llustration by David Rossiter

THE ARROW – The founding of the new Cathedral in Salisbury

 Published as a booklet, February 1980

Salisbury Cathedral was founded upon its present site at Merrifield Lawn by Bishop Richard Poore in 1220, the first stones being ceremonially laid on April 28th of that year, the day of St Vitalis the Martyr. This removal from the castle of Old Sarum followed a long period of friction between the ecclesiastics attached to the Cathedral and the military garrison, which sometimes came close to violence. The story of their moving from this bleak, dry spot to one so ridiculously damp that in early years it was frequently subject to flooding, is one concerning which there are two separate legends.

The Cathedral at Old Sarum had been completed in 1091, and its windy and exposed situation had never been found satisfactory. Indeed, only a few days after its original consecration in the time of Bishop Osmund, the spire had been severely damaged by lightning. Nevertheless, the Cathedral church continued there for 150 years. Conditions became unbearable only after the tenure of the castle itself had passed into the hands of secular authority, during the reign of King John and the Papal interdiction. In all probability the crown wished at that time to be rid of the churchmen, and so life was made deliberately difficult for them. Certainly there was considerable cause for complaint against “the Incivilities of the Soldiery … a Crew always Enemies to the Clergy and Learning …”

The matter came to a head at Rogationtide one year, when the clergy, as was their custom, went in procession singing litanies through then fields belonging to their Bishop’s manors of Milford and Stratford. On their return, they discovered that the soldiers had locked the city gates on them, so that they were forced to spend the  night outside. Bishop Poore himself was presumably away at the time; but when he was informed of the incident he vowed to build another church, removed both from the castle and from royal power. The canons had come to him with bitter complaints at the various outrages and indignities which they had suffered from the King’s officers; at which the bishop reportedly wept and declared: “When they persecute you non one city, flee ye to another.” To at least one of them, Richard de Blois, a contemporary chronicler as well as one of the Bishop’s canons, this prospect must have seemed like that of leaving the desert to enter the promised land:

“What has the house of the Lord to do with castles?” he wrote. “It is the Ark of the Covenant in the temple of Baalim. Let us in the name of God descend into the meads. There are rich meadows and fertile valleys abounding in the fruits of the earth, profusely waters by living streams. There is a seat for the Virgin Patroness of our church to which the whole world cannot produce a parallel.”

This deliverance was to be from a place that fell short of the ideal just as much as the supposed alternative seemed to attain to it. The subsequent submission of the clergy to the Pope, requesting a licence to remove the see from Old Sarum, included tyne following complaints:

“Being in a raised place the continued gusts of wind make such a noise that the clerks can hardly hear one another sing, and the place is so rheumatic by reason of the wind that they often suffer in halt.

“The church, they say, is so shaken by wind and storm that it daily news repair, and the site is without trees and grass, and being of chalk has such a glare that many of the clerks have lost their sight.

“Water, they say, is only to be got from a distance, and often at a price that would otherwise buy enough for a whole district.

“If the clerks have occasion to go in and out on business they cannotb do so without the leave of the castellan; so that … on solemn days, the faithful who wish to visit the church cannot do so, the keeper of the Castle declaring that the defences would be endangered.

“Moreover, as many of the clerks have no dwellings there, they have to hire them from the soldiers, so that few are found willing or able to reside on the spot.”

The Bishop succeeded in obtaining licences, both from the Pope and from the King – a tedious process made further complicated by the death of King John and the accession of Henry III – and had now to choose a site for his new Cathedral, and for the city that would come to grow around it. After giving the matter much thought, he endeavoured first to obtain a place from the Lady Abbess of Wilton, in whose abundant lands were all the ‘fruits of the earth, profusely watered’ which were required. Wilton, the ancient capital of Wessex, must certainly have seemed the obvious place to go.

However, one day whilst passing through Quidhampton on his way there, he overheard the gossip of an old spinning-wife: “I marvel at that Bishop, that he goeth som often to Wilton; perhaps he means to marry the Abbess. Thinkest thou that the Pope hath granted a dispensation that he may take her to wife?”

