Monday, 30 September 2013

Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire

Having been to school in Dorset and having friends and relatives who live in Wiltshire and Dorset I have often, over the years, visited Salisbury cathedral but never with 'churching' in mind.

This is without doubt a magnificent building but not, to my mind, as magnificent as Canterbury - although, to be fair, such a comparison is like comparing apples with pears.

River Avon (1)

Salisbury Cathedral (1)

West front (5)

Salisbury. Since the days of Chaucer’s pilgrimage to Canterbury pilgrims have been coming here, and Salisbury has not failed them. It cannot fail such pilgrims.

None of our cathedrals stands in a more beautiful Close. It is a tranquil scene unsurpassed in any of our medieval cities, and about it are gathered a group of houses forming a remarkable example of domestic architecture. Built from medieval to Georgian days, these houses are in perfect harmony with the wonderful church that rises in the midst of them. The King’s House (in which Richard the Third and James the First both stayed) is 14th century and Tudor, a glorious gabled building facing the west front of the cathedral, and now a teachers’ college. Wardrobe House explains by its name what it was in the days when it was linked with the King’s House. The gabled house on the north has parts almost as old as the cathedral itself. The bishop’s palace is behind a wall and is not seen from the Close, but one may have a glimpse of it through a doorway in the cloisters. The 13th century Deanery, now part of the Training College, is being restored and hidden beauties revealed.

One must go back for the beginning of it to the hill the Ancient Britons used and the Romans made into a fortress, to the fort the Saxons made and left deserted, to the cathedral the Normans set on that same hill where saints and bishops lie, the hilltop of Old Sarum, now waking from the sleep of centuries. Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age; Roman, Saxon, and Viking; Norman and medieval is this place.

It cannot be missed by anyone who goes from Salisbury to see Stonehenge, whichever road he takes. The Avon Valley road shows it arrestingly as a terraced hilltop, obviously an ancient stronghold dominating the neighbourhood where the river breaks away from the wide plateau of Salisbury Plain. The other road from Salisbury to Stonehenge, across the Plain by Amesbury, rises close to the fortress, so quietly that the nearness of the hilltop may not be guessed, but when it is reached it seems to spring up behind the traveller as the road sinks by it into the Plain. Then it challenges comparison with any earthwork in the British Isles.

Old Sarum has much that Stonehenge has not, for it has a history. It was known as an impressive hill by the Stonehenge men and has played a part in the life of long forgotten centuries. An overgrown ruin for ages, it was investigated in the middle of last century during a dry summer, when the cathedral foundations were so clear that a plan was made of them, and excavations during our own time are unearthing buried secrets and throwing light on the history of this hill for nearly a thousand years.

Nobody doubts that the hill-people who roamed the southern downlands, and are commonly called Ancient Britons, had one of their forts on this hilltop. It is quite clear, too, that this was an important centre of Roman Britain, for here four or five roads converged. Probably it was the station the Romans named Sorbiodunum; certainly after the Romans it was the Searisbyrig of the Saxons. Alfred fortified it and dug the outer ditch; King Edgar held a Parliament here; the Danes burned it; the Confessor gave it a mint. Then came the Norman Conquest, bringing changes which obliterated the older features of the town. The Conqueror made it a fortress and a bishopric. The summit of the hill was crowned with a castle and a central keep, fortified once more by earthworks with an inner and outer wall. Between the walls the new cathedral was built, and the bishop became the dominant personage in Sarisberie, as it was called in Domesday Book. Roman Sorbiodunum, Saxon Searisbyrig, Norman Sarisberie, and now Old Sarum, it has seen a marvellous procession of the pageantry of life. The town grew in size beyond its walls, and clustered round the base of the hill.

A hundred years more and Old Sarum was in sore straits. The military commanders of the castle were unfriendly; the cathedral was being damaged by the winds; the canons declared that water was scarce; the space was not enough for clerics and soldiers and townsmen. It was one of the clergy who put the case in a nutshell by asking:

What has the House of the Lord to do with castles? It is the Ark of the Covenant in a temple of Baalim. Let us in the name of God descend into the meads.

They were given leave and came down to the meads. The inhabitants of Old Sarum followed them, and the fortress on the hill became so deserted that it had not a single house, and soon the very sites of the castle and the old cathedral were forgotten. Old Sarum sent two members to Parliament till 1832, but there were no inhabitants, and the ten electors met for the election in a field still known as Election Field.

