Posted by: michaeldaybath | October 16, 2010

Salisbury Cathedral and Thomas Hardy’s “A Cathedral Façade at Midnight”

A Cathedral Façade at Midnight

Along the sculptures of the western wall
I watched the moonlight creeping:
It moved as if it hardly moved at all
Inch by inch thinly peeping
Round on the pious figures of freestone, brought
And poised there when the Universe was wrought
To serve its centre, Earth, in mankind’s thought.

The lunar look skimmed scantly toe, breast, arm,
Then edged on slowly, slightly,
To shoulder, hand, face; till each austere form
Was blanched its whole length brightly
Of prophet, king, queen, cardinal in state,
That dead men’s tools had striven to simulate;
And the stiff images stood irradiate.

A frail moan from the martyred saints there set
Mid others of the erection
Against the breeze, seemed sighings of regret
At the ancient faith’s rejection
Under the sure, unhasting, steady stress
Of Reason’s movement, making meaningless

From: Thomas Hardy, Human Shows (1925)


Salisbury Cathedral: The West Front

Salisbury Cathedral: The West Front


This well-known poem by Thomas Hardy is commonly linked with a visit to Salisbury in 1897, described in the Life (p. 296) [1]:

August 10, [1897] Salisbury. Went into the Close late at night. The moon was visible through both the north and south clerestory windows to me standing on the turf on the north side . . . Walked to the west front, and watched the moonlight creep round upon the statuary of the façade — stroking tentatively and then more and more firmly the prophets, the martyrs, the bishops, the kings, and the queens. . . . Upon the whole the Close of Salisbury, under the full summer moon on a windless midnight, is as beautiful a scene as any I know in England — or for the matter of that elsewhere.

The poem as published in Human Shows, however, does not mention a specific place, and the cathedral façade can perhaps best be understood as a generic representation of the “ancient faith” made meaningless, “Under the sure, unhasting, steady stress | Of Reason’s movement.”

However, if Salisbury was really intended to be a major focus of this poem, it is curious that many of the “pious figures” that “dead men’s tools had striven to simulate,” were in actual fact relatively recent creations – unlike, for example, Wells, where almost 300 medieval statues still survive [2, 3]. The Salisbury statues largely date from George Gilbert Scott’s restoration of the cathedral during the 1860s (events that may have inspired the cathedral works described in Part Third of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure). Gleeson White’s Bell’s Guide to Salisbury Cathedral (1896) comments that by 1863, most of the hundred or so niches on the west front of Salisbury Cathedral were either despoiled or empty, “with the exception of eight which held figures mutilated beyond certain recognition” [4]. In the 1850s, C. R. Cockerell described how badly the statues had decayed: “the venerable beard alone of this fine statue [of St. John the Baptist] remains, the head having been, as indeed almost all the others, most barbarously mutilated to the great disgrace of the town, and still more of the cathedral authorities” [5]. Aside from the eight survivors, White noted that there was little evidence of the original scheme or the reasons why the statues had been destroyed. Hovever, he concluded, “it is certain that the present figures must be all regarded as modern, since the eight actually left have been, with the exception of St. John the Baptist, very much restored” [6]. White attributes the statues to the sculptor James Redfern, while Roy Spring in the New Bell’s Cathedral Guide of 1987 added that “many of them were produced in Salisbury in the workshop of William Osmund” [7]. Spring considers these to be inferior to the statues by Redfern.

Following the scheme of the Rev. H. T. Armfield, most authorities on the cathedral agree that — as on other English cathedrals — the grouping of statues on the west front is broadly based on the heavenly hierarchy described in the Te Deum Laudamus, five major tiers of statues representing respectively:

  1. Angels
  2. Old Testament partiarchs and prophets
  3. Apostles
  4. Doctors, virgins and martyrs
  5. Worthies of the English church (and of Salisbury)

These are described in detail in Armfield’s Legend of Christian Art (1869) [8]. The layers echo to some extent the categories mentioned by Hardy:

“Of prophet, king, queen, cardinal in state” (poem)

