Old Sarum

From Academic Kids


Missing image
Woodcut of Old Sarum as it was during its height

Old Sarum is the site of the earliest settlement of Salisbury, England, with evidence of human habitation as early as 300 BC. It sits on a hill about 3km (two miles) north of modern Salisbury.

Old Sarum was initially a hill fort strategically situated on the conjunction of two trade routes and the River Avon, Hampshire. The hill fort is broadly oval in shape and measures 405m in length and 360m in width, consisting of a single circuit of bank and ditch with an entrance in the eastern end.

Among the earliest antiquarian records, Old Sarum is described as a city of the Belgae; and its historical details have proved an exhaustless mine for the researches of topographical illustrators.

Thus, Sir R.C. Hoare describes it as "a city of high note in the remotest periods by the several barrows near it, and its proximity to the two largest Druidical temples in England, namely, Stonehenge and Abury."Template:Ref

The Romans held it as a strong military station, and it was admitted to the privileges of the Latin law, under the name of SorbiodunumTemplate:Ref.

Cynric, king of Wessex, was said to have captured the place in 552. Under the Saxons it ranked among the most considerable towns of the West kingdom, and possessed ecclesiastical establishments soon after the conversion of the Saxons to ChristianityTemplate:Ref.

In the early part of the ninth century it was the frequent residence of Egbert; and in 960, Edgar assembled here a national council to devise the best means of repelling the Danes in the northTemplate:Ref.

Arthur commanded it to be more strongly fortified by another trench and high palisadoesTemplate:Ref.

In 1086, William the Norman convened in this city the prelates, nobles, sheriffs, and knights of his new dominions, there to receive their homage;Template:Ref and probably, within its walls was framed the feudal law, as Domesday Book was commenced in the same year. Two other national councils were held here; one by William Rufus, in 1096, and another by Henry I in 1116.

Peter of Blois, an early ecclesiastical writer, described Old Sarum as "barren, dry, and solitary, exposed to the rage of the wind; and the church (stands) as a captive on the hill where it was built, like the ark of God shut up in the profane house of Baal."Template:Ref

After the Norman Conquest, the town was renamed Salisberie after the Earl who received the area. He built a wooden castle with a ditch, and in 1067 started a cathedral and bishop's palace. He completed it in 1092 (it burned down five days later), and in 1100 built a stone keep. A replacement cathedral was completed in 1190.

But space ran out and water was in short supply on the hilltop, with cathedral and castle sitting cheek by jowl and their respective chiefs in regular conflict; so in 1219 the bishop started construction on a new cathedral on the banks of the Avon. A new settlement grew up around this, called New Sarum, and eventually the name of Salisbury was used only for the new town. Old Sarum was slowly abandoned and fell into ruin. Not much is still standing there, but visitors may easily trace the outlines of the old castle and cathedral.

Such are a few of the chronological data of the principal events in the history of Old Sarum; these, however, will suffice to elucidate the antiquity of the city, and from their historical importance cannot fail to make the preceding engraving a subject of general as well as of local interest, especially as it represents the old city, previous to its reduction in 553.

Scarcely a vestige of human habitation now remains of Old Sarum, as we have shown once a place "of great importance—and a city adorned with many proud structures—a splendid cathedral and other churches—a castle with lofty towers and ramparts—regular streets and houses—and once the residence of a numerous population." But all these have passed away, and nought is left to tell the tale of their greatness, but a few crumbling wrecks of massy walls; whilst vast fosses and elevated ramparts remain to mark it as the site of desolating war. The contrast of time-worn ruins with their surrounding scenes of luxuriant nature is affecting even to melancholy. A recent visiter to the area of Old Sarum describes "a field of oats flourishing on the very spot where the crowded street had formerly extended itself; and a barrier existing to the further progress of agriculture, by the remains of the cathedral, castle, &c. forming heaps of rubbish barely covered with scanty and unprofitable verdure."

