Just north of Salisbury (in Wiltshire), ancient earthworks overlook the town from a high windswept hill, the epitome of a setting for a Constable or Turner painting if ever there was one. The hill and the ruins atop it have figured in the history of Great Britain for several millennia, no small feat even for that history-ridden place.
No-one is sure if the hill was used extensively during Neolithic times, although some evidence of settlement from about 3000 BC has been found nearby. Of course, Salisbury is in the middle of a plain associated with many Megalithic sites. The most famous, Stonehenge, is a 20 minute drive to the north1. Our hill commands the valley of the Wiltshire Avon and access to the north half of the plain.
Some time in the Iron Age, probably around 500 BC, the newly-arrived Celts thought the hill was perfect for a stronghold, and made a hill-fort by constructing a 600 meter ring of earthworks on top. An early British clan used it as a place to retreat with all its cattle when neighboring clans (whose smaller hill-forts lie all around) came raiding. The Celts may have called it Sorviadun, which one of my sources2 claims is Celtic for 'the fortess by the Gentle River'.
By the first century of the Christian Era, the hill-fort was most likely abandoned; it does not appear to have been used as a stronghold against the invading Romans. The Romans built a small town on the Avon, in the shadow of the ancient hill-fort, naming it Sorviodunum. The Romans do not appear to have used the ancient earthworks, although a small shrine may have been located inside the ring. However, several Roman roads met just outside the eastern entrance to the ring.
As Roman influence in Britain went away, a new set of invaders took over. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states, for the year 552:
Her Cynric gefeaht wiþ Brettas in þære stowe þe is genemned æt Searobyrg. & þa Bretwalas gefliemde.
That is, "In this year, Cynric fought the British at the place called Searoburh, and the British fled." The Chronicle names Cynric as a king of the 'West Saxons', although this is probably an exercise in national myth building. Regardless of this, Old Sarum was reinhabited, with the Saxons building a town within the ring and along the road outside. A defensible point became even more important during the Viking raids of the 8th through the 10th centuries, and the Saxons strenghtened the defenses of Searoburh.
The heyday of Old Sarum was the 11th Century. In 1003, An army was raised to meet Sweyn Forkbeard's Vikings who were plundering Southwestern England. However, the putative leader, one Aelfric, pretended to be sick, and the defending army withdrew. As the Anglo-saxon Chronicle states:
When Sweyne saw that they were not ready, and that they all retreated, then led he his army into Wilton; and they plundered and burned the town. Then went he to [Sarum] and thence back to the sea, where he knew his ships were.
The Chronicle does not exactly say that Sarum was spared, but this is the assumption everyone makes. We know that former residents of Wilton moved here. Coins bearing the name Serebrig and the likeness of Aethelred the Unready have been found in Denmark. So the Danegeld, or some of it, appears to have been struck here, and the transfer may even have happened here.
As soon as William the Conqueror did away with Harold II in 1066, he began the construction of castles from which his knights would ride, controlling the population in a characteristic Norman way. William found the old hill-fort overlooking the Avon quite convenient because of its size and location; it and and the town below began a metamorphosis into one of the most important early Norman centers. It is clear that a castle was under construction by 1070 when William paid off his knights with the booty of Saxon England there (it was probably the only place large enough). The Normans enlarged the earthworks, and dug a smaller ring inside the first. On the top they built a curtain wall and the Great Keep. As with other Norman motte-and-bailey castles, this was probably made of timber at first, and replaced by stone when it became fashionable to do so. Another source states that the castle at Old Sarum was the largest motte-and-bailey castle the Normans built.
Another mechanism of Norman control was the Latinization of place names, and so they called Serebrig "Sarisburia", ignorant of the place's earlier Roman name. The Norman clergy later shortened this to Sarum to save on ink. The current Bishop of Salisbury still signs documents with this latter name, but we're jumping the gun.
In 1075, the See of Wiltshire was moved here from Sherborne, as part of an effort to bring the English clergy under Norman control. Bishop Herman, who had lived through the move from Wilton to Sherborne as part of the wrangling between Edward the Confessor and Earl Godwin of Kent, lived another three years. His successor, Osmund, began the construction of a cathedral within the outer bailey (i.e. in the space between the two rings). Bishop Osmund's cathedral was consecrated in 1092, but was damaged during a storm five days later.
For awhile, Sarisburia grew and flourished. Part of the Domesday Book was written here, and when William called the landholders of England here to swear fealty on 'Domesday' (August 1, 1086), this was the logical place because of its size.
Then he travelled about so as to come to Salisbury at Lammas; and there his councillors came to him, and all the people occupying land who were of any account over England, no matter whose vassals they might be; and they all submitted to him and became his vassals and swore oaths of allegiance to him, that they would be loyal to him against all other men.
- Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Sarum's ascendancy continued during the reigns of William II and Henry I. Henry's most trusted adviser was his chancellor Roger, and he appointed Roger bishop of Sarum in 1102 over the objection of Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. Roger was the second most powerful man in England after Henry, and began enlarging the cathedral, as well as building a palace for Henry in the inner bailey (and one for himself next to the cathedral). He also began the construction of a stone curtain-wall around the outer ring. Probably because of this expenditure, Roger had to be careful with money, and began counting taxes on a piece of checkered cloth (which later led to the name 'Exchequer' for the British treasury).
