Salisbury, the quintessential English cathedral city, is in historical terms a recent creation, being a new town of the thirteenth century. Its name was derived from the latinization of that of a nearby hill fort, Sorviodunum. The hill fort, now known as Old Sarum, was both a natural strongpoint – a salient between the Avon and Bourne valleys – and the junction of several ancient trade routes. The site was developed sometime between 600 and 300 BC, and the hill fort served both as a market in times of peace, and a stronghold for its surrounding communities in times of strife.
For the Romans, too, Sorviodunum was an important market centre, with roads converging on the hill fort from Cirencester, Silchester and Winchester to the north and east, and Dorchester and the Mendip hills to the west, and with a trade route to Downton and the New Forest. The size of the identified settlements – along the Portway, to Dorchester, and at Bishopdown – distinguish Sorviodunum as an oppidum, one of the ‘small towns’ of Roman Britain. With the departure of the Romans, and the incoming Saxon settlers’ preference for lowland settlements, Sorviodunum was more or less abandoned until, under the impact of the Viking invasions, Alfred refortified it. By now known as Searoburh, it served as the stronghold for Wilton, its status enhanced when Wilton’s moneyers moved there in 1003.
At the Norman Conquest, Salisbury again attracted the attention of the authorities, and the hill fort became a typical motte-and-bailey castle by 1070: in 1086, the major landowners paid homage to the king there, and it is likely that the results of the Domesday survey were presented in the same year. By then, also, Salisbury had become the seat of the combined sees of Sherborne and Ramsbury, held plurally by Bishop Herman. Salisbury was the central point in the new diocese, and it was adjacent to lands in the Avon valley held by the bishop. The cathedral precincts accounted for about half of the 30 acres within the castle walls. Although it struck contemporaries, among them William of Malmesbury, as odd that a cathedral should be built within a castle, there were in fact two cathedrals built there, and for a time Bishop Roger of Caen was castellan, thus combining secular and religious authority. Had he not, during the course of the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda, fallen so spectacularly from grace, it is entirely possible that the Cathedral might have remained where it was, enjoying a commanding position similar to Durham’s or Lincoln’s. As it was, although the second cathedral continued to be developed after Roger’s death in 1139, the civilian authorities were markedly unsympathetic to the clergy, who determined the only way to survive, let alone to develop, was to relocate the Cathedral.
Responsibility for the decision to move from the Castle to the confluence of the Avon and the Nadder has to be apportioned between the two Poore brothers, Herbert and Richard, who were bishops from 1194 to 1217, and from 1217 to 1228 respectively. In the years following the Norman Conquest dozens of new towns had been founded: the master-stroke in the case of Salisbury had been to follow the example of Lichfield, where a century earlier a new town had been created around a refounded Saxon cathedral. Not only would the city provide revenues for the maintenance of the cathedral: the cathedral, in turn, would prove to be a magnet for pilgrims. Travel, latterly in the guise of tourism, has been a mainstay for Salisbury’s economy since its earliest years.
The site for the new cathedral, although the subject of legends, can be seen with hindsight to be almost a foregone conclusion. The bishop’s estates ran in a great block of land from the castle south to the confluence of the Avon and the Nadder, and from the Avon eastwards to the hillslope of Milford. A north-south route ran from the castle to the Salisbury Way running along Harnham Ridge: it was crossed by the road from Winchester via Clarendon running westwards through Fisherton Anger towards Wilton. South of that road was to be the Close, with the first phase of houses for the canons backing onto the Avon, facing the west front of the Cathedral with the ancient north-south route running between them. To the north, the city was planned around a new street – New Street today – running east-west between the original settlement around St Martin’s Church, and a river crossing which is the present Crane Bridge. North of that, a great open space would be the site of a weekly market and an annual fair.