Missing image
What remains of the inner castle, circa 2005

The space occupied by the ancient city is stated to have been nearly 2,000 feet in diameter, surrounded with a fosse, or ditch, of immense depth, and two ramparts, inner and outer: on the inner, which was much higher than the outer, stood a wall nearly 12 feet thick at its foundation, of flint and chalk, strongly cemented together, and cased with hewn stone, on which was a parapet with battlements. In the centre, on the summit of the hill, stood the castle or citadel, surrounded with a very deep intrenchment and a high rampart; and in the area beneath, forming a wide space between the inner and outer ramparts, stood the city, divided into equal parts, north and south; near the middle of each division was a gate—these two being the grand entrances, with a tower and mole over and before each. Besides these were ten other towers, at equal distances round the city; and opposite them, in a straight line with the castle, were built the principal streets, intersected in the middle with one grand circular street, encompassing the whole city. In the angle to the north-west stood the cathedral, and episcopal palace, and the houses of the clergy.

The area of the city was also divided into nearly equal parts by intrenchments and ramparts thrown up, by which means if one part was taken, the other was still defensible; and if the whole of the out-works were in the hands of the enemy, the besieged could retire to the castle, whose walls were impregnable. There appears to have been but one entrance to the castle, on the east. There were five wells, four in the city and one in the castle, designed chiefly to support the garrison and inhabitants in time of war, or during a siege.


The decline of (Old) Sarum, which was very rapid, has been traced to a disagreement between the civil and ecclesiastical authorities. During the reign of Henry I. the bishop of Old Sarum, who rose to that dignity, from being a parish priest at Caen, was entrusted with the keys of the fortress. The bishop, however, fell into disgrace, the king resumed the command of the castle, and the military openly insulted the disgraced prelate and the clergy. These animosities increasing, the Empress Maude bestowed many gifts upon the cathedral, and added much land to its grants. Herbert, a subsequent bishop of the see, attempted to remove the establishment, but its execution was reserved for his brother and successor, Richard Poor, whose monument is in the south chancel of the present cathedral at Salisbury. This was about the year 1217, from which time the inhabitants of Old Sarum removed their residence, and pulled down their dwellings, with the materials of which they constructed their new habitations: and as one city increased in population and extent, so the other almost as rapidly decayed. Hence the establishment of New Sarum, or Salisbury.

Old Sarum's long history makes it a popular location for historical reenactments.

Old Sarum by , 1829
Old Sarum by John Constable, 1829

Legislative infamy (As a rotten borough)

From the reign of Edward II Old Sarum elected two members to the House of Commons, despite the fact that from at least the 17th century it had no resident voters at all. One of the members in the 18th century was William Pitt the Elder. In 1831 it had eleven voters, all of whom were landowners who lived elsewhere. This made Old Sarum the most notorious of the rotten boroughs. The Reform Act 1832 completely disenfranchised Old Sarum.


  1. Template:Note "Ancient Wilts," --Sir R.C. Hoare, speaking of Stonehenge, expresses his opinion that "our earliest inhabitants were Celts, who naturally introduced with them their own buildings customs, rites, and religions ceremonies, and to them I attribute the erection of Stonehenge, and the greater part of the sepulchral memorials that still continue to render its environs so truly interesting to the antiquary and historian." Abury, or Avebury, is a village amidst the remains of an immense temple, which for magnificence and extent is supposed to have exceeded the more celebrated fabric of Stonehenge; Some enthusiastic inquirers have however, carried their supposition beyond probability, and in their zeal have even supposed them to be antediluvian labours! Many of the barrows in the vicinity of Sarum have been opened, and in them several antiquarian relics have been discovered. In short, the whole county is one of high antiquarian interest, and its history has been illustrated with due fidelity and research.
  2. Template:Note Richard of Cirericesler, p. 31, 68, 113.
  3. Template:Note Cott. Coll. Faustina, b. 3, MSS. Brit Mus.
  4. Template:Note Brompton Twysd. 866.
  5. Template:Note Dodsworth's History of Salisbury Cathedral.
  6. Template:Note Roger de Hoveden.
  7. Template:Note Petrus Blesensis, Epist, 105.no:Old Sarum

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