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The making of a medieval masterpiece
By Tim Tatton-Brown
Author and historian

Salisbury Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral was built in the 13th century

It is a strange coincidence that it's 20 years ago this month that my BBC book, 'The Great Cathedrals of Britain', was published.

John Knight of BBC Bristol and I made a series of six half-hour programmes for BBC Radio 4 called 'Origins -The Great Cathedrals of Britain'.

One of our programmes looked specifically at Salisbury Cathedral and at the time we climbed up inside the spire with the then Clerk of Works, Roy Spring.

This is when I first got interested in the detail of the archaeology of the Cathedral and wanting to know how it was built.

At the time I was living in Canterbury and had already been working on that magnificent cathedral as well as other cathedrals including Rochester and Chichester.

Then in 1990, I was invited by the-then Dean of Salisbury, Hugh Dickinson, to become the official Consultant Archaeologist to the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury Cathedral.

The job was created in response to a new Act of Parliament called the 'Care of Cathedrals Measure 1990' requiring all cathedrals to have not only a Fabric Advisory Committee, but also a Consultant Archaeologist.

My parents had moved to Salisbury in 1972 so I had got to know the Cathedral after that. My mother was in charge of the flowers in the cathedral for ten years and my father also acted as a volunteer guide after his retirement and also worked in the cathedral library for many years. The ashes of them both are outside the cathedral's Trinity Chapel.

Salisbury Cathedral
The cathedral has the largest cloister in Britain

After being appointed as Consultant in 1990, I came over to Salisbury more regularly from my home in Canterbury and always stayed in my parents' house, where my family and I now live.

Salisbury Cathedral embarked on its Major Repair Programme after Roy Spring identified the huge amount of work which would need to be done on this beautiful medieval cathedral to conserve it for future generations.

Work began in earnest in 1990 and I have got very involved in looking at the fabric of the building during each of the progressive phases of work. I have particularly enjoyed working with the cathedral architect Michael Drury and other members of the team, as well as successive Canon Treasurers.

Over the years we have learnt a vast amount about different parts of the building starting with the tower and spire before moving onto the West Front, on which we published a separate book.

For the past 10 years or so we have been working particularly on the cathedral roofs. During the repair of these, English Heritage funded a dendrochronologist (tree ring dating specialist) called Dr Dan Miles, without doubt one of the best timber specialists in the UK.

He is head of the Oxford Dendrochronological Laboratory. His work has allowed us to independently date very many of the oak timbers used in the cathedral roofs as well as the doors and wooden structures.

Salisbury Cathedral
The nave is 82 feet long and 84 feet high

Salisbury happens to have a large number of its original 13th century roof timbers still in situ and many of these have been dated very accurately which is both amazing and fascinating.

For example, one of the timbers in the Trinity Chapel roof could be dated quite specifically - it was cut down in the Spring of 1222 and it would have been used in the Cathedral very soon after this because all of the timber in those times was used 'green', that is without seasoning because if it was seasoned first, the oak would be so hard that the carpenters would have found it too hard to work easily.

Dan Miles also found that more than half all the 13th century timbers had come from South East Ireland.

They had certainly been given to the Dean and Canons by Henry III because this part of Ireland had been recently conquered by the English.

It was shipped over the sea from Dublin to Bristol and then brought overland by roughly the same route used today by motorists - the dreadful A36!

While Dan was sampling the timbers, which he was doing with a special hollow drill (which provided very thin cores) Howard Jones was making measured drawings of all the roofs, which have since been used by both the architect Michael Drury and myself to understand how they were put together and how they were repaired over the centuries.

For example, we were able to date some new timbers to the 1660s when the roof was repaired after the Commonwealth Period (the lead had all been stripped off the roof at this time).

Salisbury Cathedral
The cathedral is blessed with a variety of intriguing tombs

We were also able to independently date the repairs made by Francis Price, the then Clerk of Works in 1736-37 - all using English oak!

All of this, as well as a new study of the documentary evidence, has allowed me to put together a new chronological history for the building of the Cathedral and all later repairs.

My new book summarises all this recent work but also benefits hugely from new drawings made specially by Jill Atherton and two specially commissioned water colour reconstructions by Terry Ball - a very fine artist, now retired but who worked for English Heritage for many years.

On top of all this, my old friend and colleague Dr John Crook (who also happens to be the Consultant Archaeologist for Winchester Cathedral and a former lay-clerk there!), with whom I've collaborated on several previous books and is one of the best architectural photographers working in Britain, took a series of really beautiful photographs for the book.

John was even able to take some new aerial photographs from an army helicopter following the Army Air Corps special service of thanksgiving in the cathedral marking their 50th anniversary.

'Salisbury Cathedral: The Making of a Medieval Masterpiece' by Tim Tatton-Brown and John Crook is published by Scala Publishers Ltd and is available now, priced £14.95, from the Cathedral Shop. Telephone (01722) 555170 for more information.

In pictures: Carols in the Cathedral
11 Dec 09 |  Religion & Ethics
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