Wondrous Surprises Await You at This Medieval Wiltshire Church
What do the Magna Carta, the oldest working clock in the world and the tomb of a British prime minister have in common? They all reside in Salisbury Cathedral. And on a rainy morning in the historic Wiltshire town of Salisbury, Simon, Otto and I discovered these and many other fascinating aspects of this magnificent Early English Gothic church.
Hands-On History and Architecture
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know I spend a lot of time in cathedrals. There’s a reason for this. Each one I’ve visited, from Sioux Falls, SD to Chartres, has had its unique look, feel and history. And so it was with Salisbury Cathedral.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted by Paul Smith, a member of the Saturday morning team of volunteer guides. Within the first few minutes, we knew we were in good hands, and in for a first-rate tour.
Our first stop was a model of the cathedral’s floor plan and one of the complete church. I guess if you’re going to die and go to heaven, it might as well be in Salisbury Cathedral. Not only were the models touchable, Paul used them to help me visualize where we were, where we were going and the appearance of the cathedral from the exterior.
Begun in 1220, Salisbury Cathedral took 38 years for the completion of the main church. The chapter house, tower and spire came later, but this was a relatively short time for such a mammoth project to come to fruition, and the reason there is only one architectural style: Early English Gothic.
It took 60,000 tons of chilmark stone and 10,000 tons of purbeck to complete the body of the cathedral. The finished product boasted 8,760 highly polished and unpolished purbeck columns arranged in clusters on all three levels of the church, one for each hour of the year, one window for each day of the year and 13 doors one for each moon cycle.
The cloisters were added in 1240, but never used to house monks or nuns. To this day, they provide a place for quiet reflection. The original library built above the cloisters was so large, the ceiling threatened to collapse. Once reduced to a quarter of its original size, stability returned to the structure. Today, the library houses rare books and historical documents, some dating back 1,000 years.
The impressive chapter house with it’s high vaulted ceiling made its debut in 1263. The clergy of the day would gather there at noon to discuss matters pertaining to the church and the diocese.
Entering the chapter house through an arch with carvings of the 14 virtues – all women – standing on vices – all men – I got the sense that all was as it should be.
In the mid-1800s, the original stained glass was removed, and some of these windows were relocated throughout the main church. Today, all the stained glass windows in the chapter house come from the Victorian period.
The cathedral’s most arresting feature, the square tower and octagonal spire, were erected on the center of the cathedral roof in 1230, soaring 404 feet into the blue. This addition was a spectacular feat of medieval engineering, but the extra 6,397 tons caused the building to sink nine inches. In yet another feat of medieval engineering, flying buttresses, and scissored arches were added to support the tower and provide the necessary stability to safeguard the structure. The Salisbury Cathedral spire is the tallest in the UK, and the tallest medieval spire in the world.
Art and Artifacts
Most visitors to Salisbury Cathedral are immediately aware of the sight and sound of the font. Comprising of a stone base and bronze vessel, the font became part of Salisbury Cathedral in 2008 in commemoration of the 750th anniversary of the church’s consecration. The font was designed for full-body baptisms but has never been used in this way.
The water flows across the top and into a reservoir from where it is returned. According to Paul, the surface is so smooth, visitors have occasionally mistaken it for glass, and have tried to put cameras and other items on it.
The font is beautiful in its simplicity, but carved on its outside are the words of the baptism service. Perhaps this feature was intended to be a cheat sheet for nervous neophytes.
A much older treasure than the font is the medieval clock, which still ticks and keeps time, albeit not reliably. The estimated date of this clock is 1386, making it the oldest working clock in the world. The first thing Simon noticed about the clock was its lack of a face. Apparently, clocks from that time – no pun intended had a bell to ring out the hours in order to regulate worship times.
Once housed in the cathedral’s bell tower, the clock was moved to the cathedral tower when the bell tower was demolished in 1792, never to be rebuilt. The clock rang out the hours in the cathedral tower, until it was retired in 1884. Placed in storage and neglected, the old clock languished in the cathedral’s attic, until 1929, when it was removed, repaired, restored and given a new lease on life.
