Bristol (BRISTOLIA, BRISTOLIENSIS), Ancient Diocese of.—This English diocese, which takes its very origin from measures directed against the Church, has a very brief Catholic history, for it only had one bishop acknowledged by the Holy See. It was one of the six bishoprics which Henry VIII, acting as head of the Church, attempted to found by Act of Parliament out of the spoils of the suppressed monasteries. This was in 1542, the bishoprics in question being those of Bristol, Oxford, Westminster, Gloucester, Peterborough, and Chester. The fact that the city was then one of the leading towns in England and the chief seaport, explains why it was selected as one of the new sees. Like the others, it possessed an important religious house, the buildings of which might serve the new purposes. As it was, the new diocese nearly lost its cathedral, for the abbey church of the Augustinian Canons, which had been plundered at the time of the suppression of that house in 1539, was already in process of demolition, when the king’s order came arresting the devastation. This house of Augustinians had been founded four hundred years before its dissolution by one Robert Fitzharding, who began to build “the abbeye at Bristowe, that of Saint Austin is” in 1133. The abbey church, destined to serve hereafter as a cathedral, was of different ‘dates: the old Norman nave built by Fitzharding seems to have stood till the suppression, but the chancel, which still exists, was early fourteenth century, and the transepts late fifteenth. The building as a whole was well worthy to serve as a cathedral. Yet at first Bristol does not seem to have been thought of as a bishopric, for it is not included in the list of projected sees now among the Cottonian MSS. in the British Museum.
It has been suggested that its ultimate selection for this honor was due to Cranmer, who visited Bristol shortly before his election as Archbishop of Canterbury, and busied himself in ecclesiastical affairs there. The first bishop to be appointed when the king’s charter of 1542 founded the new see, was Paul Bush, formerly master of the Bonshommes at Edyngton in Wiltshire, who, it is needless to say, neither sought nor obtained recognition by the pope. Himself an Augustinian and a man of some repute both as scholar and poet, he held fast to many of the old doctrines, and opposed Cranmer with regard to transubstantiation and Masses for the dead. Yet he followed the new opinions so far as the marriage of the clergy was concerned, and took as a wife one Edith Ashley. This fact caused him to be proceeded against as a married cleric in Queen Mary’s reign. In 1554 a commission passed sentence of deprivation against him, which he anticipated by a voluntary resignation. This was the opportunity for placing the irregularly constituted diocese on a proper canonical footing, and Pope Paul IV empowered Cardinal Pole to refound the See of Bristol. The first and, as it proved, the only Catholic bishop was John Holyman, a Benedictine monk of great reputation for learning and sanctity, who had been the friend and subject of the martyred Abbot of Reading, Blessed Hugh Cook.
As bishop, Dr. Holyman gave general satisfaction, and, though he took part in the trial of Hooper, and served on a commission to try Ridley and Latimer, he took no active part in the proceedings on the score of heresy. He died in the summer or autumn of 1558, and was thus spared the troublous times that began with the accession of Elizabeth in the following November. He was succeeded in the bishopric by the Anglican, Dr. Richard Cheney (1562-79), who, though a schismatic, was yet suspected of Catholic leanings, and was the early friend of Blessed Edmund Campion. But the history of Bristol as a Catholic see ends with the death of Bishop Holyman. The diocese was formed by taking the county and archdeaconry of Dorset from Salisbury, and several parishes from the Dioceses of Gloucester and Worcester, with three churches in Bristol, which had belonged to Bath and Wells. The arms of the see were sable, three ducal crowns in pale or. The dedication was changed at the dissolution from St. Augustine to the Holy Trinity.