By the time of the Cathedral’s foundation on 28th April 1220, some houses has already been built in the close, whilst in the town a wooden chapel had been consecrated on the previous Trinity Sunday. Progress on the Cathedral was rapid, with the three eastern chapels being consecrated in October 1225, and the entire building being consecrated in 1258 in the presence of King Henry III. The Cathedral was actually completed on 25th March 1266, having cost 42,000 marks (£28,000). The major differences between the building at that date and the present Cathedral are, firstly, the cloisters and chapter-house, built over the next twenty years, and the spire, built probably during the episcopates of Roger de Martival and Simon of Ghent, completed by about 1330. At 404’ (123m), the spire is the tallest in the British Isles, and its survival is due to the bold decision to build it in stone. There is one other difference in the appearance of the close today, and that is that from when the cathedral was built until 1790 there was a free-standing campanile with a 200’ spire, standing just across the west end of the North Walk, and housing perhaps as many as twelve bells. With that loss Salisbury is one of the few English cathedrals whose worshippers cannot be summoned by the sound of bells.
Meanwhile, since the city’s founding, with Henry III’s charter of 30th January 1227, ideas about its scale had changed. Such had been the success of the new city that a grid of five streets from east to west, and six from north to south was devised, on what had been the common field of the ancient parish of St Martin. To the north of this chequerboard layout an enormous collegiate church was founded by Bishop Walter de la Wyle, and dedicated in 1269 to St Edmund of Abingdon, who, as Edmund Rich, had been the new cathedral’s treasurer in its earliest years. St Edmund’s lay at the city’s northern limit until the nineteenth century, just as did the city’s first church, dedicated to St Thomas a Becket, at the western edge. A key feature in Salisbury’s design was the widespread provision of running water through open watercourses along the streets. There are many medieval new towns built on a grid-pattern, and many more, like nearby Stockbridge, with water running along the main street. Salisbury was planned so that water could be drawn from the Avon as it runs southwards, diverted through the town and fed back into the river as it runs from west to east, and this feature explains why the chequers – the quarters bounded by the streets – are not perfectly rectangular.
The early success of the new city can be gauged in several ways. The Poultry Cross is the sole survivor of four medieval market crosses, the other three being a cheese cross and a wool cross in the market place, and one on the south-eastern outskirts of the city where livestock was traded. The Poultry Cross was originally in the market place, the ranges of buildings to its north and east, facing onto Minster Street and Butcher Row, replacing temporary stalls. The names of these streets – Butcher Row, and the Latin name for Oatmeal Row – date from 1339 and 1455 respectively; those of Catherine Street (originally ‘the carters’ street’) and the Green Croft (originally ‘the meal-mongers’ street) date from 1339 and 1403. Pennyfarthing Street, according to legend, is named after the daily wage for which master masons living there and working on the new cathedral went on strike. The names of some chequers, taken from inns such as the Blue Boar, the Black Horse or the White Hart, reflect the early importance of travel. Others, named after individuals such as Swayne’s and Rolfe’s, reflect the economic power of the merchant class whose members were able to amass enough properties for entire chequers to be named after them. The growth of Salisbury’s population is a further measure of success: to an estimated 5,000 by about 1400, despite the Black Death, and to around 8,000 a century later at both dates Salisbury was amongst the ten largest English cities. The range of activities of a merchant such as John Hall, whose house is now the foyer of the Odeon Cinema in New Canal, is further evidence of Salisbury’s prosperity. Hall, four times Salisbury’s mayor and thrice its Member of Parliament, had a ship with which he imported dyestuffs, almonds, fruit, fish, soap, tar and iron, and engaged in piracy on the high seas, and his personal contribution to the royal levy of 1449 was 2% of the total of £66. Other reminders of the city’s wealth ranged from the chantry chapels in St Thomas’s church, endowed by William Ludlow and William Swayne, to the elaborate processions staged by the city’s guilds on major feast days, or to welcome royalty. But the pageantry, the conspicuous wealth of individuals, and the ability of the city to meet royal demands, as when the city provided and manned the warship Trout during Henry VI’s reign, all mask a glaring paradox. Throughout the middle ages, the city remained in a state of vassalage to the bishop. Attempts to appeal to royal authority, such as a major stand-off in 1305-6 between the city’s leaders and Bishop Simon of Ghent, came to nothing. Even after the Reformation, when the city fathers were quietly extending their powers by expanding their administrative and legal functions, the bishop still claimed ultimate authority, and not until 1612 was the city granted a charter confirming powers independent of episcopal authority.
However, once Salisbury gained its independence, it was not well placed to capitalise on its new status. The engine of Salisbury’s prosperity over the previous three centuries had been the wool trade, which flourished from the early fourteenth century as the Flemish textile industry went into decline. Salisbury’s speciality was a striped cloth known as a ray, but when changing fashion prompted a demand for undyed broadcloth, Salisbury’s merchants failed to rise to the challenge until centres of production and markets had been established elsewhere. The ancient trade guilds, reconstituted under the new corporation as trade companies, guarded their monopolies jealously, and thus had no incentive to respond to the challenge of fashion, and the clothiers were again wrong footed in the mid-seventeenth century, as medleys and Spanish cloths came into fashion. Far more serious, however, were the threats posed by the run of poor harvests in the 1620s, the arrival of the plague in 1627, and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642. The skill and bravery of the Mayor, John Ivie, in managing the outbreak of plague when all his fellow-members’ energies were devoted to escaping the city, can be deduced from the fact that the plague of 1604 killed an estimated one-sixth of the people, whereas the proportion in 1627 was probably less than one-tenth. Salisbury was spared the worst effects of the Civil War, not being fortified, and thus of no great military significance. Occasionally Salisbury featured in the chronicle of national events, as when, after a skirmish in December 1644 Sir Edmund Ludlow escaped the Royalist clutches, or in March 1655, when Colonel Penruddock’s rebels kidnapped the Assize judges and the High Sheriff of the county, and freed the inmates of the gaol.
But it was not until after the Restoration that Salisbury’s fortunes took a turn for the better, and it was as a result of a social, rather than an industrial revolution. At the heart of this social revolution in Restoration Salisbury was Seth Ward, Bishop of Salisbury from 1662 to 1689, and his circle of friends and visitors. These ranged from Sir Christopher Wren, who reported on the Cathedral fabric, and the pioneering eye surgeon Dr Daubeney Turberville, to the physicist Robert Boyle, and Samuel Pepys. Ward was personally responsible for repairs to his palace to the tune of £2,000 and the founding of the College of Matrons, almshouses for clergy widows. He was a major subscriber to the Britford Navigation Scheme, the success of which was marked, in1684, when two 25-ton wherries docked by Ayleswade Bridge.
The Cathedral Close had for centuries been home to well-to-do secular society as well as the clergy, and with improvements and rebuildings in the late seventeenth to mid-eighteenth centuries, this process of gentrification became far more obvious. It is to this period that great houses like Malmesbury House and Arundells, Mompesson House and Myles Place belong. The process was paralleled in the city, notably with The Hall in New Street, the home of William Hussey, Alderman and MP for the city from 1774 to 1813, and The College (now Bourne Hill), until 1871 the Salisbury home of the Wyndham family.
Similarly, Ward’s almshouses were paralleled by a spate of charitable foundations in the city – Blechynden’s almshouses (1683), Taylor’s (1698), Frowde’s (1750 and Hussey’s (1794). The greatest examples of private beneficence for the public good come both from the Radnor circle, with the Infirmary (1767) endowed by the bequest of Lord Feversham of Downton (the first Earl’s father-in-law), and the Guildhall (1795), the gift to the city of its sometime MP, the second Earl. The Infirmary’s motto was ‘The sick and needy shall not always be forgotten’, and the building, now desirable apartments, still carries below the parapet the legend ‘supported by voluntary contributions’.
Social life and the arts flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, similarly encouraged by the gentry and nobility. Charles II stayed in the city in the summer of 1665 to escape the plague, whilst the diarists Pepys, John Evelyn, Celia Fiennes and Daniel Defoe have all left valuable pen-portraits of Salisbury, Pepys in particular remarking on the ‘exorbitant’ bill for staying at the George Inn. Then, as now, Salisbury was a centre for the tourist trade – the object of Pepys’s visit in 1668 was to visit Stonehenge – and apart from innkeeping, stabling and coaching, high-quality craft manufactures developed to take advantage of Salisbury’s pre-eminence in tourism. In the words of a contemporary couplet, “Let Bristol for commerce and dirt be renowned / At Salisbury let scissors and penknives be ground” – a reference to the cutlery wares of which as much as £70-worth might be sold to stage-coach passengers as they passed through the city. Lace was another speciality.
