The cathedral community

At its simplest, a cathedral is a church where the bishop has his seat from which he oversees his diocese. ‘Cathedral’ is an adjective derived from the Latin name of that seat: cathedra.

The medieval bishop needed a staff to assist in the religious life and the administration of his diocese. For administration of the diocese his principal officers were the archdeacons – each with responsibility a distinct geographical area within the diocese. For the religious life, the bishop gathered a body of clergy to sustain a pattern of daily prayer, and to provide learning and education, not least as a means of training new clergy for the next generation. Some bishops had their cathedra in a monastic church; others based themselves in a church with non-monastic clergy.

The story of Salisbury Cathedral is one of a new foundation in 1075:  a new church at a new site with a new body of non-monastic clergy. These clergy were known as canons because, originally, they lived a shared life under a common code of canons (i.e. regulations). What started in the late eleventh century as a relatively small community of clergy with the bishop expanded and changed its nature in the twelfth century.

A bishop often had to be away from his diocese on affairs of church or state, and he increasingly came to rely on a disciplinary figure to oversee the cathedral church and the canons: the dean. For the regulation of the life and worship, the clerical community met under the dean as a chapter. Within the chapter certain of the canons took specific responsibilities: a precentor to take charge of the music and liturgy; a treasurer to look after the fabric and possessions of the cathedral; a master of the schools (later known as chancellor) to oversee education.

Dean, precentor, treasurer and chancellor formed the four pillars of the cathedral community. At Salisbury, they occupied seats at the four corners of the quire, emphasising their significance.

In due course the individual canons came to have greater independence from the common pattern of life. Each came to have his own house and household staff, and – above all – his own income, derived from a prebend. Canons too came to have responsibilities away from Salisbury. They needed to visit the parishes and estates that supported their prebend. Some also had responsibilities outside the diocese, either in offices of church or state, or in another community. They needed substitutes to serve for them in the cathedral when they were absent: each had a vicar choral (i.e. a substitute to fulfil the canon’s duties in the cathedral services).

The educational nature of the cathedral meant that, from the outset, there were boys and adolescents within the cathedral community. Their first task was to learn how to sing and assist in the daily services; later they studied Latin and theology, and many went on to be ordained ministers.

By around 1130, when Salisbury Cathedral had been enlarged, there was therefore a clear structure to the cathedral:

Principal officers:

dean, precentor, treasurer, chancellor (known as the dignitaries or persone)


by that stage about 36 [check number], but rising to 52 by the early thirteenth century


substitutes for the canons, providing a permanent body to staff the cathedral services whether a sufficient number of canons was present or not


boys beginning their church education, some of whom were regarded as part of the official foundation of the cathedral (pueri canonici – literally boy canons)

The community in quire

The Customary, with which this website is concerned, was a document that related to the conduct of worship in the cathedral, and especially in the quire. It was in quire that the cathedral community conducted the greater part of their extensive pattern of daily services – the liturgy.

Each person had a specific position in the quire, according to their status and seniority.

The community sat in two blocks, facing one another. Each block had three rows.

In the back row on each side were the stalls of the seniors, on the upper step.
On the right-hand side (looking towards the altar) were the dean at the near end, and the chancellor at the altar end, with archdeacons, canons and senior vicars in between them.
On the left-hand side were the precentor at the near end, and the treasurer at the altar end, again with archdeacons, canons and senior vicars in between them.

On each side in the middle row (the second form – implying, perhaps, both rank and furniture) were the junior clergy, mostly those vicars who were deacons and subdeacons.

In the front row on each side (the first form) were the boys. Those who were part of the formal institution (pueri canonici) stood nearest to the end of the dean and precentor, and they were ranked by seniority.

It was this ranking of the cathedral community that underpinned the allocation of duties described in the Customary.

On more important days there were either two or four members of the clergy designated to be rulers, with responsibility to take charge of the choral chanting, and to begin certain items. Their place was between the two sides of the community in the centre of the quire.

Certain persons were designated to sing solo portions of chant (generally two or four singers) or to read (i.e. intone) lessons or other parts of the service. On more important days some of these items were sung from specific positions in the quire: either at the step at the eastern end of the two blocks of clergy (the end of the chancellor and treasurer), or on the pulpitum (the gallery of the stone screen at the western end of the quire, the end of the dean and precentor).

Rank and location were essential factors in the conduct of the liturgy and the designation of duties, whose exact allocation is a concern that dominates the text of the Customary.