Old Sarum | Attraction Guides | History Hit

Old Sarum

Salisbury, UK

Sarah Roller

18 Feb 2021

About Old Sarum

Old Sarum is one of the most important historic sites in southern England: a precursor to the modern day city of Salisbury, Old Sarum was home to a royal castle, cathedral, and was a major centre of government (both ecclesiastical and secular). The ruins of it are just outside Salisbury, UK.

History of Old Sarum

Archaeological excavations suggest that there is evidence of Neolithic settlement from as early as 3000BC on the site, but the hill fort seen today was constructed during the Iron Age, probably round 400BC. The huge banks and ditches can still be seen today.

The settlement is recorded in Roman documents, but was relatively unimportant. Old Sarum was refortified by King Alfred in the early 9th century, and the king of Wessex, Egbert, frequently resided there until it was sacked in 1003 by invading forces.

In 1069, a motte and bailey castle was built there, and by 1092, the first Salisbury Cathedral had been constructed nearby. King William I received the Domesday Book and it became an important site, often frequented by royalty and nobility of the time. The site retained prominence into the Medieval period, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of King Henry II, was imprisoned for several years.

Eventually, petitions were presented to both King Richard I and King John I asking to relocate the cathedral (and thus town) as water sources were in relatively short supply, and the site was extremely exposed to the elements, making life both difficult and uncomfortable.

The cathedral’s dean and chapter agreed to the move, and a foundation stone for the future cathedral was laid in April 1220: the old cathedral was formally dissolved in 1226. The population of Old Sarum gradually dwindled as people moved for work and to quarry materials for the new cathedral. By the 14th century the old site was largely abandoned and King Edward II ordered the castle’s demolition in 1322.

Old Sarum became a rotten borough – a constituency which elected two MPs to the House of Commons despite the fact it had less than 5 permanent residents. It was only in 1832 that it was finally removed.

Old Sarum today

The grounds, including the Iron Age banks and ditches surrounding it, are free for all to wander, and are a good way to explore and understand the layout. The foundations of the old cathedral are also visible in the ground,

The old castle is now run by English Heritage: the ruins are extremely interesting and understanding how this medieval settlement would have operated and the challenges its inhabitants faced is best done when you’re inside the walls.

The drawbridge across the moat is a particular highlight for children and there are medieval jousting tournaments held in the ground on some summer weekends which are very atmospheric!

Getting to Old Sarum

Old Sarum is located about 2 miles north of Salisbury, just off the A345 – it is clearly signposted from the road. The nearest train station is Salisbury, about 2 miles away. Some buses depart from the station, others from the city centre: they stop on the road at the bottom of the hill, just outside. Old Sarum is about an hour’s walk from the city centre.