Old Sarum was originally a hill fort strategically placed on the conjunction of two trade routes and the River Avon, Hampshire. The hill fort is broadly oval in shape. 400 m (1300 feet) in length and 360 m (1200 feet) in width, it consists of a bank and ditch with an entrance on the eastern side. However, by the 19th century, the village was officially uninhabited and yet still had formal parliamentary representation, making it the most notorious of the rotten boroughs that existed before the Reform Act 1832.
It is now an English Heritage property and open to the public. The site is located on Castle Road, 2 miles north of Salisbury via the A345.
Archaeological remains of rough stone tools suggest people have occupied the hilltop area of Old Sarum since Neolithic times (around 3000 BC). There is evidence that early hunters and, later, farming communities occupied the site. A protective hill fort was constructed by the local inhabitants during the British Iron Age (around 500 BC) by creating enormous banks and ditches surrounding the hill. Numerous other hillforts of the same period can be found locally, including Figsbury Ring to the east and Vespasian's Camp to the north. The archaeologist Sir R.C. Hoare described it as "a city of high note in the remotest periods by the several barrows near it, and its proximity to the two largest stone circles in England, namely, Stonehenge and Avebury."
The Romans, who occupied Britain between AD 43 and AD 410, held the site as a military station, strategically placed near the convergence of five important roads. The hill fort was marked on Roman roadmaps by the name of Sorviodunum. The name is believed to be derived from the Celtic language name for 'the fortress by a gentle river'. In the Chronicle of the Britons (Jesus College MS XVI) the place is referred to as Kaer Gradawc.
In 552, Cynric King of Wessex, was said to have captured the place. Under the Anglo Saxons it ranked among the most considerable towns of the West Kingdom, and it gained ecclesiastical establishments soon after the conversion of the Saxons to Christianity. In the early part of the 9th century it was a frequent residence of Egbert of Wessex, and in 960 King Edgar assembled a national council there to plan a defence against the Danes in the north.
A motte and bailey castle was built in around 1069, shortly after the Norman conquest, and the town was renamed. It is listed in the Domesday Book as Sarisburia, from which the names Sarum and Salisbury are derived. In 1086, William the Conqueror convened the prelates, nobles, sheriffs and knights of his dominions at Old Sarum to pay him homage . It is probable that part of the Domesday Book was also written at this time. Two other national councils were held there; one by William Rufus, in 1096, and another by Henry I in 1116.
The construction of a cathedral and bishop's palace occurred between 1075 and 1092, during the time of Bishop Osmund. However, only five days after the cathedral was consecrated, a storm destroyed the tower roof. The final completion of the cathedral was left to the third bishop of Old Sarum, Roger of Salisbury, chancellor to King Henry I. He also oversaw the construction, between 1130–1139, of a stone Royal Palace on the hill site.
A contemporary observer, Peter of Blois (c.1135 – 1203) described Old Sarum as "barren, dry, and solitary, exposed to the rage of the wind; and the church (stands) as a captive on the hill where it was built, like the ark of God shut up in the profane house of Baal."
By 1219, the limitations of space on the hilltop site had become cause for concern, with the cathedral and castle in close proximity and their respective chiefs in regular conflict. When Bishop Poore's men were held out of the hill-fort by the King's men, Poore formally requested the cathedral's relocation.
Henry II of England held his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, prisoner at Old Sarum.
The site of a new cathedral was consecrated later that year, and in 1220 the bishop started construction on the banks of the Avon. A new settlement grew up around it, called New Sarum— eventually known as Salisbury. By 1217, the inhabitants of Old Sarum had removed their residence, and constructed their new habitations with the materials they razed from their old. As one city increased in population and extent, so the other almost as rapidly decayed.
From the reign of Edward II in the 14th century, Old Sarum elected two members to the House of Commons, despite the fact that from at least the 17th century it had no resident voters at all. One of the members in the 18th century was William Pitt the Elder. In 1831 it had eleven voters, all of whom were landowners who lived elsewhere. This made Old Sarum the most notorious of the rotten boroughs. The Reform Act 1832 completely disfranchised Old Sarum.
Several books of historical fiction capture the flavour of life in medieval England with specific attention to Salisbury. Among them:
- Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd.
- The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
- Passionate Enemies by Jean Plaidy
- Old Sarum at Digital Digging
- Old Sarum information at English Heritage
- The medieval town, Bishop Osmond, and the move to Salisbury
- Official Salisbury tourism website
- Map sources for Old Sarum