Discovering Salisbury - the Medieval Roots of This English City Built in the Shadow of Stonehenge Have Been Preserved throughout the Centuries

By greer, herb | The World and I, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Discovering Salisbury - the Medieval Roots of This English City Built in the Shadow of Stonehenge Have Been Preserved throughout the Centuries


greer, herb, The World and I


"Land is not land alone, something that simply is itself. Land partakes of what we breathe into it, is touched by our moods and memories." When V.S. Naipaul wrote those words, he was really talking about the atmosphere that spreads over Wiltshire, in the southwest of England, and especially Salisbury Plain. When, after half a lifetime in Britain, I came to live in Salisbury, the capital of the plain, I began to explore the region. Its sense of mystery is still palpable: ancient echoes seem to hover in the air, faint voices half-hidden behind the low summits of the rolling landscape.

Here Neolithic peoples raised and maintained one of their most important temples to the ancient gods: the mysterious formations at Stonehenge. These standing stones still bear witness to ancient worship, bestowing an aura of mystery that has clung to the region for more than five millennia.

Seen against the sun, Stonehenge is impressive. But as one travels south, something still more striking pierces the rim of the horizon: the 404-foot spire of St. Mary's Cathedral in Salisbury. It is the highest in the kingdom, visible from sixteen miles away and immortalized through John Constable's famous paintings. This great steeple weighs 6,400 tons, a mass that frightened its builders, who saw a supporting pillar in the nave bend under its massive burden and believed the great tower would crash down before their work was finished. That pillar is still there for the visitor to marvel at. In the eighteenth century, Sir Christopher Wren visited the cathedral, dropped a plumb line from the spire to the cathedral's stone floor, and discovered that the spire leaned twenty-nine and a half inches off center. A kind of architectural miracle (or the grace of God) has kept it firm and upright on its base, bent pillar and all, for almost eight centuries.

The story of its construction is told in William Golding's novel The Spire; its hero, Canon Jocelyn, forces the reluctant builders to carry their work through to a successful conclusion. Late in the book, on the pagan festival of Midsummer, Jocelyn stands on the scaffolding atop the cathedral and gazes at pagan fires burning all across the horizon. Golding does not say so, but his scene hints that this great spire is the Age of Faith's triumphant challenge to Stonehenge and the older gods who had once loomed over the ancient plain.

The cathedral is unique in another way: it took only thirty-eight years to build, a record for the thirteenth century. The famous spire was added later, being completed in 1315. There is a unity about the style- -pure English Gothic--that can be found nowhere else in the United Kingdom or Europe. All the other great cathedrals--Winchester, Canterbury, York Minster, Durham, Chartres--are mixed in style, with later additions. But Salisbury's uniformity is not monotonous, it gives the great mass of the cathedral a purity of line, delicacy, and lightness that are uncommon for its period. While the great medieval cathedrals in Italy and France rose up to express massive power, this fine English achievement utters a simple, graceful, calm, and principled tribute to the glory of God.

The cathedral's Chapter House contains a more secular sort of tribute to human endeavor, reaching down through the centuries to touch the American Constitution. Here is kept the best-surviving original copy of the Magna Carta.

Salisbury proper, just north of the broad cathedral green and its beautiful close, is technically a city, a status conferred by the presence of the cathedral. But the status is only technical. In fact, Salisbury feels and looks like a small English town of centuries ago. The buildings are low and provincially small, the streets are not crowded with traffic. Even on market days, when the central square is filled with a kaleidoscopic variety of stalls, there is a peculiar sense of peace. …

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