Salisbury Cathedral's library

By Emma Kirkup

Given I grew up in Salisbury and the nature of my job here at VisitWiltshire I’ve always felt that I have known the Cathedral pretty well however one place I’d never ventured to was the Cathedral’s library.

It’s only been in recent years that the library has become more accessible to the general public, with tours being operated in the Magna Carta 800 celebrations two years ago. For 2017, Salisbury Cathedral are continuing to offer tours of the library (limited to 12 per tour) and as well as to private groups. I joined one of these tours to learn more…

The library

We were met by Emily, the Cathedral’s archivist and one of the volunteer guides who led us from the main visitor reception up the 38 steps to the library. I must admit, I wasn’t quite sure where the library was in relation to the other aspects of the Cathedral and was interested to hear that it sat above the Cloisters.


The library was built in 1445 and is home to approximately 8,000 books. We were given an overview of the history of the library over the years and how the room was once almost double the length than its current size. Emily then began to tell us more about some of the most interesting books and manuscripts in the collection including books that were created by scribes from the days of Old Sarum being the city’s Cathedral. Although we weren’t allowed to handle the books, Emily allowed us to get close to them and to take photos provided we didn’t have the flash on.

Some of the books were handwritten and the writing was beautifully written in Latin, some with embellishments and calligraphy as well as what looked like a fine attention to detail. It was pretty amazing to think that people wrote these so many years ago!


We also learnt about the parchment that was used to write upon, often calf or sheep skin and the various methods of ink making that was used including grinding up oak apples.

Moving on, we saw examples of books from early days of printing and how the font styles mimicked the handwriting of the scribes. There was also a very interesting mixture of topics with not all of the books being theological as you may have thought but included things like astronomy, mathematics and even scientific theories that were once seen as being very blasphemous. Oh and don't forget to look out for the old choirboys' texts complete with details of how they used to squish mice in them! (Not one for the squeamish amongst you!)

The mouse

There’s ample chance to ask questions and Emily is a wealth of knowledge about the library and the Cathedral’s archives. The people I was with on the tour all seemed to be really interested in what they had learnt and like me, also loved the opportunity to explore a part of the Cathedral that they didn’t know.

Salisbury Cathedral will be running these tours monthly throughout the year. Each tour lasts approximately one hour and is followed by a cream tea in the Refectory restaurant and can be booked on the Cathedral’s website. 


Salisbury Cathedral and Magna Carta
Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire (c) Ash Mills

Be inspired by this magnificent medieval cathedral surrounded by 8 acres of lawn and historic architecture. This living church boasts Britain’s tallest spire and is home to the finest original Magna Carta and Europe’s oldest working clock.



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