Magna Carta, Mompesson and the Medieval



Last weekend all four of us headed to the Wiltshire Cathedral city of Salisbury. It was a sunny day and we were looking forward to some history! We went straight to the Cathedral Close and visited the National Trust’s Mompesson House, an 18th-century townhouse built in 1701 by Charles Mompesson, the MP for Old Sarum. Apparently this was what was known as a ‘rotten borough’ as there were only ten residents who actually had voting rights. For much of the 19th-century the artist Barbara Townsend lived there with her family and into her old age until her death at 96; many pieces of her work are displayed in the house, her bedroom is it would have been during her lifetime and her artist’s materials
are set up in the small drawing room.

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The welcome was warm and the girls were given a Spring Trail to do as they looked around the house. In the small drawing room was a hamper containing some bonnets, and shawls, a reticule and some fans, along with a guide to ‘fanology’, telling you what was meant by ladies holding their fans in certain ways to convey their feelings about an admirer. The girls loved this and the room guide was so pleased; she said that most children get out the fans but she had never seen any try on the rest of the clothing.


It is not a large property and there are not lots of special activities for children but there is still a lot to look at including the Turnbull collection of 18th-century drinking glasses, some stump-work pictures and some fascinating pieces of china including pastoral figures, a leaf plate of knobby cucumbers and some onions (apparently known as a ‘pickle dish‘!), parrots and a cockatoo who peers down at visitors from the top of a display cabinet (and who appeared in one of my daughter’s dreams last night, pecking her sister’s hair!).
The garden is also small but very pretIMAG2253_1ty in the springtime, with a colourful scattering of daffodils, narcissus, forget-me-knots and ‘Shakespeare’ tulips. We even saw IMAG2256_1 (1)our first butterfly of the year: a yellow butterfly which, as any fan of the Moomins knows, signifies a happy summer to come! There is also a ‘300 year old privy’ which is surely adesirable feature for an garden. The house has a garden tea-room which we didn’t visit but looked very nice indeed. As we were leaving a couple were visiting the house purely to make a regular trip to the cafe which implies it must be fairly good. There is also a shop in the studio but, possibly for the first time ever, we actually visited an NT property without even seeing the gift shop!

After lunch we paid £15 for a family ticket to the cathedral. After a few minutes we read in the welcome leaflet we were given that there was a children’s trail (Spires, Stones and saints) so we asked for one and the children did most of it but they really preferred just exploring at their own speed. Apparently there were also ‘discovery bags’ but we didn’t see any and and no one offered them.


The cathedral was finished in 1251 but the enormous spire, the tallest in England, was added on in the 1300s. The spire is actually the second-tallest in the whole of Europe, with only Strasbourg boasting a taller one. It is best seen from a ‘Tower Tour’ but our long lunch meant that we had missed that. The cathedral also has what is quite possibly the oldest working clock in the world, dating from 1386 or even earlier. It doesn’t look very clock-ish as it has no face; it was designed only to strike the hours. It is still wound every day and still functions through the use of falling weights.

One of the most impressive features of the cathedral is the modern font which was designed by the sculptor William Pye and installed in 2008 when it was dedicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury as part of the celebration of the 750th anniversary of the cathedral’s consecration. The cruciform font is large enough to allow for full-immersion baptism and has spouts at each corner from which water pours constantly giving the idea of living waters. It gives the impression of a sort of baptismal infinity pool.

Being very interested in Tudor history, my daughter was delighted to find an elaborate effigy of Lady Catherine Grey, sister to the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey, and her husband Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford (also the nephew of Jane Seymour, one of Henry VIII’s eight wives). Catherine was imprisoned in the Tower of London by Queen Elizabeth I who was enraged that Catherine had married a man of whom she did not approve and to whom she had not given her blessing to marry Catherine. Elizabeth was also suspicious that the marriage was part of a plot against her and Catherine was never freed. The Lieutenant of the Tower was apparently lenient and allowed Edward to visit his wife in the Tower and she consequently bore him two sons there, both of whom were declared illegitimate when the couple’s marriage was annulled. Catherine was moved from prison to prison to keep her away from her family and eventually died at Cockfield Hall, Suffolk at the age of just twenty-seven, probably from consumption but possibly her death was exacerbated by, or actually the result of, her refusal of food. This theory has been recently explored by Elizabeth Freemantle in her evocative The Girl in the Glass Tower in which Catherine’s story both overlays and is echoed by that of Lady Arbella Stuart, once considered a possible heir to Elizabeth’s throne but eventually sidelined in favour of James VI of Scotland.

Salisbury Cathedral is also home to one of only four remaining copies of the original Magna Carta and this can be viewed in a covered kiosk amidst a wider exhibition giving a full transcription of the text and providing context, background information and exploring the legacy of the Magna Carta. There are also some hands-on items that help visitors understand how the text was produced in 1215. Unfortunately, we had no idea that the Magna Carta Chapter House closed at 4pm and so we didn’t leave enough time to fully explore the exhibition. We did see the actual text and start to look at the computer programme that gave its history through images before we were warned the room would be locked imminently. Still, it was amazing to have seen such an ancient and influential document.

Back outside, the Cathedral Close was full of people enjoying the sunshine. It is a lovely space to play, read, chat or just to sit and look up at the cathedral which was built in such grandeur and fine detail so very, very long ago. There is more to see in the Cathedral Close that we didn’t have time for including The Salisbury MuseumArundells, the former home and riverside garden of the former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath whose ashes are interred in the cathedral; and The Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum. The wider city of Salisbury has many other interesting places and shops and is well worth wandering around, especially on a sunny day… And, of course, for a truly historical outing you can drive a short distance to both Stonehenge and Old Sarum.



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