If Roger enjoyed great influence under Henry I, he was viewed just as much suspicion by King Stephen, who had Roger and his sons arrested in 1139, and confiscated their castles. Stephen ordered the castle at Sarum destroyed, but he died before the order could be carried out. Sarum continued to store royal treasure for about a century more.
Another use for the fortress at Sarum was as a prison. The most famous prisoner was Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was held here from 1173-1189 by her husband Henry II after she backed their sons in an unsuccessful revolt against him.
Old Sarum was like Mount Gilboa: a windy, rainswept place without flowers or birds.
- Henry d'Avranches
But Sarum's influence was in decline. The townspeople were moving down into the Avon valley. Not only that, two competing power bases resided in Old Sarum, one royal and one ecclesiastical. Water was always in short supply, and this became the nub of many a quarrel, fostering a distrust that grew over time.
The priests had a worse time of it, with a huge, drafty cathedral crammed into one corner of the ring, and no room for the fancy processions which self-resepcting cathedrals were supposed to have. Richard I approved a plan to move the see in 1194, but nothing happened until an incident in 1217, when the castle garrison barred the clergy from the gate for a made-up excuse. With Pope Honorius III's approval, a new cathedral was begun in 1219 down in the valley. Soon, the old cathedral was abandoned, and the ecclesiastical buildings wre disassembled for use as building materials elsewhere. When a new bridge was built across the Avon at 'New Sarum' or Salisbury in 1244, the town lost its last real reason for existence, and quickly withered.
This did not prevent Old Sarum from being considered as an electing borough when Simon de Montfort summoned the first Parliament in 1265. Old Sarum continued to wither, with most of the buildings being demolished for the new town, but sent two members to Parliament beginning in 1295. New Sarum sent its own two members. By 1377, there were only 10 poll-tax payers in Old Sarum.
In 1480, William of Worcester wrote the following in his travelogue, Itinerarium:
The first city of Britain is called Caer Guorthegirn (that is to say the Castle of Vortigern, now Salisbury).
This is utter nonsense of course. One wonders how the man confused Old Sarum with Bradford-on-Avon, which actually has an association with Vortigern.
The former town reverted to pastureland, and by 1540, there were no buildings left standing and no inhabitants. But the property owners continued to meet under an elm tree to elect two members from amongst themselves.
In 1690 an enterprising merchant named Thomas Pitt bought Old Sarum and began representing its ruins and empty fields in two stretches. He later passed his holdings on to his elder son Robert Pitt, who sat from 1726 to 1734. At that time, Robert happened to chosen to represent Okehampton as well. He decided to let his younger brother William sit for Old Sarum, launching him into a career that would see him made Prime Minister so influential that George III had to buy him off with a peerage. It was William Pitt (the Elder) who would call borough representation 'the rotten part of the Constitution, giving us the term 'rotten borough'. The Pitts sold Old Sarum to Lord Caledon in 1804.
Old Sarum was the poster child of the rotten boroughs. Caricatures from the time depict reformers trying to uproot a tree much like the elm under which Old Sarum's 32 landowners met. It took a near civil war to get the 1832 Reform Act passed, which finally took Old Sarum's seats away.
In 1905 the Parliament Tree, reduced to a mere trunk by souvenir-hunters, blew down in a storm.
With the Reform Act, Old Sarum was no longer a place that created history. But this began a new phase of its life, as an archaeological and tourist site. Constable and Turner indeed used Old Sarum as inspiration for their early paintings. The Crown took the site over in 1892, and operate it for visitors. But in a final bit of irony, the outskirts of New Sarum 3 have extended themselves up to the bottom of the old hill, the site of the town of Old Sarum.
1Since the two are so close, I thought that one might be visible from the other. It took the downloading of topographic maps and the repeat of a freshman-year geography experiment to prove otherwise: A hill halfway between Old Sarum and Salisbury named Rox Hill blocks visibility. As this hill is treeless, it might be possible to see both from it.
2Old Sarum tourist brochure, printed by White Dove Press in 1994 for English Heritage, reprinted 2001.
3A suburb known as 'Castle Hill'. The town of Stratford-sub-Castle lies over the site of the old Roman town.
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- 1. East Gate - guarded by barbican
- 2. Parking lot
- 3. Cross bridge, through ruins of gatehouse, into the Inner Bailey
- Inner Bailey
- 4. ruins of Royal Palace c. 1130
- 5. ruins of Great Keep c. 1100
- 6. Postern Gate -- a large "postern tower" would have connected Keep and Castle over the gate
- 7. Foundations
- 8. Cloister - a sunken area, the basement of a building that housed the church canons
- Outside, to the south
- 9. Hollowway + hedgerow, former course of ancient Roman road to Wilton
- 10. Site of Parliament Tree?
- 11. Approximate location of burgage lots