The organ standing in the area of the cathedral near the choir was built in 1877, and has 3,852 pipes distributed throughout the cathedral. This results in a delay between the pressing of a key and its sound, making it quite a challenge to play.
Of course, there were plenty of tombs. Former British Prime Minister, Edward Heath, who held office from 1970 to 1974, retired to a house in the cathedral’s close. He would come to the church to worship, and being a passionate music lover, would often play the organ and otherwise participate in musical events. Upon his death, his ashes were buried in Salisbury Cathedral.
Paul showed us a cadaverous tomb, which became all the rage among the dead during the reign of King Henry VIII. Life-size skeletal figures were placed on tombs to represent the bodies gradual return to the earth.
As any one of the resident corpses will tell you, “You can’t take it with you.” So wooden money chests with locks and clasps were secured in the vestry to protect gold, silver and important documents belonging to the church. Paul showed us several of these 14th century chests, one of which had a total of seven locks. The number of locks represented security, and the large size of the chests probably represented optimism.
Meanwhile, back in the chapter house, Paul showed us a table in front of the entrance, once used to pay the cathedral workmen their penny a day. The tabletop had been replaced, but the rest was pure medieval.
Atop the table sat a statue of King John with the Magna Carta in his lap. He was flanked by the Arch Bishop of Canterbury pointing his finger at John as if to say, “alright, get on with it,” and a knight holding a sword to make sure he did.
Today, many still believe King John signed the Magna Carta with a quill, and so did the 1880 artist who created the statue. In fact, John affixed his seal to the document, so an attempt was made to set history right by removing the quill. Unfortunately, the offending object couldn’t be purged in its entirety. So poor John looks like he has six fingers on his right hand.
The chapter house itself held 60 painted carvings depicting stories from the Old Testament, beginning with Adam and Eve, and ending with Moses receiving the two tablets bearing the 10 commandments.
Complimenting the permanent art in the cathedral, temporary exhibits change on a regular basis. At the time of our visit, contemporary sculptures crafted by molding and twisting chicken wire were arranged to represent the relationship between the artist, Sophie Ryder, and her horse. And a glass exhibit was scheduled to follow.
Water, Water Everywhere
Among the many fascinating quirks about Salisbury Cathedral is the fact that its foundation is only four feet deep.
When building of the cathedral began, the perimeter was dug, only to find water four feet down. That was the bad news. The good news was the 27 feet of compacted sand and gravel underneath. I’m lousy at math, but even I can figure out that a four foot foundation plus 27 feet of gravel and sand equals 31 feet of solid support for the church. Despite the water, Salisbury Cathedral isn’t going anywhere.
Of course, the church is at risk for being flooded, and in the past, it has been. The cathedral needs the water to hold the gravel and sand together. If the water level gets too low, the gravel could become too dry, causing the foundation to crumble. The solution was to install gates on the River Avon, which open and close according to the water level beneath the floor of the cathedral.
Paul lifted up one of the floor stones, inserted a rod and determined the water level to be just above four feet. This is the sweet spot, and a designated church employee performs this action once a week to make sure it stays that way. If the level is too high, the gates are closed to prevent the water from rising further. If too low, the gates are opened to bring the level up.
In the Name of Tradition
Salisbury Cathedral was born Catholic, but is now an Anglican church. Known as a church of the people, a community space, both religious and secular activities take place within its walls. The cathedral welcomes everyone” Paul explained. And the variety of art and music-based activities bear this out.
Throughout most of its history, Salisbury Cathedral was divided by a wall separating the religious side – east end – from the nonreligious side – west end. Today, the church is completely open and undivided.
We were fortunate to have been present for the two-minute prayer, which takes place hourly. Although not at all mandatory, we, along with many of the other visitors, took seats and listened. The prayer was religious, and focused on love and the desire for world peace. Although I consider myself an agnostic, the theme resonated strongly with me. The power of prayer is undeniable, and why some find it offensive to be in its presence anywhere, is beyond me. At worst, praying does no harm.
