Formally known as the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Salisbury Cathedral is one of the UK’s most well-known and well-loved cathedrals. An awe-inspiring testament to Christianity, the scale and the grandeur of this Cathedral are truly breath-taking. Soaring up to 123 metres, Salisbury Cathedral has Britain’s tallest church spire, Britain's largest cloisters and also boasts the oldest working clock in the world.
There are plenty of great reasons to visit Salisbury Cathedral. Here are a few things that you may not already know:
- Salisbury Cathedral was built due to deteriorating relationships between the clergy and the military at the Old Sarum Cathedral
- Salisbury Cathedral build took 38 years to complete (1220 – 1258)
- It was paid for by donations
- The bishop of Old Sarum is said to have shot an arrow in the direction in which the new Cathedral was to be built, but he allegedly hit a deer which died in the location on which the Cathedral now stands
- It has the tallest church spire in the UK
- Visitors can take a tower tour to see the interior of the spire
- It has the largest cloister in Britain
- The world’s oldest working clock can be found in the Cathedral (AD 1386)
- The best preserved version of the four copies of the Magna Carta can be found in Salisbury Cathedral
We recommend you allow around one and a half to three hours to fully appreciate the Salisbury Cathedral, although you can see most of the highlights in 45 minutes if you are pushed for time. We recommend you visit the Salisbury Cathedral website for visitor details and times of services.
The History of Salisbury Cathedral
Originally, Salisbury Cathedral stood on the hill fort of Old Sarum. Legend has it that the Bishop of Old Sarum shot an arrow in the direction in which he would build the new Cathedral but the arrow hit a deer and the location of the current Cathedral is where the deer died. It has also been suggested that the new plot was chosen so that the Cathedral, Old Sarum and Stonehenge were aligned on a ley line.
The site of the old Cathedral provides fantastic views to the “new” one, which is now some 750 years old. It was paid for by donations; mainly from canons and vicars in southeast England who contributed an annual fixed amount up until its completion.
The Cathedral was built in one architectural style – early English gothic. Some 70,000 tonnes of stone were required to construct the building and the foundation stone was laid on the 28 April 1220. The building was finished less than 40 years later – in 1258.
A hidden 14th Century structure supports the hollow spire of Salisbury Cathedral which is only viewable to those who dare to take a tower tour. If you are brave enough to ascend the 332 steps to the top you can enjoy breath-taking views of the surrounding countryside, including the original site of the Cathedral.
Salisbury Cathedral Clock
There is a famous riddle which asks “What has hands but no arms and a face but no eyes?” The answer, of course, is a clock. However, Salisbury Cathedral clock is both armless and faceless as it belongs to an era when a church clock would only ring out the time on a bell. But what this clock lacks anatomically, it makes up for in historical importance. This iron-framed clock, located in the aisle of the Cathedral, dates from around 1386 and is the oldest working mechanical clock in the world.
Salisbury Cathedral's Magna Carta
In spite of its age, Salisbury Cathedral plays host to half a million visitors a year who come from all over the world to see this majestic building. Another important reason to visit lies within the chapter house. With its fan ceiling and mediaeval frieze, the chapter house is an enchanting space. But it is all the more enchanting for an entirely different reason…
The finest of only four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta resides here in the chapter house of the Cathedral. Dating from 1215, the Magna Carta is a charter which limits the powers of a king and gives rights to the common man – the foundation of constitutional law. There are two other copies in the British Museum and another copy in Lincoln Cathedral.
The Use and Construction of the Building
As well as being a major tourist attraction, Salisbury Cathedral remains an important place of worship. The Cathedral holds daily services and prayers are said at regular intervals. At 17h30 evensong can be heard, which is usually sung by the Cathedral’s choir.
The Cathedral is split into three levels – the pointed arcade, the gallery and the clerestory. Furnished with columns, stair turrets and the iconic central triple window, it is truly awe-inspiring. The west front façade is around 33 metres high and 33 metres wide. The Cathedral is decorated with quatrefoil motifs and more than 130 niches, 73 of which contain statues.
The Cathedral has an unusually tall and narrow nave, accentuated by the contrasting light grey Chilmark stone walls and dark polished Purbeck marble columns. Notable tombs are dotted between the pillars including that of the half-brother of King John, William Longespée, and the illegitimate son of Henry II – the first person to be buried in the Cathedral.
The spire and the tower added 6,500 tonnes to the building – a statistic not without its complications. The spires of other ecclesiastical buildings were suffering devastating collapses due to the enterprising nature of their construction. Over the next few centuries, buttresses, anchor irons and bracing arches were therefore added to the Cathedral to prevent collapse.
The large supporting pillars at each corner of the spire visibly bend inwards due to the weight they are under. It was therefore decided that further reinforcement was needed and in 1668 Christopher Wren designed tie beams for above the crossing, which were hidden from view by a false ceiling.
Salisbury Cathedral's "Living Water" Font
Heralded for its age and its religious and cultural links to centuries past, it is easy to forget that this space also contains some brilliant contemporary works of art. There is an amazing “living water” font, designed by sculptor William Pye, from which four filaments of water flow to the ground. The font takes a cruciform shape and is made from bronze and clad in Purbeck stone.
The font was consecrated on 28th September 2008 by the Archbishop of Canterbury prior to which there had been no permanent font. The surface of the water provides amazing reflections of the Cathedral, including Gabriel Loire’s “Prisoners of Conscience” stained glass window – another contemporary work.
The Cathedral also has a fantastic gift shop offering everything from gifts and souvenirs to clothing and confectionary. Meanwhile the Refectory Restaurant, with its expansive glass roof which provides amazing views of the spire, serves delicious local food from teas and cakes to three course lunches.
Salisbury Cathedral Close
Salisbury Cathedral sits in an 80-acre close – the largest Cathedral close in Britain which also contains a number of beautiful and historic attractions. Arundells was the home of former British Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath, and contains fascinating collections of his sailing and musical memorabilia and artwork including original political cartoons, bronzes and Oriental ceramics.
Salisbury Museum is a grade 2 listed building which plays host to a broad range of important archaeological collections including displays of Saxon, Roman and even pre-historic articles. The museum also contains mediaeval items which plot the history of Old Sarum and Salisbury. Additionally, the museum also has a range of artworks including five Turner watercolours.
The Wardrobe houses the Rifles Museum and delves into the fascinating past of the Berkshire and Wiltshire infantry regiments. The riverside garden is often used for wedding receptions and other events as it provides gorgeous views over the River Avon and the nearby water meadows.
Mompesson House is an 18th Century Queen Anne style building which was featured in the film ‘Sense and Sensibility’. The house is decorated with ornate plasterwork and has a beautiful carved oak staircase. Quintessentially high class, Mompesson House is the pinnacle of decadence and a truly unique space.
Where to Stay
Salisbury Cathedral is just eight miles from Stonehenge – the prehistoric standing stone circle which is an iconic landmark, mystifying attraction, and spiritual burial ground. If you are looking for accommodation near to both of these fantastic attractions, look no further than the Holiday Inn Salisbury-Stonehenge.
Just a stone’s throw from Stonehenge and with modern, air-conditioned rooms this modern hotel also boasts a quality restaurant, the Solstice Bar & Grill. You’ll also find a fantastic Magna Carta Package on offer, which includes two tickets to the Magna Carta Exhibition where you can view one of only four remaining original copies of the Magna Carta in existence.