Creation of a Masterpiece

The design and building of Salisbury Cathedral, the Gothic masterpiece and pinnacle of English architecture, built in double-quick time.

View of Salisbury Cathedral, 1905.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.

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 1170s. The main spur to the removal may simply have been a desire to compete with other cathedral chapters.

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. In some cases, the building of a castle was associated with these foundations. In or before 1147 Bishop Alexander of Lincoln had constructed castles in association with new urban settlements at Banbury and Sleaford. The laying out of a new town in the valley of the Wiltshire Avon needs to be seen in relation to these wider seigniorial initiatives in the Middle Ages. What was remarkable at Salisbury was less the novelty of what was proposed than the creation of a town and a new cathedral together.

Such a project must have had behind it a visionary leader who could provide the energy, determination and organizational power to push it through. This leader was almost certainly the bishop, Richard Poore. Although the Salisbury chapter had in its ranks many brilliant men, among them a future Archbishop of Canterbury, Poore was the most significant figure of all. A distinguished scholar and a key player in the codification of the Sarum Use, the liturgical customs of the cathedral, he served as dean of Salisbury from 1197 until his appointment as bishop of Chichester returning to Salisbury in 1217 as bishop.

Alongside Poore, however, there was another significant figure. This was Elias of Dereham, a member of the chapter, the supervisor of the cathedral works, and probably the man responsible for the main features of the cathedral's design. Elias was a polymath. When Stephen Langten returned from exile to England in 1213, he appointed him his steward, or chief administrative official. In the weeks after the sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede in June 1215 Elias was active in organizing distribution of the Charter and its accompanying documents. A man with a talent for art and design, Matthew Paris described him as the 'incomparabilis artifex', the incomparable craftsman 'by whose advice and skill everything necessary for the making of Becket's new shrine (at Canterbury) had been prepared'. Elias became an adviser to Henry III (r.1216-72) on works at Winchester Castle and Clarendon Palace, near Salisbury. According to the antiquary John Leland, writing in the sixteenth century, Elias was 'the rector of the new fabric of the church of Salisbury from its foundation for twenty-five years'. There is some uncertainty about what exactly Leland meant by the term 'rector' here - was he describing an administrator or someone with responsibility for design too? Typically, the designer was a master mason, someone who had come up through the building trade; Elias was an ecclesiastic. But, whatever his role, there is much to be said for seeing him as the man who provided the ideas to which a mason gave physical expression.

What were the architectural characteristics of the new Salisbury Cathedral? Salisbury is famous for the coherence and restrained elegance of its design. There is nothing showy about it; everything is done in moderation. It is not going too far, indeed, to say that Salisbury is austere. In this respect it stands out among cathedrals of the time. Lincoln, the most important cathedral of the preceding generation, was richly ornamented; its capitals sprouted foliage; its interior was one of unparalleled exuberance. Even allowing for the loss of stained glass and polychrome decoration, Salisbury strikes a different note. Everything depends on the harmony and purity of the design. It is chaste. Salisbury's reticence appears to be conceived in direct reaction to Lincoln, and many have seen it as a critical response to the vision of Gothic afforded there.

Much of the explanation for the distinctive character of Salisbury is to be found in its architectural pedigree. Salisbury reflected the development of Gothic in the south and the south-east of England, where there was a tendency to a more economical style than in the north-east. One source of influence was the new retrochoir of Winchester, begun in 1202, which makes use of pillars very similar to those of the Salisbury Trinity chapel, likewise at the east end. Geographical proximity could account for this affinity, but it may also be significant that two successive bishops of Salisbury, Herbert and Richard Poore, were illegitimate sons of a bishop of Winchester, Richard of Ilchester. Another close parallel with Salisbury can be found in the chapel of Lambeth Palace, rebuilt at roughly the time that work at Salisbury was under way. Both buildings make play with simple groupings of lancet windows. Since the patron at Lambeth was Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury, and Elias of Dereham was Langton's steward and right-hand man, we may see further evidence for Elias as the originator of this particular austere style.

An understanding, however, of Salisbury's distinctive architecture cannot be based exclusively on aesthetics and an analysis of the dissemination of style. A cathedral needs to be seen as a frame for the life of worship which went on within it - the daily unfolding of offices and masses which made up the Opus Dei. Cathedrals were designed to meet the needs of that worship and to provide a satisfactory setting for it.

One of the most striking characteristics of the new building at Salisbury was its length - it was over a hundred feet longer than the cathedral at Old Sarum. Much of this length was gained in the nave - liturgically the least important part of the building. But there was good reason for this. The liturgy of the cathedral, the Use of Sarum, as reformed by Bishop Richard Poore, entailed lots of movement and activity. On the most important festivals of the Church calendar, there were magnificent processions down the length of the church and around the outside of it. At these times the cathedral became a theatrical backdrop, a setting for liturgical celebration at its most luxuriant, and the great length of the nave could be used to good effect. The frontage which the cathedral showed to the north, where the town lay, could overawe visitors just as it does today.

