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  • Writer's pictureErin

Old Sarum

A humongous earthwork of an Iron Age hill fort containing a Norman castle and a cathedral, sounds pretty exciting right?


It might not be technically be heard in London, but it's easily a day trip which you can conveniently incorporate with a visit to Stonehenge and nearby Salisbury too!

The earliest fortification of the site is believed to date back to 400 BC, was probably used by the Romans, possibly the Danes and it was thanks to William the Conqueror that things really began to take shape.

The big green mound on approach looks pretty impressive, but out here we're on chalk, so when this was constructed the bright white steep banks would have been visible for miles. The Iron age settlers certainly knew what they were doing. Whilst wandering around the site, you'll see ruins of the royal palace, a bakery, shops, halls and houses, and get the sense that a real community dwelled here.

William the Conqueror came to the throne after that pretty well known Battle of Hastings in 1066, and by 1070, he had already noted many others points of interest throughout England. By 1070 he had made the decision to build a royal castle on this site, probably built of timber, and protected by a motte. A few years later a new stone cathedral was built here, overseen by the Kings brother Bishop Osmund, but it's believed it was badly damaged in a storm a mere five days after its consecration in 1092. A larger second cathedral was constructed on the same site and was the brain child of Bishop Roger, Osmunds successor completed in 1120. He also set work on a royal palace for the king, the remains of which can be seen here too, but following his arrest by Henrys successor Stephen, the site fell into disrepair.

Stephens reign was shadowed by a civil war fought with his cousin and rival Empress Matilda, but once that was all over and Henry II came to the throne (Matildas son) life at Old Sarum really took off.

Residential areas were built up, there's evidence of kilns and furnaces, and it was even homely enough for Eleanor of Aquitaine to stay in (whilst a prisoner by her own husband Henry II mind you).

Evidence in the early 12th century starts to suggest that things weren't so great for those living inside Old Sarum, murmurings from canons living here described it as being solitary, dry, windy, dusty and that the soldiers stationed at the fortress often prevented worshippers entering the precinct to worship, and even locked the monks out refusing to let them back in on one occasion! The man in charge then was Bishop Poore, and he had decided enough was enough, writing to King Richard II and the pope to ask for permission to move the cathedral to a new site.

The decision was made it was time to move, but where? This was when Bishop Poore proudly steps forward and declares he is to shoot an arrow from walls of Old Sarum, and wherever it shall land will be where the new cathedral will be built. Just as he shot his arrow, a unfortunate deer was caught in the crossfire, but it wasn't a fatal blow, and the deer carried on fleeing a full two miles until it reached the bank of the River Avon, and took his last breathe. So this was the chosen site of the new cathedral, which just so happened to be on land owned by Bishop Poore, such convenience!

The old cathedral up at Old Sarum was dismantled, hence why today you can walk among its foundations, and reused for the newly positioned cathedral and some of the other buildings in this new town which came to be known as New Sarum, then finally Salisbury.

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