Sunday, January 9, 2011

Salisbury People

Guess where?
Stonehenge is a dramatic and moving place, but it is hard to avoid the thought: who built it? The answer seems to be: the Beaker people. Beaker? Yes, taking their name from a distinctive kind of pot, which they were fond of burying with their deceased in the hundreds of Neolithic barrows surrounding Stonehenge. The name seems a little, well, insufficient for people – late stone age people – who could organise themselves enough to drag huge stones all the way from Wales and figure out how to stand them upright, top them with huge stone lintels, held together by mortise and tenon joints; and, moreover, align them to the winter and summer solstices so that the whole stone circle acts like a sun calendar. Beaker? Oh, well.

Today the British weather continued balmy – a sunny 5 degrees – so I decided to seize the day, so to speak, and have an Outing. I chose Salisbury, because it seemed full of interesting things, is only 1.5 hours away by train, and there’s an easy-to-find-and-catch bus out to Stonehenge. I have visited Stonehenge before, but that was in 1993, so barely counts.

Stonehenge was, as I remembered it, beautiful and kind of spooky. It sits in a field, only just missed by the A344 road: it is hard to imagine the lack of imagination which allowed the building of a road virtually grazing the stones – the ‘Heel Stone’ which marks the ancient entrance to the site is mere feet from the tarmac, which bisects the ancient ‘Avenue’ which approaches the stone circle. English Heritage, which owns and runs the site (I joined them today) has plans to ditch the road and return it to grass. I don’t know how they are getting on with the politics of that.

Interesting factoids I learnt today about Stonehenge: it started as a ringed ditch with a bank about 2 metres high, dug from the chalk of Salisbury Plain in about 3000 BC. Despite the rudimentary state of civilisation at the time, the early Britons must have had (a) a certain amount of community and organisation to achieve its building; and (b) a reason. The latter still remains a matter for pure speculation. A ditch with a bank is called a ‘henge’, and there are other henges nearby, including one called ‘Woodhenge’. Indeed, before the stones arrived, Stonehenge was made up of wooden poles, perhaps totem poles. Then the huge stones were dragged from Wales (the smaller bluestones) and Marlborough Downs (the huge sarsen stones). The thing was built and changed over about 1400 years – a long time, folks – up until about 1600 BC. Apparently druids were never involved, although their modern reincarnations have rather claimed it as their own in the last 100 years.

In 1915 there was a big sale: Stonehenge was put on the market, presumably by the farmer who owned it. It was bought by a local named Cecil Chubb for £6,600, and he donated it to the nation. Go, Cecil! Of the big upright stones, one third of their length is buried in the ground. But you should also know that several of the bigger ones are now anchored with concrete, and one of the huge ‘trilithons’, which had fallen down in 1797, was re-erected in 1958. There has been quite an amount of messing about with the site over the years, as you can imagine. The low rope barricade with prevents visitors wandering amongst the stones was introduced in 1978. It is not at all intrusive to one's contemplation (or photographing) of the stones, and prevents graffitists, who years ago came prepared with hammers and chisels.

On the earthworks of Old Sarum
Fast-forward now about 2500 years to William the Conqueror (‘Uncle Bill the Conqueror’ as we call him in the family – I’ll explain that sometime) and the site of his Norman castle on top of an Iron Age fortification: Old Sarum [there's a great aerial shot on this link]. Old Sarum is just outside Salisbury – in fact, it was abandoned to move the settlement down onto the river plains where modern Salisbury stands (at the confluence of five rivers – no, I can’t remember them all. The Avon is one.) Of course, ‘modern’ is perhaps the wrong word here, since Salisbury still shows many signs of its boom time as a medieval market town. Old Sarum, meanwhile, sits atop its huge earthworks. William the Conqueror had a hill fort built there shortly after, well, conquering, and had all the landholders come to him on Lammas Day (August 1 – surely you knew that?) and swear their loyalty with ‘The Oath of Sarum’.

