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Northampton, United Kingdom
September 1, 2010
From journal Salisbury Highlights
by GB from Devizes
Devizes, United Kingdom
February 18, 2005
After the Norman Conquest in 1066, William and Lefranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wanted to reorganise the English church. In 1075, the Church Council authorised the relocation of the Bishopric of Sherborne to the outer bailey of the king’s castle at Old Sarum. Bishop Osmond, the king’s nephew, supervised the building of the cathedral which was initially rather small when compared to other examples within England.
Tragedy struck, though, when in 1092, just five days after its consecration, the cathedral was hit by lightening, caught fire, and was extensively damaged.
The rebuilding was taken over by Roger of Caen in 1110, who set about his mammoth task with the same vigour that he’d applied to the construction of a new courtyard palace for the King within the castle walls. Roger almost doubled the cathedral in size, although he kept the surviving nave of Osmond’s creation, but rebuilt the east-end on a vastly grander scale. He also rebuilt the Bishop’s Palace beyond the site of the cathedral cloisters. Roger enlarged the transepts, as well, to provide a suitable setting for the elaborate ceremonies that were an essential part of church liturgy at this time. His work was deemed as completed in 1135.
In the mid-12th century, the cathedral continued to be enlarged by Bishop Jocelyn Bohun, and it acquired its greatest extent with the addition of an impressive west front along with large corner towers.
All work was deemed completed by around 1160-1170, and Salisbury’s first grand cathedral must have been a spectacular sight for the people who lived in and around King William’s castle and fortress.
Fortunes changed again in 1235, when a new site was decided upon within the Roman city of Salisbury, three miles or so to the south. The Old Sarum cathedral was left to fend for itself, as attention was diverted to the creation of a new, even grander example. The castle and fortress were abandoned, too, as the soldiers and common folk moved down the hill into the new town.
Salisbury’s "first" cathedral slipped from people’s minds over the centuries, and it wasn’t until minor excavations began at the Old Sarum site in the early 1900s that people realised the scale of the ruins that had lain there, buried and forgotten for almost 700 years.
Very little remains now, other than low walls and a few column bases of what was, without doubt, a hugely impressive structure.
During the Iron Age, circa 400BC, the local Celtic people, renowned for their intertribal rivalry, repopulated the site and created a powerful hill fort to protect the surrounding farmland. A new gatehouse was constructed, which, although it would always be the weakest point of the fortifications, enabled them to express their identity in such ways as impaling the heads of captured rival tribesmen to ward off future attacks.
Massive earthworks were built during this period, consisting of an outer ditch 100m in diameter and 20 feet deep and the remodelling of the inner defences, presenting a formidable obstacle to any would-be invader. During this time the fort was known as Dun Sorvia.
When the Romans arrived, Sorvodunum, as they called it, expanded south to the River Avon, and the development of their military post saw a town flourish alongside the fortress. There was also an important road junction here that the Romans realised made this site of great strategic wealth.
After the Romans departed, it became a Saxon royal estate. By 552 AD, Britain was no longer part of the Roman Empire, and the British were heavily defeated by the Saxons at Old Sarum, which they renamed Searobyrg. In 1003, a marauding Viking army sacked nearby Wilton and the locals sought refuge at Old Sarum. Wilton’s market and Royal Mint were also moved here for safety.
By the time of William the Conqueror, who decided to reconstruct much of the fortifications in stone, Old Sarum already had had a turbulent history.
William recognised the site for what it was – the great scale of the outer defences made it an ideal arena in which to muster his troops, and in August 1086, he summoned all of England’s most powerful landowners to Old Sarum to pledge their allegiance to him. This was a crucial moment – the Domeday Book was being compiled, a full scale Viking invasion had been narrowly averted, and William’s eldest son was in armed rebellion against him. It was never more important for the Norman King of England to be seen in all his majesty.
But all things change; the cathedral that had been built on the site, just outside the main walls, was struck by lightning very shortly after it’s completion in the late 12th century (please see separate entry). Although a new cathedral was quickly built to replace it, the position of the Old Sarum site meant that a constant water supply was difficult to maintain for the burgeoning population, and a decision was taken to build a new cathedral in the nearby town of Salisbury, close to the river. Within months, the site was deserted and left to the elements.
September 24, 2004
From journal Salisbury, from the Pagans to the Pious
January 25, 2002
From journal Salisbury, Sarum and Stonehenge