Salisbury, Wiltshire, UK: History and Notable Buildings Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Salisbury, Wiltshire, UK: History and Notable Buildings

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Salisbury Cathedral on a crisp, bright day.

Situated at the confluence of four rivers, the Avon, Bourne, Nadder and Wylye, with the Ebble joining 2 miles to the south, the medieval city of Salisbury (or New Sarum, to give it its official name) became established on its present site in 1220, when the former settlement at Old Sarum (known to the Romans as Sorbiodunum) was abandoned by the clergy and subsequently declined rapidly in importance. This was due to the Norman decision to build both a castle and a cathedral on the site. There are reports of brawls between the soldiers and the clergy, and matters came to a head when soldiers terrorised the canons and kept them from the town. In petitioning the Pope for permission to build a new cathedral elsewhere, the clergy used the excuse of weather and lack of water on the hill, writing:

Being in a raised place the continued gusts of wind make such a noise that the clerks can hardly hear one another sing, and the place is so rheumatic by reason of the wind that they often suffer in health.

The clergy also even claimed that the chalk in the ground gave off such a glare that it was making them blind.

Salisbury is the only city within the county of Wiltshire.

Location of New Sarum

There are several legends concerning the choice of site to build the new cathedral. Perhaps the most famous is that the cathedral would be built where an arrow, fired by an archer standing on the ramparts of Old Sarum, landed. If this story has any truth then either the archer must have been superhuman, or there must have been a very favourable wind because the distance is two miles (over 3,200 metres)1! Another legend contends that the Virgin Mary appeared to Bishop Poore in a dream, telling him to build in 'Mary's Field', even though it was low-lying and marshy.

In any case, the new site was much more fertile and gradually the new city replaced the old as a trading centre of regional importance. A garrison continued to be maintained at Old Sarum for some time after, but the old cathedral was demolished in 1327, with much of the stone being used for building the wall around the new Close.

The new city was granted its first charter by Henry III in 1227, which gave the citizens certain rights and privileges including 'freedom from tolls, pontage, passage, pourage, lastage, stallage and carriage throughout the realm'. At this time, the Bishop was given permission to build city ramparts, to rebuild roads and bridges, to hold weekly markets and an annual fair, and to collect taxes whenever the King collected them. Further Charters were granted in 1270, 1285, 1315, 1372, 1377, 1612, 1630, 1675, and 1707 which extended the right of the citizens. These are now in the care of the Charter Trustees.

Once the old city had been vacated, a peculiar position existed in that it continued to send two members to Parliament - despite the fact that the city had few inhabitants. The owner of the estate was able to nominate two members to sit at Westminster and the 'election' was held under a yew tree, which became known as the 'Parliament Tree'. This remained the case up until the 1832 Great Reform Act, which put a stop to this so-called 'Rotten Borough' system. At this time Old Sarum consisted of only 3 properties and only 31 people entitled to vote, thus making it the most notorious of the Rotten Boroughs. In 1931 a plaque was placed on a sarsen stone to mark this historic spot, which is situated on a footpath that runs along the northern end of Hudson's Field between Stratford-sub-Castle and the Old Castle pub on Castle Road (A345).

The (new) city centre has traditionally been divided into two distinct areas, the Cathedral Close and the commercial area centred on the Market Place. This sense of there being two aspects to Salisbury, the ecclesiastical and the business, still exists today. This separation of 'God from Mammon' is in evidence today as the gates to the Cathedral Close are locked at 11.30pm every night through to 7.00 next morning. The streets of the commercial centre were designed on a medieval grid or 'chequerboard' pattern which is still clearly in evidence today, and is something no other other cathedral city has. Each chequer was named after an inn or other notable building within it, such as Cross Keys Chequer - a shopping precinct.

Cathedral Close

At 80 acres, the Close is the largest cathedral close in the UK. Normally, a cathedral close is the residence of canons and other clergy connected with the cathedral, but Salisbury Cathedral Close is very cosmopolitan, containing some remarkable examples of medieval and Georgian architecture. Indeed, it is said to be the finest range of English domestic architecture anywhere in the country, the houses reflecting evolving architecture from the 13th to the 20th Century. Some of the houses are open to the public during the summer.

The Close is not reserved for ecclesiastical use; it also represents exclusivity. Four or five private schools are to be found in the Close, and some of the more select sort of professional people have their consulting rooms there.

The Close is also home to two museums which are on the west side: Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum which is situated in King's House; and the headquarters and museum of The Rifles (Berkshire and Wiltshire) Regiments2, which is housed in The Wardrobe.

