Old Sarum is the site of the earliest settlement of Salisbury. It is two miles north of where the city now stands
The Romans, Normans and Saxons all left their mark there: Old Sarum was used as an Iron Age hillfort between about 400 BC and AD 43 – one of the largest in England – before being occupied shortly after the Roman conquest of Britain, when it became known as Sorviodunum. The Romans occupied the site until about AD 410.
William the Conqueror established a royal castle at Old Sarum, in the middle of the earthworks, shortly after 1066. This, says English Heritage, transformed the site, effectively dividing the hillfort in two: an inner set of fortifications, which became William’s castle, and a huge outer enclosure, within which a cathedral was built in 1075
The royal castle, created shortly after 1066, was “a major administrative centre”, says English Heritage. The sheriffs of Wiltshire were established in the castle, and the cathedral later provided a body of clerks who assisted with major projects
Old Sarum is historically important as the site of the Oath of Sarum of 1 August 1086. Facing revolt and invasion, William I [aka William the Conqueror] gathered the powerful, landholding men of the realm to a ceremony in which they swore allegiance to him. The ceremony, described by English Heritage as “a striking assertion of royal power”, underlined William’s position as the source of tenure of all land across England.
- Between 1173 and 1189 Henry II’s queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was kept under house arrest at Old Sarum for having incited her sons to rebel against their father
The cathedral was demolished during the medieval period: dissatisfaction with the site and poor relations with the garrison in the castle caused the cathedral to be moved to its present site in Salisbury (New Sarum) in the 1220s. After this time, royal interest in the castle waned. English Heritage explains: “The castle seems to have limped on as an administrative centre into the 15th century, the end finally coming in 1514, when Henry VIII made over the ‘stones called the castle or tower of Old Sarum’ to Thomas Compton, together with the right to carry away the materials.”
Old Sarum lived on as a famous ‘rotten borough’ that continued to elect members of parliament until the Reform Act 1832. The parliamentary constituency had a very small electorate and could be used by a patron to gain unrepresentative influence within the unreformed House of Commons. Thomas Pitt became the owner of the site, and the votes attached to it, in 1691. Arguably, had it not been for this, Pitt’s famous grandson William might never have entered the House of Commons, because he first sat in parliament as a member of Old Sarum.
- Today, people visiting Old Sarum can see the earthworks of the Iron Age hillfort, the inner stronghold of the Norman castle on the motte at its centre, and the remains of the cathedral
Facts courtesy of English Heritage
To read more about Old Sarum on the English Heritage website, click here.