Enjoying Tradfolk? Click here to find out how you can support us
The Giant with attendants. Photo taken in 1902 at the coronation of King Edward VII. Black and white.
The Giant with attendants. Photo taken in 1902 at the coronation of King Edward VII. Photo credit: Salisbury Museum

Customs uncovered: The Salisbury Giant

The Salisbury Giant is a rare example of a processional giant from the late medieval period, commonly associated with midsummer celebrations.

The Salisbury Giant was purchased from the Tailors’ Guild by Salisbury Museum in 1873 for the princely sum of 30 shillings – approximately £1.50 in today’s money. That may not seem like a lot for a giant, and some might say the museum nabbed themselves a real bargain, especially when you consider that this is one of the oldest existing giants in the UK today.

Who or what is the Salisbury Giant?

The Salisbury Giant is a processional giant, commonly associated with Midsummer rituals. He was a prized possession of the Tailor’s Guild, and it is from their records, dating to 1570, that we first hear about him. However, it’s likely that he is even older than that, having been made sometime in the previous 123 years (the Tailors’s Guild having been chartered in 1447). In preparation for the “accustomed pageant of Mydsomer feaste”, the record calls for repairs to be made to the giant’s coat, suggesting he was already feeling his age by the time of the feast.

Does he have a name?

Yes. His name is Christopher. The historian and archivist, Steve Roud, believes he is named after St Christopher, the most famous giant in Christian history. However, you’d be forgiven for thinking his name was John (after St John the Baptist, the patron saint of tailors), as he was commonly summoned to dance on June 23rd, or St John’s Eve.

The Salisbury Giant on Kelsey Road, Salisbury, June 1953
The Salisbury Giant on Kelsey Road, Salisbury, June 1953

How tall is the Salisbury Giant?

In 1869, at the time of his acquisition, he stood 14ft tall. He’s slightly shorter now, as he was too tall to fit in the museum.

What is he made of?

If you were to remove his elegant attire, you’d find that his head is a solid block of wood, while his body is a hollow wooden frame – all the better for climbing up inside and moving him around. This means he is not restricted by a set of wheels; having a person inside allows him a real set of feet, as well as the ability to tilt, sway, bend and dip, giving him a much more lifelike appearance. He’s rarely seen without his appropriately massive double-handed sword and his mace (canvas on the end of a pole).

The Salisbury Giant takes a tumble into the crowd, way back in 1911
The Salisbury Giant is able to move about easily, but sometimes this leads to mishaps. On June 22, 1911, he took a tumble into the Fisherton Street crowd, there to mark the coronation of George V.

Who dances with him?

Wherever giants go, morris dancers tend to follow, most likely Sarum Morris who regularly dance with a replica that appears at public events. However, Christopher the Salisbury Giant has closer friends than that. On the rare occasions that he makes an appearance (he has not left his current abode for over 40 years), he is commonly in the company of his whifflers (armed attendants that appeared in processions as far back as the early 16th century) and Hob Nob, his hobby horse. Hob Nob has been parting the crowds and leading the way for Christopher for at least 500 years.

Hob Nob, Christopher and Curator Emiratus, Peter Saunders.
Hob Nob, Christopher and Curator Emiratus, Peter Saunders. Image via the Salisbury Museum Volunteers Blog

Where can I meet the Salisbury Giant?

Christopher lives at the Salisbury Museum (Cathedral Close, SP1 2EJ; open seven days a week, 10am to 5pm). This year, the museum is offering the chance for professional group photos with the original giant on August 5th-6th, as part of a new exhibition and re-development taking place around him. For the chance to get up close to the big man, contact katiemorton@salisburymuseum.org.uk.

The information in our Customs Uncovered series comes from several books, most commonly The English Year (Steve Roud, 2006), and The Stations of the Sun (Ronald Hutton, 1996).