Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire


Cathedral at sunset
Choir and nave

One of the largest and most beautiful religious buildings in England, with the tallest spire in the country. Mostly constructed in the 13th century, in the Early English Gothic style
Free, though donations requested (£7.50 per adult)
On the south side of Salisbury, Wiltshire, near the River Avon; SP1 2EJ
Photo Tour (45 images)
Salisbury Cathedral is a typically large, grand and imposing building, mostly constructed in the mid 13th century, over a relatively short period of time (38 years), and not much modified since, hence its architecture, both inside and out, is consistent and uniform, and represents one of the best examples of the Early English Gothic style, characteristics of which include pointed, lancet arches, tall, narrow windows generally without much tracery, and columns formed of groups of slender pillars around the wider, central pier, intended to accentuate the vertical dimension. The only significant, (slightly) later additions were the spire, the tower and the west front, though some internal modifications have occurred over the years, including to the windows.

The cathedral is also notable for having the tallest spire of any UK church, at 404 feet (only surpassed historically by that of Lincoln Cathedral, until this fell in 1549) and for being at the centre of the largest cathedral close in the country, covering 80 acres - the main building is surrounded by extensive lawns, around which are various other ecclesiastical buildings (some now used for other purposes) including Salisbury Cathedral School, formerly the Bishops Palace. Other claims to fame are that the cathedral adjoins the largest cloister in the country, it has the oldest working clock in the world (built around 1386), and it contains the best preserved of the four surviving copies of the original Magna Carta, from 1215.

The interior of the cathedral is somewhat dark, due in part to the use of purplish Purbeck marble for the column shafts and another details, and the deeply-coloured wood around the choir. Some parts of the decor, particularly sections of the ceilings, seem faded or stained, and there is less embellishment that might be expected, though this is in keeping with the Early English Gothic. The floor seems somewhat more open, less cluttered, compared with some other cathedrals, and the whole place has an air of solidity, constancy and resistance, appearing little changed for centuries.


Salisbury Cathedral has a southerly location in the city, in the middle of a 90 degree bend along the River Avon, lined by streets on three sides; West Walk, North Walk, and, to the east, Exeter Street. Parking is available a little way north, in the centre. Like nearly all similar buildings, the cathedral consists of the nave to the west, leading to the crossing between north and south transepts and then the choir, presbytery and lady chapel, here also known as the Trinity chapel. It also has smaller northeast and southeast transepts, the latter housing the vestry, which is the only section not open to the public. The cloisters border the south side of the nave, and the eastern corridor connects to the chapter house, a beautiful, eight-sided building that houses the Magna Carta.


The usual entry to Salisbury Cathedral is through the western cloister, turning north to the nave, past a desk where donations are collected. Opposite here is a gift shop and restaurant, in a recently constructed, rectangular room between the cloister and the nave, formally the plumbery, an enclosure used as a base for repairs to the building, in particular the roof. The cathedral is open every day of the year, though some parts are occasionally closed for special events, and about one hour is the recommended minimum time to see all areas. Free guided tours are staged at regular intervals. The only section that requires special arrangement is the tower, tours of which are provided once or twice a day, take nearly 2 hours, cost £12.50 per adult and involve climbing 312 steps, mostly up a series of narrow, spiral staircases.


The first cathedral at Salisbury was at Old Sarum, 2 miles north, its position now evident only from foundations, uncovered during excavations in the 1930s. Relations between the bishop and the guardians of the adjacent castle had deteriorated by the start of the 13th century, and permission was given by the King for a replacement to be built a short distance away, the chosen site being a patch of marshy ground beside the river. The original was soon dismantled, many of the stones being reused, augmented with newly excavated Purbeck limestone, from the Teffont Evias quarries, owned by Alice Brewer. Work commenced on the replacement in 1220, and the main body was complete by 1258. The cloisters and the chapter house followed five years later, and the octagonal spire was in place by 1330; this was a major undertaking, and its great weight has required a number of subsequent alterations and reinforcements, including a set of cross-beams put in during 1668, designed by Sir Christopher Wren. As the cathedral was not originally a monastic institution, it was unaffected by the Reformation, and there have been no great changes since the 14th century.

West Front and the Nave

The west front is based on the design employed at Wells Cathedral - an approximately square frontage with turrets at each corner and a wider central projection, supported with buttresses at each edge. There are ten windows of varying sizes and many niches, 73 which contain a statue, mostly Victorian but some from the 14th century. The cathedral has a north porch, in addition to three doors in the west front, but the usual entrance is through a small door on the south side of the nave, accessed from the cloisters. The west end of the nave contains a few posters and historical exhibits, and also the clock, which was originally located in a separate belltower 300 feet north (removed in 1792). It lacks a face, designed as it was to record time only by sounding a bell on the hour, a function it still performs, following restoration in 1956. The nave is lined by nine pairs of slender pillars, accentuated by the surrounding thinner columns, separating the main area from the north and south aisles. Above are full-length galleries, one on each side, a feature also present in most other areas, while above this are the clerestory windows. Most of the lower windows are plain; just a few contain stained glass. One much recent installation (2008) is the font, at the centre of the nave - this is a cross-shaped, bronze installation containing a reflective pool, designed both as an ornamental feature, giving a perfect image of the roof above, and also for use in baptismal services. Between the nave and its aisles are several medieval tombs, the oldest from William Longespee, 3rd Earl of Salisbury (died 1226), son of Henry II.

North and South Transepts

The nave leads to the crossing, between the north and south transepts, the walls of which have many elaborate memorials, mostly from the 17th century and onwards. The ceilings are supported by plain vaulting, like that of the nave, though the centre portion is more ornate, crossed by a complex arrangement of ribs and bosses. The eastern side of both transepts adjoin a lower-height corridor containing three chapels; St Edmund and St Thomas to the north, St Lawrence and St Michael the Archangel to the south. The transepts are partly illuminated by a mix of new and old stained glass windows.

Choir and Presbytery

The choir and presbytery are set beneath a more ornate ceiling, decorated with circular images of saints and other biblical figures. The north choir aisle proceeds past one of the two organs, the morning chapel (housed in the northeast transept), the tiny chantry chapel of Bishop Edmund Audley (died 1524), and assorted tombs, including the elaborate memorial to Sir Thomas Gorges and wife Helena, Marchioness of Northampton, at the east end. South of here is the trinity chapel, or lady chapel, lit by a modern, rather dark, bluish stained glass window at the east end. The far side borders the end of the south aisle, which contains the most elaborate monument in the whole cathedral, to Edward Seymour (Earl of Hereford) and wife Katherine Grey. The corridor has other notable tombs including for Giles de Brideport, Bishop of Salisbury (died 1262), and Sir Richard Mompesson (died 1627) and wife Katherine; also along here is the vestry, housed in the southeast transept.

Chapter House

The chapter house, built 1263, has the traditional octagonal shape, centred on a thin pillar lined with the characteristic narrower, darker columns. The walls are decorated with medieval carvings, below eight four-light stained glass windows. The building contains various historical exhibits; most famous the Magna Carta, enclosed within a protective canopy to avoid light damage. A volunteer guide is permanently in attendance, to answer questions and also prevent photography, again in order to protect the document, which is unusual for its good state of preservation, having spent most of its life hidden in archives.