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Visit Salisbury and Old Sarum

"Salisbury Cathedral is the single most beautiful structure in England, and the Close around it, the most beautiful space."
Bill Bryson

Salisbury Cathedral

There are so many superlatives to describe Salisbury Cathedral. It has:

  • the tallest cathedral spire in Britain
  • the best preserved of the four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta (1215)
  • the oldest working clock in Europe
  • the largest cathedral cloisters in Britain
  • the largest cathedral close in Britain
  • the largest and earliest complete choir (or quire) stalls in Britain
  • the highest vault in Britain

Bigger, better, best - and built in 38 years, from 1220 to 1258, which is a very short construction schedule for a large stone building made without motorized equipment.

One factor that enabled Salisbury Cathedral to become so extraordinary is that it was the first major cathedral to be built on an unobstructed site. The architect was able to conceive a design and lay it out exactly as planned without constraints of existing roads or city buildings.

Construction was carried out in one campaign, giving the complex a cohesive and singular identity. The cloisters were started as a purely decorative feature only five years after the cathedral building was completed, with shapes, patterns, and materials that copy those of the cathedral interior.

It was an ideal opportunity in the development of Early English Gothic architecture, and Salisbury Cathedral made full use of the new techniques of this emerging style. Pointed arches and lancet shapes are everywhere, from the prominent west windows to the painted arches of the east end. The narrow piers of the cathedral were made of cut stone rather than rubble-filled drums, as in earlier buildings, which changed the method of distributing the structure's weight and allowed for more light in the interior.

The piers are decorated with slender columns of dark grey Purbeck marble, which reappear in clusters and as stand-alone supports in the arches of the triforium, clerestory, and cloisters. The triforium and cloisters repeat the same patterns of plate tracery – basically stone cut-out shapes – of quatrefoils, cinquefoils, even hexafoils and octofoils. Proportions are uniform throughout.

The Tower and the Spire

The original design called for a fairly ordinary square crossing tower of modest height. But in the early part of the 14th century, two stories were added to the tower, and then the pointed spire was added in 1330. The spire is the most readily identified feature of the cathedral and is visible for miles. However, the addition of this landmark tower and spire added over 6,000 tons of weight to the supporting structure. Because the building had not been engineered to carry the extra weight, additional buttressing was required internally and externally. The transepts now sport masonry girders, or strainer arches, to support the weight. Not surprisingly, the spire has never been straight and now tilts to the southeast by about 27 inches.

Old Sarum

Old Sarum lies two miles north of the current City of Salisbury. The settlement appears in some of the earliest records in the country.

The hilltop at Old Sarum shows evidence of a Neolithic settlement. There is evidence that early hunters and, later, farming communities occupied the site. A protective hill fort was constructed by the local inhabitants around 400 BC during the British Iron Age by creating enormous banks and ditches surrounding the hill.

The site continued to be occupied during the Roman period. The Saxons took over the fort in the 6th century and later used it as a stronghold against marauding Vikings.

During the Norman conquest of England following his 1066 victory at Hastings, King William I used Old Sarum (itself known at the time by variants of "Saresbury" or "Salisbury") as a base of operations. The Normans constructed a motte and bailey castle, a stone curtain wall, and a great cathedral.

The cathedral was the seat of the bishops of Salisbury during the early Norman period and the original source of the Sarum Rite.

The Sarum Rite, more properly called the Use of Salisbury, was a variant ("use") of the Roman Rite widely used for the ordering of Christian public worship, including the Mass and the Divine Office. It was established by Saint Osmund, Bishop of Salisbury, and Richard Poore in the 11th century.

An original copy of the Magna Carta was sent to Old Sarum Cathedral in 1215, and can still be seen in Salisbury Cathedral Chapter House.

A royal palace was built within the castle for King Henry I and was subsequently used by Plantagenet monarchs. This heyday of the settlement lasted for around 300 years until disputes between the Wiltshire sheriff and the Salisbury bishop finally led to the building of a new cathedral on open fields to the south.

New Sarum

As New Sarum, or Salisbury, grew up around the new cathedral in the early 13th century, the buildings of Old Sarum were dismantled for stone and the old town dwindled. Its long-neglected castle was abandoned by Edward II in 1322 and sold by Henry VIII in 1514.

The choristers of Salisbury Cathedral maintain an unbroken tradition of church music at Salisbury, which stretches back for over 700 years in the present cathedral and for a further 200 years before that in the cathedral at Old Sarum. Music has always played a vital role in the Daily Offices provided by sixteen boy choristers, six Lay Vicars, the Director of Music, the Assistant Director of Music and the Organ Scholar.

The landscape around Salisbury is so quintessentially English, especially the Woodford Valley, one of the most beautiful drives in England.

With many old timbered buildings, the Early English Gothic Cathedral, the famous Magna Carta, a thriving market, a buzzing arts scene, museums and some of England's finest historic houses, Salisbury and its surroundings is a great place to visit and it has inspired many artists.

  • Salisbury is the origin of Melchester in Thomas Hardy's novels, such as Jude the Obscure (1895).
  • A lively account of the Salisbury markets, as they were in 1842, is contained in Chapter 5 of Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens.
  • The fictitious Kingsbridge Cathedral in The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is modelled on the cathedrals of Wells and Salisbury. The final aerial shot of the series is of Salisbury Cathedral.
  • The novel Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd describes the history of Salisbury.
  • The novel The Spire by William Golding, who taught in one of Salisbury's schools, tells the story of the building of the spire of an unnamed cathedral similar to Salisbury Cathedral.
  • John Constable's paintings of Salisbury are among the most popular and valuable in British art.