The first cathedral at Old Salisbury (Old Sarum)

This section traces the development of Salisbury Cathedral from its foundation to the end of the twelfth century. At this time the cathedral was located in the hill-fort now known as Old Sarum, adjacent to the new Norman castle.

It addresses three topics

The bishops

Four bishops shaped the cathedral community and building at Old Salisbury
Hereman (1045-1078)
Osmund (1078-1099)
Roger le Poer (1102 [1107]-1139)
Jocelin de Bohun (1142-1184)

The honour of being the founding bishop has since at least the early thirteenth century been accorded to Osmund. That passes over the important contribution of Hereman. Hereman united the diocese of Ramsbury and Sherborne (1058), and then gained permission to remove his cathedral from the monastery at Sherborne to Salisbury (1075). The cathedral at Salisbury was an entirely new foundation. It was located close to the new Norman castle at Salisbury, within the boundaries of the older British hill fort. Hereman died before either the cathedral community or building had progressed far.

Osmund gave up his position as chancellor to William I when he became bishop of Salisbury in 1078. He shaped the cathedral community, saw to its endowment, established its ethos and priorities, and oversaw the building of the first cathedral. The remarkable surviving library of manuscripts copied and compiled during his episcopacy confirms the strong theological basis on which the cathedral community was founded.

Because of the complexities of appointing a new bishop (requiring consensus between cathedral, Archbishop of Canterbury, king and pope), there was a delay before Roger finally became bishop (1107). Unlike Osmund, he continued to hold senior office in government, serving as regent during periods when the king was out of the country. Absent from Salisbury on government business and with castles elsewhere in Britain, his relationship with the cathedral community was less close than Osmund. Nevertheless, he instigated a major programme of rebuilding and substantially enlarging the eastern half of the cathedral.

Roger fell from favour at the end of his life, losing many of his estates which would otherwise have passed to his successor as bishop. And whereas (on account of his political position) Roger used the castle of Old Sarum, this was not available to his successor, Jocelin, who may have been responsible for the building of the cloister and large hall on the north-east side of the cathedral. He was by far the longest serving bishop in these early centuries.

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The institution

Hereman had been a monk of St Bertin in Saint-Omer, yet, after a period of seventeen years at Sherborne, he removed his episcopal seat (cathedra) from a community of Benedictine monks and started to establish a new community of secular clergy with a new church in a new location. This contrasted with the wider trend of the Normans to establish or consolidate Benedictine cathedral priories.

It was Osmund who built up and endowed the new community at Salisbury. The exact nature of the institution is not documented: the founding charter seems to be authentic, but the so-called Institutio Osmundi describes the nature and organisation of the cathedral community at the end of the twelfth rather than the eleventh century. The evidence of the surviving library and the ground plan of the cathedral building suggest that Osmund as bishop may have surrounded himself with a relatively small body of able men who lived communally and canonically – that is, under a rule. While it is possible to glean something of the intellectual tenor of this community of canons, there is no information about their pattern of life or worship. However, it does seem that Osmund had in mind a close link between the cathedral canons and the parish churches which provided for their endowment.

It was during the twelfth century that the late medieval pattern of cathedral community, life and worship became established. In the early decades it seems probable that the canons were supported by a common fund and lived a common life together. During the twelfth century it became normative for most canons to draw an individual income from a specific prebend. Furthermore, with bishops increasingly absent from the cathedral on state or ecclesiastical business, the oversight and running of the cathedral was the responsibility of a dean, assisted by three other principal officers: the precentor responsible for the worship, the treasurer responsible for the fabric, and the master of the schools (later chancellor) responsible for education. These four were the ‘dignitaries’ or ‘persone’. This classic structure was imitated at other medieval cathedrals, and still persists today at Salisbury.

Not only was the twelfth-century bishop often absent from his cathedral, so too were many of the canons. Each was only obliged to be in Salisbury for one quarter of any year, and some who held other posts (even on the Continent) might rarely be in residence, if at all: rather the prebend associated with their canonry supplemented their income. When not in residence, the canon relied on his substitute – his vicar choral – to take his place and fulfil his duties in the liturgical services of the cathedral. Increasingly, the day-to-day operation of the cathedral depended on the vicars choral under subdean and succentor (as the deputies of dean and precentor).

The clergy therefore consisted of the four ‘dignitaries’ or ‘persone’ (dean, precentor, treasurer, chancellor) and the canons, with their substitute vicars choral. There were also boys and adolescents. Some of these were part of the cathedral foundation:  the Old Customary refers to the boy canons (that is to say, boys funded as part of the institution) as well as other boys in the order of seating in the front row of the quire.

In shaping the cathedral foundation, it was recognised that there needed to be provision for different orders of clergy. So, within the body of canons, there were those who had attained ordination as subdeacon, as deacon, and as priest. Later evidence (when the institution was larger) found in the rota of residence drawn up as part of Bishop Roger Martival’s code (1319) shows the allocation of prebends by their clerical order: 22 priests, 17 deacons, 13 subdeacons. Clerical order as well as seniority affected positions in quire:  priests and some senior deacons on the upper step on each side of the quire, deacons and some subdeacons on the middle form, and those more junior on the first form. Rank and precedence were important factors in the allocation of duties during the liturgy.

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The building

The cathedral at Old Salisbury was consecrated on 5 April 1092. By comparison with other Norman cathedrals, it was modest in scale and layout, especially at the eastern end. The outline of the nave walls and pillars can still be seen at Old Sarum. The foundations of the presbytery were built over when Bishop Roger enlarged the east end, but they are crudely replicated in twentieth-century concrete. The nave had two transepts, each with an eastern apse. The presbytery also ended in an apse; a foundation stone at the eastern apex, probably too small for an altar, may indicate the position of the bishop’s seat (cathedra). It is not possible to tell whether the canons had their places in the apse on either side of the bishop on the eastern side of the main altar, or whether there was antiphonal provision on either side on the western side of the altar.

After no more than twenty years, the original cathedral evidently proved inadequate, and the east end was replaced. What now survives of the eastern half of the cathedral built during the episcopacy of Roger appears to suggest a response to a changed or changing community: the quire could accommodate a larger body of clergy; the presbytery allowed for more elaborate ceremonial provision; there were enlarged transepts each with at least two altars; and north of the north transept was erected what may have served as secure treasury and vestry (at lower ground level and with massive walls), and above it another room which may have been the chapter house.

It was during the episcopacy of Jocelin that the old cathedral probably achieved its final state, with the addition of a large south porch outside the south transept, a new westwork, and a stone pulpitum between nave and quire. The cloister also seems to have been built at this time, to the north-east of the cathedral, bounded on two sides by the walls of the quire and presbytery and the north transept, from which access was gained. Like the treasury and vestry, the cloister walk was at a significantly lower level than the cathedral. It was evidently used for processions, but access may not have been easy. Indeed the whole of the old cathedral included numerous changes of floor level, partly the result of the rising hill on which it is built: this is in marked contrast to the floor levels of the new cathedral, broken by only two main changes of level, each a rise of one step.

Our understanding of the old cathedral is hampered by gaps in the archaeological evidence. The excavations undertaken in the early part of the twentieth century were interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1914 and never resumed. The far eastern end of the cathedral is particularly difficult to understand. Three chapels, the centre of which may have been at two levels, are separated by narrow passages within very thick walls. But notwithstanding the uncertainties about this and other elements of the building, it was for this cathedral that the Old Customary was compiled.

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