King's House dates back to the 13th Century, when it was the home of the Abbott of Sherborne and so, at that time, was known as Sherborne House. The oldest part is the 13th-Century vaulted stone porch, but a large part is of early 15th-Century origin. The house was much extended in the 17th Century by Sir Thomas Sadler, who entertained James I here on several occasions, thus causing a change of name to the King's House. It was here that Sue Bridehead, the heroine of Thomas Hardy's   Jude the Obscure, was a student, 'Melchester' being Hardy's pseudonym for 'Salisbury'.

The wardrobe was one of the first buildings to be constructed in the Close and was where the Bishop kept his clothes and documents until the Bishop's Palace was constructed.

The Close has its own constables who, under the control of the chapter clerk, are responsible for the direction of the modest amount of traffic which enters the Close.

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral is unique in Britain in that, following the first three foundation stones being laid by Bishop Poore on 28 April, 1220, it was completed within a single generation, unlike other cathedrals which evolved gradually over centuries, with constant additions and renovations. As a result, it has an aesthetic unity of design which adds to its beauty.

At 404 feet, the spire is the tallest in England, and is visible from every approach to the city. It was added 100 years after the cathedral's consecration and its immense weight - some 6,000 tons - meant much strengthening was required. The view of the cathedral and spire from the water meadows, as immortalised in paintings by John Constable, was voted by readers of Country Life magazine in 2002 as the most beautiful in Britain.

Salisbury is one of the few Cathedrals built in the shape of a double cross with the arms of the transept branching off on either side. The cloisters are larger and older than those of any other English cathedral.

The Cathedral is home to a wealth of history and many unique treasures including an ancient clock mechanism dating from 1326 and said to be the oldest piece of machinery still working in Britain, if not the entire world. It was originally built to call the bishops to services. It has no hands and no clock face, but it rings a chime of bells every hour.

The Cathedral also houses the finest of only four original copies of the Magna Carta.

Mompesson House

Situated on the north side of Chorister's Green, Mompesson House is a fine Queen Anne period house, built in 1701. It was built for a merchant family of that name and boasts a fine staircase, and original panelling and plasterwork. It features a display of 18th Century drinking glasses and furniture and an attractive garden. Between 1946 and 1951 it was the home of the Bishop of Salisbury before the Bishop's residence moved to the south canonry on the opposite side of the Close. Mompesson House is now in the care of the National Trust and is open to the public. Its special exhibition of 18th Century drinking glasses, known as 'Captain Turnbull's Obsession' is the largest in the National Trust with 360 glasses on display. It also charts the life of the collector himself, with information about glass-making techniques, historical drinks and 18th Century drinking parties.

The Old Deanery

The Old Deanery was built by Robert de Wykehampton between 1258 and 1277 when he was Dean of Salisbury. Nowadays it consists of a fine group of medieval buildings, including the 13th-Century South Solar Range, the 15th-Century tower, the 13th-Century Great Hall with its original roof and central hearth, the butteries and the kitchen wings. These buildings are all set in grounds leading down to the river Avon.

The College of Matrons

Founded in 1682 by Bishop Seth Ward as a home for 12 clergy widows, the College is still used for this purpose today. It is situated just inside the North Gate which leads from the Close to the High Street. Sir Christopher Wren, who was working on the Cathedral for Bishop Seth Ward at the time, was involved in its design.

The Theological College

Situated in North Walk, the Theological College, which in 1971 became the combined colleges of Salisbury and Wells, was founded by Bishop Hamilton in 1860.

Following a review of theological colleges in 1993 the college closed in 1994.

The premises are now occupied by Sarum College which was founded in 1995.

Malmesbury House

Malmesbury House, situated in the north-east corner of The Close by St Ann's Gate3, was the former town house of the Earls of Malmesbury. Parts of Malmesbury House date back to the 14th Century and it boasts a fine staircase and plasterwork. On the south side there is a sundial dated 1749, bearing the motto, 'Life is but a walking shadow'. During the 18th Century, one James Harris was resident at Malmesbury House and, being a great patron of the arts, was instrumental in promoting concerts and music festivals in Salisbury. Harris was also a friend of the great German composer, George Frederic Handel, and Harris's letters confirm that Handel made at least one visit to Salisbury, in 1739. During this visit Handel attended a concert at Malmesbury House, believed to have taken place in the small room over St Ann's Gate. During this concert, Handel played the harpsichord and organ, and this was Handel's first performance in this country.

