Old Sarum, in Wiltshire, has been variously an Iron Age hill fort, a Norman castle, and the site of Salisbury’s first cathedral. Visitors can explore the remains of the castle and the cathedral, and enjoy the views from the hill top. And they can learn a few curious facts associated with the site of Old Sarum.
The Origins Of Old Sarum
Old Sarum has been associated with human activity, including farming and hunting, for around 5,000 years. However, the first known settlement was in the Iron Age, when the Celts built a hill fort here around 400 BCE. The site continued to be occupied during the Romano-British period, and there are nearby Roman roads, but we do not know for certain if the Romans themselves used the fort.
Old Sarum later became a Saxon royal estate. However, all that remains of the pre-medieval period is the impressive earthworks. These consist of a huge circular bank with a large mound at the centre. A ditch separates the mound from the lower rampart.
A Norman Castle
For a brief moment in history Old Sarum was a very important site, a regional centre of government. William the Conqueror built a castle here around 1070, turning the earthworks into a complex of fortifications, towers and living quarters. The castle was expanded into a great palace (probably for King John) in the 13th century. However it almost immediately fell into disrepair. It remained an administrative centre for the next hundred years but was finally demolished in the 16th century.
All of the ruins that you see now are from the medieval period. Although there is not much left of the castle, there are information boards to help you to visualise the place and its activity in the Middle Ages.
Salisbury’s First Cathedral
A cathedral was built in the castle grounds in 1092. This established the importance of Old Sarum as both a religious and political centre. However, by the 13th century the church wanted to dissociate itself from the crown, and plans were made to build a new cathedral a short distance away. What is now Salisbury Cathedral was begun in 1220, and a new city grew up around it.
Today you can see the foundations of the first cathedral and the outline of its cloister. But what would have once been a busy urban area is now grassed over, making it a place for a peaceful countryside walk. Standing on the hill fort you can also see the “new” city of Salisbury and the tip of its cathedral spire in the distance.
Old Sarum: Some Curious Facts
There are a number of curious facts associated with Old Sarum.
How Did Old Sarum Get Its Name?
The city of Salisbury is sometimes known as New Sarum, and it is tempting to assume that Sarum was the earlier name of the hill fort, possibly bestowed by the Romans. However, the Celts called the hill Sorbiodunum, and the Domesday Book recorded it as Sarisberie. The name Sarum does not in fact appear until the 13th century, and seems to have been either a Latinised abbreviation, or perhaps just a spelling mistake!
A Prison For A Queen
Between 1173 and 1189 the fortified castle was used to imprison Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of King Henry II. Estranged from her husband, she was accused of plotting to help her son to seize the crown.
A Rotten Borough
While Old Sarum was still a rich and powerful place it acquired the right to appoint two Members of Parliament. This right remained even after the site was depopulated, meaning that the landowner could return two members of his own choosing. Constituencies of this type were known as “rotten boroughs”, and were not abolished until the Reform Act of 1832.
Beginning Of The Ordnance Survey
The Ordnance Survey began its project of mapping Britain in 1791. They calculated distance through triangulation (a method of using measured angles between points). However, they needed to measure a baseline as a starting point for their calculations. William Mudge, the head of the Ordnance Survey, decided that Old Sarum was the perfect place to take the measurement, and in 1793 his surveyors physically staked out the distance between the fort and Amesbury Hill, around 11 km away.
An Arrow And A Deer
Finally, more of a myth than a fact. It is said that the bishop of Old Sarum ordered an arrow to be fired from the castle, saying that the new cathedral would be built wherever it landed. However, the arrow hit a passing deer, who ran for a further two miles before collapsing beside the River Avon. The arrow fell to the ground, and that was where the cathedral was built.
Visiting Old Sarum
- Old Sarum is just over 3km from Salisbury. You can walk there by the road, or take a slightly longer route along the river and through fields.
- If you choose to drive there is a pay and display car park at Old Sarum.
- The site is managed by English Heritage. Access to the lower rampart and the cathedral foundations is free, but there is a charge for the hill fort and castle remains.
- English Heritage members get free entrance and car parking (read more about English Heritage membership and Overseas Visitor passes).