As Paul guided us from one treasure to another, I became aware of a choir singing the Beatles’ classic, “Yesterday”. “I wouldn’t have expected to hear a Beatles’ song sung by a church choir,” I mused. As is often the case, I was wrong on at least two counts.
What I was hearing was the sound of a Saturday tradition. Local children are invited to the church every Saturday morning to learn how to sing. They practice contemporary songs, as well as hymns and carols. This group is not associated with the cathedral’s two choirs.
Salisbury Cathedral has both a boys and a girls choir. Each consists of 16 children,with six men singing across both choirs. The cathedral has its own private school, housed in a part of the building that was once the bishop’s palace, which was vacated in 1958. When spots become open for the choirs, auditions are held, and new members are chosen.
Considering there are 300 students in the school, the competition for choir membership is fierce. However, there are no losers here. The children receive an excellent education until secondary school, with a focus on music. And it’s the voices the church is after, so scholarships are made available for families who cannot afford the fees.
A hundreds-year-old tradition is for boys to have their heads bumped on a stone seven times when they join the choir. Paul showed us the stone, which had a dent in it. I’m not sure if the dent was always there, or was caused by centuries of head-bumping, and I’m not sure I want to know.
The cathedral’s first girls choir came into being in 1991. Not to be outdone by the boys, the girls began a tradition of receiving seven bumps on the head with a large bible
There are enough traditions and legends to fill several volumes, so this is just a taste of what you can discover about Salisbury Cathedral.
The Magna Carta
Our last stop on Paul’s comprehensive and informative tour was the area of the chapter house, where the best-preserved of the four remaining copies of the Magna Carta is on public display.
We were invited to handle a copy of the original Magna Carta. The historical document had been written on a single sheet of 14.25 by 11.50 inch parchment – stretched and dried sheepskin, not the same paper I use to cook salmon – and written in medieval Latin in minute letters. The magna Carta contained 63 laws and 3,500 words
In celebration of its 800th birthday, in 2015 the original copy of the Magna Carta was treated to a three-day- trip up to London, after which it returned to Salisbury Cathedral. And that is where we saw it. Fully enclosed behind glass in a small area of the chapter house, where the Magna Carta was protected from damaging light and kept under tight security.
Upon saying good-bye to the document that changed England forever, we were ushered to a near-by area, where a few more related items of interest were on display. The first of these was the original seal King John had hung on the Magna Carta to make it official.
Of course, I couldn’t touch the seal, but as with the Magna Carta, there was a touchable replica available. The seal was slightly larger than a coaster, and more elliptical in shape. One side featured a likeness of King John as a wise man in his judicial role. In reality, he was neither wise nor just. The other side of the seal portrayed John as a knight. Unfortunately for England, John wasn’t a particularly good soldier either.
We also saw how the parchment of the day was made. Sheepskin was stretched and secured with pegs. Once the skin was dry, the parchment was cured with chemicals. When the parchment was ready to bear words of profound wisdom, unimaginable stupidity, or something in between, it was cut to size, ready for ink.
According to Paul, the ink would have been concocted from a mixture beginning with swollen leaves, created when wasp eggs had been laid on their surface, and mashed with mortar and pestle. Iron salts and egg whites were added, and presto, ink.
With this medieval recipe tucked away in our brains, our tour ended. We found our 90-minute visit all to brief, and we would not hesitate to return.
Although the church is a magnificent place to simply wander about and appreciate its magnificence, Paul took the experience to a whole new level with his descriptive narrative, detailed knowledge of his subject and awareness of how important it was for me to see by touch. Paul took every opportunity to make this happen, and I am most grateful.
I’ve developed a deep fondness for Salisbury Cathedral. What I learned and experienced will hold a special place in my memories. It is my hope that all who read this will some day find their way to Salisbury and its extraordinary cathedral.
There is much more to learn about Salisbury Cathedral. Of course, the best way is to see this compelling history-rich church for yourself. Meanwhile, to whet your appetite, you can find hours, ticket prices and a wealth of information on Salisbury Cathedral’s official website.
With the exception of the tower tour, the cathedral is wheelchair accessible.