At the time of the English Civil War, the house was owned by Lord Coventry, a staunch Royalist. Together with Lord Wilmot and Canon Dr Humphrey Henchman (who was later to become Bishop), Lord Coventry assisted Charles II to escape to France from Heale House in the Avon Valley, Woodford, where he hid after the Battle of Worcester.

Wilmot and Canon Henchman used to meet in the King's Arms hostelry (see below), standing at the back of Malmesbury House in St John Street. From here they used to signal to Lord Coventry by means of lighted candles.

Charles II stayed again at Malmesbury House in 1665 to escape the Great Plague when it was rampant in London.


Arundells was originally a medieval canonry, owing much of its Queen Anne appearance to John Wyndham, who gave it as a wedding present to his daughter and James Edward Arundell, son of the 6th Lord Arundell of Wardour.

Arundells was the Salisbury home of former Prime Minister, Sir Edward Heath from 1970 until his death in 2005. The house, which contains many notable treasures of Sir Edward Heath, is now owned by the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation, and opened to the public for the first time in March, 2008.

Other notable buildings in the Close are the 14th-Century King's House, the Wardrobe, Wren Hall and the Walton Canonry. The Walton Canonry was originally the home of Canon Izaac Walton, whose father, Sir Izaac Walton - author of The Compleat Angler, sometimes stayed there.

Some Famous People Associated with the Close

Among the famous people associated with the Close, we may particularly note GF Handel, Sir Christopher Wren (who was born at East Knoyle, Wiltshire, just outside of Salisbury), Sir Izaac Walton, whose son was a Canon of the cathedral, John Constable, who painted his famous views of the Cathedral while he was staying at the Walton Canonry; and JMW Turner, who visited Salisbury between 1795 and 1811 to make a series of paintings of the city and cathedral for Sir Richard Colt Hoare.

More recently, former British Prime Minister, Sir Edward Heath, and author of The Virgin Soldiers, Leslie Thomas have lived in the Close.

It may be noted from the above that the Close has a great many literary associations as well as its more mundane history, so it seems fitting to note that this was the scene of Martin Chuzzlewit's architectural training4, Mr Pecksniff having required his students to draw the cathedral from every point of the compass.

The Commercial Centre


There are many fine churches in the City, of which we will focus on just four:

St Martin's Church

St Martin's is the longest established church in the city. The present building dates mainly from the 15th Century, but the tower and font date back to the 13th Century. However, a church serving what was in those days a small village stood on this site long before that, making this the oldest ecclesiastical site in Salisbury.

St Thomas of Canterbury

The Church of St Thomas of Canterbury started out as a wooden hut, built as a place of worship for the builders of the new cathedral, and may have been in place as early as 1220. This was later replaced by a stone building but the church as it now stands dates from the 15th Century. It still, however, retains some of the earier features. The cost of the new church was borne by the city's wealthy merchants.

The nave boasts a fine Tudor roof, but pride of place goes to the dramatic painting of 'Doom' above the chancel arch - the largest medieval chancel painting in England. This is believed to have been painted around 1475 as a 'thank-you' gift for the safe return of a pilgrim. This was whitewashed over during the Reformation and was rediscovered, uncovered and restored to public view at the end of the 19th Century.

The graphic, somewhat macabre scene shows Christ sitting before the New Jerusalem, with the deceased emerging from their coffins to face their judgement. The good queue up to be raised to heaven while the bad are forcibly led downwards to hell. One hell-bound woman is said to be Agnes Bottenham, who ran a brothel in Trinity Street. Eventually, she repented her sins and is reputed to have founded Trinity Hospital as a penance.

One of two figures on either side of the painting is thought to be St Osmund, the first Bishop of Salisbury, who was canonised in 1457. The other figure is thought to be St James, the patron saint of pilgrims.

The organ was originally presented to the cathedral by George III and transferred to St Thomas's church in 1877.

St Edmund's Church

St Edmund's Church in Bedwyn Street was built in 1269, its dedication being to St Edmund of Abingdon, a treasurer of the new cathedral shortly after its transfer from Old Sarum. The church was rebuilt in 1407 and, later on in the 17th Century, the tower was rebuilt in Gothic style. The chancel was reconstructed in the 19th Century and the old font was retained. The church became redundant in 1974, and is now the home of the popular and thriving Salisbury Arts Centre.

St Andrew's Church, Bemerton

Dating from the 14th Century, St. Andrew's Church is situated in the small village of Lower Bemerton. The 17th Century poet and priest, George Herbert, was rector of the church for three years until his death from 'consumption' at the age of 40, in 1633. He died in the parsonage directly opposite the church and his grave, marked simply with a tablet engraved 'G.H. 1633', is in the sanctuary of the church.

