley in Gloucestershire. These estates were listed and described in detail in the abbey's Cartulary which was compiled in 1270. (David Walker, ed., Cartulary of St Augustine's Abbey, Bristol', Gloucestershire Record Series, 10, 1998). The history of St Augustine's is summarised in Joseph Bettey, St Augustine's Abbey, Bristol, Bristol Historical Association, 1996. The abbey was the most important ecclesiastical institution in Bristol, especially since the town did not have its own bishop or diocese, and did not become a city until 1542. Throughout the Middle Ages most of Bristol was part of the large diocese of Worcester which extended down the Severn valley. The suburbs of Temple, St Thomas, Redcliffe and Bedminster which were situated across the river Avon were part of the diocese of Bath and Wells. The town was remote from episcopal supervision, and so the abbot of St Augustine's was the most important ecclesiastical figure. An account of St Augustine's wealth and economy at the end of the Middle Ages is given in G. Beachcroft and A. Sabin eds., Two Compotus Rolls of St Augustine's Abbey, Bristol', Bristol Record Society, IX, 1938. From this it is clear that at the end of the Middle Ages, just over a dozen Augustinian canons enjoyed an annual income of about £700.

The architecture of St Augustine's shows the wealth of the abbey. This was derived from the rents which came from its widespread estates. One of these estates survives almost completely unaltered at Ashleworth, on the banks of the Severn, north of Gloucester. During the fifteenth century successive abbots of St Augustine's provided a new manor house and manorial court house, a large new barn to store the produce of the abbey lands and a rebuilt parish church for the abbey's tenants. All this survives.

Tomb of Abbot John Newland, Bristol Cathedral
Bristol Record Office

During the fifteenth century much building work was also done on the abbey itself, including the building of the central tower. A great deal of this building work, both at the abbey itself and on the estates, was done under the leadership of Abbot John Newland (abbot 1481-1515), who was one of the greatest of the medieval abbots. He was known as Nailheart' from his rebus' or symbol of a bleeding heart pierced by three nails, and this emblem can be seen in various parts of the abbey. By careful management of the abbey's resources, he was also able to finance the building of several churches on the abbey's estates, as well as five new barns at Berkeley and the fine barn which survives at Ashleworth. At the abbey, he began the task of replacing the twelfth-century nave of the church, a project which was not completed until the nineteenth century. Newland also compiled a Roll or chronicle of the history of the abbey which provides many valuable details about its foundation, development and the personalities involved. (I.H. Jeayes, Abbot Newland's Roll', Transactions of Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, XIX, 1889-90, 117-30).