Old Sarum: The Complete Guide

The Original Rotten Borough

Walls of ancient Roman hill fort of Old Sarum outside Salisbury, UK

Brian Bumby / Getty Images

Old Sarum is a remarkable place that rises above the Wiltshire countryside on the edge of Salisbury Plain. It served the ancient Britons, the Romans, the Anglo Saxons, the Normans, the Church and finally the crooked politicians of the early 18th century. And all because an unknown tribe in about 400 B.C. decided to build a really big hill.

Description of Old Sarum

The site consists of an outer rampart and ditch that encloses an area of 29 acres. This is all that remains of the original Iron Age hill fort and little is known of the people who built it. Inside this rampart, there is another earthen structure and ditch — including some remnants of an early wall — built for William the conqueror, that surround the remains of a motte and bailey castle. There are also the remains of several houses. And outside the Norman wall, the outline of an early cathedral is marked out in the grass.

The views from the top of Old Sarum extend across to the modern city of Salisbury and its cathedral spire, at 403.5 feet (123 meters), the tallest church spire in Britain.

History of Old Sarum

The surprise of Old Sarum's monumental Iron Age hill fort is that so little is known about the people who built it. It may have been occupied as early as 3,000 years ago. But the first real monument builders, so to speak, were a Wiltshire tribe who enclosed and enhanced a huge mound, a natural feature in the landscape, as their fortress about 600 years before the Romans arrived in Britain. It remains one of the largest hill forts in Britain. All that's left of these early people are an entrance through the outer ramparts and some defensive structures known as hornworks.

When the Romans arrived, in 43 AD, there are indications it was still in use as a military position by the local tribes.

Old Sarum sits on the intersection of three important Roman roads. Evidence of two Roman settlements outside the earthworks have been found and they may have used the hillfort itself for military purposes. Remains indicating the existence of a Romano-British temple have been found. Similarly, little is left of the Anglo Saxons on the site although a mint is recorded there in 1003 A.D.

Perhaps one reason there is so little evidence of the early occupants of Old Sarum is that William the Conqueror and the Normans really went to town there in the Middle Ages, probably destroying much of the early evidence. William immediately spotted the strategic advantage of this enormous site and quickly erected a motte and bailey castle, the remains of which you can explore today. For 150 years after the Norman Conquest, Old Sarum was a major center of both secular and ecclesiastical government.

William the Conqueror

Under William, this site achieved enormous significance. It was the place where all the records collected for the Domesday Book, William's huge tax census of the wealth and assets of everyone in Britain, were brought to be compiled. And shortly after, it was where William summoned all his landholding nobles, and most of their subtenants, to take the Oath of Sarum, and oath of loyalty to him. It was the largest act of homage ever demanded or seen in Britain or in Europe. And it established the idea that all tenancy flowed from the king alone.

Not only did nobles owe him loyalty, but their tenants owed their loyalty to the king before their own lord.

The Notorious Rotten Borough

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, it became the practice for wealthy landowners with political agendas to sponsor Members of Parliament (MPs) from named places that had been completely abandoned by their populations — sometimes centuries earlier. These were known as Rotten Boroughs. And the rottenest of them all was Old Sarum.

In late 18th and early 19th century there were 56 rotten boroughs each entitled to send two members to Parliament. Landowners could sell the constituencies for profit. In 1802, when Old Sarum had been abandoned for more than 500 years, the constituency was sold for 60,000 pounds — the equivalent of more than 5.8 million pounds in today's money. By the time the Reform Act of 1832 put an end to this practice, the name Old Sarum had become synonymous with the term Rotten Borough and the corruption it implied.

Things to See at Old Sarum

  • Explore the earthworks: The outer enclosure, the Iron Age earthworks, are well preserved. The site seems to have been selected because of its natural banks that the Iron Age builders simply enhanced. The main entrance to the site, on the east, is the original Iron Age entrance. There are also a fair number of footpaths across the 29 acre site offering different viewpoints of the county and of Salisbury, 2 miles as the crow flies.
  • Visit the Norman Castle: Now in ruins, the Norman castle was once a very important administrative site. in the early 12th century, Eleanor of Aquitaine was imprisoned here, for 16 years, for treason. She had encouraged her sons to rebel against their father, King Henry II. The castle is located in the inner bailey. Approach it over the bailey ditch across a wooden bridge and through the remains of a 12th century gatehouse.In addition to the remains of a tower and the circular keep, the inner bailey contains the remains of a courtyard house which may have been a cloister and a chapel.
  • The Cathedral: Two cathedrals were built on the site. The first, built in 1075, was extended between 30 and 40 years later. Apparently the clerics and the soldiers from the castle didn't get along so in 1220, the cathedral was abandoned and a new one was built in nearby Salisbury — officially known as New Sarum until well into the 20th century. After excavations in the early 1900s, the floor plan of the original cathedral was discovered and is marked out in concrete on the site.

Essential Information About Old Sarum

  • Old Sarum is located at Castle Road , Salisbury, Wiltshire, SP1 3SD
  • The site is managed by English Heritage and is opened from 10 a.m. every day. Closing hours vary with the season so check the website before visiting. The site is closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.
  • Tickets are available at adult, child, family, student and senior (over 65) prices. English Heritage members go free.
  • There is limited pay parking lot that fits 30 cars on a slope in the outer bailey. Members park free
  • Getting There:
  • By car: Old Sarum is two miles north of Salisbury off the A345.
  • By public transportation: The site is 2 miles from Salisbury train station. served by the No. 11 Park and Ride, the X4, X5 or Active8 buses from Salisbury. If you take the Stonehenge Tour Bus from Salisbury, it stops at Old Sarum on its return from Stonehenge.

What to Do Nearby

This is an area that is rich in history, pre-historic and scenic attractions.

Stonehenge, with a terrific new visitor center and museum to support the stone circle, is about 10 miles away.

Salisbury Cathedral, about 2.5 miles away, has the best of the four remaining original copies of the Magna Carta , Britain's tallest spire, and the world's oldest working clock. Look out as well for the cathedral's resident peregrine falcons.

The site is also within 30 miles by road of Avebury Henge, Silbury Hill and the wonderful antiquing village of Hungerford.

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