Old Sarum: the regal and the rotten

Perched on a windswept hilltop overlooking Salisbury Plain, the abandoned settlement of Old Sarum was once a thriving medieval city. Nigel Jones takes a visit to the site’s stone ruins, and dwells upon the political and religious significance it held for our forebears

The footprint of Old Sarum cathedral

On 2 May 1831, 11 men, accompanied by a gaggle of electoral officials, gathered under a tree on a flat hilltop north of Salisbury to cast their votes in the general election of that year.

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The men – none of whom actually lived in the ‘constituency’ – were the sole electors returning two unopposed Members of Parliament for the seat of Old Sarum, most notorious of the ‘rotten boroughs’, unrepresentative seats in the pockets of aristocratic families who dominated the era’s politics. Indeed, the deserted settlement had once been owned by the Pitt family, which had given Britain two famous prime ministers: William Pitt the elder and younger.

The following year, parliament passed the Great Reform Act, consigning rotten boroughs to history. As a result, that summer gathering was the last time Old Sarum played a significant part in British history.

Norman fortress

With its position high above the Wiltshire countryside, Old Sarum had been a focal point of military, ecclesiastical and political power for centuries, with evidence of human habitation dating back to the Neolithic age.

Fortified by the Saxon kings of Wessex, the settlement was in the front line of the long struggle against the Vikings. But it was the Normans who built a motte-and-bailey castle with stone to replace the earlier hillforts, soon after completing their conquest in 1070. It is the walls of this fortress, which gird the circular site, that are the most visible extant remains that draw visitors today.

The most pivotal figure in making Old Sarum the medieval nerve centre that it became was King William’s cousin, Saint Osmund, who helped produce Domesday Book. As the local bishop, Osmund began the building of a cathedral just north-west of the castle. But the building seemed jinxed from the start. A storm and lightning strike tore off its roof within days of its completion.

Old Sarum cathedral seemed jinxed from the start. A storm and lightning strike tore off its roof within days of its completion

Nevertheless, Old Sarum remained of vital religious and secular importance, with a royal palace constructed within the castle where successive monarchs – William Rufus, Henry I, Stephen – held court and councils. Henry II even imprisoned his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, there.

Cold comfort

In the end, it was the English weather that sealed Old Sarum’s fate. The clerics who ran the cathedral constantly complained of the cold winds that whistled through their cloisters, and of the lack of water on their high hill, and petitioned to move the building to a lowland site three miles to the south.

Permission was finally granted, and the magnificent new cathedral of Salisbury was consecrated in 1258. The masons who built the impressive structure cannibalised the stone from the old cathedral, and the civilian population of Old Sarum migrated to the more convenient location. Edward II abandoned the castle and palace in 1322, and Henry VIII eventually sold the remains. Despite this, the deserted ruin perversely continued to send its two MPs to Westminster for a further four centuries.

Following repeated excavations during the 20th century, the outlines of the original cathedral have been marked out in stone and visitors to the English Heritage-managed site can pace the place where choirs once sang their praises. Marvelling at the distant view of today’s city of Salisbury – or New Sarum – today’s tourists only need a little imagination to conjure up the ghosts of a setting that played such a key part in our island story.

Nigel Jones is a historian and biographer

VISIT: For more information, head over to English Heritage

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This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine