Old Sarum: Historic Site Of The Original Salisbury 1

On one of the most important days in English history, 1 August 1086, all the significant landowners in England gathered to swear allegiance to William the Conqueror, marking the completion of his annexation of the country, 20 years after the Battle of Hastings. 

This didn’t happen in London, or Winchester, but on a fortified hilltop just north of what is now Salisbury, and the huge Iron Age fort, still enclosing the ruins of its days at the heart of our history, is well-worth a visit.

Over the next couple of centuries, from time to increasingly conflict-torn time, this was the seat of English monarchy.  The huge ditches and banks enclosed a castle and a cathedral that were effectively the birthplace of Salisbury.

Old Sarum entrance

You have to watch for the left turning off the A345 a couple of miles out of Salisbury, but once you’ve found that, you approach this hilltop fastness as people have done throughout recorded history, by a bridge into the inner bailey.

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What would have been a drawbridge is long gone, but the modern arch gives a sense of the scale of the huge ditch that remains.

Old Sarum modern bridge

The wardens employed by English Heritage know their ground, and they’ll direct you, not to walk straight on, but to climb a narrow path to the left through the old gatehouse and onto the ramparts giving the best view to start your visit.

The space you overlook was once crowded with what amounted to a small palace, the buildings necessary to keep the inhabitants fed and served and huge castle towers.

Old Sarum main ruins

Only fragments now remain, because when the derelict buildings were finally abandoned in the reign of Henry VIII, the monarch gave one of his officials permission to take the dressed stone away, and only the flint cores of what were once two and three-storey buildings still stand.

It’s both a tragedy and a peculiarity that so little is left of what had been one of the principal cities of southern England, but the guidebook compiled by English Heritage is one of the best I’ve seen.

With that in hand it becomes easy to find your way among the rough walls and lumpy ground, picking out what were once chapels, great halls, a bakery and other buildings.

Old-Sarum-loos cright English Heritage

You can even peer into the deep stone-lined chasms that were the cesspits, cleared when full by hand, which must have been a horrible job even by medieval standards! (Photo © English Heritage)

The first fortifications were built in the Iron Age, taking advantage of a hilltop with commanding views over the surrounding landscape, and reused by the Romans to guard an important crossroads nearby.

William the Conqueror was quick to recognise its tactical advantages as he struggled to gain control of England after the invasion of 1066.

He built the most modern stone fortifications, and the other power in the land, the church, was quick to take a share of what became the city of Sarum, or Salisbury.

Old Sarum cathedral

The ruins within the main castle walls may be a fragment of the fine buildings that were there. But if you climb the highest remains of what was once a huge wall at the western end, you can look down on all that is left of what was once a crowded outer bailey.

That pattern of old foundations stretched out over the grass was once a cathedral, much smaller than the one down in the valley but still the seat of a Bishop and remarkably, effectively rebuilt and extended three times in a couple of centuries.

But eventually, in the 1220s, the difficulties of keeping a cathedral city fed and watered on a hilltop, and poor relations between the Bishop and the Crown, led to the church authorities simply moving out.

Old Sarum view of new city

The diocesan estates included enough land in the valley to set up a new market town, and the stone of Old Sarum’s cathedral was taken to help make a start on the new and far more magnificent building whose 404ft high spire can be seen in the distance.

You wonder whether it was built that tall, on foundations only a few feet deep, to make sure it was still on the skyline seen from its predecessor.

A century later only ten taxpayers remained in the old city, although in one of British history’s most notorious scandals, the owner of Old Sarum could send an MP (even himself) to Westminster to sit in the House of Commons until 1832.

Old Sarum view of spire

There can’t be many other English hilltops where so much history is packed into such a small and special place.

Main Featured image credit: ©Historic England Photo Library

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