Old Salisbury: Before the Norman Conquest

Pages 51-53

A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 6. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1962.

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The name of Salisbury, which today calls up a vision of the loveliest of spires rising from the serenest of lawns, primarily belongs to the majestic solitary mound a mile and a quarter to the north. (fn. 1) Here, on and round a natural hill fortress overlooking the River Avon, is the site of the dead town of Old Salisbury, now chiefly remembered, under the name of Old Sarum, as the classic example of a rotten borough.

The modern city of Salisbury stands upon the low lands between the Avon on the west and its tributary river the Bourne on the east, meeting to the south-east of it. North of the city the ground rises rapidly from the west bank of the Bourne, and the high land thrusts out a narrow neck ending in a spur towards the Avon. On the north, west and south the spur falls away in steep banks: at the centre it rises, with artificial additions, to a height of 400 ft. In a circle round the crest of the hill is the ditch of the Norman castle, enclosing an area of a little over an acre. In a wider circle, and fitting neatly within the 300 ft. contour line, is another ditch, which once enclosed the outer ward of the castle and the cathedral church built by St. Osmund and Roger, Bishops of Salisbury. The outer defence was first made, it appears, in the Early Iron Age, and its British name in its genitival form was Sorvioduni or Sorbiodoni. With the advent of the Saxons its name underwent a change, and the ending — dunum (as the genitive is commonly extended) was replaced by burg or burh, each meaning a defensive place. The name appears as Searobyrg in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and is Sarisberie in Domesday Book. (fn. 2) The use of the abbreviation Sar' was common; it is discussed elsewhere. (fn. 3)

It is clear that in the earlier Middle Ages the name of Salisbury was used of a much larger area than the mound above described, even including the borough and its lands; and it is essential for a true understanding of the history of both the old and the new towns that various uses of the name should be distinguished. Domesday Book records that the Bishop of Salisbury held Salisbury. In the time of King Edward it paid geld for 50 hides; in 1086 there was land for 32 ploughs. (fn. 4) This was a very large area, larger than the castle, the old borough and the future city put together. The question what it covered is partly answered by the geld roll, which says that the hundred in which Salisbury lay, Underditch, gelded at 70 hides. The bishop's estate therefore bore 5/7ths of the geld of the hundred, and presumably occupied a like proportion of its area. (fn. 5) Wilsford and Lake, vills in the hundred, were not included, but Stratford and Woodford, which belonged to the bishop, presumably were, as well as his demesnes and meadows in which the future city was to rise. The use of the comprehensive name Sarisberie does not imply that the bishop's holding was all one manor. It could be a group of manors, which for the king's purpose there was no point in separating, for one lord, the bishop, was accountable for the geld, and it was geld that the king wanted.

There is another reference in Domesday to Sarisberie. At the beginning of the account of Wiltshire, in the part usually reserved for boroughs, are entered revenues due from Wilton and Malmesbury, the only places expressly described as burgi. There are, besides, other places where the inhabitants are called burgenses, or which, though not expressly described as boroughs, yield to the king the distinctive form of taxation appropriate to them. This is the third penny. These places were probably very small, even by contemporary standards, rural in character, and the clerks may have thought it doing violence to language to describe them as boroughs: Maitland remarked that 'when we get to Wiltshire we are in the classical land of small boroughs'. (fn. 6) Among the places in Wiltshire which yielded the third penny to the king was Sarisberie: it yielded £6. (fn. 7) It is hardly probable that this Sarisberie is the same as, or part of, the bishop's Sarisberie, for this would mean that it was being taxed twice, once like a manor and once like a borough.

It appears, therefore, that in 1086 there are already two units of land bearing the same name: one is a manor or group of manors held by the bishop, the other a borough or at least a demesne paying a third penny to the king. This conclusion is contrary to the frequently accepted view that there was only one Salisbury — namely, Old Sarum — until the bishop founded his new city in the meadows in 1220. Accordingly, when Round, editing the pipe roll for 1184–5, noted a reference to Old Salisbury, he inferred that the bishop's city of New Salisbury was coming into being some years before its official constitution. (fn. 8) The Domesday evidence is a warning that his inference cannot safely be drawn.

