Creation of a Masterpiece: Nigel Saul Investigates the Building of Salisbury Cathedral, the Gothic Masterpiece Built in Double-Quick Time

By Saul, Nigel | History Today, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Creation of a Masterpiece: Nigel Saul Investigates the Building of Salisbury Cathedral, the Gothic Masterpiece Built in Double-Quick Time


Saul, Nigel, History Today


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Three quarters of a millennium ago in the spring of 1258, the soaring new cathedral at Salisbury was dedicated. The ceremony, staged in the presence of Henry III and his queen, was a lavish one. With indulgences of a year and forty days offered to all who attended during the octave of the dedication, large crowds poured in. The cathedral had been built on a virgin site in a little under forty years. It ranked among the most remarkable and innovative structures of an age rich in architectural creativity. The story of its conception and creation sheds light on many of the key impulses in English thirteenth-century religion and society.

The building of the cathedral represented the realization of a scheme which had been conceived back in the later twelfth century. Its predecessor as cathedral had been sited at the hilltop city of Old Sarum, a few miles to the north, whither the see had been moved from Sherborne in 1075. As early as Richard I's reign (r.1189-99), plans had been conceived for a move to a new site on episcopal property in the valley of the Avon. For a generation the scheme had been frustrated by the political and religious upheavals of John's reign (1199-1216), which included the imposition of the Interdict on England (the suspension of religious services in March 1208, following John's refusal to accept the pope's choice of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury) and the king's excommunication in 1209. After the accession of Henry III in 1216, however, and the appointment to the bishopric of the energetic Richard Poore (d.1237) the following year, the project was revived, and in 1218 formal approval was given by Rome. The foundation stones were laid at a ceremony in 1220. The bishop laid the first three stones for himself, the pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury; the earl of Salisbury and his countess then laid the next two.

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According to the account of William de Wanda, precentor and, from 1220, dean, the main reasons for the move from Old Sarum were the exposed nature of the site and the inconvenient proximity of the castle and its noisy garrison. A more important consideration, perhaps, may have been lack of space: there was little or no room to enlarge the cathedral, a serious drawback in an age of competitive cathedral building. Cathedrals everywhere were being built bigger. The canons of Salisbury could hardly have been content with a church a mere 300 feet long, when that at Winchester, twenty miles away, measured 500 feet. The canons may also have taken note of the building of an entirely new cathedral at Wells, the diocese to the west, in the l170s. The main spur to the removal may simply have been a desire to compete with other cathedral chapters.

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Yet what was proposed at Salisbury was not simply the building of a cathedral: it was the laying out of an entirely new city. North of the cathedral and its surrounding close a web of streets was laid out in regular grid pattern with a market place and a parish church near the middle. Plots for houses and shops were created, and incentives were offered to traders to settle there. The city was instantly successful. By the end of the century, Salisbury ranked among the most prosperous urban centres in southern England, and was a noted centre for the cloth industry.

Although the scale of the works undertaken were without precedent, parallels to them can be found in many smaller enterprises at the time. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a period of rapid economic expansion across Europe. Lords with an entrepreneurial bent sponsored new towns in many parts of England. In the twelfth century the bishops of Norwich developed a new town at Lynn, where the Ouse emptied into the Wash. At Leeds in 1207 an entirely new borough was laid out by the Paynels to one side of the existing village. In 1215 the abbot of Eynsham established a borough on demesne land by the side of the old village. …

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