Lovers of history should plan to visit Salisbury Cathedral in England at least once. Embodying 759 years of history, mechanical genius, and one of the most important documents of medieval England makes it one of the best cathedrals in the UK. It boasts the tallest spire in Britain, the world’s oldest working clock, and the best preserved original copy of the Magna Carta of 1215. It’s also recognized as having the largest cathedral cloisters as well as the largest cathedral close in all of Britain. As an active place of worship, services are still conducted, but it also hosts concerts, workshops, and various art exhibits. There are some amazing things to do in Salisbury, and a visit to Salisbury Cathedral is definitely one of them.
History of Salisbury Cathedral
After the Battle of Hastings, King William I (William the Conqueror) used the existing church of Old Sarum in Salisbury as his base of operations. Situated on a hill and surrounded by an almost impenetrable wall, William felt it was the most fortified place to be at the time. (Image courtesy of Flikr.)
Through the years, military and religious disagreements led to the royal decree of relocating the church. In 1220, Old Sarum was dismantled and reassembled on its current location in Salisbury.
After only 38 years, reconstruction of the main body of Salisbury Cathedral was completed by 1258.
The cloisters, chapter house, tower, and spire were built later but maintained the Gothic style of building.
Since most cathedrals took lifetimes to finish, Salisbury Cathedral holds the record for being completed in record time.
The cost of building Salisbury Cathedral was absorbed by vicars, canons, Bishops, and other wealthy patrons including King Henry III.
It has the World’s Oldest Working Clock
Built around 1386, this mechanical wonder has been dubbed as the world’s oldest working clock.
The original creators of the clock are unknown. It’s highly suspected (yet unproven) that it may be the product of three horologists: Johannes and Williemus Vriemand, and Johannes Jietuijt. It’s believed they ventured to England at the personal invitation of King Edward III.
Having been built for the sole purpose of chiming every hour to alert the Bishops of prayer times, the clock has no face.
The gears are housed in a wrought iron frame with no other coverings. It requires to be wound by hand once a day and will run for just over 24 hours before stopping.
When Colonel Edmund Ludlow took control of the tower in 1645, it was attacked by Royalists trying to oust Ludlow by setting fire to the tower. Ludlow eventually chose to surrender rather than go up in flames with the tower. All that remained was a burnt shell.
The charred tower was later pulled down in 1792. The original clock was taken to the Cathedral tower and remained in use there until 1884. At that time, it was removed and a new clock installed.
The original clock was forgotten until 1929. Soon after, it was relocated to the North Transept in 1931. Covered in dust and rust, it no longer functioned. But in 1956, it was brought to life again. It was painstakingly restored to its original luster by John Smith & Co, T. R. Robinson, and R.P. Howgrave-Graham.
Today, it’s on permanent display and ticks away the hours much as it did over 600 years ago. (Image courtesy of Flikr)
I see no advantage in these new clocks. They run no faster than the ones made 100 years ago – Henry Ford.
See the Tallest Spire in Britain
Fifty years after the Cathedral was completed, the spire was added. In addition to having the world’s oldest working clock as a claim to fame, it also boasts the tallest spire in England. .
Combining the height of the tower and spire, it measures 404 feet, making it the tallest spire in Britain (not just England). Piercing the skyline, it’s instantly recognizable from afar and attracts thousands of visitors each year.
Booking a Tower Tour takes visitors on an adventure of climbing the 332 steps of the winding spiral staircase that leads to the base of the iconic Salisbury spire.
The original medieval interior then leads guests to four balconies with a vantage point 225 feet above ground. The views of the city of Salisbury, Old Sarum, and the breathtaking countryside are amazing.
Entrance into Salisbury Cathedral is free, but there is a fee if you’d like to book a tour of the tower. Tours last for 1.5 hours, children are welcome, and usually take place once a day.
An instinctive taste teaches me to build their churches with spire steeples which point as with a silent finger to the sky and stars – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
See the Font of Living Water
Installed in 2008, the cruciform sculpture was created to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the Cathedral’s consecration.
It’s the largest working font in all of Britain’s cathedrals, and it’s the only one that contains flowing water.
A symbol of baptism, the “living water” pools serenely in a cross-shaped vessel and gently flows out of each of the four sides.
The beauty of the stained glass windows and high medieval arches are reflected in the mirror-like surface. Pye blends the stillness of the water’s surface with the movement of the underlying water as it cascades through the four spouts into inconspicuous grating embedded in the floor.
On the side is an etching that says, “I have called you by name, you are mine.”
See a Piece of the Virgin Mary
Rumor has it that among the many relics stored in the Cathedral is a piece of fabric believed to have once been part of the cloak belonging to the Virgin Mary.