To which her neighbour replied: “Thou thickest falsely of this holy man. But he means to remove the Church and Close from the Castle of Sarum to Wilton.”

At which the old wife said: “Hath not the Bishop any land of his own that he must rob the Abbess?” adding, “God loves not him who grudges his own.” Hearing this, the Bishop resolved instead to choose a site on his own estates.

Nevertheless, the problem of the exact site still remained. The answer, according to the first legend, was given him in a dream by the Blessed Virgin Mary herself, the Bishop’s patron in this project. She appeared and told him to seek a place to build that was named after herself; however, no one could tell him the whereabouts of a place so named. But a few days later, whilst walking along the ramparts meditating on this matter, he overheard someone variously described as a servant or a soldier, who happened to be pointing out an ass – or a cow – which was feeding in a meadow which he called Myrifield, Merryfield, or Maryfield:

Full early he rose of a morning grey, to meditate and to walk,
And by chance overheard a soldier on guard, as he thus to his fellow did talk:
“I will lay on the side of my good yewen bow, that I shot clean over the corn,
As far as that cow in yon Merry-field, which grazes under the thorn.”
Then the Bishop cry’d out, “Where is Merry-field?” For his mind was still on his vow;
The soldier reply’d, “By the river side, where you see that brindled cow.”

[Taken from ‘The Ballad of sakis bury’, wriu=itten by Dr Walter Pope, a friend of Bishop Ward, in Salisbury in the 1660’s.]

At this the Bishop immediately inquired of the place and set the building of the new Cathedral in train. Before the end of the year, 1219, a wooden chapel had been erected on the site, and the following April the Cathedral itself was begin. Although it was not completed until 1258, well after Bishop Poore’s death, as early as 1225 sufficient of the east end had been completed to accommodate public worship, and in that year the first three altars were consecrated by Archbishop Langton. The name of the place is attributed either to a word of sax inn origin meaning the point of intersection of three ‘hundreds’, which it was, or else to the ‘mire’ of which most of the area at that time  consisted. But out soon became generally named ‘Maryfield’, with the Cathedral dedicated to St Mary the Virgin.

A second legend, and one better known if less plausible, has the soldier loosing his arrow at random, the shaft landing two miles distant on the spot, we can imagine, now occupied by the altar. The normal range of such a long bow was about two hundred paces, so that even given the relative height of Old Sarum the arrow would have required an uncommonly strong following wind to have carried so far. However the legend has a wide currency, and raises several interesting questions. The site for building the Cathedral, for instance, was certainly not chosen according to practical engineering principles. Although it is situated on a spit of gravel, it was in a low-lying marshy area, until then considered completely unsuitable for any building whatsoever. Without doubt the Bishop and his architects could not have questioned that the position had been truly shown to them, in some way, by the Divine Hand.

Four hundred years later Thomas Fuller, himself a canon of salisbury, pointed out that “… now as the place whence he came was so dry that … by sad chaffer they were fain to give money for water; so he removed to one so low and moist, men sometimes (upon my knowledge) would give money to be rid of water … All human happiness, notwithstanding often change of places, will still be an heteroclite, and either have too much or too little for our contentment.”

However, the new Cathedral was undoubtedly a success: architecturally it has been described as the most graceful Cathedral in England, certainly since the addition of the fourteenth century spire; its situation is the envy of most other similar buildings; and as a focal point for the city it can be seen and felt from both close at hand and – along almost any direction of approach – from afar off, symmetrically placed within the Wiltshire hills. Furthermore, with the removal of the church from Old Sarum, the piecemeal ‘Burgh’ that had assembled around the castle decamped by stages and moved itself sown the hill. By 1229 at least, official attempts to revive and maintain the place were being recorded, and were failing. At length, Old Sarum became one of the most notorious ‘rotten boroughs’ of the 18th and 19th centuries, completely depopulated; whilst the new city of Salisbury still continues to prosper.

