A spire is an Old English term for sprout or shoot of grass, something that grows upwards, reaching for the skies. In the case of a church, it is the heavens the spire is intended to reach and for those early Christians, the height of the spire, way above their heads, must have been awe inspiring.
A spire on a cathedral always, and perhaps more importantly for those that constructed it, was about the power of religion. Like the point of a spear or sword, it was a symbol of strength. Sometimes one spire was not sufficient, but two or three.
The spire of Salisbury cathedral, the tallest of its kind in the world still surviving (404ft /123m), was built between 1300 and 1320. Salisbury grew up around the cathedral because the original location for the city was a few miles away at Old Sarum. The Normans built a castle out of an Iron Age fort at Old Sarum and in 1075, a cathedral was constructed next to the castle motte. However, the monks and the garrison didn’t exactly get on. In 1220, the bishop of Salisbury decided to move away from the castle and its bad influence. Supposedly, he shot an arrow from the castle mound and it landed where the new cathedral was built. Not likely, given the distance!
This cathedral survived, as did the spire, which has needed much restoration of the years to keep it up there. Sir Christopher Wren was one involved in helping to save the spire. He determined the spire was leaning by 30 inches and inserted iron rods to strengthen the structure. By modern standards, he did an amazing job – the spire hasn’t moved since.
Wren was responsible for building St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London. The cathedral wasn’t the first to stand there – the first, Old St Paul’s – burnt down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The original cathedral was built between 1087 and 1314. It was a big cathedral, as excavations have revealed and probably longer than Winchester – the current record holder in the UK for Medieval cathedrals. It sported the tallest spire in Europe barring Lincoln’s – 489 ft / 149m. Pity it went up in smoke. Wren replaced the spire design with a Baroque dome.
Lincoln Cathedral boasted the tallest spire at 525ft / 160m, which surpassed the Great Pyramid of Giza in height. The central spire was blown down in a storm in 1548 and the remaining spires removed in 1807 due to safety issues.
There are just three remaining cathedrals in the UK with 3 spired towers: Lichfield, Truro and St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh.
Lichfield is the only Medieval cathedral left in Britain with 3 spires. It was extensively renovated by Sir George Scott, who happened to build the spires at St Mary’s in Edinburgh. The foundation stone for St Mary’s was laid in 1874, however, the twin spires on the western end weren’t built until 1913-1917 – they’re known as Barbara and Mary (Walker), after the two sisters who paid for the original construction.
Truro cathedral is at the other end of the British Isles in Cornwall. Built as part of the Victorian’s Gothic revival between 1880 and 1910. The central tower and spire stand at 250ft / 76m. Reaching high had lost its impact, it seems, but as a ‘modern’ version of a Medieval cathedral, it captures the style quite well, I think.
Cathedrals weren’t alone in having spires – parish churches do too. There are many – I couldn’t find a reference to how many – but having grown up in the Midlands, there are lots. One of the most famous in England is the Crooked Spire of Chesterfield in Derbyshire. The twisting was caused by the lead covering the spire. As the sun shines on the southern side of the spire, its heats and expanding at a great rate than the north side, twisting it around. The weight of the lead doesn’t help either.
Legends present a different reason: when a virgin married in the church, the spire turned in surprise to look at the bride and that if another virgin marries in the church, it will turn again! Another is that the devil sat on the spire and coiled his tail around it. The towns people rang the bells in alarm and the devil ran off with his tail still snaked around the spire, twisting it. Legends are much more fun than rational scientific explanations.