It was with notions of mystery and intrigue, memories of historical facts and a sense of spiritual respect that Bob, our son and I headed to Salisbury Cathedral. After recently reading Sarum and Pillars of the Earth, we could hardly wait to set eyes upon this magnificent cathedral whose spire has dominated the Wiltshire skyline in rural England since 1320. We were in awe!
The foundation stone of Salisbury Cathedral was laid in 1220 when construction began, and remarkably, the main body of the Cathedral was completed within 38 years, by 1258. Because construction was carried out in one campaign, there is tremendous harmony between all the stylistic features of the church. The tower and spire were added between 1310 and 1333. The Cathedral is an outstanding example of early English Gothic architecture.
Unlike our experience at Westminster Abbey, no entry fee was required and we were free to walk just about anywhere we liked. Strolling along the covered walk that encloses a quadrangle, we soon learned that these arcaded Cloisters were added as a purely decorative feature five years after construction of Salisbury Cathedral was completed.
Cloisters associated with a cathedral usually indicate that a monastic order exists therein, but neither monks nor nuns were ever housed here.
Effectively, had a monastic order resided here, the privacy of the monks or nuns from the common folks working in and around the structure would have been ensured by the architectural barrier of the Cloisters from the principle part of the Cathedral.
The Cloisters seemed cavernous with we three small humans loitering in the hallowed hallway that day. Bright beams of sunlight poured in through the stone tracery decorating the walkway with beautiful shadows of the carved cinquefoils, and we felt privileged for the private display. There were no other visitors at the Cathedral.
Dappled shade and warm sunshine had the three of us eager to explore the quadrangle just steps away.
It wasn’t enough to do just a quick walk-through. We wanted to immerse ourselves in the peace and quiet, the calm and contemplative ambience of the Cloister Garden.
Salisbury Cathedral is known for having the largest Cloister Garden in Britain. Although during the Middle Ages, it consisted simply of a square tract of grass, now carefully tended ornamental shrubs and flowers grow around the perimeter,
and great trees that sprouted from seeds centuries ago have grown to maturity in the centre of the space.
We felt great reverence for the holiness of our surroundings…
and delighted in the shapes, patterns and materials modeled off those first created and used inside the Cathedral.
Just as we were about to take our leave of the Cloister Garden, a sleek black cat came out to visit.
Perhaps it was the resident cat in charge of patrolling for mice.
The interior of Salisbury Cathedral is rich in pointed arches, columns, windows and doors. In fact, there are as many columns as there are hours in a year, for a total of 8,760 spread over three levels in the Cathedral. There is one window for every day of the year (365), and thirteen doors to represent each moon cycle in a year.
In the Nave, black columns were grouped together for visual impact where they supported the pale walls.
In this photo of the North Transept windows, you can clearly see how the grey Chilmark stone used for the walls contrasts with the polished black Purbeck marble that was fashioned into columns. The materials were used effectively in the Nave, seen above, to accentuate its tall, narrow space.
Pointed arches and lancet-shaped windows are hallmarks of the early Gothic style of architecture. A tall, narrow window topped with a pointed arch is reminiscent of a medieval weapon called a lance.
An intriguing variety of medieval tombs lined up between the pillars separates the aisles from the Nave. One tomb of note is that of William Longespée, the half brother of King John and illegitimate son of King Henry II. Longespée was present when the first cornerstone was laid for the Cathedral, he is famous for bringing the Magna Carta to Salisbury, and William was the first person to be buried in Salisbury Cathedral.
Popular during the reign of King Henry VIII was the practice of putting a life-sized likeness of a deceased person on top of a tomb. Here, we see William Longespée depicted with his sword and shield.
Salisbury Cathedral’s most treasured artifact is the best preserved of the four remaining original copies of the Magna Carta, that document etched on a simple piece of parchment that sets out the legal system that was adapted and has been observed for centuries. It was William Longespée who delivered it to safe keeping at Salisbury Cathedral.
Salisbury Cathedral is recognized as having the tallest church spire in all of Great Britain, reaching a height of 404 feet. The spire also has the distinction of being the tallest medieval spire in the world. It sits atop the church tower or steeple. The spire’s resemblance to a spear point suggests strength, and reaching for the sky as it does intimates a celestial connection.
When the steeple and then the spire were added to the Cathedral in the mid 14th century, problems arose owing to the increased weight of the structures on top of the building. The additional 6,397 tons were too much for the original edifice to bear, so over the centuries, buttresses, bracing arches and anchor irons had to be added to forestall collapse of the tower such as was the fate at other ecclesiastical buildings.
As if that isn’t enough fame for one building, Salisbury Cathedral also is home to the oldest working clock in the world, dating from 1386 A.D. It was originally located in a standalone bell tower that was demolished in 1792, and was since housed in the Cathedral Tower. The clock has no face or hands, but marks the hour in 15 minute increments by the sounding of bells.
One last distinction that I’d like to mention about Salisbury Cathedral is that it lies in the largest Cathedral Close in all of Britain. Taking centre stage in an 80-acre square that is secured on all sides by a massive stone wall, the Cathedral, at one time, was surrounded by dwellings that housed all manner of clerics required to administer the Cathedral’s business. The property was subdivided into holdings granted to the clerics, and subsequently enclosed by a wall built from stones previously used in the Norman Cathedral at Old Sarum.
When touring the town of Salisbury, we found much evidence of original architecture into which modern stores and shops have been incorporated. A small river runs through a section of the town, complete with the old mill, stone bridges and a waterfall. A path along the river was the perfect place for a relaxing stroll.
Later, we returned to Salisbury Cathedral under the cover of darkness for a whole new perspective on the ancient structure. With lights illuminating the towering building and soaring steeple, it was really quite eerie. We could sense the many spirits lingering there while we cast giant shadow puppets on the Cathedral’s facade. And then we departed through the locked gates!