The History of Old Sarum Castle
ruins with a story to tell
Appearing out of the autumn mist and bathed in the October sunshine, I found myself at the top of Old Sarum Castle in Wiltshire. Exactly how long this imposing mound has been here or how it has been built over the years has yet to be discovered. We know it has been used at least since the middle iron age circa 400 BC. Around 43 AD, the Romans occupied Old Sarum and called it Sorviodunum. Three Roman roads converged outside the east gate of the site.
Old Sarum Castle, an English Heritage Site
As usual, I am greeted by a friendly staff member of English Heritage. It’s best to book your visit online, just in case your chosen destination is too popular on the day to let you in. Access to Old Sarum Castle is from the A345, and it is a narrow road up to the car park, so be wary of vehicles in the narrow sections. Car parking is free for English Heritage members, and it is necessary to pay at the meter for those who aren’t.
As you can see in the video, I started my walk on the castle's outer wall, giving a lovely view over the area where the main castle buildings once stood. Walking around the site of the castle, the remains of the thick walls show how impressive this building must have been. What remains of the walls is the flint that would have been faced with dressed stone on both sides. As I walk around, it’s good to see the number of information boards that English Heritage have provided. They give a good description of each area of the site. During the castle’s history, quite a few kings and the rich and famous would have walked the ground I am on.
Before the castle was built, between 600 and 1000 AD, the strong defences were maintained and possibly improved. In 1003 a mint was sited at Old Sarum, so it was an important part of England. I did look, but I couldn’t see any old coins lying around!
Old Sarum Castle: Built By William the Conqueror
Following the Norman invasion, William l, from 1066 to 1100, built a motte and bailey castle, which he named Seresberi. It is possible that the Domesday Book commissioned by King William l was presented to him at Old Sarum in 1086. This was the year he convened the prelates, nobles, sheriffs and knights of his dominion to pay homage to him.
Every castle had a great hall where important guests could be entertained and impressed by the wealth and generosity of the owner. Old Sarum Castle, too, had its great hall. A raised platform at one end was for the King and his officials to sit. During times of entertainment, a fire would have been lit in the middle of the hall and tables and benches set up along the sides for the guests.
On the level below the castle, William l had built a cathedral employing 36 priests. The outline of that cathedral can be seen from my next vantage point. The visible foundations were discovered in 1834, and the antiquarian Henry Hatcher drew out what it might have looked like. The cathedral was consecrated on April 5th 1092. It is said that it suffered severe damage during a storm only five days later.
Between 1100-1139 Henry l built the stone keep. The cathedral also got a makeover when Bishop Roger of Sarum rebuilt the cathedral on a grand scale. It was 185 feet (56m) from end to end. However, it was smaller than most cathedrals constructed at the time. I try to imagine what this would have looked like from the surrounding countryside. The mound it is built on is already high. With the cathedral and castle on top, it must have been seen for miles on a clear day.
Somewhere between 1173 - 1189, the wife of Henry ll, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, was kept at the castle under house arrest for treason. Eleanor was well-educated and a former wife of King Louis Vll; she was one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Europe. Her house arrest lasted sixteen years because she sent her younger sons to join another son Henry in a revolt against his father, King Henry ll. Her story is fascinating and would fill a book or two.
In 1190 the clergy decided to abandon Old Sarum for a new site, and in 1220 Bishop Richard Poore laid the first stones for the new cathedral, which still stands tall, towering above the City of Salisbury. It is the tallest spire in the UK and the second in Europe, reaching an incredible 123m or 404 feet. With the building of the new cathedral, Old Sarum began a steady decline. Although now in ruins, the castle was never destroyed by enemies. In 1514 it was still in use as an administrative building when Henry Vlll granted that all remaining stone be used for building material. The present cathedral used much of the stone from Old Sarum.
Old Sarum, a Rotten Borough
In the world of politics, Old Sarum became known as a Rotten Borough. For having a cathedral, it qualified for two Members of Parliament. As the years rolled by, the population dropped to zero, meaning that two MPs could hold influence in the Houses of Parliament without representing the people. They could influence policy for a wealthy benefactor and often did — the rich person purchasing the land to gain influence. By the time of the 1831 general election, out of 406 elected members, 152 were chosen by fewer than 100 voters each and 88 by fewer than fifty voters. Rotten Boroughs were ended in 1832 with the passing of the Reform Act. In 1872 the Ballot Act introduced secret balloting, which also prevented the wealthy from observing who was voting by a show of hands and allowed people freedom from pressure to vote from a powerful person.
I always find it incredible to think of the amount of effort that must have been required to haul all of that material to build Old Sarum Castle and the cathedral. And then, in later years, carried 2 miles or so to the new site. It was an enormous task and use of manpower using whatever means they had at the time.
During its life, Old Sarum Castle and Cathedral would have been a hive of activity. On the level below the castle, where we find the cathedral remains, there would have been many buildings and a population of workers required to supply and maintain the castle. With the demise of the castle and the fact that those people back then were so good at recycling their building materials, it isn't easy to know how many lived there. Much of the evidence was taken away. If you look at Old Sarum Castle on Google Maps aerial view, it isn't easy to comprehend just how much space there is. Once on the site, I can see that it would easily have space for hundreds of homes and businesses.
It has been a fascinating visit and has given me a better understanding of Old Sarum Castle. There is always so much to learn from history, and when visiting places like this, to be able to spend much time researching the history surrounding it. Each of the kings who resided here, along with other recorded individuals, each with a story to tell.
Please watch the video below to see my exploration of Old Sarum Castle and Cathedral on YouTube.
I hope you have enjoyed this look at Old Sarum Castle and Cathedral. English Heritage manages the property, and it is advisable to book online in advance, although not necessarily essential.
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