But possibly more interesting is a later occupant of the castle, Bishop Roger (an excellent name, don’t you think? Eclipsed in attractiveness only by that of his successor, Bishop Jocelyn).  Roger had the place from about 1102. He was a close advisor of Henry I, and after 1120 acted as regent while Henry was off fighting wars and so on. He began the building of a cathedral on the site, as well as expanding the castle.  Roger also got to handle the money, and became the first ‘Chancellor of the Exchequer’. In one of those little factoids I love to find, it seems that the office was called ‘exchequer’ after a method of audit that used counters on a chequer board.  Cool, eh?

But eventually Old Sarum was abandoned for new Salisbury, and in 1227 work began on the new Cathedral in Salisbury – using just about all the stone from the old one at Sarum, so that only the foundational outlines of the old cathedral can be seen today. Oh, and beautiful views across the river valley to Salisbury and the elegant, soaring spire of the current Cathedral.

View to Salisbury (OK, it was a little frosty up  there)

The 'Leaning Tower' of Salisbury
Salisbury Cathedral is a thing of beauty. It is dominated by Britain's tallest spire (123m) which was built between AD1310-1333. Somewhat worryingly, the spire now leans 69.85cm to the south and 44.44cm to the west. The guide assured us it was not about to fall down, but to ‘keep to the east’, just in case. It has the largest Cathedral Close in Britain (80 acres) and the largest Cathedral Cloisters. Are you getting the idea? It’s BIG. It is reputed that there are 365 (the number of days in a year) windows and 8760 (the number of hours in a year) marble pillars in the Cathedral.

The St Johns Singers (from their website - not in Salisbury)
As for me, I like to see these church buildings in action, so today I attended Choral Evensong at 3 pm. The usual choir was away (Christmas holidays, perhaps?) but music was provided by The St Johns Singers of Salisbury, and very fine they were too. The small but appreciative congregation sat alongside the choir in the Quire stalls (largest and earliest complete set in Britain). The service acknowledged the lingering of Christmas (have we passed Epiphany yet? I think so) and we had ‘Infant Holy’ (Wilcocks) and ‘There shall a star’ (Mendelssohn). It was lovely to sit listening and watching the locals using their magnificent medieval Cathedral.

Salisbury Cathedral - what a beauty.

Oh, and then I popped out the back to The Chapter House where they have – wait for it – one of the four copies of Magna Carta (‘best preserved of the four remaining original exemplars’). Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215, contains 63 clauses written in Latin on parchment. Only three of the original clauses in Magna Carta are still law today. One defends the freedom and rights of the English Church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, but the third is the most famous:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled. Nor will we proceed with force against him except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

On that excellent note, I thank the people of Salisbury, of 2000 BC, 1102 AD, and 2011 AD for providing me with a great Sunday Outing.

Maybe next time.
The Haunch of Venison Salisbury c.1320

Info from the 'English Heritage' Guide Books to Stonehenge and Old Sarum and Salisbury Cathedral website


  1. And as you probably know, Australia has another of the only four surviving 1297 issues of Magna Carta.
    not very well advertised:
    Look under "static displays".

  2. I have visited the Magna Carta in the Federal Parliament House, and thought it was an original. However, Salisbury Cathedral's website claims that the other three are in The British Library and Lincoln Castle. I was going to research this, but then I thought - hey! that's Sue's job! You might like to write to the Cathedral and set them straight. I think holders of Manga Cartas ought to be aware of each other, don't you?

  3. I think I misled you - the issue dates are probably different:
    "After his death, Magna Carta was reissued with changes in 1216, 1217 and 1225, and the document of 1225 became accepted as a statement of law. After the 1217 re-issue, it became known as Magna Carta, or great charter. In the later medieval period, it was reissued several times and confirmed frequently."
    PS Not that easy to Google - there is a Magna Carta X box game...

  4. So when someone claims their's is 'one of the four originals', which date is it? I can see I'm going to have to pop next door to The British Library to sort this out. Does Australia claim and issue date for their's?

  5. "On 15 June 1215, at Runnymede, he agreed to a document that later became known as Magna Carta. He did not sign it: indeed there is no evidence that he could write" - the Pope said it was unlawful, but it was reissued after John's death. Does the 1215 one in Salisbury have a signature? The one in Australia is a 1297 version.

  6. No idea. Will have to go back and check.