Salisbury Cathedral was originally located a few miles north of its present position at Old Sarum. Old Sarum town and its cathedral had grown up within huge hill top ramparts, which had served both as a fort and religious site. In the early thirteenth century the practical disadvantages of Old Sarum's high and exposed position began to tell. Then Sarum's religious and military authorities fell out, which gave impetus to plans to move the cathedral. By 1220 it had been decided to move Sarum's cathedral and indeed the entire town, down the hill to a new location at Salisbury. The new cathedral's foundation stone was laid in April 1220, and work continued for the next thirty eight years. Old Sarum was left abandoned, but echoes of the former town remained in the new one. Just as the castle at Old Sarum had played a dual role as fortification and church, so the new cathedral continued to suggest this dual role. Fortified gates, using stone from Old Sarum, were built at the entrance to Cathedral Close. These fortified gates can still be seen in Salisbury today. The Cathedral even seems to echo the hill on which the old Iron Age fort of Old Sarum was originally built. Hills have long been spiritual symbols. Hills offered physical security in times of danger, which meant it was natural for hills to take on connotations of spiritual security. In various parts of the world hill mimicking pyramids and ziggurats have played spiritual roles, and it does not take much imagination to see the tapering tower of Salisbury Cathedral recalling the long lost hill on which Old Sarum was originally built. Salisbury Cathedral's spire is 404 feet high, the highest in Britain. Special modifications had to be made to withstand the structure's massive weight.
Salisbury Cathedral's gothic architecture has itself also been described in terms of military symbolism. G.K. Chesterton, in describing similar gothic architecture at Lincoln Cathedral, has written: "The truth about Gothic is, first that it is alive, and second that it is on the march. It is the Church Militant... All its spires are spears at rest; and all its stones are stones asleep in a catapult. In that instant of illusion I could hear the arches clash like swords as they crossed each other. The mighty and numberless columns seemed to go swinging by like the huge feet of imperial elephants. The graven foliage wreathed and blew like banners going into battle; the silence was deafening with all the mingled sounds of the military march... And amid all the noise I seemed to hear the voice of a man shouting in the midst like one ordering regiments hither and thither in the fight; the voice of a great half-military master builder; the architect of spears." (From A Miscellany of Men by G.K. Chesterton, quoted in The Plantagenets by John Harvey P92)
John Constable painted a famous view of the cathedral in 1825, the spire serving perhaps to emphasise the skies he loved to paint.
Salisbury Cathedral is also home to the world's oldest working mechanical clock dating to 1386. This ancient clock works by ringing out the hours on a bell - the word clock comes from the Latin word meaning "bell". The cathedral also keeps one of four surviving copies of the Magna Carta.
Entrance to Cathedral Close
Directions: Salisbury Cathedral stands in Cathedral Close in the centre of Salisbury. Click here for an interactive map centred on Salisbury Cathedral.
Opening times: Please use contact details below.
Access: There is wheelchair access throughout the cathedral, but not in the tower.
telephone: 01722 555120
infoline: 01722 555113
to book tower tours: 01722 555156