The history of Salisbury Cathedral goes back well before the first foundation stone was laid in 1220. To understand the history of the cathedral you have to travel north from the city centre a distance of several miles, to Old Sarum. Here, shortly after the Conquest, the Norman conquerors of England built a castle within the protective earthen banks of an Iron Age enclosure. In 1075, Bishop Osmund built a cathedral on low ground beneath the castle motte. This would have seemed a good spot to build, for the castle would offer the monks of Old Sarum protection in those turbulent times.
However, the monks and the castle garrison were not happy stable mates; over the following century and a half, the monks of Old Sarum and the garrison of the castle clashed repeatedly. Finally, in 1220 the Bishop of Salisbury, Richard Poore, determined that he would build a new cathedral, far from the influence of the castle at Old Sarum. A fanciful legend tells that the Bishop stood on the castle mound and shot an arrow high into the sky, vowing to build his church where the arrow landed.
The first foundation stone was laid by Bishop Poore in 1220. The cloisters were begun in 1240, and the lovely Chapter House in 1263. In 1265 a free standing bell tower was added. This bell tower is long gone, the victim of remodeling carried out in the late 18th century by architect James Wyatt.
Salisbury Cathedral was built between 1220 and 1258, in a style we now call Early English Gothic (or just 'Early English' for short). This style emphasized height and light, and compared to the bulkier, heavier buildings of the 11th and 12th century, were quite revolutionary. Salisbury Cathedral is unique in England. Most grand churches evolved slowly over centuries, resulting in a finished structure that spans a multitude of architectural styles. Some cathedrals work as a finished whole, but some have the feel of a portrait painted by a variety of artists in different media and in different styles. Uniquely, Salisbury was built nearly to completion within a single generation. As a result, the final structure presents a unity of vision that is very satisfying and evocative of a single era of English architecture, and is probably the finest example of Early English in the country.
Salisbury Cathedral makes exceptional use of Purbeck marble. Now Purbeck marble is not marble, nor in this case, does it come from the Isle of Purbeck. It is crystalline limestone, and it was quarried in Corfe Castle, Dorset. No matter, the dark, slender columns create here a quite fabulous sense of space and height. The Purbeck marble is used primarily in the column shafts of the nave and aisles, and in the vault ribs.
Salisbury is blessed with an intriguing variety of medieval tombs. Though not so overwhelmed with monuments as are some churches, there are some real gems. Most of the older tombs are lined up between the pillars on dividing the nave from the aisles. Here is the tomb of William Longespee (sometimes called Longpre), the first person known to be buried in the Cathedral. Longespee was the half brother of King John, and the illegitimate son of Henry II. It was Longespee who brought the Magna Carta to Salisbury. On a curious note, when Longespee's tomb was opened centuries after his death, a dead rat was found in his skull, and the rat's corpse contained traces of arsenic. Make of that what you will, but it does seem to suggest that Sir William may have met a rather unusual end.
Carrying on up the south aisle, cross the south transept and you come to one of the glories of Salisbury Cathedral; the Mompesson tomb. Here lie the beautifully painted effigies of Sir Richard Mompesson and his wife. Mompesson was the owner of Mompesson House, a lovely Georgian townhouse in the Close that was founded in the 14th century. The house is now owned by the National Trust. As truly marvelous as the Mompesson tomb is, it pales in sheer opulence beside the tomb of Sir Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, which stands at the very east end of the south aisle. The tomb stretches to a great height, and seems all marble and gilt. Sir Edward married Katherine, sister of Lady Jane Grey, and their effigies lie side by side beneath a fantastically carved canopy. Because Katherine had royal connections, her effigy is shown slightly elevated, as if she has just decided to sit up. This slight elevation is supposed to indicate her higher social standing than her husband, who was, after all, only an Earl.
Between the Seymour tomb and the Trinity Chapel lies the very plain memorial to Richard Poore, the bishop who moved the cathedral from Old Sarum. One more tomb deserves note; near the easternmost end of the north aisle is the chantry chapel of Edmund Audley, Bishop from 1502-1524. The chapel is very small, and can admit no more than a few visitors at a time in any comfort, but those who climb the few steps to enter in, are rewarded with a wonderful sight. The chapel ceiling is a riotous delight of Gothic painted vaulting. The colours are resplendent, and the overall effect is quite wonderful.
These artifacts are fascinating, but the very bulk of the exhibition cabinets tend to fill up the Chapter House and with any number of other visitors bent on viewing the displays the chamber can seem quite cramped. Around the walls of the Chapter House is a lovely medieval frieze. It is worthwhile bringing a binoculars,to study the beautifully carved corbel heads as well.
The Cloisters at Salisbury surround the largest garth, or green space, in Britain, measuring 80 acres in size. The cloister architecture is deceptively clean, almost spare, with beautifully restrained Gothic vaulting. Visitors are allowed to walk into the garth, and enjoy the views up to the glorious spire above.
I've mentioned the Close earlier. In the 17th century it must have been a riotous place, with taverns and alehouses occupying the buildings formerly inhabited by medieval clerics. Today, however, the Close is a peaceful haven of open green lawns and quiet lanes ranged about the Cathedral, with a lovely mix of medieval and elegant Georgian dwellings. Some of the dwellings have been given over to other uses. One houses The Wardrobe Regimental Museum, home of the Duke of Edinburgh`s Royal Regiment.
Another is Mompesson House, a Georgian town house now owned by the National Trust. Still another is Kings House, now home to the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museums. The Medieval Hall, once the Deanery, is among the oldest buildings in the Close.
Take the time to stroll about the Close and enjoy the atmosphere. It feels like a stroll through time; with rich and varied architecture spanning almost 800 years your constant companion.
Visiting Salisbury Cathedral
For the best views in Salisbury take advantage of regularly scheduled Tower tours. If you are with a group it makes sense to pre-book a tour. Information on tours can be had through the official cathedral web site below.
Quick Facts and Figures
- The tallest spire in Britain at 404 feet (123 metres)
- The church is dedicated to St Mary
- The oldest working clock in Europe (1326)
- One of only 4 original copies of the Magna Carta
- The largest Cathedral Close in the UK at 80 acres
- The cathedral is 473 feet long. The nave is 82 feet long and 84 feet high
Free, but a donation is requested. Leaflets in several languages are available, and there are numerous volunteer guides on hand to answer questions.
Salisbury Visitor Information
Photos of Salisbury
Photos of Old Sarum
Address: Cathedral Close,
England, SP1 2EF
Attraction Type: Cathedral
Location: In the centre of Salisbury, well signposted for pedestrians. Several paid parking lots available with 5 minutes walk.
Website: Salisbury Cathedral
Phone: 01722 555 120
OS: SU145 296
We've 'tagged' this attraction information to help you find related historic attractions and learn more about major time periods mentioned.Historic Time Periods: Find other attractions tagged with:
12th century (Time Period) - 13th century (Time Period) - 14th century (Time Period) - 17th century (Time Period) - 18th century (Time Period) - castle (Architecture) - chapter house (Architecture) - Christopher Wren (Person) - Early English (Architecture) - Georgian (Time Period) - Henry II (Person) - Iron Age (Architecture) - James Wyatt (Person) - Jane Grey (Person) - King John (Person) - Medieval (Time Period) - Norman (Architecture) -