Old Sarum is the hill fort to the north of Salisbury. The Business Park is just north of that. There’s a map below.

There is some detail on the derivation of the words ‘Sarum’ and ‘Salisbury’ on the page for Salisbury Road and Sarum Close, but ‘Sarum’ seems to be a medieval attempt to render ‘Sarisberie’ in Latin.

Old Sarum

It is believed that Old Sarum itself has been used as a hill fort from the Iron Age until the Church led the into what is now now known as Salisbury in the 13th century.

The story of this migration from Old to New Sarum is relatively well known.

From a military point of view, Old Sarum was a good location – it has steep slopes on three sides, augmented by massive artificial earth works. You can see for miles from Old Sarum, and in particular it overlooks the Avon at Stratford which is still probably the easiest place to wade through the river.

It was next to a busy crossroads in Roman times – the major road, the Portway, running from London to Dorchester and Exeter, meeting a road to Winchester.

According to the Victoria County History, the Romans didn’t use the site as a fortress, or anything else

If there had been danger of rebellion against the Romans they might have left more evidence of their occupation; as it is, the hill seems to have been little more than a posting station on the roads. Among the finds are a few coins from Hadrian to Honorius, and little else. So scanty have the finds been that it has been thought that a Roman settlement may have been made on the river bank at Stratford; but here, too, little has been found, and it would appear that there was not much occupation at all.[1]

On the other hand an earlier history book says that

The Emperor Severus is said to have occasionally resided here [2]

The Normans used Old Sarum as a fortress. It seems to have been an important place to them. William I was there in 1069, and then again in 1089 when all the significant landowners of England paid homage to him. William II was at Old Sarum in 1088, 1096, and 1100. I may be wrong but I think in a similar period of time, say 1969 to 2000, Queen Elizabeth has visited Salisbury once [3]. This isn’t any sort of criticism, but it’s an interesting comparison and it does perhaps give some idea of how significant, or useful, Old Sarum was to the Normans.

In 1085, it was decreed that Bishops should be based in cities rather than villages. It was decided that the See of Sherborne and Ramsbury should transfer to Old Sarum. The cathedral was finished in 1092, although the roof was destroyed by fire within a few days of its consecration.

The desertion of Old Sarum

I think it’s fair to say that the arrival of the bishops was a key element in the eventual migration from the old settlement on the hill to the new one in the valley.

The inherent disadvantages of the old site were the lack of water, and the exposure to the elements. It has been said too that the glare from the chalk caused ‘many of the clergy’ to go blind. [4]

As time went on and the Normans established a relatively stable and peaceful nation state, the great advantage of Old Sarum – it usefulness as a military fortress – declined.

Correspondingly the importance of trade, and the trade routes across the rivers (particularly the Ayleswade Bridge at Harnham) increased.

Moreover, it seems that the co-location of the Church and the military on a relatively small, cramped site was very difficult. Peter of Blois referred to the Cathedral at Old Sarum as ‘the ark of God shut up in the temple of Baal’[5].

The exact sequence of events leading to the moving of the Cathedral seems to me to be uncertain [6]. The popular legend is that it was agreed, or decreed, that the new Cathedral would be built wherever an arrow shot from Old Sarum fell. More prosaically, it seems that the Church already owned the land which was to become The Close, and the site had both easy access to water, and the natural barrier of the River Avon on two sides.

In any case, it seems much of the population followed the Church’s move into the valley, and Old Sarum went into decline.

Old Sarum – a unique migration

All of the above, on the move from Old Sarum to Salisbury, makes sense, from, variously the standpoints of logic, history or mythology.

From a historical point of view, and purely out of curiosity, I would be interested to find out is whether this sort of migration occurred anywhere else.

The distinctive elements are:

  • the move was only over a distance of a couple of miles from one site to another
  • it was a meditated, deliberate move – it wasn’t an organic growth in one area with a corresponding decline in another
  • it seems to have been carried out very quickly

Although ‘new towns’ have been created fairly often both in England and abroad, I’ve not been able to think of another case where an existing township has upped sticks and moved en masse a couple of miles ‘down the road’ – although it should be pointed out that there were a number of settlements besides Old Sarum that were seen to be part of ‘Salisbury’ [7]. If you can think of another example of this, please leave a comment!

There is an interesting list of ‘Abandoned Communities’ at Abandoned Communities – Places, but none of these are quite the same. Most of the ‘abandoned communities’ have been ‘taken over’ by somebody or something – a landowner, the military or the sea. Others have just become no longer viable because of the decline of some industry. I don’t think any of them, apart from Old Sarum, have moved more or less en masse. It seems, sadly, that these other communities have been scattered.