Another characteristic of the cathedral was the layout of the east end. This was considerably more complex than that at Old Sarum, a church which took the form of a simple cross with only a small projection behind the high altar. The new cathedral at Salisbury was shaped as a double cross: it had two sets of transepts, one at the main crossing, and another, smaller, three bays to the east. The purpose of these sideways projections was to provide accommodation for altars. In all, Salisbury had thirteen chapels - six in the main transept, four in the eastern transept, and three in the ambulatory, or passage behind the high altar. Together with the high altar itself and the nave altar there was provision for fifteen altars in all. While this was not exceptional, it was well above average for an English cathedral. If mass was said or sung at each altar every day as the rubric required, then Salisbury would have been a prayer house of quite exceptional intensity.

The role of the liturgy in shaping the design of Salisbury Cathedral is also revealed in the articulation of its constituent elements. At first glance, the interior appears to be executed to a uniform design. At no point do there seem to be deviations from the overarching master plan. Yet, in fact, across the building there are many variations in detail which had the effect of differentiating its component parts and, in particular, of highlighting the importance of the eastern arm. Variations in the design of the great columns were used to good effect. In the choir, the liturgical heart of the building, the columns are more richly shafted than those in the nave. Subtle variations were made in the treatment of the pillar capitals. Near the high altar, at the junction of the choir and the eastern transept, foliage carving was exceptionally employed; elsewhere in the cathedral capitals were of simple moulded type, devoid of carving. If Salisbury appears chaste overall, it is considerably less so in the choir than the nave.

Salisbury Cathedral has sometimes been viewed as a paradigm of Englishness. Its magnificent silhouette rising from the perfect cathedral close seems to sum up everything an English cathedral should be. In some respects, however, it is an odd man out: its design is actually quite distinctive; it involved a rejection of the style developed at Lincoln a generation before. Moreover, it is doubtful how much admiration it inspired at die time. Its purity found few imitators in the next generation of church and cathedral building. It was Henry III's Westminster Abbey, begun in 1245, that inspired imitators, not Salisbury.

Yet in one respect at least, Salisbury can be taken to exemplify Englishness. This is in regard to the English sense of the profile that a great church should present. Salisbury is long and relatively low; notably, it terminates in a square east end. In all these respects, it differed fundamentally from the standard French cathedrals of the day. French cathedrals were characterized by the massive height of their main elevations. Chartres, Reims and Amiens are all well over a hundred feet from the floor to the apex of the vault, and Beauvais higher still; Salisbury is only 84 feet; and this was higher than many English cathedrals. The English preferred to put the emphasis in their cathedrals on length - partly because of the need to accommodate processions, and partly because they took a delight in horizontal vistas. Thus Salisbury is 473 feet long as against a typical French cathedral length of roughly 400 feet.

But perhaps the greatest difference between Salisbury and contemporary cathedrals in France is to be found in the treatment of the east end. As in every English Gothic cathedral, the east end at Salisbury is square-shaped; it consists of a flat wall filled by a single big window or lancets. In France, cathedrals ended in a chevet - an apse with a constellation of chapels, as at Amiens. The French tradition never caught on in England, even though it was used in modified form at Westminster Abbey. The English preferred right angles at the ends of their churches. This may have been because it was convenient to place an altar against the end wall, and this could face due east; it may also have stemmed from the English taste for putting big windows in their terminating walls. Whatever the reason, the square east end became part of the English architectural tradition. Salisbury provides a good example of it; and its success there may have assisted in its dissemination. Salisbury's example may have been influential in another significant respect - in encouraging the development of big closes round cathedrals. The ample space given to the planners at Salisbury allowed them to distribute the canons' houses generously along two broad rows on the north and west sides of the precinct. These rows formed the perimeter of what was to become, and still remains, the most luxuriant cathedral close in England. Certainly, the big close was to become a spatial feature marking the English cathedrals apart from their Continental counterparts. In most French cities the cathedral rises straight from the streets, hemmed in by shops and houses.

One feature, above all, makes Salisbury famous, and that is the spire. It is the highest in England, at 404 feet. The spire provides a much needed vertical accent to the building, pulling the design together. So important is it to the success of the building that it is natural to think that it was intended from the start. Yet it was not, or at least not in its present form. The spire is the one part of the building that does not form part of the original master plan; it was built some three quarters of a century later, probably in the 1320s or 1330s. The initiative appears to have come from two bishops, Simon of Ghent (1297-1315) and Roger Martival (1315-30), and the motive may have been a desire to provide an eye-catching feature for a building otherwise inconspicuously low in a valley. The survival inside the structure of a wooden scaffold suggests that it was built from the inside outwards.

Salisbury Cathedral was built at a time when England was recovering from the turmoil of King John's reign. The civil war which began with John's rejection of the Great Charter in late 1215 had only just ended. Henry III, John's son, had succeeded to the throne, with the assistance of the papal legate, Guala. The influence of the Church on English life at this time was probably unparalleled either before or afterwards. The ambitions of the leading churchmen for spiritual and moral reform were high. It is no coincidence that Salisbury was built at a time when the people of England were recovering confidence in themselves and looking forward with hope to the future. An icon of its age, the cathedral is a product of a very specific set of historical circumstances.

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