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HIGH CHURCH

From an 800-year-old rat in a skull to a mobile saint, Blue Badge Guide Warwick Allen tells the story of Salisbury Cathedral.

“Wiltshire is a county with history in every corner,” says Blue Badge Guide Warwick Allen. “You can’t move far here without stumbling across a Neolithic monument, an ancient hill fort, a ruined abbey or a stately home But the jewel in the county crown is Salisbury Cathedral.

The grand building, famous for its 404ft spire – the tallest in Britain – is not the original church. That stood in Old Sarum, a flattened hill-top fort that began as an Iron Age settlement, developed as a Roman encampment and Saxon fort before reaching its glory as a Norman bastion.

Salisbury Cathedral

In 1070, William the Conqueror raised a royal fort at Sarum, and the clergy built a cathedral inside the base walls. It must have been an imposing sight to look up the hill to see a citadel towering over the landscape. Climb up today, stand on the edge of the ditches, and there is a fantastic view across the valley.

But this mighty castle had a big problem. It was too cramped. The army and clergy were squabbling over space and resources, and Sarum gained a reputation for being noisy and cold during the Wiltshire winters. A new home was needed.

According to legend, Richard Poore, the cathedral bishop, fired an arrow from the fort, declaring that ‘where this lands I will build my new church’. The arrow struck a white stag that staggered on and died where the new cathedral was founded – some two miles from Sarum. The truth is that the church owned land by the river, so it was built there.

Work started in 1220 and was completed 38 years later. The masons accomplished a medieval miracle as most large churches take centuries to evolve, with changes bolted on over time.

Salisbury Cathedral spire

Salisbury’s only addition came a century after completion – its cloud-busting spire. You can only wonder at the builders’ bravado: if you stand beneath the spire and look up at the supporting pillars, they curve. Supports were added, otherwise, it would have fallen over – collapsing spires were a feature of medieval churches.

If that wasn’t perilous enough, the cathedral has foundations that are only four feet deep. It’s built on the gravel flood plain of the River Avon, the watery base holding it in place. If it dries out, the whole church will come tumbling down, so every day a churchwarden lifts a small stone in the nave and sticks a five-foot dipping stick into the foundations to make sure there’s water beneath.

The first person buried in the church was William Longspee. A brother and adviser to the king, he was shipwrecked after fighting in France and died on his return to England in 1226 – rumoured to have been poisoned by a rival nobleman, Hubert de Burgh.

The interior of Salisbury Cathedral
The interior of Salisbury Cathedral

In the late 1700s, the church authorities opened Longspee’s tomb and discovered the preserved corpse of a rat in his skull containing traces of arsenic. The 800-year-old rodent is exhibited in the Salisbury Museum.

St Osmond who had been dead for 120 years when he was buried in the cathedral. Originally interred in Old Sarum, his body was brought to the new cathedral and his shrine given pride of place. Saints were big business in St Osmond’s day, with thousands of people making their way to Salisbury – a sort of ecclesiastic tourist trade.

Pilgrims would sleep, pray and touch the relics of the saint. Some would even try to run off with a piece of bone to start a new shine. St Osmond’s tomb was destroyed in the Reformation, but the slab that covered his body was saved.

Magna Carta, Salisbury Cathedral

The church’s greatest treasure, however, is its copy of Magna Carta. This is a precious parchment as only four copies of the original 1215 version survive, and Salisbury’s is the best preserved. This document marked the first time there had been an attempt to officially limit the powers of the king, and the charter has a central role in British and international human rights.

My favourite clause, number 39, states that‘no free man shall be seized or imprisoned… or outlawed or exiled… nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land’. This established the right to trial and the rule of law. This small document has influenced the English speaking world and beyond – parliament quotes it, and school students study it.

Oldest working clock, Salisbury Cathedral

Near the entrance to the church is an object that symbolises the timelessness of the building: the oldest working mechanical clock in the world, dating from 1386. It’s not one you could use at home: it has no face and rings on the hour – to date it has ticked more than 4.4 billion times.

Salisbury Cathedral painted by John Constable

Stepping out from the church, look up at the magnificent west front. The setting is unique, radiating a sense of timeless calm watched over by dozens of saints whose statues cover the front of the church. It’s such a stunning vista that the artists Constable and Turner were compelled to paint it.