It’s Home to the Magna Carta
The Magna Carta became the most important document in the history of England because it put an end to the unlimited power held by the British monarch.
The Magna Carta has been used as an example for many countries constitutions, including America.
The Fifth Amendment states, “Nor shall any persons be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”
Sound familiar? This idea was taken from Clause 39 of the Magna Carta.
Written in June of 1215 and signed by King John (brother to Richard the Lionheart and son of Eleanor of Aquitaine), it became Europe’s first written constitution.
It provided a set of boundaries regarding the King’s rule of his people. It outlines the protection of church rights, illegal imprisonment, and the promise of swift justice.
Four copies were made, and Salisbury Cathedral serves as the home to the best preserved copy.
Visitors can see it on display in the Chapter House inside the Cathedral. The British Library houses two copies, and the Lincoln Cathedral displays the other copy.
Unfortunately, it cannot be photographed, only viewed.
Famous Burials in Salisbury Cathedral
Well-known historical figures remain immortal when their burial sites are visited year after year. Their decorative and extraordinary marble tombs provide a glimpse into the occupant’s lifestyle in a bygone era.
The oldest tomb in Salisbury Cathedral belongs to Bishop Osmund of Old Sarum. Buried at the original church, Old Sarum, his tomb was moved when the Cathedral relocated to its current location.
While mainly used for the Bishops of Salisbury,
tombs of other famous figures reside here, such as:
- Lady Catherine Grey, Countess of Hertford, sister of Lady Jane Grey
- William Longespée, 3rd Earl of Salisbury, illegitimate son of King Henry II making him half-brother to Richard the Lionheart and King John (he was first person to be interred in Salisbury Cathedral in 1250) (Photo courtesy of Flikr)
- Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, first Englishwoman recognized as a poet
- Sir Edward Heath, Prime Minister of the UK (1970 – 1974), the most recent burial
- Sir John De Comtacute
- Sir Edward Seymour
Things to Do In Salisbury, the Town
After you enjoy a visit Salisbury Cathedral, check out the town attractions. History is around every corner.
In the lane facing the Cathedral green, stop for a view of a forgotten graveyard where victims of the Black Plague were entered in a mass burial spot called a plague pit.
Market Square witnessed the execution of the Duke of Buckingham in 1483. Accused of treason for rebelling against King Richard III, he was also a suspect in the disappearance of the two young princes in the Tower.
The River Avon is one of four rivers that run through Salisbury. Trees, flowers, pigeons, and flowing water provide a serene place for tourists to stretch their legs. Or relax on a bench and enjoy a snack.
Bodies were left in empty houses, and there was no one to give them a Christian burial – Samuel Pepys.
If time permits, explore a few of these places:
- United Reformed Church (est. 1879)
- Old Mill Hotel and Restaurant (Wiltshire’s first paper mill and dates back to the year 1500)
- Fisherton Street Clock Tower (built using masonry from a prison that previously occupied the area in 1492) (image courtesy of Flikr)
- Sarum College (once the Bishop’s Palace)
- Thomas Church of Canterbury (has the largest chancel painting in England entitled “Doom”)
- Open Air Market (every Tuesday and Saturday)
Nearby Things to Do In Salisbury
Shopping, boutiques, book stores, and restaurants abound in Salisbury. But if want to see more of the surrounding countryside, there is plenty.
Eight miles north of the town of Salisbury, the massive upright rocks of Stonehenge stand their ground and have bewildered archeologists for thousands of years.
Don’t miss the opportunity to visit this spectacular monument. It’s only a 20 minute drive.
There are no accidents, only unsolved mysteries – Sandra Kring
Other nearby ancient monuments are Avebury, King’s Barrow, and Woodhenge.
Bring a camera, some comfortable shoes, and enjoy exploring the area.
Why Should I Visit Salisbury Cathedral?
Known as the best cathedral in the UK, tourists from around the globe stand in awe of this place. The world’s oldest working clock. The Magna Carta. The tallest spire in Britain. The Salisbury Cathedral font. These are just a few reasons to visit Salisbury Cathedral.
But even if amazing antiquated medieval churches aren’t your forte, you’ll find tons of other things to do in Salisbury. Famous burial sites. A plague pit. Nearby Stonehenge. Execution sites. And shopping. Lots of shopping.
The town of Salisbury in Wiltshire, England, is bursting with history and beauty. Stop by this charming city in the countryside for a few hours or, better yet a day or two. It’s brimming with British culture, mystery, and charm that you may not find anywhere else.
Have you been able to visit Salisbury Cathedral? Post a comment below and tell us about it.
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