Meanwhile, the city’s cultural life flourished throughout the eighteenth century, with James Harris, father of the first Earl of Malmesbury, patronising Handel and having a leading role both in the musical festivals held on St Cecilia’s Day, and in private subscription concerts. The origins of these events seem to have lain in private gatherings as far back as the seventeenth century: … preached a sermon at the Cathedral for ….. on …., to mark an occasion that prefigured the festivals of the following centuries. The theatre developed originally in inns such as the Vine and the Sun, with stagings of the works of Shakespeare and more contemporary dramatists, such as Sheridan; then, in 1777, the New Theatre opened in New Street, with Sheridan’s The Rivals. Salisbury also supported an active press, its first newspaper, the Salisbury Post Man appearing in 1715, shortly after the relaxation of the Printing Act of 1662. The Salisbury Journal, first published in 1729, has appeared continuously since 1738. The Journal’s proprietors, Benjamin Collins, father and son, had a diverse range of publications, including prints of the Cathedral, libretti of Handel’s works and the first edition of Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, while the Eastons’ output spanned The Salisbury Guide, Cervantes’ Don Quixote and the scholarly works of James Harris.
Perhaps the most distinctive and lasting reminder of that age of elegance was the restoration of the Cathedral, instigated by an energetic and reforming bishop, Shute Barrington, and carried out by James Wyatt, the leading architect of the day. At least in retrospect the brief seems to have been Wyatt’s nemesis: a generation afterwards, opinion, led by Pugin and others of the Gothic revival, castigated him as ‘the destroyer’. But in the context of the age, Wyatt’s alterations were informed by sympathy and sensitivity: he preserved as much as he destroyed, and he acted both to save the Cathedral and to reveal its glories. Certainly, King George III, who had given a new organ to the Cathedral as part of the restoration, and his family were most enthusiastic when they visited in 1792, on the completion of the work.
The nineteenth century, like the seventeenth, began as a time of trial for Salisbury, with its industries under threat from the loss of overseas markets due to the continental wars. While the Close supported the wars, the Corporation petitioned the King for peace. When peace came, the initiative in textile manufacture had been lost to those parts of the country where the presence of natural resources favoured industrial-scale production. Meanwhile on the land, the effect of the Corn Laws and the introduction of mechanisation led, in southern Wiltshire, as elsewhere, to distress amongst the agrarian workforce and to the Swing Riots. In November 1830, there was a stand-off between a party of rioters, and a posse of special constables and a troop of the Wiltshire Yeomanry under the magistrate, Wadham Wyndham. In the ensuing Special Assize, two received the death penalty, and 150 were transported.
Matters gradually improved, with a combination of improvements in agricultural wages, and, in the city, various initiatives for the relief of hardship. The 1830s ushered in a series of political and social reforms, starting with the Great Reform Act of 1832, which set the city on a long and sometimes slow path of development to meet the demands of an increasingly complex society. The most serious challenge to the city was the outbreak of cholera in July 1849, and it was met initially by corporate denial, both amongst officials and opinion-formers, namely the Salisbury Journal. But a ringing condemnation of the state of the city’s water supply and sanitary arrangements by T.W. Rammell forced the Corporation to adopt the Public Health Act of 1848, and to embark on the necessary works. Within five years, Salisbury had a pure water supply, and over the ensuing decades the open watercourses were filled in and replaced by a modern sewage system which served the city from 1899 to 1961.
The railways arrived in Salisbury in 1847, initially with a branch line from Milford to Bishopstoke, connecting with the London and South-Western Railway’s main line to the capital. Soon it was possible to travel to London and back in a day, and special excursion trains were being run. In 1856, the route to the west was opened, with the Great Western line to Warminster and Bristol, and the following year, the line from London via Basingstoke, which proceeded westwards to Gillingham and, by 1860, to Exeter. The effect on the coaching trade was dramatic, and although it survived initially by plying between Salisbury and railway stations, the days of coaching were numbered, with Quicksilver travelling to London for the last time in October 1846.
