The History of Salisbury Cathedral

 Salisbury Cathedral is one of Englands premier cathedrals and recently celebrated the 750th anniversary of its dedication in 1258. The construction of the cathedral on its present site arose from a desire to relocate from Old Sarum, where the original cathedral shared a hilltop site on Salisbury Plain with the King’s castle. A litany of complaints against the site at Old Sarum was used to justify the move - its was cold and inhospitable, the sounds of the wind blowing interrupted services and shook the church, the castle authorities harassed the churchmen and the congregation and there were disputes over water supply, the white chalk hills dazzled and there was not enough space. Bishop Herbert Poore obtained the permission but it was his brother Richard succeeding him as Bishop in 1217, who commenced the work that had been decided on some 20 years earlier.

Perhaps it was problems with finance that made Bishop Herbert Poore vacillate, for the cost of building the new cathedral was borne initially by the Bishop and the members of the chapter. The chapter included the senior cathedral office-holders and 48 canons, all of whom derived income from landholdings known as prebends. The value of the prebendary incomes was variable and its likely that the cost of contributing to the new building and of their own houses in the Close, weighed heavier on some members of the chapter than others. There were other sources of funding. Canons were sent out on preaching and alms-gathering tours and Henry III contributed too - he stood to gain more the space for his castle at Old Sarum by the relocation of the cathedral. Additional income was also generated by canonising Bishop Osmund which pulled pilgrims to Salisbury, a good source of income for a medieval cathedral.

The construction of the cathedral is attributed to two men, Elias of Dereham and Nicholas of Ely. The former seems to have been an expert manager of large building projects and Nicholas of Ely, the major stone mason responsible for the work. The stone for the building was quarried locally, at Chilmark, eleven miles east of the cathedral. Its pale colour is preserved inside the building but it weathers to a grey-green colour that we see on the exterior. It is a fine-grained limestone similar to the Portland stone from which so many of Britain’s finest buildings are constructed. The dark slender columns that provide contrast to the Chilmark stone are made from Purbeck marble, mined from the Isle of Purbeck around 35 miles south of the cathedral. Just imagine the work of the men and animals who hauled the stone by ox-cart without the benefit of a formal road system.

The stone-laying ceremony took place in 1220 and this was followed by almost 50 years of construction work. The Trinity Chapel and retrochoir were ready for use in 1225 and the whole church was ready for consecration in 1258, some 13 years after the death of Nicholas of Ely. Work continued on the roof and other components of the cathedral until around 1266. This seems like a long time but it was a fast build compared to its contemporaries.

The spire for which Salisbury is renowned was not part of the original building plan. The cathedral had a lower tower and a separate campanile or bell tower which survived until 1790. There is no documentary evidence to tell us when the tower was built, but judging from its style and construction, the early 1300’s is the best guess. Spires were in fashion at this time. At 404 ft Salisbury has the tallest medieval tower in England today but this was not always so. It is said that Malmesbury Abbeys tower was taller, though it fell down in 1500. Lincolns 525 ft tower was raised in 1307 and was blown down in 1548, thirteen years before the spire on Old St Paul’s in London suffered the same fate. So Salisbury’s spire is remarkable not only that it was built - but that its still stands today, some 700 years later.

When you visit Salisbury Cathedral and stand in the doorway of the octagonal Chapter House, imagine the power and influence of the men who gathered here in the 14th century, surrounded by the splendour of their own creation. The medieval diocese stretched from the edge of London to Lyme Regis in the west - the Bishop, Dean and chapter held sway over the religious and fiscal affairs of a large part of the population of Southern England.

You can make the most of your visit to Salisbury Cathedral by taking the Tower Tour where a guide takes you on a journey of discovery through the heart of the cathedral, culminating in a chance to access the viewing platform at the base of the spire - a great photo opportunity. You need good climbing legs for this tour, even though it is done in easy stages. You can combine the visit to Salisbury with a trip to Old Sarum and Stonehenge or to nearby Wilton House, one of England’s finest stately homes.