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Salisbury Cathedral: Gothic Home of the Magna Carta

Ninety miles south-west of London sits the small town of Salisbury, England. The town has just 30,000 inhabitants, but its most famous resident is, without a doubt, the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, commonly known as Salisbury Cathedral. Despite having its home in such a small town, the Salisbury Cathedral has a laundry list of impressive superlatives to its name, not to mention a unique style and significant piece of history. It’s a symbol of early English Gothic styling, and it was built in just 38 years. Today we’re going to dive into the Salisbury Cathedral.

Origins

In the early 13th century, the future town of Salisbury was a hilltop fort known as Old Sarum. The local Anglican church sat within the city walls. However, the town’s clergy regularly quarreled with the fort’s military, and tensions rose so high that the church decided the only way to avoid direct conflict was to relocate. At the time, the local bishop was a wealthy man named Richard Poore, who committed to purchasing the necessary land to build a new cathedral a safe distance away.

The statue of Richard Poore, Bishop of Durham, at Salisbury Cathedral
The statue of Richard Poore, Bishop of Durham, at Salisbury Cathedral by LordHarris is licensed under CC-BY

Myths and stories abound about the eventual location of the church, some more plausible than others. One common tale tells of the Bishop, Richard Poore, stepping out into a field with a bow and arrow. He fired off a projectile, determining to build wherever it landed. But it didn’t land. It struck a deer who carried the arrow a short distance before dying in a flat, unobstructed grassland. Bishop Poore saw this as a sign from God of the perfect place to build.

Another slightly unbelievable story stems from the cathedral’s location about 16 kilometers (10 miles) away from Stonehenge. Early 20th-century conspiracy theorists believed that a perfectly straight “ley line” drawn from Stonehenge to Salisbury Cathedral would pass directly through Old Sarum. These theorists claimed that the structures’ precise locations signaled the involvement of a higher power or perhaps intelligent beings from another planet. Satellite imagery has proved that the ley line is not as straight as initially believed. However, the three structures do align remarkably close to a straight line.

Unfortunately, the most likely story of the location is also the least interesting. Records show that Richard Poore attempted to purchase a plot of land several miles west of the eventual site. His purchase offer was rejected, and the actual location was chosen because of its flat, open land, even though it was essentially a marshland. The entire cathedral was funded by donations from wealthy church members in the region, many of whom were required by their local church leaders to pay an annual fee for the entire 38-year construction project.

Original Construction

Construction began in 1220 with the placing of the foundation stones. The marshy land meant that the water table was unusually high, so the construction team could only place the stones 1.3 meters (four feet) deep. The designs were heavily based on the Wells Cathedral, which had been under construction for almost 50 years when ground broke at Salisbury.

Wells was the first example of pure Gothic architecture throughout England, as architects moved away from the more traditional Romanesque designs. Wells and Salisbury are both examples of the Early English Gothic style that swept across the country in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. However, while most English gothic churches, including Wells, were built over several centuries and incorporated different Gothic styles, Salisbury’s is unique in its adherence to a single form. This is because the cathedral’s main body was built in less than 40 years, and builders stuck to the original plan throughout the entire process. 

The nave, with William Pye's decorative font visible in the foreground salisbury indoor view
The nave, with William Pye’s decorative font visible in the foreground by Diliff is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The church was opened in 1258 after the completion of the nave, transepts, and choir, though other pieces were added in the following decades. The cloisters, chapter house, tower, and spire were all completed by 1320 and maintained the same style. Altogether, the construction required 70,000 tons of stone, 3,000 tons of timber, and 450 tons of lead.

The tower and spire were the most impressive engineering achievement, standing at 123 meters (404 feet). Not only did the structure dominate the local skyline, but it made the cathedral England’s third-tallest building and the world’s sixth tallest. Still, many of England’s highest spires and towers from this era didn’t stand the test of time. The Lincoln Cathedral and Old St. Paul’s (London) were the only English buildings taller than Salisbury, and both churches would see their spires destroyed in the middle of the 16th-century. Salisbury’s stood, making it the tallest building in the entire British Empire until Blackpool Tower’s completion in 1894.

Renovations

While Salisbury Cathedral was built in a remarkably short period, no structure survives for centuries without massive renovations. Thankfully, renovations to Salisbury have primarily focused on interior and structural integrity, leaving the church’s exterior unscathed. The most necessary renovations were those done to strengthen the support of the massive tower and spire, which combined to add 6,397 tons (6,500 tonnes) to the building’s weight.

Local engineers realized that the church would surely crumble beneath the weight, so they added buttressing and load-bearing pillars to the building’s interior and exterior. The columns bent under the immense weight within years of their installment, but they’ve still managed to support the tower. The most well-trained eyes can see that the spire leans about 70 centimeters (27 inches) to the southeast, but it has maintained its current position for centuries.

The other major renovation was completed in the 18th century by an architect named James Wyatt. Wyatt’s renovations were controversial because he showed no desire to conform to the original design, instead preferring contemporary characteristics. The most egregious of his changes was removing the rood screen, which separated the nave and the chancel. These screens are standard in gothic churches, serving as partitions between the areas meant for worshipers and those only accessible to clergy and choir members. He also demolished a bell tower that stood about 98 meters (320 feet) northwest of the chapel, though he did preserve the clock. 

