Old Salisbury: The cathedral

Pages 60-62

A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 6. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1962.

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In 1075 the Council of London decreed that seats of bishops in villages should be transferred to cities, and in pursuance thereof the united See of Sherborne and Ramsbury was removed to Old Salisbury. William of Malmesbury, who records the transfer, evidently thought it an odd way of complying with the decree, for he adds that Salisbury is a castle rather than a city, an unknown place, surrounded by no small wall, where water was so scarce that it was bought and sold there. (fn. 1) If he had written after a century's experience by the canons of that hill-top he might have had more to say about the chosen 'city'.

Bishop Herman, who transferred the see, began (inchoata) to build his new church inside the castle, (fn. 2) that is to say, inside the outer defences; but he died before its dedication. (fn. 3) His successor Osmund (1078) finished the church. In 1091 he executed his foundation charter, declaring that he had built a church at Sarisberiensem, and set canons therein, granting to them (inter alia) the church of Salisbury, with tithes and appurtenances there, and 2½ hides in the said vill and 6½ hides in Stratford, and before the castle gate land on each side of the road for the needs of the canons' gardens and dwellings. (fn. 4)

In 1092, only five days after Osmund had consecrated the new church, a storm destroyed the roof of the tower. (fn. 5) Bishop Osmund died in 1099, and a stone, bearing that date, which is thought to have been placed over his grave in his own cathedral, is now in Salisbury cathedral.

A great rebuilding programme was undertaken by Roger of Salisbury, the king's chancellor, who was nominated bishop in 1102 and consecrated in 1107. 'He built anew the church of Salisbury, and beautified it in such a manner that it yields to none in England, but surpasses many, so that he had just cause to say "Lord, I have loved the glory of thy house".' (fn. 6) Later he fell into disgrace with King Stephen, and was compelled to surrender his castles to him. He returned to Salisbury to die, and as he was breathing his last sigh, the residue of his money and utensils, which he had placed upon the altar for the purpose of completing the church, was carried off. (fn. 7) Osmund's remains were removed to the new cathedral in 1226. (fn. 8)

The episcopates of Jocelin de Bohun (1142–84) and Hubert Walter (1189–93) were not, it seems, important in the history of the cathedral church of Old Salisbury, but those of their successors were memorable. Herbert Poore had been an administrator of the see in 1185–8, and he became bishop in 1194. His brother Richard became dean in 1199, and was later to succeed him in the see. It was during their joint tenure at Salisbury that the idea was conceived of removing the church and see from the castle to a more convenient site elsewhere. As the bishop already held the meadow by the river and had the settlements there that were collectively known as veteres Sarisberias, (fn. 9) it was natural that this was the site to which minds turned. The plans for the church and the canons' houses were mapped out, and the planners could hardly have been blind to the commercial advantages of the site, enhanced perhaps by a bridge at Harnham. According to the writer of the Osmund Register, King Richard I gave his sanction to the plan, and the scribe blames Bishop Poore for failure to implement it: he likens him to the children of Ephraim, who, 'being harnessed and carrying bows, turned themselves back in the day of battle'. (fn. 10) But he acknowledges that there were difficulties; and the troubles of Richard's reign were followed by worse in that of rex crudelissimus, King John.

King John died in 1216, and Bishop Herbert Poore early in 1217. Probably before the bishop died the dean and canons had appealed to the Pope, hoping that a weak government during a royal minority would not obstruct the great design. In April 1217 the Pope issued a mandate to the papal legate to inquire into the petition of the dean and canons. Their complaint fell under two main heads. In the first place the complainants alleged that they were restricted and incommoded at every turn by their proximity to the garrison; in the second, that they suffered cruelly from the extremes of climate, wind, and drought to which their hill-top site exposed them. (fn. 11)

After due inquiry the bull authorizing the transfer was issued on 29 March 1219, and a churchyard was at once consecrated and a wooden chapel provided on the new site. (fn. 12) Peter of Blois, who had previously likened the cathedral on its old site to 'the ark of God shut up in the temple of Baal', (fn. 13) extolled the new site for its natural beauty and resources and for providing freedom from oppression. (fn. 14)

The traditional account of the transfer, recorded long afterwards, contains a number of palpable errors. The material passage tells that at rogation one year all the canons with their attendants went in procession from the close of the church of Salisbury to the church of St. Martin, and when the rogation office was completed they returned to the castle, but the king's officers denied them admission. The story of the bishop's intercession with the king, who gave leave to go to the Pope to ask permission to build the church, may be a memory of the permission for the removal given to Bishop Herbert Poore by Richard I shortly before his death. (fn. 15)

