From a distance, I have always admired Salisbury Cathedral with its tall 123 metre spire but never visited until an opportunity arose quite recently.
A huge repair project which began in 1986 meant that scaffolding had made its way around the building for the last 37 years, so it was wonderful to now see it in all it’s great glory.
Covering an area of over 80 acres, Salisbury’s Cathedral Close is the largest in Britain. with its vast lawns and shady trees away from the busy streets. 21 Grade 1 listed buildings can be found around the edge of the close with 2 museums as well as gardens.
Salisbury Cathedral’s story really begins when it used to stand on the iron age hill fort at Old Sarum, 2.3 miles from its location today.
A cathedral and a royal castle were built at Old Sarum following the Norman Conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066. In 1075. Archbishop Lanfranc ordered Bishop Herman to build a cathedral which was finished by Bishop Osmund in 1091.
In it’s early days, the Cathedral thrived and the priests at that time developed a special way of worshipping God known as the Sarum Rite. It was the first Cathedral where priests wrote and bound many religious books which still survive today.
By 1217 relations with the castle guards became difficult, causing unhappiness with the priests. Lack of water and bad weather created problems.
In 1218 a new site in the river valley below was chosen and work began immediately. Legend says the Bishop of Old Sarum shot an arrow in the direction he would build the cathedral. The arrow hit a deer which finally died in the place where the Cathedral is now. The foundation stones of the Cathedral were laid on 28th April 1220 and, surrounding the cathedral, houses were built for the priests on the land.
Salisbury Cathedral is built in the shape of a cross – an important symbol of Christianity. Both skilled and unskilled workers built the cathedral using 60,000 tonnes of stone, 420 tonnes of lead, 2,800 tonnes of oak plus glass. Women and children helped by carrying goods, looking after the animals and providing food and drink.
The spire is the tallest in Britain at 123 metres and weighing 6,500 tonnes. The Cathedral’s foundations are only 1.2 metres (4 foot) deep under which there is only gravel and water. We were shown a special hole in the Cathedral floor where our volunteer guide showed us how close the water is! A measuring stick is lowered inside to check the water level.
Not to be missed is the Cathedral’s clock – a large iron-framed tower clock without a dial. When a clock enthusiast visited in to see the 1884 turret clock, he noticed something unusual. A second large, wrought iron clock mechanism was also sitting in the tower and had been ignored for generations. His discovery is thought to be the Cathedral’s original mechanical clock, dating to 1386, making it the oldest working clock in the world.
On Tuesday, March 7 2023, the military flags in the cathedral of the 62nd Regiment of Foot (The Wiltshire regiment) were taken down after hanging for more than 175 years. The disintegrating colours were handed back to Regimental Association representatives during a ceremony conducted by the Archdeacon of Sarum. The colours were cremated before being interred in the garden of the Rifles Wiltshire and Berkshire Museum in the Cathedral Close. Embodying the honour, spirit and heritage of the regiments that proudly carried them, these had been carried in Sicily and Italy in 1806-14, North America (Maine) in 1814-15 then lost for seven months in the Ganges in 1842 when the boat carrying them from Calcutta to Dinapore capsized. They were eventually laid up in Salisbury Cathedral in 1848.
The Chapter House displays the best-preserved of the four surviving original copies of Magna Carta. It is said that Elias of Dereham, an English master stone mason designer, present at Runnymede in 1215 was given the task of distributing some of the original copies, one of which was delivered to Salisbury Cathedral at Old Sarum.
The Magna Carta was a powerful symbol of social justice, the concept of which was to proclaim the freedoms and rights of individuals under the rule of law. It established the right of trial by jury and ensured that no one, including the king, was above the law.
The Cathedral’s font, cruciform in shape, was designed by the British water sculptor William Pye. It is a green patinated bronze vessel with a Purbeck Freestone plinth and brown patinated bronze grating. It has a 3-metre span to allow total immersion baptism. Water is the predominant feature. Two contrasting aspects of water are woven seamlessly together giving an expression of stillness in the mirror smooth surface. The flow and movement of water passes constantly through spouts at each of the four corners and disappears through a bronze grating set into the floor, expressing its essential life giving properties. The Archbishop of Canterbury dedicated the font in September 2008 for the 750th anniversary celebration of the Cathedral’s consecration.
An example of a huge, semicircular, 13th century Cope Chest can be seen in the Cathedral. This was designed to hold the copes, (cloaks), worn by the clergy. The shape allows them to be spread out to avoid wrinkling.
The quire houses the largest and earliest complete set of stalls in England.
Osmund’s tomb has been moved between several locations in the Cathedral. He was made a saint in 1457 by Pope Callistus III and was the last English person to be declared a saint until the canonization of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher in 1935. The magnificent shrine built in his honour, was destroyed in the English Reformation. The holes in the side are foramina, which were to enable people to reach in to get closer to the body of the saint to receive its healing powers.
The walls and floors of Salisbury are filled with tombs, memorials and epitaphs. A story lies behind each of these. One memorial tells how a disaster occurred on July 1st 1906 when a Plymouth to Waterloo train approaching a curve in the tracks at Salisbury station crashed into the London to Yeovil milk train and then into a stationary goods train. 28 people were killed and many injured. The horrific noise woke up townspeople and fire broke out with mangled and burnt corpses strewn around the area. The train was full of American passengers who had docked at Plymouth and were transferring to London. A letter was sent from President Roosevelt expressing his gratitude for all the care given to the passengers. The crash is the worst to have happened in Salisbury and the reason for the excessive speed of almost 70 mph is still unknown, but speculations were made.
Sir Edward Heath, former Prime Minister and resident of the Cathedral Close was buried here in the Cathedral in 2005. His house, Arundells, is open to the public and is well worth a visit. His tomb is near the south transept.
A memorial to Rex Whistler who was killed in action in World War II, is a glass prism of the cathedral, crafted by his brother, the famous glass engraver, Laurence Whistler. The prism is in the Morning Chapel in the north east transept. It slowly revolves with each turn creating a new image of the cathedral. A blue plaque dedicated to the two Whistler brothers can be seen in the Walton Canonry in the Close where they lived with their parents.
William Longespee, the illegitimate son of Henry II is buried in the Cathedral. He gained his nickname, Longespee, from his great physical size and his use of oversized weapons. His tomb was opened in 1791 and a well-preserved corpse of a black rat which carried traces of arsenic, was found inside his skull. (The rat is now on display in the Cathedral). William was the first person to be buried in Salisbury Cathedral. So, what is the mystery and what terrible secret did the rat reveal? Was Longespee murdered or is there some innocent explanation as to why it was there?
The Cathedral’s ‘Father’ Willis organ, built between 1876 and 1677, is a great treasure and still going strong over 140 years after it was installed..It has 4,000 pipes with some standing 32ft high. One of the finest pipe organs in the country, it is famous for its exceptional sound quality.
So much to see. I just wish I had done more research before visiting. Travelling in a group, time is somewhat restrictive, so perhaps it is a good excuse to return and absorb much more.
A Cathedral certainly to be recommended.