Herbert's poems were all published posthumously, as The Temple, by his friend, Nicholas Ferrar, in 1633. A memorial window in the church shows Ferrar holding the manuscript which Herbert had left him to publish. As a poet, Herbert was considered to be one of the 'metaphysical' school, along with the likes of John Donne.

George Herbert is mostly remembered today for his hymns, particularly his version of the 23rd Psalm and his statue now adorns the West Front of Salisbury Cathedral.

Salisbury Market Place

The original charter granted to the new city by Henry III in 1227 gave authority to hold a Tuesday Market. This grew into an almost daily market, but protests from Old Sarum and the nearby town of Wilton resulted in a reduction to Tuesdays and Saturdays. Salisbury continues to hold a market on these two days. Salisbury's markets are now among the most popular in southern England and are held throughout the year.

At the junction of Silver Street and Butcher Row stands the Poultry Cross, under which market traders would once have sold poultry. This beautiful 15th-Century structure is hexagonal in shape with a central pillar retaining demi-angels holding shields. This formerly supported the ribs of a vaulted roof. The Poultry Cross is the last remaining of four such market crosses that once existed in Salisbury. Although it was altered and restored in the medieval manner in the 19th Century, it is still largely original with many old stone carvings.

The Livestock Market and Corn Exchange were moved to a new site off Ashley Road in 1973, in order to relieve traffic congestion in the city centre. More recently, the Livestock Market has been moved out to yet another new site on Netherhampton Road, Harnham.

On the edge of the Market Place stands a statue of Henry Fawcett, who was born in Salisbury in 1833, and who was appointed Postmaster General in 1880 when William Gladstone was Prime Minister. Among Fawcett's innovations were the introduction of parcel post, the postal order and the sixpenny telegram to Britain. Thus, Fawcett was responsible for the origins of today's Post Office, and is considered to be one of the city's most prominent sons. Fawcett was also a champion of women's rights and used his power as Postmaster General in Gladstone's government to further their cause. Fawcett died in 1884 from pleurisy.

The Market Place was also a place of execution and the Duke of Buckingham was famously executed here in 1483, for rebellion against Richard III. There is a plaque on the wall of Debenham's department store in nearby Blue Boar Row to commemorate this.

The Guildhall

The Guildhall, which has its own square containing the War Memorial5, stands adjacent to the Market Square. The present building, which was designed by Sir Robert Taylor, was completed in 1795, and replaced the Old Council House which was destroyed by fire in 1780.

Medieval Buildings

Like most of England's medieval towns and cities, Salisbury has its share of black and white half-timbered buildings. Amongst the most outstanding examples are the following:

Hall of John Halle

The Hall of John Halle in New Canal, which is now the home of the Odeon cinema, is the most unusual of these. Externally, the Odeon has a modern fake Tudor frontage and the word Odeon in Gothic script. But step inside — the foyer is an original and typical hall of a 15th-Century merchant - the Hall of John Halle. John Halle was a rich wool merchant who was Mayor of Salisbury four times. His coat of arms and merchant's mark can be seen above a splendid stone fireplace. The hall features stained glass windows in which John Halle is represented holding a dagger and the banner of the heir to the House of York, soon to become the short-lived boy-King, Edward V. The hall also features a high, arched ceiling displaying fine craftsmanship. There are pikes and breastplates hanging on the wall. A plaque reads:

'Built 1470 - 1483 by John Hall, wool merchant and Mayor of Salisbury. Later used as an Inn. Restored by AW Pugin 1834'

John Aubrey, the famous Wiltshire antiquary, records that this house was a tavern 'on the ditch' in 1669, and in 1836 it became a china shop. The 'ditch' is a reference to the fact that many open streams once flowed through the city. The street now named New Canal commemorates one such channel. These channels were nothing more than open sewers and accumulated much rubbish. In the middle of the 19th Century, the population of Salisbury was growing fast, and it was more densely populated than most of the big industrial cities. There had been a number of cholera outbreaks at this time and, indeed, Salisbury was a cholera hotspot, being the worst affected town of its size in the country. A particularly high death rate in the 1849 outbreak was finally associated with the water channels and, as a result, from 1854 the channels began to be cleaned out and closed in. The channel in New Canal was filled in in 1875. This transformed Salisbury into one of the healthiest places in England. During the cleaning out of these channels, an amazing number of artefacts were found which are now held in the Museum as the 'Drainage Collection'. This is one of the finest early collections of keys, buckles, cutlery, spurs, horse trappings and pilgrim badges in the country.