The abandonment of the old church seems to have had an effect something like escheat, and the king dealt with the cathedral fabric and the ecclesiastical settlement as if it were his own. In 1230 it was ordered that the hall that had belonged to the bishop should be repaired. (fn. 16) Probably little was done, for in 1237 the bishop's hall and domestic buildings were ordered to be taken down and the materials used or stored for repair of the king's buildings in the castle, saving the chapel that belonged to the bishop within the enclosure of his houses there. (fn. 17) The walls of the cathedral itself were left standing until 1276, when Edward I granted them to the dean and chapter; (fn. 18) though in 1291 the sheriff was told to deliver the stones of the cellar, which was the old treasury of the great church in the old castle, to the Friars Minor in Salisbury. (fn. 19) What was left of the cathedral and of the canons' houses in 1317 was asked for by the bishop, (fn. 20) and by 1331 had been granted to the bishop and chapter to build a chapel within the castle. (fn. 21) About this time (1328) Bishop Wyville began to build the Close wall at Salisbury, and the carved stone and builders' marks to be seen there indicate that the stone came from Old Salisbury. (fn. 22) When Leland visited Old Salisbury no tokens of the church and palace remained, (fn. 23) with the possible exception of the Lady Chapel. (fn. 24)

Tokens, however, remained underground, and the foundations of the church and adjoining buildings were brought to light in the excavations of 1909–14. They were found in the north-west quarter of the defended enclosure, which was marked off from the rest of it by cross banks to the east and south. The plans of both the earlier church of St. Osmund and the later of Bishop Roger have been discovered. The earlier had an apsidal east end, north and south transepts with eastern apses, and aisles throughout the whole length. (fn. 25) The later had a square east end with three eastern chapels extending beyond its predecessor, transepts with eastern and western aisles, and it incorporated the aisles and nave of Osmund's church with an additional length to the west. To the north of the north aisle was a crypt, with a cloister to the north of the choir; beyond it was the bishop's house, which included a large aisled hall. Sir Alfred Clapham concluded that the earlier church had no central tower, but he inferred from the unusual thickness of the walls between the transepts and the body of the church that the church was designed to have transeptal towers. He points out that the only other Romanesque church in England which has transeptal towers is Exeter Cathedral, which may have been inspired by Old Salisbury, and he adds that the scheme is so far unknown in Normandy, and must have come from farther afield. (fn. 26)


  • 1. Gest. Pont (Rolls Ser.), 67, 183.
  • 2. For a fuller account of the foundation and subsequent history of the cathedral church at Old Salisbury see V.C.H. Wilts. iii. 156–64.
  • 3. Chron. Hoveden (Rolls Ser.), i. 145.
  • 4. Reg. St. Osmund (Rolls Ser.), i. 198.
  • 5. Gest. Regum (Rolls Ser.), ii. 375.
  • 6. Ibid. 484.
  • 7. See p. 54.
  • 8. Reg. St. Osmund (Rolls Ser.), ii. 55.
  • 9. See p. 51.
  • 10. Reg. St. Osmund (Rolls Ser.), ii. 3, 4.
  • 11. Cal. Papal Regs. i. 46. For a fuller account of their grievances, see V.C.H. Wilts. iii. 164–5.
  • 12. Reg. St. Osmund (Rolls Ser.), ii, p. cvii.
  • 13. Ibid. p. xx.
  • 14. Patrologia Latina, ed. Migne, ccvii, 326–7 (Epistolae, no. 104).
  • 15. Sar. Chart. and Doc. (Rolls Ser.), 266–70; Reg. St. Osmund (Rolls Ser.), ii, pp. cii-cvi; V.C.H. Wilts. iii. 165.
  • 16. Cal. Lib. 1226–40, 172.
  • 17. Ibid. 281; for the chapel, see above, p. 56.
  • 18. Hist. MSS. Com. Var. Coll. i. 93.
  • 19. Cal. Chanc. Wts. i. 30.
  • 20. Ibid. 471.
  • 21. Cal. Pat. 1330–4, 234; and see above, p. 60.
  • 22. Proc. Soc. Antiq. (2nd ser.), xxiv. 64.
  • 23. Leland, Itin., ed. Toulmin Smith, i. 260.
  • 24. See p. 60.
  • 25. See also description of both churches in V.C.H. Wilts. iii. 156.
  • 26. Arch. Jnl. civ. 142; Old Sarum (Min. of Works, official guide [1954]).