The day of its desolation is over. The Society of Antiquaries has excavated the summit of the hill and discovered the foundations of the buildings which lost their uses and began their fall into destruction 700 years ago. The ground plan of the Norman cathedral on the hillside has been marked out, and from the summit of the hill one can see where and imagine how the 12th century clergy and soldiers and townsmen lived. It is now in charge of the Office of Works.

Out of Old Sarum came the Salisbury to which all travellers come in time. Here are the very stones of Sarum, in the long wall and gateways of the new Cathedral Close. Every day the wind blows in Salisbury on Norman carvings in her streets, on stones consecrated to faith and prayer 800 years ago. On Easter Monday in 1219 they put up a wooden church, and in 1220 they laid the foundation stones of the new cathedral. The bishop laid one for the pope, one for Stephen Langton, and another for himself; and William Longespee laid one for himself and one for his wife the Countess Ela, who founded the abbey of Lacock.

Before the cathedral was half ready they buried Richard Poore at Tarrant Crawford 15 miles away, and in 38 years from the laying of the foundation-stones the cathedral was complete without the spire. Here are the stones the bishop touched when he consecrated it, 19 of them still left of 24, with patterns of flowers and stars cut in circles on them. Before the century was out they added the spire, raising it from the tower as a veritable triumph of design, so that it seems to grow out of the great mass as a flower grows out of its foliage.

From west to east the total length is 473 feet, from north to south 230, and it covers an area of 55,000 square feet. It rises tier above tier with porch, pediment, and pinnacles, its traceried tower springing from the centre and the spire soaring over all, 404 feet high.

In the capstone of this marvellous spire is a tiny lead box a child could hold on its hand, with a fragment of woven fabric in it put there in 1375, when people believed it to be a relic of the Virgin and that it would guard the spire from lightning and all harm. In the spire (of which the walls are two feet thick at the bottom and nine inches at the top), is the scaffolding on which the workmen stood to build it, still left inside to give it strength; but in spite of this it has listed a little, and a hundred years later they added one or two flying buttresses and noble stone screens which have saved it from listing more. It was Elias of Dereham, the Norfolk man who built this place, and Richard Farley, the Wiltshire man who crowned it with the lovely spire.

There has been much anxiety about the safety of the spire in our time. It has cracked and moved in a gale, and there has been too much reason to recall the fact that when Sir Christopher Wren surveyed the spire he found that it was leaning 23 inches out of straight. For the guidance of architects who should follow him he set a piece of metal in the floor below to show the extent of the leaning, and it was not until a few years ago, that the movement increased. Wren declared that the cathedral should not have been erected on the spongy bog on which it stands, and that the slender seven-foot-wide high piers could never have been intended to support the tons of masonry in the tower and spire. It has been the aim of the restorers to stabilise the spire and tower and redistribute the weight of 6000 tons which falls on the base. There has always been a weak spot at the top of the tower just above the ridge of the roof, where the weight is 4500 tons. The tower has four sides, and when the octagonal spire was set on it the tower was altered so as to give the spire an octagonal base. Brick corbels have been built at the base of the spire into the four corners at the top of the tower, and these will take the weight off the centre of the walls and transfer it to the corners. At each corner at the top of the tower is a spiral staircase, and all these have been filled in and made solid. Eight windows of the tower are filled in with brick, and the work is strengthened by a band of steel invisible from the outside. The effect of all this strengthening is to remove the dangerous outward thrust which has endangered the spire so long.

The west front is famous, but it is not so good as the rest of the cathedral. It has still its characteristic features of the 14th century, with the familiar ballflower ornament, but the tiers of bays and niches have lost nearly all their 120 ancient statues, and all but a few of those now there are 19th century. They are arranged in lines across the front as at Wells, on the plan known as that of the Te Deum, with Christ above, archangels, prophets, martyrs, and the church below, and local saints and notables at the bottom.

The interior height is 115 feet from floor to roof. It has been said that no building anywhere is more logical, more lucid in expression, more restful to the mind and eye. It was built with 12 doors into it, 365 windows giving light, and 8760 columns holding it up - that is to say, a door for every month in the year, a window for every day, and a column for every hour. It was Thomas Fuller who met a rustic centuries ago wondering at it all, saying he had never believed that there could be a church with as many columns as there are hours in the year, but now he could never believe there are as many hours in the year as there are columns here.

