Old Sarum is an ancient hilltop site two miles from the city center of Salisbury. For more than 4,000 years it served as a fortress and religious site, from a Neolithic henge and fort to a Norman castle and cathedral. The site was abandoned in 1219 when the bishops moved to "New Sarum," or Salisbury.
History of Old Sarum
Old Sarum was occupied since about 3,000 BC by a Neolithic community who built communal burial places, stock enclosures and large ritual enclosures known as henges (the same sort of structure, on a less monumental scale, as nearby Stonehenge and Avebury Henge).
From about 500 BC, during the Iron Age, the hilltop site was given further protection with double ditches and used as an administrative center and fort. It was later settled by the Romans (from c.60 AD), who called it Sorviodunum. They probably built a shrine to a local god on the hilltop. The site was at a major intersection of Roman roads: those from Winchester to Exeter; from Silchester; and from the Severn via the Mendip hills.
After the Romans left Britain, the Saxons took over Old Sarum. Arriving in 552 BC, they called the site Searobyrg. It became the center of a great royal estate and was eventually refortified by the Saxon kings to provide protection to local farmers and townsfolk.
In 1069, William the Conquerer and the Normans inherited the site from the Saxon kings. As Old Sarum was well-fortified and near a major crossroads, it was an ideal site for a royal castle. Construction on a wooden castle began immediately, and by 1070 William the Conquerer moved in. Old Sarum was the seat of Norman county government.
In 1075, a church council voted to move the bishopric of Sherborne to Old Sarum. A new cathedral was built in the outer bailey of the king's castle on Old Sarum between 1075 and 1092. Five days after the cathedral's consecration, it was badly damaged in a storm.
The extreme weather on the hilltop would prove to be a constant irritation to the Old Sarum bishops, who eventually petitioned the pope to allow them to move to Salisbury. The pope granted his permission and they made the move in 1219. With the bishops gone, the stone from the abandoned cathedral was used for Salisbury's gateways and the population declined. Henry VIII demolished the castle in 1519. By the 19th century, Old Sarum was deserted.
What to See at Old Sarum
A large flat-topped mound, banks and ditches are the dominant features of Old Sarum today. On top are the foundation outlines of the Norman palace, castle and cathedral.
It's an easy and pleasant walk from Salisbury to Old Sarum (about 2 miles), but public transportation is also available: buses 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 run every 15 minutes or so and a taxi costs around £8. If you come by car, there is signposted access from the A345 highway.
Quick Facts on Old Sarum
|Categories:||archaeological sites; city ruins|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.093321° N, 1.804869° W|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Old Sarum|
- Old Sarum - English Heritage (includes a nice interactive map of the site)
- Oxford Archaeological Guide to England (2002), 403.
- The Rough Guide to England, 7th ed. (2006), 306.
Map of Old Sarum, Salisbury
Below is a location map and aerial view of Old Sarum. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.