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John of Salisbury 

John of Salisbury Memorial plaque.jpg

John of Salisbury (Johannes De Saresberia, Surnamed Parvus) ca 1115 -1180 was born at or near Old Sarum. Salisbury was then Old Sarum although the phrase “Old Salisbury” was in use by 1183, within a few years of his death. He was educated locally, at Exeter and Paris. After teaching in Paris he returned to England to work for Archbishop of Canterbury Theobald of Bec 1148 till Theobald’s death in 1161.

One of his colleagues working for Archbishop Theobald was Thomas Becket who became Chancellor to King Henry II in 1154. John had supported Henry II during the anarchy and was friends with the English Pope Adrian the 4th. Becket became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162 and much of the rift between him and Henry II was played out locally at Clarendon Palace. Henry passed the Constitutions of Clarendon from there in 1164. Becket opposed this. John sided with Becket and was his secretary before spending much of the 1160s in exile in France or the Vatican. He was present in Canterbury Cathedral, hiding behind the altar, when he witnessed the murder of Becket in 1170. He was Becket’s hagiographer. He became Bishop of Chartres in 1176 and died there in 1180.

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He was a philosopher of the Cicero school and his most famous work the Policraticus: (Of the Frivolities of Courtiers and the Footprints of Philosophers) was an example of “mirrors held up to princes” urging rulers to be just and good and to serve their peoples.


 From the writings of John of Salisbury:

  • We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.

  • Between a tyrant and a prince there is this single or chief difference, that the latter obeys the law and rules the people by its dictates, accounting himself as but their servant.

  • Accurate reading on a wide range of subjects makes the scholar; careful selection of the better makes the saint.

  • A man is free in proportion to the measure of his virtues, and the extent to which he is free determines what his virtues can accomplish.

  • An illiterate king is a crowned ass.


Bollermann, Karen and Cary Nederman, "John of Salisbury", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =

Coffey, P. (1910). John of Salisbury. In the Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved November 29, 2020 from New Advent:

John of Salisbury's 'Life of Becket' 1180. The Murder of Thomas Becket. Illustration. Vellum. From British Library Shelfmark: Cotton MS Claudius B II Item number: f.341r. © British Library Board. This shows William de Tracy, Reginald Fitz Urse, Richard Ie Bret and Hugh de Morville murdering Becket (left) then praying for forgiveness (right).

Photo of Plaque in Chartres  Pierre-Yves Beaudouin 2011 Wikipedia    Reproduced under  GNU Free Documentation License

Simpkin, John. 2020  Medieval Britain  >  History of Ideas  >  John of Salisbury


Kerry O’Connor

December 2020

FURTHER READING in the Local History section of this website - Thomas Becket

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