The clustered columns of the nave, surrounded with slender shafts, support ten great arches, which support the triforium, which supports the clerestory. The arches are pointed and graceful, with masses of carved foliage where they join. Stone benches run round the base of the pillars all the way along and on them rest impressive tombs, taken from all parts of the cathedral and from chantries that have vanished. Those on the right of the nave begin with a conventional figure of Hibernia by Rysbrack, the fashionable sculptor of the 18th century, but they end with the magnificently mailed figure of William Longespee, in armour as he stood at the sealing of Magna Carta; he may have handled the very copy of it kept upstairs; his name is mentioned in it. He lies here with six prancing lions on his shield, a stirring figure in stone resting on a base surrounded by an oak arcade. These arches carved in wood have been here about 700 years, and the diaper work has still its silver sheen on some of them. It is the finest tomb of its kind in England.

This king’s son (for he was the son of Henry the Second) became Earl of Salisbury on marrying the Countess Ela in 1198, and he lies here with their son the second earl. The father sailed out and destroyed a French armada prepared for invading England, and he was one of John’s supporters at Runnymede. The son witnessed the confirmation of Magna Carta as his father had witnessed its signing.

William Longespee was the first man buried here, but behind him in the south aisle lie the monuments of bishops from Old Sarum, older than he. The great coffin lid near the door is the cathedral’s oldest monument, and next to it are coffin lids with two Old Sarum bishops deeply engraved by the Normans. Lying in a fine suit of armour of the time of Agincourt, richly decorated with a girdle which has lost its jewels, is Robert Lord Hungerford, his dog still with him wearing its rich collar; the dog has lost its tail, but it is lying close by.

The shrine of St Osmund a little behind William Longespee has three oval openings on each side and no figure on it; the six openings are where cripples used to rest their limbs to be cured the quicker by being a little nearer the relics of the saint. On the wall facing this shrine is the black figure of Eleanor Sadler, who was buried in 1622 under the pew she sat in daily for almost half a century. She is kneeling at prayer, and on a shield above her clasped hands is one of the rare bits of heraldry seen only in two or three places now; it shows a tiger looking at his face in a mirror and the idea is that, the tiger imagining the reflection to be its cub, the hunters were enabled by the delay to carry off the cub to safety.

The north side of the nave has a giant lying facing William Longespee - a giant indeed, for his remains have been seen and his thigh measured 21 inches. He was Sir John Cheney, who saw the famous fight on Bosworth Field which ends in Shakespeare with the line, The day is done; the dog is dead. It was the end of the Plantagenets and the beginning of the Tudors, and Sir John Cheney had borne the victorious standard of Richmond. Here he lies richly apparelled, with a little angel still left at his head looking mournful. Lower down the aisle is William Longespee’s son in chain armour, with legs crossed and hands on his sword. Behind him is an extraordinary little figure described (wrongly, we believe) as a boy bishop of the 13th century; he has iron rails above him. Such bishops were elected by choir boys and wore vestments and performed service as real bishops once a year; the custom is still practised here in modified form on St Nicholas day.

Higher up the aisle lies an old warrior in mail and chain armour, his head on a helmet, a fine lion at his feet, and a belt with the handle of his sword hanging to it. His tomb has lovely arcading, his armour is wrapped about him, and we can only just see the face of Sir John de Montacute, whom they laid here in 1390.

Following the wall round to the north transept we come upon some famous names. There is a brass set up by British architects to John Britton, who was historian of this cathedral. There is a figure by Sir Francis Chantrey of the first Earl of Malmesbury, who is shown sitting, and close by is a figure of Benevolence by Flaxman, who shows her lifting a veil from a relief of the Good Samaritan. On a bust of Richard Jefferies we read that he enriched the literature of his country and won for himself a place among those who have made men happier and wiser.

A graceful figure of John Bacon suggests Moral Philosophy mourning over a medallion of James Harris, and there are two Flaxman wall sculptures in a transept chapel in memory of two brothers; Justice and Literature mourning one and Science and Benevolence the other. At the end wall of the transept lies a 15th century Bishop Blythe, and near the bishop’s canopied tomb sits Sir Richard Colt Hoare in white marble. He was a Wiltshire historian, and this statue by a native of Salisbury shows him writing with a quill. Near it is the rare old clock without a dial which dates from 1386 and is thought to be the oldest in England.

