Old Sarum

Salisbury Cathedral, constructed in the early thirteenth century in the newly fashionable gothic style, is one of England’s most splendid. Here it is on a WWII propaganda poster by Frank Newbould, via the Imperial War Museum.

Republished under the terms of the Imperial War Museum Non-Commercial License. IWM PST 3640.

But the cathedral wasn’t always in this Salisbury (“Sarum” in Latin). On top of a nearby hill lie the remains of the former cathedral, designated Old Sarum. Whatever population surrounded this cathedral migrated to the new one over the course of the Middle Ages, leaving the hilltop abandoned. One thing that did not move, however, was the “borough” status of Old Sarum, which continued to send two members to Parliament until 1832 – including, at one point, William Pitt the Elder, later to become Prime Minister. (Disraeli: “England is governed not by logic but by Parliament”). Basically, whoever owned the land was able to nominate both members of Parliament. This “rotten borough” and others like it were abolished in the Reform Act of 1832.

Old Sarum itself had been occupied during the Iron Age, and was quite important during the twelfth century, as new discoveries reveal:


Archaeologists reveal lost medieval palace beneath prehistoric fortress at Old Sarum

The archaeological site of Old Sarum located in Wiltshire, England, has a rich history stretching back at least five thousand years. But it was William the Conqueror’s selection of the site for his royal castle in the 11th century that left the greatest mark on this historic landmark. Now geophysical surveys have revealed that what lies beneath the surface may actually be one of the largest medieval royal palaces ever found, built within the grounds of a vast Iron Age fortress, and hidden beneath fields for more than 700 years.

According to a report in The Independent, the high-tech scans carried out by archaeologists from the University of Southampton, including magnetometry, earth resistance, ground penetrating radar, and electric resistivity tomography survey, have revealed the foundations of dozens of houses and an enormous, previously unknown complex, measuring 170 ms (558 ft) long and 65 m (214 ft) wide, which is believed to have been a royal palace.

“The prime candidate for constructing it is perhaps Henry I sometime in the early 12th century,” said one of Britain’s leading experts on high status medieval buildings, Dr Edward Impey, Director-General of the Royal Armouries.

The complex was arranged around a large courtyard with 3 m (10 ft) wide walls, and included a long building, which was probably a grand hall. There is also evidence of towers and multi-storey buildings. If it is indeed a medieval royal palace, it is the largest of its kind ever found in Britain. Up until now, archaeologists were only aware of the much smaller complex on top of the man-made castle mound.

Old Sarum was originally an Iron Age hill fort, built in 400 BC on a site that had been inhabited since at least 3,000 BC. The site was used by the Romans, becoming the town of Sorviodunum. The Saxons also used the site as a stronghold against marauding Vikings.

In the 11th century, William the Conqueror, having gained control of England, chose Sarum as the location for a royal castle. The fact that it lay inside a large hill fort meant that defenses could be constructed very quickly. The castle was built on a motte (raised earthworks) protected by a deep dry moat in 1069, three years after the Norman conquest. The construction of a cathedral and bishop’s palace occurred between 1075 and 1092. A royal palace was then built within the castle for King Henry I and subsequently used by Plantagenet monarchs.

By 1219, the limitations of space on the hilltop site had become cause for concern, with the cathedral and castle in close proximity and their respective chiefs in regular conflict. The abandonment of Old Sarum by the clergy during the 1220s marked the end of serious royal interest in the castle. The castle continued in use, but was largely abandoned by the 16th century.