Magna Carta Weekend at Salisbury Cathedral

magna carta

Music, revelry, picnics, time for reflection and an evening’s extravaganza! On the weekend of 13 – 15 June Salisbury Cathedral will be alive with Magna Carta 800 celebrations, marking this country’s first step towards democracy.


The weekend begins with the Magna Carta Gala Concert on Saturday 13 June, featuring a new choral work by internationally renowned composer Tarik O’Regan, with a libretto by Alice Goodman.

A Letter of Rights, commissioned for the occasion by Salisbury Cathedral, will be performed alongside classics from Elgar, Mozart and Pergolesi. The programme will be introduced with a fanfare written by the Director of Music of The Royal Artillery Band, Captain Anthony Adams and during the concert celebrated actor Edward Fox will read an extract from Shakespeare’s King John.

Composer Tarik O’Regan said of his new Magna Carta inspired work: “I was drawn in particular to the idea of poise, something which came directly from Alice’s libretto. By which I mean both the extremely intricate way in which parchment was made in 1215 (and which Alice references beautifully in her text), but also the delicate nature of the very language which was written upon that parchment 800 year ago, and its subsequent interpretations. As a result, A Letter of Rights has an almost ritualistic quality to it: palindromic, divided into several text-driven movements interconnected by instrumental interludes for strings and percussion.”

The Gala Concert will be the first performance of an Alice Goodman libretto since the furore over the Death of Klinghoffer in 1991. Referencing the European Parliament’s Letter of Rights in its title, her libretto is a wonderful combination of earthy images and high ideals, opening with a beautiful reflection on the physicality of the Magna Carta.

Alice Goodman said: “Amongst the treasures of Salisbury Cathedral is one of the finest of the few surviving copies of Magna Carta. To all intents and purposes it is a holy relic. It was the fact of the Cathedral’s possession of this copy of Magna Carta that motivated the Canon Chancellor to ask me to write something for this concert. So I began writing with a sense of the importance of the document itself, the piece of parchment to which King John fixed his seal. As I wrote, I discovered the paradoxes of the Great Charter; how quickly it was annulled, how little of it still matters to us, and yet how long and how powerful its continuing life has been, and how much we owe to it and rely upon it.

“The title that I chose with Tarik O’Regan for our cantata, A Letter of Rights, comes from Directive 2012/13/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 May 2012 on the right to information in criminal proceedings. Persons arrested on suspicion of a crime must be given a letter of rights in a language they understand, a letter that they can hold and keep, read, and refer to. We are back to the thing itself. We open the glass case in which we’ve entombed Magna Carta. It comes up fresh and smelling of roses, newer than the latest news from the new government.”

The concert takes place at 19.00 on Saturday 13 June. David Halls, Salisbury Cathedral’s Director of Music, conducts La Folia orchestra and the full Salisbury Cathedral Choir.

Another musical highlight on the anniversary weekend is the Magna Carta Eucharist at 10.30 on Sunday 14 June, which will feature a new work commissioned by the Cathedral Chapter. Missa Festiva by David Halls, Salisbury Cathedral’s Director of Music, will be sung by the Cathedral
choir with John Challenger, Assistant Director of Music, playing the organ.

Missa Festiva is based on melodies from the plainsong Veni Sancte Spiritus, also known as the Golden Sequence. Held to be one greatest masterpieces of sacred Latin poetry, the hauntingly beautifully words are believed to have been written by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of Magna Carta.

David Halls said: “I was delighted to be commissioned to write this setting of the mass and for such an important occasion. Before I even put pen to paper, I had at the back of my mind an impressive organ part, demanding for the player, and vocal lines full of big gestures. I also had a feeling that the mass would end in a very slow, consoling way, with a fair amount of unaccompanied singing.

Finally, by taking the fertile Veni sancte spiritu plainsong melody as a model, I found the composition of this piece remarkably easy and I enjoyed writing it.”

The service will also feature new anthem by internationally celebrated choral composer, John Rutter.


New art works will be installed for the public to view and interact with over the anniversary weekend, some of which will remain in the Cathedral until the end of the year.

Alternative Perspective, a black, white and terracotta tile montage featuring visual interpretations of justice, law and rights created by prisoners from HMP Erlestoke will be on display in the Cathedral Cloisters.

Creatively led and assembled by the Cathedral’s Visual Arts Adviser, Jacquiline Creswell, Alternative Perspective offers another interpretation of Magna Carta values. The prisoners’ preparatory sketchbooks, created during workshops will be on display in glass cases and provide surprising insights into the thoughts and ideas of those who have forfeited their

In the North Porch a remarkable walk-through light installation, Enlightenment by international digital arts/design group Squidsoup, takes the visitor into an ephemeral world of virtual colours and forms created by hundreds of hanging lights that have been programmed to react to their presence.

In the Morning chapel a similarly interactive piece, Power of Words, allows visitors’ gestures and movement to shift and change text from the Magna Carta projected on the chapel walls.


The Magna Carta 800th anniversary weekend is about community and solidarity, offering a chance to collectively express one’s faith.

At 14.00 on Sunday 14 June a pilgrimage from Old Sarum will follow the 2 ½ mile route to Salisbury cathedral, re-enacting the journey made by the Magna Carta after the ‘new’ Cathedral was built on this site.

This will be followed by a Libertea Party on the Cathedral lawns at 15.00 open to all, with live music provided by the Salisbury Concert Band and at 16.30, an Open Air Service.

Monday 15 June will be an Open Day from 13.00 to 22.00 in the Cathedral, with free drop in workshops including calligraphy, medieval games and clay work.

There’s also a chance to take on King John in a heated debate, as the battle for rights is played out by volunteers stepping into the shoes of characters from yesteryear. In all eleven ‘characters’ will appear, each with a story to tell about freedom, justice and rights across the ages.

In the evening a pageant with 18 giant baron puppets, organised by Wiltshire Council, will make its way through the city and into the Cathedral Close to herald the start of a spectacular and pyrotechnic finale to the weekend.