Set round the choir are graves and monuments of varying value and interest, including a fine effigy of Bishop Wordsworth, the poet’s nephew. It is by Sir George Frampton, and shows the bishop sleeping calmly with his hands clasped and his crozier tucked under his arm, a white figure on a black base at the side of the lady chapel. Near it is the tomb of a maid-of-honour to Queen Elizabeth the First: she is with her husband Sir Thomas Gorges, under a canopy resting on twisted pillars. In the north choir aisle are two of the skeleton figures which mark the curious fancy of the 16th century, and in a chapel close by is the brass of Bishop Edmund Guest, with a walking stick, who assisted Archbishop Parker in the drafting of the XXXIX Articles of Religion in the Prayer Book. He was Almoner to Elizabeth the First and “he must both be a wise and a good man”, says Fuller, “whom she would trust with her purse.”

Next to Bishop Guest’s brass is a most unusual one to the 14th century Bishop Wyville looking out of Sherborne Castle. Wyville was involved in a lawsuit concerning the possession of the Forest of Bere in Dorset and appealed to trial by battle. But as it was not proper for Bishops to take up arms he appeared by champion and the champion is shown on the brass standing at the door of the castle ready for the ordeal of battle.

At the end of the south choir aisle lie a son of Protector Somerset and a sister of Lady Jane Grey, both at prayer, with one of their sons at their head and another at their feet. A modern sculpture designed by Sir Arthur Blomfield shows Bishop Moberly in four scenes, teaching, preaching, blessing children, and opening the first Diocesan Conference which he started. The bishop’s wife is remembered in the south choir transept in a splendid wall relief of the Angel of Dawn with a trumpet, and by this white monument is a beautifully cut stone in memory of a friend of hers, the wife of Archdeacon Carpenter, who lived-all her married life in the Close and was buried here on her fiftieth wedding day.

A little way removed from these rare simplicities is a classical monument, with gold leaves twined round stone pillars, to Sir Richard Mompesson, who reclines a little higher than his wife, suggesting his higher rank. Round the choir are three beautiful chantries, the best of them, exquisitely lovely, that of Bishop Audley, with original blue paint in the fan-tracery of the 15th century roof. Facing it is the chantry of Walter Lord Hungerford, with its rich heraldry, and a little way off lies Bishop Giles of Bridport in a 13th century tomb with a chantry built in the style of the cloisters and the chapter house. It has scenes from his life in the spandrels and lilies running round the canopy.

The choir has stalls which incorporate a little medieval work, notably the carved misericord seats, but most of the work is Victorian and later. The removal of the incongruous metal screen and the reredos has greatly improved the general effect of the choir. The bishop’s throne is a lofty timber structure with two lions at the armrests, saints crowning the pillars, and medallion portraits round. The organ is one of the masterpieces of Henry Willis, and its case was designed by G. E. Street. The vaulted stone roof is painted with roundels showing 24 prophets and saints, with Christ and the Evangelists, and panels representing the twelve months - January warming at a fire, July reaping, November cutting wood; they are modern reproductions of the 13th century paintings which faded away.

The choir is the last resting-place of the Countess of Pembroke, Philip Sidney’s sister. When they brought her from her great house at Wilton and laid her here it was William Browne of Tavistock who wrote the memorable lines:

Underneath this sable hearse
Lies the subject of all verse:
Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother.
Death, ere thou hast slain another
Fair and learned and good as she,
Time shall throw a dart at thee.


She lies under a tiny square brass before the altar.

Salisbury, famous for her matchless exterior and her superb natural setting, misses some of the glory that we find in other cathedrals, and it has little beautiful glass. But it has much glass that is interesting and some of it with a romantic story, and a few windows of our own time which are fit company for anything here. One of the best of them is the Powell window in the north choir transept showing the Heavenly Jerusalem. It is magnificent in red and gold, with over a hundred figures, many of them wrapped in wonder at this solemn scene, while little children, not knowing, are pulling flowers on the banks of a stream. In the south choir aisle are two windows designed by Henry Holiday, both fine, one with the four Marys and four other holy women in white and pale gold. Close by these is a Burne-Jones window with four angels high up in red, blue, green, and gold. It is considered one of his masterpieces; the chalk cartoons for it were sold for 50 guineas.