House of John A'Port

The House of John A'Port in Queen Street, built in 1425 as part of Three Lyon Chequer, was the home of another wool merchant, contemporary with John Halle, who was Mayor of Salisbury six times. This fine half-timbered house is now a shop, Watsons of Salisbury, selling fine china and glassware, but visitors are welcome to browse around and view the stone fireplaces, the fine old staircase added during the reign of George I, Jacobean oak panelling and an upstairs room with magnificent Tudor roofbeams. One of the fireplaces has a carved oak mantelpiece, attributed to Humphrey Beckham, which has a depiction of the Sacrifice of Isaac. Beckham was Chamberlain of the Joiners' Guild in 1620.

Old George Hotel

Little now remains of the former Old George Hotel which originally fronted onto the High Street, as its ground floor has been knocked out to form the entrance to the Old George Mall shopping precinct. However, what remains, which has Grade 1 Listed status, was, from the 1960s until 1994, the Bay Tree Restaurant. Sadly, this closed down and the building stood empty for some 14 years before re-opening briefly in 2008 as the Old George Tearooms. Sadly, these closed in 2009.

Much of the building dates back to 1314 and among its features is a minstrels gallery, with the heads of Edward II and his queen, Isabella carved on the beam ends. Other features include a rare 18th Century staircase, Tudor plasterwork complete with a lion and a unicorn, and a bay window built by Italian craftsmen, moonlighting from work on the cathedral, at a cost of £1-00 in 1453.

Famous guests known or believed to have stayed at the hotel include Oliver Cromwell, Samuel Pepys (1688) and Buddy Holly. Indeed, Pepys recorded in his diary:

Lay in a silk bed, and very good diet...

The next day he wrote:

'paid the reckoning, which was so exorbitant... that I was mad and resolved to trouble the mistress about it and get something for the poor.'

William Shakespeare and his players are believed to have played a 'one night stand' in the courtyard, which had stabling for 50 horses. The Old George Hotel receives a mention in Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit.

The Old George Hotel is now open to the public on special occasions such as 'Heritage Days'.

The Joiners' Hall

Craftsmen have long banded together in guilds, each with its own meeting place. The Joiners' Company of Salisbury, founded in 1617, seems to have been an amalgamation of several allied craftsmen such as millwrights, masons, worsted makers and bookbinders. The Joiners built themselves this eye-catching hall in which they took the opportunity to show off their skills. The Elizabethan facade, therefore, is immediately noticeable for the quality of its woodcarvings - quaintly carved ornamental brackets supporting the first floor windows. These carvings include grotesque figures which appear to be hermaphrodites, having bearded male heads on female torsos replete with breasts. In fact, these are said to represent the local councillors, who the Joiners regarded as a lot of 'old women'.

The 17th-Century Joiners' Hall, now owned by the National Trust, is just one example of an interesting and beautiful mix of architectural styles, including Georgian and Victorian, to be found in St Ann Street.

Historic Inns

Salisbury has a wealth of historic inns, and so only three will be mentioned here.

King's Arms

The King's Arms in St John Street is a fine gabled and timbered building, said to be the oldest hostelry in Salisbury. Although the exact date of building is not known, the fireplaces are made of Chilmark stone, the same as that used in the construction of the cathedral, suggesting that they may be contemporary.

Haunch of Venison Inn

The Haunch of Venison in Minster Street, opposite the Poultry Cross, is noted for its timbered features and fireplaces, and is believed to date back to the beginning of the 14th Century.

Red Lion Hotel

The Red Lion Hotel in Milford Street is a coaching inn also dating back to the 14th Century and believed to be the oldest purpose-built hotel in Britain. It now has an attractive 18th-Century front, pierced by a high archway to admit the stagecoaches to the courtyard, which is the oldest part of the building.

It was from the Red Lion that the coach to London, the 'Salisbury Flying Machine', left at 10pm every night.

1At the time of writing, the furthest distance on record shot with any bow is 2,047 yards (1,871.84m). This was shot by the late Harry Drake in 1988 using a crossbow. The furthest with a hand-held - and pulled - bow is 1,336 yds 1' 3" (1,222.01m), shot by Don Brown with an unlimited conventional Flight bow in 1987.2Formerly known as 'Redcoats in the Wardrobe' museum before an Army reorganisation.3Saint Ann (sometimes spelled Anne) was the mother of the Virgin Mary, and therefore Jesus's maternal grandmother.4In Charles Dickens's 1843 book, Martin Chuzzlewit.5This memorial commemorates those whose lives were lost in the First and Second World Wars.

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