Occupying a naturally defensible position on a ridge of high ground running between the Rivers Avon and Bourne, Old Sarum has been fortified for thousands of years. A hillfort was established here no later than 400 BC and the site was re-used by the Romans, Saxons and Normans before the foundation of Salisbury (New Sarum) in the thirteenth century.
The first fortification established at Old Sarum was a hillfort. Archaeological finds suggest occupation as early as the Bronze Age although it is likely that both the settlement and defences evolved over time. An approximate date of 400 BC has been cited for the construction of the outer rampart which enclosed an area of around 29 acres. Originally the site had an entrance to the north but this was later filled in and the sole access became via the east which was protected by a hornwork, the medieval equivalent to a Barbican.
Following the Roman invasion in AD 43, Old Sarum became known as Sorviodunum. The region would have been suppressed by the Second Augustan Legion (Legio II Ausgusta) as it swept west but it is unclear whether the local tribe resisted the Romans. Many southern communities had previously traded with the invaders and may have welcomed their arrival. Alternatively Old Sarum could have been one of the twenty recorded towns that were stormed by the Second Legion. Whichever is true, the site continued in use after the Romans arrived although in what capacity is uncertain. It was certainly a strategic site as its position on the new road network placed it near the convergence of routes to Cirencester, Exeter, London (via Silchester) and Winchester. Furthermore two settlements grew up outside of the hillfort - one just to the south-east and another on the London Road (known as the Portway). It is theorised the hillfort may have been occupied by the military and the populace relocated but this is yet to be proven.
The Roman period came to an end in the early years of the fifth century AD and the fate of Old Sarum is unclear. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records a battle linked with the site, then called Searobyrg, in AD 552 but otherwise historical records are silent. Archaeological finds suggest occupation during the tenth century but the Burghal Hidage, a document detailing the fortified burhs in the Kingdom of Wessex, makes no mention of Old Sarum. In 1003 though, a Danish attack on Wilton led to a mint being established at Old Sarum and a settlement grew up in the immediate vicinity of the hillfort.
Old Sarum was seized by the Normans shortly after their invasion of 1066. A motte was built in the centre of the former hillfort no later than 1069. The interior of the former fort was also divided in two by a rampart which effectively created an outer bailey from the eastern portion of the fort. The net effect was a large, secure base from which the Normans could mount large scale military operations. The castle also became the administrative centre of Wiltshire and in 1076 the See was moved from Sherborne to Old Sarum. Work started on the first Cathedral, located within the perimeter of the former hillfort, shortly after.
The original Norman castle would have been an earth and timber construction. The Keep was rebuilt in stone in the early twelfth century and was granted to Bishop Roger of Sarum. Around 1130 he built a lavish new cathedral and upgraded the accommodation within the castle. Roger died in 1139 and the castle passed back to the King. Henry II substantially rebuilt the structure between 1171 and 1189 including enclosing the Inner Bailey with a stone wall and rebuilding the gatehouse. The upgrades were sufficiently lavish for Henry II to use Old Sarum to imprison his wife, Eleanor of Acquitaine, following her incitement of the 1173 rebellion against him.
The reign of King John saw considerable friction between the Crown and the church. At Old Sarum in particular, the relations between the clergy and the castle's garrison were fractious and in 1220 the foundations of a new Cathedral were laid in New Sarum (Salisbury). The former cathedral in Old Sarum was demolished and its stone used to build its replacement. Despite the departure of the clergy, the castle continued in use as an administrative centre until 1514 although by this time the population centre had moved to Salisbury. The abandoned Old Sarum became a Rotten Borough - a Parliamentary constituency with the landowner effectively selecting the MP - until the Great Reform Act (1832).
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Old Sarum is an impressive site with Iron Age ramparts enclosing around 29 acres and with a substantial Norman motte, complete with surviving masonry sections, surviving in the centre. The foundations of the twelfth century cathedral are also visible. The character of the site is far removed from its medieval form however - what was once a busy urban environment is now a large open grassed area.
Old Sarum (Viewed from the West). The Iron Age ramparts enclosed a roughly oval area with a single entrance on the eastern side which today serves as the access into the car park. The Norman motte was built in the centre of the site with the Inner Bailey on top. A significant portion of the entire site was cordoned off by internal ramparts in order to create an outer bailey. On the photograph above this was the area behind the motte through to the earthwork on the right hand side. The foundations of the demolished cathedral can be seen to the left of the picture.
Inner Bailey. The Inner Bailey was surrounded by a stone curtain wall built circa-1180. The surviving buildings, seen at the far end of the photo above, were the Keep and a Courtyard House dating from circa-1130.
Keep. The Keep was intended to dominate the castle and was deliberately placed opposite the entrance to the Inner Bailey. Construction may have begun as early as 1100.
Earthworks. The earthworks surrounding the outer perimeter of the fort were substantial. They are believed to date from around 400 BC..
Cathedral. The Normans used the church as a symbol of their power that helped subdue the populace in equal measure to their castles. The first cathedral at Old Sarum was consecrated in 1092 but was replaced with an even grander structure in the 1130s.
Entrance. The Iron Age fort had a single entrance in the east. When the Normans took over the castle, this remained the sole access into the site but it led directly into the castle's outer bailey. This later caused tensions with the clergy prompting the move to New Sarum.
New Sarum. As relations between the castle's garrison and the church broke down, the latter relocated to New Sarum (Salisbury). The Cathedral within the castle grounds was demolished and its fabric used for the new facility.