In the north aisle is a window to the fifth Earl Radnor, painted by his countess; it has saints and bishops against a background of vivid red wings. High above the high altar in the choir is an unusual painted window remarkably rich in colour showing Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness; it is 18th century and is given an unusual effect by being apparently unbroken into sections.

In Saint Michael’s Chapel, which has become the war memorial, and has a richly gilded reredos and a bronze relief of Bishop Ridgeway, are four modern windows ablaze with colour. In them are our four national saints, and in the next chapel to them a fine portrait of Alfred looks down among other national figures.

Most of Salisbury’s old glass was destroyed in the 18th century, but a window in the nave has a collection of fragments recovered by Dr Stanley Baker, who lived in a 13th century house in the Close. The best remaining glass is in the great west window, where are fragments from a 13th century Tree of Jesse and a throned bishop set between ovals of Christ and the Madonna. As we stand looking at this great west window we may turn to the south aisle of the nave and see what is perhaps a more important window still, for it has in it some of the best 13th century glass, forming a  Jesse Tree. Its colours are rich, though we can no longer see the vine springing from Jesse and covering the window, with the kings of Judah in its branches and Christ at the top.

The east windows of both choir aisles are old, the great south transept window is all old, and there is ancient glass in patches round the choir, most of it black and white made up in mosaic form.

We have yet to come to what most people believe to be the most remarkable interior in Salisbury, the Chapter House, reached from the cloisters.

The arch of the chapter house doorway has 14 small niches with sculptures showing the battle of the Virtues against the Vices, a noble entrance into a noble hall. On the floor are tiles copied from the old medieval pavement; on the roof the paintings have been done again after the originals. The central pillar from which this vaulted roof springs is 52 feet high, and the hall is 52 feet wide. The pillar has carving probably copied from books of fables in the Middle Ages. The roof bosses are elaborately carved with figures of armourers, musicians, apothecaries, and grotesques.

But it is the walls all round, the 49 niches of the canopied arcading, which attract every eye that looks on here. In the spandrels of this arcade, looking so fresh that it is difficult to believe it has been here about 600 years, is one of the most remarkable sculpture galleries in England, 60 scenes with about 200 figures, as well as about 60 carved heads on the slender columns of the arches. There are melancholy heads and merry ones, tender ones and pensive ones, heads whimsical and scowling, and three heads in one with three noses, three mouths, three beards, and four eyes. It is an odd collection.

But the captivating spectacle of the chapter house is in the 60 tiny sculptured groups which tell the Bible story from Creation to the Commandments. It is all marvellously wrought by the medieval artist, and now and then we smile at his wit, now and then we wonder at his exquisite skill, while all the time we are drawn to his work as one of the masterly legacies of the 13th century. There is the Creation of Adam and Eve and the animal kingdom, the Tree of Good and Evil and the expulsion from Eden; the story of Cain and Abel, the building of the Ark, the setting up of the Tower of Babel and the destruction of Sodom (in which one of its citizens is buried alive). There is the meeting of Jacob and Rachel, and the long and wonderfully pictured story of Joseph and his brethren, ending with Jacob’s journey to Egypt and leading on to the days of Moses with the passage of the Red Sea, the destruction of the Egyptians, and the Tables of Stone.

In the cathedral library is one of the original copies of Magna Carta. It may or may not have been made for William Longsword, but he is mentioned in it, and here he lies with it under the same roof, the man who saw it sealed and the copy of it neatly written on a single sheet of about 1000 words. It is one of only four copies known, one other being at Lincoln and two in London. It lies with many priceless documents.

One of the books was bound for Henry the Eighth by his own binder, and it was the king’s own copy of that book against Luther for which the Pope gave him the title of Defender of the Faith which is still on our coins. Another was a 9th century copy of the Psalms. Another was printed by Wynkyn de Worde from Caxton’s own type. Another has Isaak Walton’s handwriting in it with a couplet something like this:

To this blest man let this just praise be given:
Heaven was in him before he was in heaven.

Another volume has on its fly leaves a long list of all the dances of the day, written when they were no doubt short of paper. One of the charters here gives the cathedral a right to use the stones of Old Sarum for the building of the wall running round the Close in 1331. Altogether there are here over 8000 books, about twenty 15th century ones and about a hundred of the 16th century.

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