Improvements in communications reinforced Salisbury’s position as a centre of trade and of tourism, and the variety of trades and activities is well reflected in the Exhibition of 1852, which was inspired by the Great Exhibition of 1851. And yet, for example, amongst the textiles on display, that produced most locally was Downton lace, and other specimens came from as far away as Ireland, Scotland and Saxony. As in earlier ages, Salisbury’s manufactures were in niche markets, including the Invicta Leather Works, Lovibond’s Tintometer for colorimetric chemical analysis, and Burden’s clock factory. The other large-scale industries at the time were power generation, brewing and the railways. Whilst Salisbury’s population grew from 7,700 to 17,100 during the nineteenth century, that increase was largely taken up by employment sectors reflecting the city’s character – the service industries of the railways, the hotel trade, hospitals and schools. By 1899 there were ten national and church schools, and ten independent schools, and now fewer than five colleges. The Fisherton House Lunatic Asylum was the largest private asylum in the country. Meanwhile, developments in ordnance and side arms necessitated an enormous tract of land for the Army’s peace-time manoeuvres, and the acquisition of Salisbury Plain for this purpose provided Salisbury with another market in the tourism sector.
The result, for Salisbury, was a spate of growth which took it from its original medieval confines to about half-way to its present size, in area as in its population. The main areas of development were firstly over the west-facing slope of Milford Hill, and the area between the London Road and Castle Street, these being the estate around the Wyndhams’ Salisbury home, sold up in 1871. Secondly, because of the rail, brewing, brickmaking and gas industries to the west of the city, there was another area of residential development around the Wilton and Devizes Roads, and at the western end of Fisherton Street and on the Church Fields.
The twentieth century saw Salisbury’s prosperity and enterprise continuing, with such ventures as the Burden Brothers’ Scout Motor Company. There were blows, such as the railway crash of 1st July 1906, which with the loss of 28 lives foreshadowed more recent disasters, and the five of Salisbury who died with the sinking of the Titanic, but the Great War, with its toll of 459 was to set the city’s course for much of the ensuing century. Among the saddest losses in economic terms, was the failure of the Scout Motor Company in 1921, but the post-war economic depression overshadowed the 1920s and much of the 1930s throughout the city. One solution both to the housing and employment shortages was the building of council houses from 1920 to 1930, matched by private development mainly between the Castle and London Roads. Gradually other opportunities developed, with the development of the motor trade, the leisure and entertainment industries, and with national enterprises setting up offices in Salisbury – from Hoover and the Anglo-American Oil Company, to Fyffes, Walls and the British Sugar Corporation.
The Second World War had little direct impact on Salisbury, with evacuations from Portsmouth and a handful of air raids, but with new specialist industries arriving. One of these, Wellworthy, remained in Salisbury until 2000. As has been the case in the past, Salisbury’s industry has tended towards niche markets and high added value which nowadays translates into light engineering with a slant towards high technology, characterised by firms such as Janspeed (motor tuning) and Naim (hi-fi). With businesses such as these and in the (commercial) information sectors – insurance, estate agency, finance and management consultancy, and good communications to London, Salisbury continues to be a popular place to live, and continuing housing development has resulted in concomitant population growth – from 33,000 in 1951 to 42,700 today. This growth has had an impact on the infrastructure, and, with the meteoric rise in car ownership, on the road network in particular. The burning issue of Salisbury’s perceived traffic problems have been resolved for the time being by the judicious construction of an inner ring-road (1962-1969) and by traffic management measures including pedestrianisation and park-and-ride schemes. The southern by-pass scheme, mooted since before the war and enshrined in plans from 1949 to 1997, was axed by the incoming Labour government, but the simultaneous emergence of plans for the Harnham and Wylye Valley relief roads, and the Stonehenge road improvement scheme has brought the question right to the top of the local political agenda and to the correspondence pages of the Salisbury Journal.