Address: 6, The Close, Salisbury, Wiltshire SP1 2EJ


Phone: +44 (0) 1722 555105


Salisbury Cathedral History

The story starts pretty much in London in 1070 when Archbishop Lanfranc proposed a move of various English bishoprics. One of these was the Bishopric of Sherborne and Wilton and it was decided to move the church, under Bishop Herbert Lothringia, to the grounds of the castle at Old Sarum. Work started in 1075 and it took 17 years to build.

It became an unpopular site with the monks though, as their days revolved around peace, quiet, prayer and religious ceremonies, whilst next door was the castle and all the military upheaval that went with it. Another factor was that castles are generally built on high ground and are exposed to the elements. The high winds soon created a problem for the clergy as bad weather regularly interrupted services.

In view of the difficulties, Bishop Herbert Poore obtained the permission of King Richard I to move the cathedral two miles to new grounds. The bishop, being a wealthy man, donated 80 acres of meadowland near a local river and legend has it that he fired an arrow in the direction of where he felt the cathedral should stand. The arrow hit a deer who finally fell where we see it standing today.

In the period between the planning and construction, Poore passed away, being succeeded as bishop by his brother Roger. Roger recruited the brilliant architect Elias of Dereham and he laid the first cathedral stone on 8th April 1220. The project was a monumental task, with the stone used being quarried at Chilmark, 11 miles away, and the dark marble for the columns coming from Dorset, about 35 miles away. The main body of the cathedral was built by 1258, with the timescale of 38 years being viewed as remarkably quick work considering the era and the task. Similar constructions started in that era were built over centuries, and the knock on effect of such delay was that the timescale spanned architectural periods and the buildings became an amalgamation of different styles. Not so with Salisbury as the cathedral was built in the early English gothic style throughout. The other remarkable construction feature is that, due to the high water table, the foundations are only four feet deep.

To commemorate his work, Bishop Poore is remembered by a statue built into the wall on the west front.

The building work was paid for by donations from the canons and vicars of south west England who contributed to the fund on an annual basis. The cathedral is surrounded by an area called ‘The Close’, and at 80 acres, it is the largest of its kind in Britain. When recruiting for the new cathedral, Bishop Poore gave normal clergymen an acre and a half of land, with three acres given to senior clergy. He himself had a palace built which is now the Cathedral School.

Whilst the church was ready for consecration in 1258, the main part wasn’t finished until 1266. From a construction point of view, Lady Chapel is believed to have been the starting point and was built between 1220 and 1225. The choir followed between 1225 and 1237, with the transepts and nave being completed by 1258. The west front was then added by 1266 to complete the main body of the church. The cloister that forms a perfect square around a grass area was added between 1263 and 1284, and in 1275 the octagonal Chapter House was started, being finished in 1280. The most striking part of the cathedral is thought by many to be the spire. This was a later addition, being built between 1334 and 1380.

Whilst building an enormous spire was seen to add much kudos to a church, from a construction point of view, it was beset with problems. A number of huge towers around the country came crashing down in high winds. The tower of nearby Malmesbury Abbey had a tower of 431ft that was built in 1180. This collapsed onto the church in 1500. Lincoln’s was taller at 525ft and came down in 1548, this 241 years after being built. The spire in the ‘old’ St Paul’s Cathedral in London, before Sir Christopher Wren’s rebuild in the 1670’s, was 489ft tall before lightening destroyed it in 1561. With such a history of medieval spire instability, Sir Christopher Wren was consulted about the safety of the Salisbury tower and spire. Upon measuring, he found that it was leaning 30 inches and took remedial action by securing metal tie rods, a method that worked so well that when measured 200 years later, the leaning was found to be no more than the original 30 inches. The preservation of the spire makes it the tallest medieval structure in the world today.

For sheer size it set a number of records when built and an old saying was that the cathedral had ‘as many columns as hours in a year and as many windows as days in a year’.

One of the most significant objects found in the cathedral today is one of only four copies of the Magna Carta. This is found in the Chapter House. This is arguably the most significant document in British history and the start of democracy as we know it today. The name means ‘Great Charter’ and  was the result of an agreement between King John and the powerful barons, an action that prevented civil war a year after he’d been defeated by the French. It was sealed at Runnymede on 15th June 1215 with a major issue being the rights of the people.

Before the signing, the king was pretty much beyond the law, but one of the three clauses that is still law today changed the situation from that moment onwards. It read…

‘No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled. Nor will we proceed with force against him except by lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice’.

The charter rebalanced the power to the people and one of the most bizarre things was that a key negotiator in the whole process was none other than Elias of Dereham, the cathedral architect! The manuscript found its way to the cathedral through King John’s half-brother, William Longtre, who is buried here.

Despite the wet ground and shallow foundations, the cathedral was structurally sound and changed little over the years. This may have been due in part to the ‘one style’ of architecture originally employed, as subsequent changes may have been tempted to introduce a different design. Changes were made though, and were made by architect James Wyatt in 1790. His major change was to demolish the bell tower and in doing so, he moved the clock to the Cathedral Tower. The clock had no face, but chimed on the hour, and this called the bishops to prayer. After being taken from the tower, it was put into storage in 1884, before being discovered in an attic in 1929. It was restored in 1956 and now sits in the north aisle where it is on display. It’s believed to be the oldest working clock in the world.

The cathedral was immortalised in 1823 when it became the subject of a painting by England’s finest landscape painter, John Constable. He named it ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds’ and this painting now sits in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Further structural change took place between 1945-51 when the top 30ft of the spire was rebuilt, and a major 15-year fundraising and restoration project of the Spire, Tower and West Front was completed in 2000. A further 20 year, £20 million major repair programme was started in 1991 and ensures that one of the UK’s finest landmarks is kept in the condition it deserves to be in.


Salisbury Cathedral Visit

The cathedral has a wonderful location, situated in the medieval city next to the River Avon. This gives a marvellous opportunity to visitors who can stay in the city to visit the cathedral and take in all the other local attractions.

Visiting times and service times can be found on the cathedral website.

There are guided tours available and these for both the Tower Tour and the Floor Tour.

One of the most exciting parts of a cathedral visit is the Magna Carta exhibition and a guide is present to provide any information needed.

The 80 acre Cathedral Close surrounds the cathedral and provides a marvellous opportunity for walking. The Salisbury Museum is also nearby.

The site of Old Sarum is in the area, Stonehenge is only 8 miles away and the city of Bath not too far away either.