“the prophets, the martyrs, the bishops, the kings, and the queens” (the Life)

It is perhaps most noticeable that Hardy mainly mentions the categories represented on the lowest two levels of the west front scheme, e.g.: St. Jerome in his cardinal’s hat, various bishops (Augustine of Hippo, Augustine of Canterbury) and martyrs on the tier of the Doctors, Virgins and Martyrs; local bishops (Brithwold, Osmund, Odo, Richard Poore, Giles de Bridport), archbishops (Alphege, Thomas Becket) and royalty (St Edmund, King Henry III) on the lowest tier. The queens mentioned in both poem and diary might possibly be the four virgins (SS. Lucy, Agatha, Agnes and Cecilia) on the tier above, as they were depicted with their martyr’s crowns.


Salisbury Cathedral: The Four Virgins

Salisbury Cathedral - Statues of four female saints: St. Lucy with lamp and dagger, St. Agatha with the pincers of her torture, St. Agnes with lamb, St. Cecilia with organ


There is, of course, the danger of taking the poem’s link with any particular cathedral too literally. The poem doesn’t specifically mention Salisbury and it’s deeper meaning is not dependent on any geography, either real or imagined. It is perhaps also worth noting that by the 1890s, Redfern and many of those who had worked on the west front statues thirty years before would have been dead, but this is almost certainly NOT Hardy’s point about “dead men’s tools.”

Perhaps it is best to end these ramblings by recalling another atmospheric description of a cathedral, with a number of possible parallels (or contrasts) [9]:

When he had had something to eat he walked out into the dull winter light over the town bridge, and turned the corner towards the Close. The day was foggy, and standing under the walls of the most graceful architectural pile in England he paused and looked up. The lofty building was visible as far as the roof-ridge; above, the dwindling spire rose more and more remotely, till its apex was quite lost in the mist drifting across it.

The lamps now began to be lighted, and turning to the west front he walked round. He took it as a good omen that numerous blocks of stone were lying about, which signified that the cathedral was undergoing restoration or repair to a considerable extent. It seemed to him, full of the superstitions of his beliefs, that this was an exercise of forethought on the part of a ruling Power, that he  might find plenty to do in the art he practised while waiting for a call to higher labours.”

For other mentions of Salisbury in Thomas Hardy’s works, see a recent article in the Sarum Chronicle [10].


[1] Florence Emily Hardy, The Life of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1928 (London: Macmillan, 1962), p. 296.

[2] Charles Robert Cockerell, Iconography of the West Front of Wells Cathedral (Oxford; London: John Henry Parker, 1851).

[3] Warwick Rodwell, The Archaeology of Wells Cathedral: Excavations and Structural Studies, 1978-93 (London: English Heritage, 2001).

[4] Gleeson White, The Cathedral Church of Salisbury, 2nd ed., Bell’s Cathedral Series (London: George Bell & Sons, 1898), p. 29. These are identified by Cockerell (op. cit., Appendix N, p. 97) as: St. Paul, St. Peter, Pope Honorius, St. John the Evangelist, St. John the Baptist, a female saint (possibly St. Anne or St. Mary Magdalen), Bishop Poore and a secular figure probably representing William Longspee.

[5] Cockerell, Iconography of the West Front of Wells Cathedral, Appendix N, p. 97

[6] White, Cathedral Church of Salisbury, p. 30.

[7] Roy Spring, Salisbury Cathedral: The New Bell’s Cathedral Guides (London: Unwin Hyman, 1987), p. 40.

[8] H. T. Armfield, The Legend of Christian Art, Illustrated in the Statues of Salisbury Cathedral (Salisbury: Brown and Co.; London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., 1869), pp. 18-27.

[9] Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure, ed. Dennis Taylor, Penguin Classics (London: Penguin, 1998), p. 131.

[10] Hugh Thomas, “Thomas Hardy and Salisbury,” Sarum Chronicle, no. 8 (2008): 3-10.

[Based on a e-mail sent to the <> list on 15 October 2010]


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