Travels through Historical Fiction: From Sarum to Salisbury
Salisbury, England 1992 – We walked up the narrow street toward the old city wall where heavy wooden doors with iron bindings and large ring handles stood open, inviting both pedestrian and vehicular traffic to pass beneath its stone arch. We passed through the gate, walked another few yards between centuries old buildings, and stepped out onto the Cathedral Close. Breath caught in my throat; my heart beat a little faster. 772 years after construction began on one of England’s most magnificent sacred spaces, the architects were still achieving their goal.
As a student of history, I studied the importance of architectural design in the development of Western Civilization, especially the evolution of Gothic architecture during the Medieval period. Architects of sacred spaces during the Middle Ages designed increasingly soaring structures intended to draw the eye upward toward God and create in the viewer a sense of awe and wonder. In England, church architecture reached the pinnacle of Gothic design in the southwestern city of Salisbury. For the second leg of my new series, Travels through Historical Fiction, come with me as I revisit two of my favorite places in the UK and two novels written with those locations in mind.
The foundation stone for Salisbury Cathedral, officially Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was laid on April 28, 1202. In only 38 years, the main structure of nave, transepts, and choir was completed. Work continued until 1320 with the completion of the tower and spire, to this day the tallest in Great Britain. Today, the cathedral remains “a living church, a place of excellence in worship and music for over 750 years.” Worshippers at Salisbury Cathedral experience regular Sunday and weekly services, as well as celebrations of all special days and festivals throughout the Anglican liturgical calendar.
In addition to the expected activities of a thriving religious community, the cathedral runs the Salisbury Cathedral School with an annual recruitment of boys and girls between the ages of 7-9. The choristers of Salisbury Cathedral are known the world over for the excellence of their singing and musicianship. When we visited the cathedral, we were lucky enough to hear the boys choir performing near the font. Their clear, young voices came together in a pitch perfect blend demonstrating the many hours of study, preparation, and practice they received through the Cathedral School. The choirs are a true treasure of the cathedral.
Interestingly for lovers of history, perhaps the most fascinating feature of the cathedral has nothing to do with music, stained glass, flying buttresses, or cathedral spires. One of only four original copies of Magna Carta signed by King John in 1215, and the best preserved of the four, resides in Salisbury Cathedral. The other three are housed at The British Library and Lincoln Castle. Salisbury Cathedral’s copy is on permanent display in the 13th century chapter house. Due to a major renovation project underway when we visited we were unable to view that copy, but seeing The British Library’s original Magna Carta, a seminal document of Western democracy, was a deeply moving experience. Written in Old English, it was like looking at a foreign language, despite my recently having studied the history of English and having had to learn to read English in its oldest form. Still, it was possible to make some sense of the document, something I certainly would not be able to do today.
Although Salisbury Cathedral has stood for over 750 years, present-day Salisbury (New Sarum, as it was officially known until 2009) is neither the original location of the city nor the cathedral. Old Sarum, located on a hilltop about 2 miles from modern Salisbury center, was the site of an 11th century cathedral and town, with archeological evidence of human habitation dating much farther back.
The great monoliths of Stonehenge and Avebury were erected nearby and indications of prehistoric settlement have been discovered from as early as 3000 BC. An Iron Agehillfort was erected around 400 BC, controlling the intersection of two native trade paths and the HampshireAvon. The site continued to be occupied during the Roman period, when the paths became roads. The Saxons took theBritish fort in the 6th century and later used it as a stronghold against marauding Vikings. The Normans constructed a motte and baileycastle, a stone curtain wall, and a great cathedral. A royal palace was built within the castle for King Henry I and was subsequently used by Plantagenet monarchs. This heyday of the settlement lasted for around 300 years until disputes between the Wiltshire sheriffand the Salisbury bishop finally led to the removal of the church into the nearby plain. As New Salisbury grew up around the construction site for the new cathedral in the early 13th century, the buildings of Old Sarum were dismantled for stone and the old town dwindled. Its long-neglected castle was abandoned by Edward II in 1322 and sold by Henry VIII in 1514.
Edward Rutherford tells the story of his hometown in the 1987 international best seller, Sarum. Old Sarum, the relocation to the Salisbury Plain, and the building of Salisbury Cathedral all come to life in a tale that begins in pre-human history and extends through 1985. Having read and loved the novel certainly enriched my experience when we visited both Salisbury and Old Sarum.
The length, format, and scope of Sarum will remind readers of James A. Michener’s works Hawaii, Centennial, Texas, Chesapeake, etc. In fact, Rutherford is considered a Michener disciple. Rutherford’s usage of language and writing style, however, are pure upper class British. The author leads readers through the various phases of the area’s history and the major events in British history as witnessed by successive generations of six families. The building of the cathedral and its preservation are central to the story, as well. For lovers of historical fiction, Sarum is not to be missed.
Another novel for those interested in Medieval British history, architecture, and cathedrals is Ken Follet’s 1989 best seller, The Pillars of the Earth. Although it is set in a fictional town, the building of the cathedral is central to the plot and similar to the history of Salisbury Cathedral. The book’s details of life in Medieval England have been praised for their historical accuracy.
Youtube discussion of life as a Salisbury Chorister:
Youtube recording of Salisbury choir singing John Rutter’s Nativity Carol:
- http://www.salisburycathedral.org.uk/, accessed 11/08/2015.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Sarum, accessed 11/08/2015