Monday, February 6, 2017

Historic Sites - Old Sarum, Wiltshire, UK

When I travel I like to visit historic sites. The opportunity to get a glimpse of the history of a place or a building and imagine what it must have been like in its heyday is one I find hard to ignore whether it is fifty years old or centuries ago. On a recent trip to the UK I was fortunate enough to fit in several such visits, including one to Old Sarum in Wiltshire.

Old Sarum is one of the oldest historic sites in the UK.  Around 400 BC ramparts were built to create an Iron Age Hill Fort to protect residents and animals.

The site was later occupied by the Romans (during which time it was renamed Sorviodunum) and then the Saxons, but it was after the arrival of William the Conqueror that a castle was built on raised earthwork (known as a motte) in the center of the settlement. It is assumed that the original buildings in the castle were made of timber.

As a sign of how important William believed the settlement to be, in 1086 a ceremony was held at the castle where the men of England swore an oath of loyalty to him. 

The stone structures within the castle are believed to have been built during the reign of Henry I and Henry II. The latter's wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, was held at Old Sarum under house arrest for treason (apparently she encouraged her sons to rebel against their father) from 1173 to 1189 until her husband's death.

Later additions included the Royal Privy. Of course, they didn't flush. The waste dropped into a pit of straw and chippings and when the king was not around someone would be lowered into the pit to clear out the contents. (Makes me wonder whether that is where the expression "it's the pits" comes from!)

the royal privy

the foundations of the cathedral
William had also built a small cathedral on the grounds surrounding the motte. Over the years the cathedral had been substantially extended but by 1220 problems with the site, and the garrison based at the castle, led to the start of construction on a new cathedral a few miles away in New Sarum (Salisbury). This led to a decline in importance of Old Sarum. First, stones from the old cathedral were used in the building of the new cathedral and by the 1500's Henry VIII allowed all the stones from the castle site to be potentially used as building material.

Fortunately for us, I guess all of them were not needed otherwise Old Sarum may well have disappeared completely from view. Instead new information about the site is coming to light. In 2014 archaeologists used ground-penetrating x-rays in an attempt to map the old city around the motte and discovered the buried foundations of numerous houses and what they think is likely to be the largest medieval Royal Palace ever found.

Astonishing fact - In 1295 Old Sarum was granted the right to send two members to parliament, a right which continued until the 1832 Reform Act abolished rotten boroughs, i.e. those with a minimal or non-existent population, a situation which Old Sarum had been in for centuries!

Overall, it was a fascinating visit. The views from the castle grounds show why Old Sarum was such an important location - on a clear day you can see for miles including, nowadays, the spire of the 'new' cathedral in Salisbury.


  1. Another great site - thank you for sharing, Mel.

  2. Replies
    1. I'd never been to that part of the country before - fortunately a family member has moved to Salisbury so hopefully will have more opportunities to explore the area on future visits to the UK.