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Construction of the cathedral, once an Augustinian abbey, began in the 12th century; the central tower was added in 1466. The chapter house and gatehouse are good examples of late Norman architecture.

In 1539, the abbey was closed, and the incomplete nave was demolished. The building was turned into the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in 1542. In 1868, plans were drawn up to complete the nave to its medieval design. The architect, G. E. Street, found the original pillar bases, so the cathedral is much as it would have been when it was still the abbey church.

The eastern end of the cathedral, especially the choir, gives the structure a unique place in the development of British and European architecture. The nave, choir, and aisles are all of the same height, making a large hall. Bristol Cathedral is the major example of a "hall church" in Great Britain and one of the finest anywhere in the world.