Until recent times, it would seem to have been taken for granted that Bishop Poore’s site had been chosen according to Divine, rather than human calculations. In 1723 it was reported in the most matter-of-fact manner that “he was advised by the Virgin Mat=ry, to build the Church and Dedicate it to her, in a place called Merrifield.” This was duly done, and whatever the exact nature of the providence that led Bishop Poore to the spot, it can hardly have been purely a matter of chance. Thoughts on this subject can be little more than conjecture, but it is true that the Cathedral lies on a straight line extended through Stonehenge and Old Sarum; the distance from Stonehenge to Old Sarum being exactly six miles, and from Old Sarum to the Cathedral a further two. It has been suggested that over the centuries the ‘spiritual centre’ own the area has been moved along a fixed line at certain intervals, as was done in China and Central America for reasons generally described as astrological. In the context of this suggestion and the legend of the bowshot, it is interesting to note the words of William Stukely, the 18th century antiquarian who took a particular interest in Stonehenge and also the ‘Winged Temple’ at Avebury:

“Among the ancient constellations pictured on the celestial globe, is an arrow; said … to be the arrow of Apollo, which is laid up in the winged temple among the Hypoboreans.” (To the ancient Greeks the Hypoboreans were a mythical race who lived in the far north west; they have been equated with then inhabitants of the British Isles, then undiscovered by the classical world). And, “The learned bayer in his fine designs of the celestial constellations, represents the arrow of Apollo beforementioned, as a magnetic needle; and he took his designs chiefly from a very ancient book of drawings.”

This proposition that ‘the arrow’ could refer to a compass has been taken up more recently by John Michell, who goes on to review a range of ‘dreams, portents and magic acts attending the foundation of sacred buildings’, the occurrence of which is remarkably widespread. He finishes with the account from the book of Samuel in which the Ark of the Covenant, captured by the Philistines, had brought such misfortune to their people that they wanted to be rid of it.

According to I Samuel chapter vi, they placed it on a cart drawn by oxen which were left to find their own way back to the country of the Israelites. “And the kine took the straight way to the way of Beth-shemesh, and went along the highway, lowing as they went, and turned not aside to the right na=hand or the left”; as straight as an arrow’s flight, in fact, or as a line drawn on a map, until they arrived in a field wherein was a great standing stone. This was the same Ark of the Covenant alluded to, in similar if not such extreme circumstances, by Henry de Blois in the days of our own Bishop Poore.

The precise location and alignment of the Cathedral, and a details analysis of its architecture, have provided material for more painstaking research by dowsers (notably Guy Underwood) and those eager to reveal the geomantic construction of sacred buildings (such as Bill Cox, editor of ‘Pyramid Guide’). This is not the place to examine such intricacies which, if they do have significance, are the intellectual ramifications of a mystery that is basically spiritual and far more profound. But since the day that Bishop Poore gave up his regular visits to the Abbess of Wilton, and abandoned his plan to ‘put up his spire in her meadow’ (as the old wife of Quidhampton must have said to her neighbour with a wink), Salisbury Cathedral has been a source of inspiration to clerics and artists alike. It is truly a focal point; and whether as an object of meditation, a gathering place for the people, or the dominant feature of a city, that is the purpose of a Cathedral.

Robert Benson and Henry Hatcher: Old and New Sarum (1843)
Edward Hutton: Highways and Byways in Wiltshire (1917)
John Michell: The View over Atlantis (1969)
T.J.Northy: The Popular History of Old and New Sarum (1897)
Edna Noyes: Salsibury Plain (1913)
Edith Oliver: Wiltshire (1951)
J.Rawlinson: The History and Antiquities of the Cathedral Church of Salisbury and the Abbey Church of Bath (1723)
Pamela Street: Portrait of Wiltshire (1971)
Dr William Stukely: Stonehenge – a temple restored to the British Druids (1740)
Ralph Whitlock: Wiltshire (1976)