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Old Sarum and the River Avon

For Beau Ouimette, the past isn’t something trapped in the amber of history books. It’s something he goes right out there to find for himself, as he dives into waterways on a quest for long-lost artefacts from ages past. In River Hunters, the American YouTube star teams up with our own Rick Edwards to explore Britain’s watery parts for relics from the Civil War, William Wallace’s battles and other momentous chapters of our past.

Did you know that until as recently as 2009, Salisbury’s official name was actually the rather Tolkien-like New Sarum? It’s true. But what was ‘Old Sarum’? In River Hunters, Beau and Rick find out, heading to this ancient settlement just to the north of Salisbury, on the cusp of the River Avon. Ten miles from the rather more famous and iconic Stonehenge, Old Sarum might look rather unassuming today, but this earthwork – a raised oval hill scattered with rugged ruins – was once one of the great seats of power in England.

The history of Old Sarum goes way back. Not quite as way, way back as Stonehenge or Avebury, but it’s still getting on a bit, being used as an Iron Age hilltop fort from around 400 BC. The area’s proximity to the Avon would have made it strategically important for traders and travellers, and hundreds of years later the Romans also took a fancy to this conveniently pre-made hilltop. Not much is known about the Romans’ time at Old Sarum, and archaeological evidence is lacking, though it seems they called the area ‘Sorviodunum’ and may have used it as a military stronghold.

When the age of Roman Britain came to an end, the Anglo-Saxons moved in on Old Sarum. Again, things are hazy in the historical record for this period, though there is evidence to suggest a Saxon called Cynric fought a battle against native Britons and captured the hilltop in 552 AD. It’s with the coming of the next invaders – the Normans – that the history and significance of Old Sarum becomes far clearer.

Soon after displacing King Harold and bringing the Anglo-Saxon age to an end in 1066, William the Conqueror ordered the creation of a motte-and-bailey castle on Old Sarum. These were the original, makeshift castles, a far cry from the imposing stone fortresses that would come later. The ‘motte’ referred to a raised area – either a man-made earthwork or a naturally occurring hill – on which a wooden keep would be built. There would then be a neighbouring ‘bailey’, an enclosed space which would contain the kitchens, stables and living quarters of the castle’s residents.

William certainly wasn’t squeamish about bringing his new subjects into line. 

Thanks to the efforts of the original Iron Age inhabitants who’d built the original fort, Old Sarum was a ready-made setting for a Norman castle, and it soon became a key base for the Norman invaders, who had their work cut out for them. William may have won a decisive victory at the Battle of Hastings, taking the crown he believed had been promised to him by Harold’s predecessor Edward the Confessor, but vast swathes of the country didn’t recognise him as their true king. To them, the Normans were simply an alien force who had stolen their land.

William certainly wasn’t squeamish about bringing his new subjects into line. In 1069, he dispatched troops to crush the rebels in what’s become known as the Harrying of the North. The Normans lay waste to communities across the north of the country, burning down villages, killing inhabitants and their livestock, and destroying crops to starve people into submission. The true extent of the harrying is still debated, though some have likened it to an act of genocide.

To William, it was a job well done. On returning to the south, his men were convened at Old Sarum where they were paid and congratulated by William. Punishments are also known to have been doled out on the site – one archaeological dig uncovered the skeleton of a man with Norman leg shackles around his bones, and his head evidently chopped off.

The significance of Old Sarum as a symbol of Norman might was strengthened further in 1086, with the great Oath of Old Sarum. This was a major event which saw William bring together the most powerful landowners of the conquered nation, who had to bow and swear allegiance to their king. Hundreds of people would have been assembled at Old Sarum for this spectacular show of allegiance. William was also presented with the findings of the great survey, which would eventually be compiled as the Domesday Book.  

This was an epic analysis of William’s new land, providing the Normans with an exhaustive overview of the manors and boroughs, the landowners and their lands, and the wealth of the nation. Compiling the information would have meant long, arduous treks across the forbidding landscape, and the results took on a kind of Biblical significance – the very word ‘Domesday’, or Doomsday, was adopted as a reference to the celestial assessments of every man, woman and child that will take place on the Day of Judgment.

Old Sarum’s importance as a Norman stronghold seemed secure. A cathedral, the first Salisbury Cathedral, was even built there at the end of the 11th Century, and ornate sculptures from this cathedral were excavated at the site in the 20th Century. But as time went on, Old Sarum began to lose its lustre. Clerics at the cathedral had open brawls with the soldiers stationed at the castle there. And the hilltop structure of Old Sarum – once valued for providing a sense of security and strength – became a liability, with one 12th Century writer reporting that it was ‘barren, dry and solitary, exposed to the rage of the wind’. He even described the cathedral as being ‘captive on the hill where it was built’.

Eventually, the local population moved to a nearby stretch of land, dismantling the cathedral to build a new seat of worship a few miles south. This would become the Salisbury Cathedral we know today. Old Sarum faded from history, but treasures from its remarkable heyday may yet lurk in the waters of the Avon which passes close by.