In modern times, renovations have been limited to art installations or updates in and around the cathedral. The church’s Works Department repairs old, deteriorated sculptures and adds new ones where needed. Frescoes and paintings are regularly updated wherever the vibrant colors have faded. 

In 2008, the cathedral replaced a centuries-old font with a new one designed by an artist named William Pye. The new cruciform font is the largest in England at 3 meters (10 feet) wide. It’s always filled to the brim with water because it is used for baptisms, but it also creates a beautiful reflection of the cathedrals ceiling. 

Architectural Features and Feats

We’ve established that Salisbury Cathedral is unique, but what is it about this church that sets it apart?

For one, it has achieved a handful of superlatives in architecture and engineering. We’ve already discussed that it has the tallest spire and the largest font in Britain. But there are more. 

It has the largest cathedral cloisters and close in the country. For those of you who aren’t experts in Medieval church terminology, a cloister is an arched walkway that surrounds an outdoor area. They generally signify adherence to monastic tradition as their purpose was to separate monks from the outside world while still giving them access to, well, the outside. At Salisbury, the cloisters surround a lawn with two beautiful cedars that have grown there for almost two-hundred years. 

Salisbury Cathedral from the East exterior view
Salisbury Cathedral from the East by Antony McCallum is licensed under CC-BY-SA

A close is all of the land outside the cathedral controlled by the church and its clergy. Salisbury’s is a massive 80-acres, containing museums, a religious school, historic homes, and scenic lawns. Four gates, which are almost as old as the cathedral, mark the entrance to this territory. In centuries past, the clergy would close the gates each night, hence the name. 

The vast property gives visitors the option to view the church from any angle they like. Postcards and painters like to capture the cathedral from a diagonal angle, showcasing the contrast of the light, earth-colored walls with the grey-blue of the roof. However, the west-facing front boasts the most intricately detailed portion of the exterior.

The facade, which includes the cathedral’s entrance, is almost a perfect square, at about 33 meters (108 ft) high and wide. It contains 130 shallow niches, or recessed areas, that house statues, though only 79 are currently occupied.

The niches are separated into five distinct levels, each designated for a particular class of religious figures. The top three tiers are devoted to angels, archangels, Old Testament patriarchs, apostles, evangelists, martyrs, philosophers, and even doctors. The lower levels include royalty, priests, and other people with connections to the cathedral. Sitting above all of them is a niched mandorla, or a small almond-shaped frame, which houses a statue of Christ in Majesty. 

The west-front is perhaps the most straightforward design of any of the English gothic churches. While spires, spirelets, and towers dominate many cathedrals from the era, Salisbury maintains a much simpler design than its counterparts. Perhaps the most era-appropriate feature of the facade is the inclusion of 19 lancet windows. These windows, tall and narrow with a pointed top, can be found on so many English cathedrals from the era that it’s sometimes referred to as the “lancet period.”

Inside, the church showcases the benefit of all those windows and the most striking innovation of gothic cathedrals: light. While Romanesque churches were often dark, gothic cathedrals let in enough sunlight to display the church in all its beauty. Salisbury makes the most of the light with walls made of a light grey Chilmark stone, just bright enough to reflect some of the light throughout the cathedral. Meanwhile, much of the piping and columns are in a dark Purbeck marble creating a contrast of dark and light uncommon for an English church.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the Salisbury cathedral if there weren’t a couple of superlatives inside. First, the choir stalls are the largest and earliest complete set in Britain. That may not seem too impressive, considering choir stalls are literally just seats for the choir’s members, but, like everything else, they are over-the-top ornate and huge. Second, the choir’s vaulted ceiling is the highest in Britain, reaching 25.5 meters (84 feet) tall.

A Piece of History

Aside from its architecture’s extremes, Salisbury Cathedral also contains two rare pieces of history that set it apart. The first is the oldest working clock in the world. Built in 1386, the clock was housed in the bell tower until the architect James Wyatt “renovated” by destroying the tower. Thankfully, the clock remained unscathed. It was placed in a storage area where it was forgotten for almost two centuries until it was discovered in 1928 and restored to working condition in 1956. If you’re picturing a big, beautiful white clock-face with Roman numerals and fancy dials, though, you’re about as far from reality as can be. The clock has no face or dial. The machine simply keeps track of time and strikes a bell on the hour. 

More impressive is the fact that Salisbury Cathedral is the home of the best-preserved copy of the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta was a royal charter of rights signed by King John of England in 1215. The document is considered the foundation of modern Western rights as we know them, as a basis for England’s legal system, and as an antecedent to the American Bill of Rights. 

A stonemason named Elias of Dereham was in attendance at Runnymede when the charter was initially signed, and, for reasons that remain unclear, Elias was placed in charge of distributing copies of the document throughout England. Elias went on to oversee the Salisbury Cathedral’s construction and ensured that his copy was placed inside the church upon its completion. 

Though as many as 40 copies were created, only four remain now, all held throughout England. Salisbury’s version shows remarkably little wear and tear, showing that its caretakers appreciated the document’s significance. It’s held in the chapter house, which is beautiful and notable in its own right. The room is filled with paintings that depict noteworthy moments from the Old Testament. Visitors to the cathedral can view the Magna Carta up close, as it’s on display year-round.

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