The nearest equivalent is perhaps the sad story of the island of Hirte, which was recently the subject of a BBC radio documentary. The islanders decided in 1930 that they could no longer survive on the island, and asked to be evacuated. As far as I remember they then scattered to different parts of the country.

Old Sarum – the rottenest of rotten boroughs

Old Sarum is possibly most famous, or notorious, as the ‘rottenest of rotten boroughs’[8] – a ‘rotten borough’ being a place which returned Members of Parliament despite having very few inhabitants.

Old Sarum’s status as a rotten borough seems to have been a direct result of the timing of its abandonment. It was invited to send two representatives to the House of Commons by Edward II [9], just as it was going into decline.

The Members of Parliament for Old Sarum were typically chosen by the one land owner – for example, for a long time the constituency was controlled by the Pitt family.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Old Sarum became a symbol of the inadequacies of the anti-democratic nature of the political system.

The most famous of the reformers used the rotten borough as a stick with which to beat the conservatives.

Tom Paine, in ‘The Rights of Man’ says

The old town of Sarum, which contains not three houses, sends two members; and the town of Manchester, which contains upward of sixty thousand souls, is not admitted to send any. Is there any principle in these things? [10]

Daniel Defoe, the author of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ wrote

Near this [Old Sarum] there is one farm-house, which is all the remains I could see of any town in or near the place (for the encampment has no resemblance of a town), and yet this is called the borough of Old Sarum, and sends two members to Parliament. Whom those members can justly say they represent would be hard for them to answer.[11]

Benjamin Franklin seems to have adopted ‘A Freeholder of Old Sarum’ as a pseudonym for a letter to a London newspaper [12]

William Cobbett characterizes Old Sarum as the ‘Accursed Hill’

I resolved to ride over this Accursed Hill. As I was going up a field towards it, I met a man going home from work. I asked how he got on . He said, very badly. I asked him what was the cause of it. He said the hard times . “What times ,” said I; “was there ever a finer summer, a finer harvest, and is there not an old wheat-rick in every farmyard?” “Ah!” said he, “they make it bad for poor people, for all that.” “They ?” said I “who is they ?” He was silent. “Oh, no, no! my friend,” said I, “it is not they ; it is that Accursed Hill that has robbed you of the supper that you ought to find smoking on the table when you get home.” I gave him the price of a pot of beer, and on I went, leaving the poor dejected assemblage of skin and bone to wonder at my words.

The hill is very steep, and I dismounted and led my horse up. Being as near to the top as I could conveniently get, I stood a little while reflecting, not so much on the changes which that hill had seen, as on the changes, the terrible changes, which, in all human probability, it had yet to see , and which it would have greatly helped to produce . It was impossible to stand on this accursed spot without swelling with indignation against the base and plundering and murderous sons of corruption.[13]

Incidentally, GK Chesterton has this to say about Cobbett’s piece on Old Sarum

It is intensely characteristic of Cobbett that for him alone Old Sarum was a place; and because it happened to be a high and hilly place, it stood up in his imagination with the monstrosity of a mountain. He called it the Accursed Hill. That single title, compared with the terms used by, pamphleteers and politicians, has in it something of the palpable apocalypse. We can fancy him seeing it afar off from some terrace of hills looking over the coloured counties, as some primitive traveller might have fancied he saw afar off the peak of Purgatory, or the volcanic prison of the Titans. He hated it not as arithmetical anomalies can be hated; but as places can be hated, which is almost as persons can be hated. And in all this, as compared with the contemporary rationalism, there was more mysticism precisely because there was more materialism. There is almost in such a combination a sort of sacrament of hate.[14]

In any case, Old Sarum, as a parliamentary constituency, was abolished by the 1832 Reform Act.

Old Sarum – an ‘accursed hill’?

Aside from the politics of ‘the Accursed Hill’, Old Sarum has left a strong and typically negative impression on many writers.

Samuel Pepys in 1668 wrote that:

before I came to the town [of Salisbury] I saw a great fortification and there light to it and in it and find it prodigious so as to fright me to be in it all alone at that time of night it being dark [15]

William Wordsworth wrote the following in 1888. ‘Spital’ here would probably mean ‘a traveller’s wayside shelter’ [16]. I’m not great at poetry, and I’ve not found any commentary on the poem – does it refer to Old Sarum?

