The second cathedral in New Salisbury

The inadequacies of the location, configuration of the cathedral and housing of the clergy in Old Sarum were recognised by the closing years of the twelfth century, when the first suggestions of relocation were mooted. The proposal only became realistic when Pope Honorius II granted permission in 1218. With quite remarkable speed the new cathedral, chapter house and cloisters were built within 50 years from 1220 to 1268 (the main cathedral building being finished in 1258).

The choice of an almost level, virgin site allowed unencumbered progress, helped by the flow of generous gifts of funds and materials, including strong support from the young king, Henry III. The proximity of his palace at Clarendon just east of the new town enabled him and his court to keep in close touch with the project, overseen by a series of able bishops: Richard Poore (1217-28), Robert de Bingham (1229-1246), William of York (1247-1256), Giles of Bridport (1257-1262), and Walter de la Wyle (1263-1271).

There could scarcely be greater contrast of site than steep-sided hill-fort and flat water meadow. The space allocated to the cathedral and its precinct, in the south-west quadrant of the new conurbation, enabled space not only for the building itself and the new canons’ dwellings but also for the yards of masons, carpenters and other craftsmen and labourers.

The process of building began from the east end, as was typical; but the coherence of the overall plan, and the precise control over floor levels, suggest that the whole building was laid out on the ground from the outset. There are just two very modest changes of floor level in the whole building: at the sanctuary step of the chapels of the great transepts (also the entrance to the quire), and at the sanctuary steps of the eastern, lesser transepts. (There are additional changes of level in the quire, at the choir step, the presbytery step, and up to the high altar, some of which have been altered in position and height since their original construction.)

Because the building stands on the gravel of the water meadow, and the water table is close to the ground surface, the foundations are very shallow. Instead the pillars and outer walls stand on a stone plinth (stylobate). This has considerable impact on the ritual. In the original building there were just four places to cross from one side of the building to the other: at the eastern ambulatory beyond the presbytery, at the lesser transepts, at the great transepts, and towards the west end. It was also possible to enter the nave from an opening in the plinth opposite the north porch, but the plinth on the south side at this point was unbroken (though there is now an opening there).

No one can fail to be struck by the coherence, discipline and symmetry of the ground plan of the new cathedral. There are three principal spaces from east to west, each longer than the preceding one: Trinity chapel, quire, and nave. Flanking the Trinity chapel are two chapels; flanking the quire are the four chapels of the lesser transepts; and flanking the eastern end of the nave are the six chapels of the great transepts. There are two apparent departures from the original plan: the addition of the treasury and muniment room on the south side of the south-east transept, and the enlargement of the cloisters from the original plan, so that the entrance from the cloister does not align with the break in the plinth in the penultimate archway of the nave at the west end, as was originally planned. (The south walk of the cloister also protrudes into the bishop’s garden, standing on land made over to the cathedral in 1263 by Bishop Walter de la Wyle who had formerly been succentor.)

The coherence and discipline of the ground plan (and to an extent its symmetry) is carried into the architecture of the whole building; indeed there is an asceticism that is particularly evident in the interior that (by comparison with other English and French cathedrals of the period) borders on the austere, for all its richness of detail. Something of this coherence and discipline, of control and order, can be found in the Old Customary.