Its grassy banks may lend it a gentle pastoral air, but Old Sarum was a once a “powerhouse” and a stage set for Norman imperial pretensions.
That’s according to an archaeologist who says the Wiltshire landmark ranks alongside the Bayeux Tapestry and Domesday Book as a monument of the Norman Conquest.
The 12-hectare site outside Salisbury features the ditch and rampart of an 11th-century Norman castle at the centre of an Iron Age hill fort. Its heyday was in the Norman period when the castle was an administrative hub and a cathedral and new town were built in the prehistoric enclosure.
Such was the importance of Old Sarum that, in August 1086, William the Conqueror held a gathering there — the “Oath of Sarum” — at which landholders from across England swore fealty to the Norman king. However, much about the settlement there has remained mysterious. Now, after eight years of research, archaeologist Dr Alex Langlands, of Swansea University, says a radical new interpretation is possible.
Speaking at the Chalke Valley History Festival, he said that, to understand the Normans’ actions, some earlier context was necessary. It has long been thought that the Romans had a settlement, “Sorviodunum”, at or just outside, the hill fort. Langlands suspects that the Romans also erected a stone signal tower within the fort, overlooking the meeting point of several Roman roads, including roads to Winchester and London. “We know that the Romans built these signal stations and towers at key nodes within the Roman road network . . . there’s quite a lot of archaeological evidence that marries with having some kind of important tower-like structure in Old Sarum.”
Specifically, he believes that cut stones from the tower may have been reused in a wall excavated at Old Sarum in 1911. This was previously thought to be part of a Roman building but Langlands said it was more consistent with Anglo-Saxon recycling. He hypothesises that a bustling market developed to the southwest of the hill fort, next to the River Avon, in the late Anglo-Saxon period when coins were minted at Old Sarum.
The settlement may have gained in status during the Anglo-Saxon period, but Langlands said its Roman heritage was key to understanding the Normans’ grandiose projects there.
He said that the development of an old Roman site echoed Colchester, where the Normans built a castle on the location of a huge first-century temple. At about the same time, they were moving seats of ecclesiastical power from old Anglo-Saxon sites into former Roman towns such as Chichester and Chester. Nevertheless, the decision to build the castle at the centre of Old Sarum and the cathedral to one side illustrated their priorities on the ground there.
“It was all part of a Roman project — a big grand project that was going to create for the Normans a centre of power in southern England. The Normans were casting themselves as the natural inheritors of Rome . . . You connected with the Roman past because you were seeking legitimisation and if ever there was a political elite that needed to legitimise their position, it was the Normans. They had wiped out the Anglo-Saxon elite, so they needed to make the case for why the new guy in town was a just ruler.”
He added: “The Normans had big, big ambitions for this place. So how do we reread this monument? I think we need to start to think about Old Sarum less as a castle and more as a theatre. And once we start to think about castles as theatres, we start to answer a lot of the questions in terms of its scale, its size and the arrangement of space.”
He described the visitor’s entry into “this new Norman powerhouse” and the hierarchy of tall spaces en route to the castle’s towering keep. “Vertical hierarchies become important in the design of these theatres. In many ways the tiered nature of the monument is about impressing on the people that have been conquered that there is a new tier in the hierarchy, a new imperial tier . . . This is about drama and the theatre of power.”
To achieve this effect required more than the construction of new buildings. Excavations suggest that the Normans’ remodelled the whole profile of the vast hill fort promontory by raising and cutting away the ground surface as required. “We arrive at symmetry — beautiful, perfect symmetry . . . I’m sure you’ll all agree that when you drive around on the ridge roads here and catch sight of Old Sarum, it is symmetric.”
If the cathedral at Sarum was less important to the Normans than the castle, its remains are nevertheless of great archaeological significance. Langlands said that recent geophysical surveys had found the remains of canons’ houses and gardens laid out in the 1090s. “We now have, in essence, the complete footprint of an English Cathedral in the throes of innovation. And because no one has built on any of this since, the levels of preservation are fantastic.”
William of Normandy evidently had plans for Old Sarum soon after the conquest. However, Langlands believes the actions of a local Englishman may help to explain the Norman’s prior knowledge of the site.
He said: “Edward of Salisbury, the shire-reeve or sheriff of Wiltshire, was one of the few Englishmen or Anglo-Saxons who kept his land after the conquest — one of the mere five per cent. And out of all of the Anglo Saxons that kept their land, he kept the most. So I think we have an agent, an asset, of the Norman project here. This is someone that may very well have been working with the Normans in advance of the conquest to think about what they were going to do in central southern England.”
As for why Old Sarum was abandoned in favour of today’s Salisbury in the later medieval period, he said a lack of water at the elevated site, and difficulties disposing of waste, were probably decisive. The chronicler William of Malmesbury noted that: “Notwithstanding that it was very well accommodated with all other conveniences, yet such was the want for water that it sold at a great rate.”
It is thanks to Old Sarum’s wholesale abandonment that it is such a boon for today’s archaeologists. Langlands believes that it deserves greater recognition from the general public too.
He said: “If we think about the evidence we have for the Norman Conquest, two sources emerge in many ways above all others, the Bayeux Tapestry — where would we be without the Bayeux Tapestry? — and Domesday Book, a fantastically detailed account not only of late Anglo-Saxon England, but of the way in which the Normans had taken over that kingdom.
“These are indispensable to scholars of the Norman project. And I would like to put this site up amongst them. Because I think this is the archaeological equivalent . . . Archaeologically, I think, Old Sarum, this theatre of power in southern England, should be considered amongst these great documents.
The top image is an aerial view of Old Sarum, near Salisbury in Wiltshire. Photo: Shutterstock