At length, though hid in clouds, the moon arose;
The downs were visible–and now revealed
A structure stands, which two bare slopes enclose.
It was a spot, where, ancient vows fulfilled,
Kind pious hands did to the Virgin build
A lonely Spital, the belated swain
From the night terrors of that waste to shield:
But there no human being could remain,
And now the walls are named the “Dead House” of the plain. [17]

GK Chesterton, albeit caricaturing the views of Cobbett

The idea of anybody going to Old Sarum would seem somehow like going to the Other End of Nowhere. [18]

If you look up ‘desolation’ in Webster’s online dictionary, and elsewhere, Old Sarum is mentioned as a synonym related to ‘Seclusion Exclusion’[19]

Finally, the poet Richard Le Gallienne wrote

in 1735 a rotten borough capable of returning the elder Pitt, now a haunted rabbit warren, and the most fascinating buried city out of a fairy tale. …those grass muffled contours of the old earthworks affect one with a peculiar lonesomeness – a dread of the great deep of the past. The ghostly cathedral begins to rise up about you and a dead monk is a peculiarly startling form of departed spirit. As one hurries back…the moats are already filling with night and early shadows are trooping along the causeways. Soon, it will be very dark, and very still at Old Sarum. [20]

…the last line here reminds me strongly of the ghost story ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, where ‘whatever walks there, walks alone’.

Old Sarum today

The Old Sarum described above as a haunted, desolate place isn’t really one I recognize.

Old Sarum today is a great place to visit. There are fine views across Salisbury, and over the Plain. It’s a popular place for families – I think as a child I had a birthday party there.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone being frightened by Old Sarum, let alone somebody like Pepys – a ‘man of the world’ who had seen the truly frightening sight of London in flames only a couple of years previously.

I think what has changed is that the site is now looked after by English Heritage, and before them, the Historic Building and Monuments Commission.

In Pepys’ time the ruins would have been grown over, the moats full of brambles. Today it seems cared for, but then it would have seemed lost to nature. A reminder perhaps of how fragile civilization is.

Old Sarum is worth visiting. The scale of the earthworks is still impressive – it perhaps give us some idea of how precarious life was for our ancestors. The ruins of the Cathedral are interesting in their own right – and you don’t need to pay to walk around this part of the site.

The geography, or perhaps I mean the topography, of the castle is fascinating too. It’s relatively high up, but within the innermost part you are enclosed by the earthworks – it feels to me like being in an egg cup.

Opening times, admission prices and details of ‘special’ events are on the English Heritage website.

Old Sarum Business Park


View Larger Map



Visiting Stonehenge?

For accommodation, see the Hotels in Salisbury page.



Footnotes

  1. Old Salisbury – Before the Norman Conquest | British History Online []
  2. The natural and artificial wonders of the United Kingdom, by J. Goldsmith, page 12, Published 1825 The natural and artificial wonders of the United Kingdom, by J. Goldsmith By Richard Phillips []
  3. This assertion is just from memory, but it is to some extent backed up by this article in the Salisbury Journal which only mentions the 1974 visit to Salisbury itself []
  4. Myths and Legends of Britain and Ireland By R. Jones, John Mason, p31, Published by New Holland Publishers, 2006 ISBN 1845375947, 9781845375942 []
  5. Old Salisbury – The cathedral | British History Online []
  6. The Victoria County History recounts the ‘traditional account of the transfer’ but says that it contains a ‘number of palpable errors’ – Old Salisbury – The cathedral | British History Online []
  7. Old Salisbury – Before the Norman Conquest | British History Online []
  8. Stratford-sub-Castle History Overview []
  9. Old Sarum (UK Parliament constituency) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia []
  10. []
  11. From London to Land’s End / by Daniel Defoe []
  12. The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Volume III: London, 1757 – 1775 — A Method of Humbling Rebellious American Vassals []
  13. Vision of Britain | William Cobbett | Aug. 28th to 30th, 1826: Down the valley of the Avon in Wiltshire []
  14. William Cobbett/Chapter VI – Wikilivres []
  15. Samuel Pepys, 1633-1703 []
  16. spital – Definition of spital at YourDictionary.com []
  17. Wordsworth, William. 1888. Complete Poetical Works. []
  18. William Cobbett/Chapter VI – Wikilivres []
  19. Desolation []
  20. Quoted in ‘A Salisbury Assortment’, John Chandler, Ex Libris Press p9-10 []

1 Comment for this entry

  • ric kemp says:

    Old Sarum was not originally a fort it was a religious structure – if not a religious centre – a causewayed enclosure, and the erection of the first cathedral within the earthwork parallels events at Knowlton. My guess is that the pagan past was too prevalent at Old Sarum so the Church abandoned the site and dominated with a spire the banks of the Avon instead, the Avon is documented as being a prehistorically sacred river in the context of Stonehenge and Durrington Walls http://www.dot-domesday.me.uk/durrington.gif

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