Salisbury Cathedral, also known as New Sarum, is blessed with several unique attributes. First is its architectural consistency. Barring the tower and spire, it was constructed all in one go between 1220 and 1258, a mere 38 years, in a mature Early Gothic style.
Second, despite its foundation being a scant 4′ deep and resting on a bed of water-soaked gravel, it has remained largely drama free—no dramatically collapsing towers or crumbling walls. This is even more amazing when you consider that the tower, at 404 feet, is the tallest in England, added between 1300 and 1329.
Lastly, its vast 80-acre Cathedral close provides unparalleled vistas to admire its exterior and affords near silence in its environs.
The world went quiet the minute I stepped through the wooden door in St. Ann Gate. Traffic noise ceased, and a blissful peace ensued. Anyone unacquainted with the legendary good nature of my husband, Glenn, might put this down to the efforts of the Bell & Crown, whose sidewalk sign had caught our attention on the way from the carpark.
This was our third visit to Salisbury. We had first come about ten years ago on a flying visit at the end of a long day, eager to see Salisbury’s Magna Carta from 1215 (one of only four in existence—another is at Lincoln, the other two are in the British Museum). The second trip was an abortive effort to improve on the photos taken on my first, hasty foray, but the BBC had taken up residence for filming, much to the detriment of my temper. So this time, Glenn decided to avail himself of the Bell & Crown’s hospitality.
Many of the buildings in the close are privately owned. I’d give my eye-teeth to live in one of them, and I imagine the residents feel the same. It is blissfully quiet.
This view of Salisbury Cathedral is from the northeast, a splendid aspect of the building, giving a clear perspective on the two stepped-out transepts; the larger, more easterly one seems a snick disproportionately large.
On both previous occasions, I’d come to the Cathedral from the western end.
Critics, including the very knowledgeable Simon Jenkins, have panned the west front for lacking a compositional theme. He’s not alone in his criticisms—others find it a jumbled mess of styles and a poor imitation of the front at Wells Cathedral.
The north-west corner tower of the front has many gaps in its statuary,
But the bottom row contains statues of two different people, each holding models of the Cathedral.
The one on the North Face is a King. I imagine it’s of King Henry III, who gave lavishly toward the building, contributing nearly half of the 1443 oaks required, along with a large ruby.
The one on the West Face is Bishop Poore, who served during the time the Cathedral was under construction.
He doesn’t look any too pleased, does he?
Many of the statues were added during the Victorian period, though seven are from the 14th century; several are even more recent. Subject to the elements, they take a beating over time.
Let’s step inside now. This is where Salisbury’s uniform construction becomes very apparent. With ten bays in both the nave and the choir /presbytery beyond the crossing, the view is clear from west to east, with an uninterrupted sightline to the triple windows in the Lady Chapel at the far east end.
All three levels of arches are lancet-shaped, consistent with the period in which the Cathedral was built.
Salisbury conducts tours up the 332 steps of the tower, and I would have loved to participate, but I’m somewhat claustrophobic and tight staircases are the worst. I’ve had to breathe myself out of a meltdown on more than one occasion when my eagerness to explore a tower has triumphed over good sense. Having left Himself at the pub, my eyes in the sky were unavailable. Thankfully, I came across this photo—thank you, Jack Pease, who generously shared his shot on Flicker and allowed sharing! Look at the precision of the grey Purbeck marble columns in the triforium (middle layer) and the perfectly level top of the arcade (bottom level of arches).
Back on terra firma, we can see William Pye’s font, which was installed in 2008. It’s in a prominent position, right in the middle of the nave, across from the North Porch, as shown in the diagram below. The font near the top of the floorplan no longer exists.
Its Purbeck Marble base supports a water-filled bronze vessel. The taut surface of the water mirrors the surrounding architecture before cascading through spouts at each of the four corners into a grate in the floor below.
The mirror mesmerizes people such that they fail to notice the pouring water. I watched in fascination as one woman’s purse began to fill while she posed for a photo taken by her husband on the other side. Oops! Hope she didn’t have her phone in there…
Working east, up the nave, we come to the large transepts on either side of the tower.
The one below is the North Transept with its original Grisaille glass.
James Wyatt removed much of Salisbury’s medieval glass in the 1780s and tossed it in a ditch. A total travesty.
What the Civil War left untouched, the Georgians finished off with their disdain for coloured glass; while I love Georgian architecture, this pet peeve of theirs is hard to swallow.
Here we are looking across the altar towards the south transept.
