The early years of Bristol Cathedral Choir School are shrouded in mystery. We know that Robert fitzHarding donated money to found a house of Augustinian canons in 1142, and this would have included provision for a small school, to be run by the monks. The site chosen for the building of the monastery is an odd one – on a steep slope dropping towards, what was then, a marsh. It is assumed that the site must have been an important one, probably previously linked to the Augustinian Order. This leads to the theory that there was a monastery already established on the site, and re-founded by fitzHarding. Consequently the School may have been originally founded by St Augustine himself, or one of his followers, during his visit to Britain around 600 AD, which would make our School the second oldest in Britain, and the oldest in Bristol by a good 500 years.
When Henry VIII closed the monasteries the School was allowed to continue, on the same site, and, presumably, with the same monks acting as teachers. The land was sold off, and the monastic church, together with the surrounding area with its buildings, was given to the City of Bristol as a cathedral. The School was re-founded as a charity, with a specific responsibility to educate the choristers. The School continued to exist in the old monastic buildings.
During the 17th century the School was visited by Archbishop Laud, as part of his famous ‘Visitations’. A few years later, during the English Civil War, parliamentarian musketeers were stationed in the cathedral buildings to fire at the Royalists as they came down what is now Park Street. By the 18th century the nature of the School was changing, as the School began to expand to take in more students for a fee. The 19th century saw the destruction of all the monastic records, including all those of the School, in the Bristol Riots of 1831. The rioters entered the Chapter House and burned the extensive library stored there. They were stopped from entering the cathedral and causing more damage by a brave verger who talked them out of causing any more damage.
The First World War left a deep impact on the School – the School war memorial is still displayed in the School library, having been moved from its original site above the fireplace in Pate’s Hall (now the café).
The Second World War saw the School escape disaster – a German ‘plane flying over Bristol (taking photographs to assess the damage caused by a raid the night before) unloaded its bombs before heading home. One high-explosive bomb landed in the Lower Quad and demolished a building (later replaced by the Science Block). There had been a PE class in the Quad moments before, but the boys had persuaded the teacher to let them go early, and they were all safely in the Tuck Shop. Apparently the only casualty was the Headmaster, who was slightly wounded, and rather shocked.
The School continues to use buildings built as part of the monastery, known today as Abbey House (the Porter’s Lodge), the Deanery (much of it is 17th century, but there are Norman features at its base) and the Head’s Block (the Frater), and, of course, the two quadrangles, Upper and Lower.
The fee-paying Bristol Cathedral School closed in the summer of 2008. Its replacement Academy, Bristol Cathedral Choir School, opened in September 2008, with its official opening by HRH The Princess Royal taking place in February 2010. This period was characterised by a major investment in new facilities on the west side of College Square: first to be completed was the Rectory building, followed by the Parsonage and then the Cresswell Centre, which was opened by Lord Adonis in September 2011.
- The Bristol Cathedral Choir School Prayer (Written by Cecil Rich, Headmaster 1946-1970): Oh God our Father, bless we pray this our school. We thank thee for the noble purpose of our Royal Founder King Henry VIII in establishing it to be a nursery of true Religion and Education. Grant O Lord that we may rightly use this time of our preparation to develop to the full the gifts thou hast entrusted to us of spirit, mind and body. May we learn here to live together in fellowship for the common good not thinking of ourselves alone That we may be ready to serve thee with all our talents in Church and State to thine honour and glory. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen