Salisbury cathedral: history and description

Document Contents

Salisbury cathedral is perhaps best known for its towering spire, and for the fact that unusually the cathedral moved a considerable distance from the original site of its foundation long after the foundation of the diocese, leading to a building more architecturally homogeneous than many others. However, the cathedral’s significance is also found in its constitution.

Osmund, the bishop under whose aegis the first cathedral was largely built, was the only Norman bishop who left a written constitution for his chapter. This seems to have been the model for the constitutions adopted by many later ‘secular’ cathedrals in England with their four dignitaries of dean, precentor (at Salisbury often referred to as the ‘chanter’), chancellor and treasurer.

Building began on the site now known as ‘Old Sarum’ under Bishop Herman in 1075, the cathedral lying within a new Norman castle on an ancient settlement on a high mound. The ground plan of this cathedral is still visible today in a site now under the care of English Heritage. The building work came to an end in 1092, only for the new cathedral to be struck by lightening five days later and partially destroyed. The cathedral was generously endowed with estates within the diocese, but with some more distant estates at Grantham in Lincolnshire (hence the later presence of livings there in the chapter’s patronage) and Somerset; from the previous see of Sherborne, the cathedral inherited a substantial endowment in Dorset, and there were significant holdings in Wiltshire and Berkshire inherited from Ramsbury. Osmund created alongside the four dignitaries (who received double commons) thirty-two canons, four archdeacons, a subdean and a succentor (subchanter) to form the chapter. The institution charter of 1091 gave all the prebendaries archidiaconal jurisdiction within their prebends, while the subdean held the archdeaconry of the city and suburbs of Salisbury from the dean.

The property held by the cathedral greatly expanded in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, especially under Henry I, under whose auspices the number of churches held outside the diocese expanded considerably: Godalming (Surrey); Hurstbourne, King’s Somborne and Odiham (Hants.); Bedminster, Redcliffe (Somerset); Alveston (Gloucester); Swinbrook, Shipton (Oxfordshire); Brixworth (Northants.). In 1122 four Devon churches were donated by a royal servant: Kingsteinton, Harberton, Alvington and Kenton. Later other extradiocesan churches added to the patrimony included Bramshaw (Hants.) and Bitton (Gloucestershire). By the later twelfth century the accession of wealth had led to an expansion of numbers of prebends to fifty-two, a total that would remain constant until the Reformation, while the common fund of the chapter also expanded significantly. Its officers in some cases acquired unusual powers. In 1262-3 an ordinance of Archbishop Boniface allowed the chapter to request any bishop they desired to dedicate churches or ordain candidates for orders whom the chapter had examined; from this originated the practice in which as late at the nineteenth century the dean would examine candidates who were to take up titles in his peculiar jurisdiction and give his certificate in letters dimissory for ordination.

The prebends nevertheless varied greatly in value, with Ogborne the wealthiest; Charminster and Teignton were known as the ‘golden prebends’, each worth more than sixteen times the poorest. Perhaps as a result the terms of residence demanded were not that exacting, each canon only being required to be in residence for a quarter of the year by the early thirteenth century. All the major offices were separately endowed, but apart from the dean not generously. Documents from the same period throw light on the vicars choral, of whom there were fifty-two, one for each canon, in 1297, at which date they acquired a common seal and were administering their own estate, including the church of Bremhill. Nominated by the prebendaries but admitted by the dean, each vicar choral spent a year on probation before being fully admitted to his office.

The most significant development in the early thirteenth-century history of the cathedral, however, was its relocation from Old Sarum to a new site in the Avon valley. The decision seems to have reflected the inconveniences of life within a secular castle and the exposed nature of the hilltop site. In 1219, under Bishop Richard Poore, a churchyard was consecrated on the new site, and the foundations were laid the following year. The completed cathedral was consecrated in 1258 and at the end of the century the famous spire was added. An extensive and memorable close was constructed around the cathedral (Kathleen Edwards describing it as ‘one of the most beautiful cathedral closes in the world’ [Edwards, 1986, 165]. Among the most striking features of the new establishment was a school which became an important centre of learning, indeed an incipient university. This tradition decayed in the 14th century, however, when more of the dignities were held by papally-appointed absentees. The century also saw a growing distinction between resident and non-resident canons as some remained in residence for more of the year in canonical residences.

Chantries appeared in the cathedral in growing numbers (thirty-three in existence by the sixteenth century, although this had declined to ten by the time of the Valor Ecclesiasticus), and their appearance led to the appointment of clerical altarists, responsible for altar furniture.

From the late fourteenth century residence seems to have revived among the dignitaries of the cathedral; the tenor of the life of the vicars choral changed too, with a stronger corporate legal personality and a common hall, but there were disciplinary problems and a decline in numbers. By the sixteenth century the number shrank still further to a small group. The pattern of canonical residence was also in decline: the ten to twelve customary in the early fifteenth century had shrunk to eight by 1524. On the eve of the Reformation the Valor Ecclesiasticus portrays a wealthy chapter. It estimates the common fund of the chapter as worth £601 net, and individual posts too seem to have grown in value in the later middle ages.

The Reformation itself had few constitutional repercussions beyond the consolidation if royal control over appointments to the deanery and bishopric. The number of residentiary canons remained at seven or eight, but the chantry priests vanished; and by 1547 lay vicars were being appointed to replace some of the vicars choral (who nonetheless nominated and paid these secular colleagues). From twenty in 1552 the number of vicars choral fell to seven in 1568, matched by an equal number of laymen. The altarists, meanwhile, deprived of much of their purpose, were initially turned into a job creation scheme for lay choirboys whose voices had broken, but thereafter the post became a means of augmenting the lay vicars’ incomes.

The other important consequence of the Reformation was the loss of some prebends: Blewbury, Sherborne, Loders and Upavon were dissolved; Faringdon and Horton were alienated to Protector Somerset, leaving a total of forty-six. A series of exchanges saw Bedwyn swopped for Uffculme and Charminster and Bere for Ilfracombe, both the new prebends lying in Devon; Axford and Ramsbury was exchanged for Gillingham, divided into major and minor parts; Radftyn was exchanged for Winterborne Earls. As before the Reformation, a number were annexed to other offices: Potterne to the bishopric, Heytesbury to the deanery, Brixworth to the chancellorship and Calne to the treasurer’s office; Ogborne was annexed to the dean and chapter of Windsor. The severance of Dorset in 1542 saw its archdeacon lose his place in the chapter.

The chapter seems to have undergone comparatively little disruption during the religious switchbacks of the mid-sixteenth century (its members in fact included the vicar of Bray) but there was a sense of advancing laxity arrested in part at the visitation of the cathedral conducted by Bishop Jewel in 1561, at which new statutes were agreed which required the four dignitaries to be continually resident while non-residentiaries should come into residence for a term or pay ‘fifths’ for non-residence: over the next two years at least six prebendaries were deprived for misconduct. But delinquency persisted, and the attempt to enforce prebendal residence failed. The limit of six or seven residentiaries was now established. The bishop held the right to collate to the residentiary house of Leadenhall; the rest were allocated by chapter election, often under severe pressure from the crown or lay magnates. In 1571 the required residence to qualify for commons was set at forty days a quarter. All prebendaries were summoned to a Pentecostal chapter up until c. 1670, and a system of preaching turns established in which each prebendary would preach once a year by the mid-sixteenth century. Canons were encouraged to preach in their prebendal churches and at the cathedral, where the office of lecturer was allowed to lapse. In the close the cathedral grammar school was refounded around 1540.

Under the Stuarts tensions emerged within the chapter and between the chapter and bishop, fuelled by religious differences as the latter echoed a more protestant temper in the city than was characteristic of the chapter. There were also disputes about chapter elections, and one of these, following the admission of Humphrey Henchman the precentor as a supernumerary residentiary by royal letter, ended in 1634 with a ruling from Laud that the number of residentiaries be permanently reduced to six and might include dignitaries who now lost their claim to double commons. In the same year new rules for residence embodied in a statute of 1635 established that two canons should be in residence and keep open house for each quarter of the year, attending services in person on sixty out of ninety days on pain of being fined and a rota was drawn up. An important development in the prebendal body in this period was the annexation of Shipton to the regius professorship of civil law at Oxford in 1617. Meanwhile the vicars choral had now ceased to lead a communal life in their hall while benefiting from a substantial rise in the income from their estates, which they stubbornly refused to share with their lay employees. In all parts of the cathedral clergy were in fact benefitting from land values especially through the fines charged on renewal of leases; while some residentiaries added to their income through selling on the advowsons of chapter patronage whixh now passed to each residentiary in order of seniority (in 1634 Edward Thornborough’s sale of the advowson of Britford for £70 was considered so scandalous that it was cancelled).

As elsewhere, the Civil War and Interregnum severely disrupted the history of the cathedral and chapter – no entries were made in the act books from 1642 to 1660. New prebendaries were appointed up to 1645. In 1648 Faithful Tate was appointed Presbyterian minister at the cathedral, and the city magistrates assumed control of the close. But Salisbury cathedral in fact survived remarkably unscathed – workmen were secretly employed by local gentry to keep it in repair.

In 1660 the dean and two surviving residentiaries were joined by four prebendaries at the first meeting of the greater chapter, and within nine days eighteen new prebendaries had been installed, as well as four new residentiaries being elected; the total of residentiaries would henceforth remain at six. The post-Reformation chapter and bishops appear to have worked well together to recover property and restore regular chapter meetings. The cathedral services were well ordered, the fabric looked after, and institutions such as the chapter school progressed. Less happy was the position of the dignitaries, required to reside without the rewards from which canons profited. And in the 1680s a serious dispute arose between bishop and dean which saw the latter challenge the bishop’s role in the appointment of prebendaries. By 1685 the dean had effectively run off with the chapter seal, and it was only the following year that relations were restored.

In the eighteenth century not only the Pentecostal chapter but also episcopal visitation fell into disuse. Meanwhile the income of the chapter from its estates increased significantly as large fines were exacted while rents remained uneconomic. The vicars choral had also profited, although they steadfastly refused to pass on benefits to their lay colleagues, provoking an extended dispute. Otherwise the main development in the eighteenth century was the extensive programme of works embarked on in the later century under James Wyatt, completed in 1792.

By the time the Ecclesiastical Commissioners came to describe the condition of the chapter at the end of the 1820s, the agricultural depression had had a significant impact on Salisbury’s revenues. Only Lichfield and York were poorer than Salisbury among old foundation cathedrals in terms of their common fund; on other hand the dean’s income was only surpassed by that of his equivalents at St Paul’s and Lincoln in old foundation cathedrals.

Shortly after the period covered in the database the commissioners intervened to radically alter the structure of clerical life in the cathedral, as the Ecclesiastical Duties and Revenues Act authorised a range of significant changes. The vicars choral (minor canons), who on the eve of this reform earned some £60 p.a. each, were now to be paid at least £150, and required to hold no livings more than 6 miles away from the cathedral. As for the prebendaries, as each office fell vacant its patronage would be transferred to the bishop and its separate estates to the Commissioners. Deprived of their estates, these offices would become honorary non-residentiary canonries. Two of the six residentiaries would also not be replaced, and their shares of the Common Fund would also go into the Commissioners’ pot. In future the dean would earn some £1,000 p.a. in return for 8 months’ residence, with the four remaining residentiaries taking some £500 each from the common fund in return for three months in residence; the chapter would no longer elect residentiaries, who would now be nominated by the bishop. And this diminished chapter would retain its corporate patronage, but in future be restricted in its bestowal to the canons, honorary canons, minor canons or clergy with at least five years’ service in the diocese.


The dean and chapter as a corporation presented to eighteen different livings in 1831. Within the diocese these were: Bishop’s Cannings, Bramshaw, Britford, Chitterne St Mary (alternately with the bishop, following the union with ***), Cricklade St Sampson, Homington, Melksham, Salisbury St Thomas, Stratford and Sutton Benger (Wilts); Hanney and Winkfield (Berks); and in Dorset (in the diocese to 1542, thereafter in Bristol) Alton Pancras, Folke (alternating with a private patron), Poorstock and Stour Paine. They also presented to Alvington and Kenton in the diocese of Exeter and county of Devon. In each case the right of nomination was taken by each chapter member in turn, although for a short period a canon residentiary could hold on in case a more valuable living became vacant.

The dean also has patronage of his own. He presented to the four prebends in Heytesbury collegiate church, Knook, Mere and Marlborough St Mary in Wiltshire; Hurst, Ruscombe, Sandhurst, Sonning and Wokingham in Berkshire; and beyond the diocese to Chiddingford, Godalming and Guildford St Nicholas in Surrey and the diocese of Winchester. He was also responsible for the appointment of the master of the Hospital of St John in Wilton.

The other officers of the cathedral were less favoured. The precentor (chanter) presented to Westbury in Wiltshire; the treasurer to Alderbury, Calne and Fighealden.

Finally, the prebendaries themselves had patronage in many cases of the livings in their peculiar jurisdictions, as follows: BEDMINSTER and REDCLIFFE: Bedminster with St Mary Redcliffe and St Thomas, in Somerset and the diocese of Bath and Wells; BISHOPSTONE: Bishopstone (North W); BITTON: Bitton in Gloucestershire and he diocese of Gloucester; CHARDSTOCK: Chardstock (Dorset); CHUTE and CHISENBURY: Chute, Winterbourne Dauntsey (Wilts); COOMBE and HARNHAM: Coombe (Wilts); DURNFORD: Durnford (Wilts); SOUTH GRANTHAM: Colsterworth, Grantham with Gonerby (alternate), Harlaxton, Stoke and Welby (all Lincolnshire and the diocese of Lincoln); GRANTHAM NORTH: Barkston, Denton, Grantham with Gonerby (alternate), Londonthorpe with Braceby, and Great Ponton (all Lincolnshire and the diocese of Lincoln); GRIMSTON and YETMINSTER: Yetminster (Dorset); HIGHWORTH: Highworth (Wilts); HURSTBORNE and BURBAGE: Hurstborne (Hampshire, diocese of Winchester); ILFRACOMBE: Ilfracombe (Devon, diocese of Exeter); LYME and HALSTOCK: Lyme (Dorset); NETHERAVON: Netheravon (Wilts); NETHERBURY IN ECCLESIA: Beaminster (Dorset); PRESTON: Preston (Dorset); TEIGNTON REGIS: King’s Teignton with Highwick, Yealmpton with Revelstoke (Devon and diocese of Exeter); WILSFORD and WOODFORD: Wilsford, Woodford (Wilts).

Peculiar Jurisdictions of the Dean and Chapter

The dean of Salisbury exercised an exceptionally large peculiar jurisdiction, covering more than forty parishes in Wiltshire, Berkshire and Dorset. In addition, he exercised something akin to episcopal jurisdiction over the prebendal peculiars and some parishes which had formerly supported prebends, adding another thirty-eight parishes where once every three years he inhibited the local jurisdiction as well as retaining some limited powers at all times.

Within the diocese of Salisbury after 1542 the dean exercised his full authority over Arborfield, Aston Upthorpe, Blewbury, Hurst, Hungerford, Ruscombe, Sandhurst, Sonning, Upton and Wokingham in Berkshire; Baydon, Heytesbury (see its description as a collegiate church), Hill Deverill, Horningsham, Knook, Mere, Ramsbury, Swallowcliffe and Tytherington, as well as the cathedral close , in Wiltshire. In Dorset he held authority over Alton Pancras, Winterbourne Anderson, Beer Hackett, Bere Regis, Bloxworth, Castleton, Caundle Marsh, Charminster, Clifton Maubank, Nether and Over Compton, Folke, Haydon, Hermitage, Holnest, Lillington, Long Burton, Mapperton, Oborne, Ryme Intrinsica, Sherborne, Stockwood, Stratton, Thornford, Turner’s Puddle, Winterbourne Kingston, Winterbourne Tomson, and North Wooton.

No other member of the chapter exercised such extensive peculiar jurisdiction. In the list that follows, the name of the prebend is followed by the parishes in the peculiar jurisdiction associated with it, with the county indicated by B, W, or D, unless more exotic!

BISHOPSTONE: Bishopstone (North W); CALNE (annexed to treasurership): Calne, and chapels of Berwick Bassett, Blackland and Cherhill (W); CHARDSTOCK: Chardstock, Wambrook (D); CHUTE and CHISENBURY: Chute, Winterbourne Dauntsey (W); COOMBE and HARNHAM: Coombe Bissett, West Harnham (W); DURNFORD: Durnford (W); FORDINGTON and WRITHLINGTON: Fordington (D); GRIMSTON and YETMINSTER: Yetminster, Chetnole, Leigh, Lyme Regis (D); HIGHWORTH: Highworth, South Marston (W); HURSTBORNE and BURBAGE: Burbage (W); LYME and HALSTOCK: Halstock (D); NETHERAVON: Netheravon (W); NETHERBURY IN ECCLESIA: Beaminster, Netherbury (D); PRESTON: Preston, Sutton Poyntz (D); UFFCULME: Uffculme (Devon); WILSFORD and WOODFORD: Wilsford, Woodford (W).

In addition the officers of the cathedral had their own peculiars: the precentor (chantor) exercised authority over Westbury with the chapels of Bratton and Dilton (W); the treasurer over Alderbury (with Pitton and Farley) and Fighealden (W).

The dean and chapter also had a corporate peculiar jurisdiction. This covered Bishop’s Cannings, Bramshaw, Britford, Homington, South Broom (W) and Stourpaine (D).