Wyatt did one thing right—he moved the original pulpitum, which had interrupted the view down the nave. It was relocated to the northeast transept (the second, smaller one) on the earlier floorplan. It now forms niches against the side wall in the south transept.
Salisbury is famous for its carved heads, which are very lifelike. They’re equal in artistic quality to the botanical carvings at Southwell Minster.
When the tower was installed, the transepts needed to be reinforced with bracing arches, which were topped with ornamental bridges.
Looking up into the ceiling of the crossing, we can see the painted ceiling of the choir and presbytery peeking down from the top of the photo.
And what a sight that ceiling is, soaring high above the choir stalls.
Based on the original 13th-century designs, the ceiling was painted by Clayton and Bell in the 19th century.
Thank heaven for the ubiquitous Sir George Gilbert Scott, who reversed much of Wyatt’s earlier efforts.
Looking across the pulpit into the choir, we can see two stained windows by Burne-Jones, installed during the Victorian restoration.
The stone-carved pulpit, with its figures of apostles and saints, is of the same period.
The north choir holds a Perpendicular chantry chapel to Bishop Audley (d. 1524), built at the apogee of Tudor Gothic.
I lay on the floor inside to get a shot of the fan-vaulted ceiling, with its painted and gilded roses and pomegranates, emblems of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
Behind the main altar is the retrochoir, in which one of Salisbury’s few lapses of taste is evident. Yes – that window.
The 1980s were a lousy period for fashion and architecture. Gabriel and Jacques Loire were the glass artists who rendered “prisoners of conscience”. People stare dejectedly outward from the prison of blue glass, making the entire area broodingly dark. Yuck.
Time for some fresh air. Let’s head to the cloisters.
Salisbury was never a monastic Cathedral, so its cloisters were a practical and comfortable way of getting from one place to the next rather than serving a spiritual purpose. Nonetheless, they are the largest and among the best-preserved cloisters of England’s Cathedrals. Unlike Norwich’s, which were built over several architectural periods, Salisbury’s are very uniform in style.
Here we will visit Salisbury’s copy of the Magna Carta, which is in its Chapter House, the location likely chosen for the controlled access.
These doors are the only way in and out.
The Chapter House resembles the one at Westminster Abbey, with a central, very slender pier (pillar).
It’s difficult to appreciate that the highly complex vaulted ceiling is made of bricks, gracefully held aloft by the slender ribs and one central column. It’s so delicate!
The stained glass is a Victorian replica of the medieval Grisaille glass, reminiscent of much more modern patterns of Arts & Crafts artist William Morris.
The heads carved above the canon’s seats at the base of the windows are exceedingly well done.
I had great fun looking at each one closely, some of which look like they’re sporting very modern hairstyles. Doesn’t this fellow look like one of the Beatles? Ok – maybe too much of a bowl cut, but you take my point.
This lady looks like she’s got a classic 1960s flip.
Wry grins (or grimaces) even back then!
Placid and regal is the man with the crown.
A small tent structure contains the Magna Carta—one visitor at a time is allowed to view it, and no photography is permitted. You’d have to use flash in there, as it’s quite dark, and that’s verboten.
More than 800 years old, the importance of the Magna Carta cannot be overstated—it’s one of the earliest and most powerful vehicles of social justice. The concept of a document specifying the freedoms and rights of individuals under the rule of law spread rapidly across the world.
It came about on June 15, 1215, as a way for King John to make peace with his rebel barons (noblemen) and church leaders, who objected to the high taxes they were required to pay to fund his wars against France.
This photo is of the copy in Lincoln Cathedral—now it’s held in a special vault in Lincoln Castle. It may not look like much, but I’d go so far as to say that Magna Carta changed the trajectory of the world.
Magna Carta limited the powers of the monarchy. It stated that the King or Queen was subject to the law and could not exploit their position and power to rule however they liked. It also stated that individuals had specific rights, established the right to trial by jury and ensured that no one, including the monarch, was above the law.
To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice. Clause 40, Magna Carta.
Regretfully, it was time to go. I made a quick stop at the Cathedral Shop, and bought a scone and take away tea for the road. After all, one of us hadn’t been refreshing themselves at the Bell and Crown!
Back outside, I looked up at Salisbury’s famous tower and was on my way.
Heading back toward the St. Ann gate, I noticed this plaque on the wall, memorializing three martyrs burned at the stake during the counter-reformation under Queen Mary Tudor in 1556. No matter how bleak things look at times today, we’ve come a long way in ensuring people have the freedom to live free of religious oppression and political tyranny.
Now, to reclaim my husband from daycare. I hope they don’t charge me extra for leaving him too long!