Furthermore, there is other evidence of the existence of two Salisburys in the 12th century. The pipe roll of 1130 records that the toll of Salisbury market, which had belonged to the farm of Wilton, had been given by the queen to the church of Salisbury. (fn. 9) This means that the market had belonged to the king, and was accounted for through the account of the shire town: it was one of the revenues of the king's borough. This gift, with others, was confirmed to the church of Salisbury by Pope Eugenius III in 1146. In his bull he mentions among the bishop's possessions veteres Sarisberias with the hundred, and, separately, the toll of Salisbury, and land in the borough of Salisbury: not the borough itself. (fn. 10) He did not of course purport to give away the king's borough. Another striking fact emerges from the bull. It was Old Salisbury that belonged to the bishop, or perhaps rather the Old Salisburys, for the Pope used the plural. He must be referring to the bishop's great estate, which probably included several village settlements: it had 4½ mills according to Domesday, no doubt at various points along the river. The name of Old Salisbury occurs again in 1166–7. (fn. 11)

After the death of Bishop Jocelin in 1184 the see of Salisbury remained vacant for several years, and during the vacancy the accounts of the see were entered upon the pipe rolls. In 1184–5 there were payments to the religious of Salisbury and Old Salisbury, and oats were sown at Old Salisbury — on the bishop's estate. (fn. 12) In 1187–8 the men of Old Salisbury were tallaged among the bishop's manors, and the men of Salisbury paid among the king's demesnes. (fn. 13) The Exchequer officials used the same terms as the Pope.

It is commonly said that when the bishop shook the dust of the king's castle from off his feet and founded a new city and cathedral church upon his own meadows, he quitted Old Salisbury for a New Salisbury. If the foregoing argument is correct, however, contemporaries would have said that he quitted the borough of Salisbury and moved to Old Salisbury. This is precisely the version of the Dunstable Annalist, (fn. 14) who records under 1220 that by papal authority the cathedral church of Salisbury was translated from the castle precinct to Old Salisbury by the river.

The bishop's settlements, the Old Salisburys, therefore come first in date, followed by the borough on the hill-top. The later boundaries of the borough, with the castle, show that it was virtually surrounded by the bishop's estate, or that part of it, Stratford, which later was assigned to the dean and chapter. It is evident that it was at some time carved out of Stratford: perhaps it was reserved when one of the kings of Wessex endowed the bishop, then seated at Ramsbury or Sherborne, with Sarisberie. Some like process can be traced elsewhere. (fn. 15)

It is evident that the open field system was already established when the borough of Salisbury was severed from Stratford, for around the village and the borough the strips of the bishop's tenants and the king's burgesses were intermingled, as those of their successors continued to be until the inclosure of the fields in 1800. The severance no doubt accounts for the fact that the king and the bishop each had half the revenues from a mill at Sarisberie.

Whether the bishop had a house on his estate outside the king's borough and castle from early times does not appear, but evidently he provided himself with one before the official foundation of his new city, for in 1218 Bishop Richard Poore dated a charter from New Place at veteres Sarisberias. (fn. 16) In the following year the bishop owed a palfrey for having a market on Fridays in Old Salisbury. (fn. 17) Two years later the king granted the bishop a fair yearly at New Salisbury. (fn. 18) Here, perhaps, is a first recognition by the king that the bishop's vills of Old Salisbury are being in part absorbed by his grand new city of New Salisbury, whose very existence is to create the practice of distinguishing the king's borough of Salisbury by referring to it as Old Salisbury.


In the course of its history the several disadvantages of Salisbury hill-top as a place of human habitation have been painfully obvious; and they are nearly as obvious today. It is waterless and windswept; in winter without cover from the cold, in summer exposed to a sun reflected in the glare of the chalk. Yet it had one supreme advantage. In time of war, and rumour of war, its quality as a fortress was unrivalled in the neighbourhood. It commanded the whole area; none could approach without being observed; it was protected on three sides by steep banks; and it dominated the River Avon and the Roman roads.

As might be expected, therefore, it comes into prominence when its military value is important. It was adopted as a hill fortress and the outer ditch made in the Early Iron Age, although it remains uncertain how early in the Iron Age it can be dated. (fn. 19) During the Roman occupation there must have been activity all round it, because the Roman road from London and Silchester to Dorchester ran through it, and was met here by a branch from Winchester which perhaps continued to the lead mines of Mendip. (fn. 20) If there had been danger of rebellion against the Romans they might have left more evidence of their occupation; as it is, the hill seems to have been little more than a posting station on the roads. Among the finds are a few coins from Hadrian to Honorius, and little else. So scanty have the finds been that it has been thought that a Roman settlement may have been made on the river bank at Stratford; but here, too, little has been found, and it would appear that there was not much occupation at all.

The tide of war passed over the hill in successive invasions. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 552 Cynric, King of the West Saxons, fought against the Britons in Searobyrg. (fn. 21) In the wars between English and Danes in the 9th century Salisbury is not specifically mentioned. It is not named as one of the burhs in the Burghal Hidage of c. 878. Yet Wilton is: (fn. 22) and when the defensive value of Salisbury, the relative weakness of Wilton, and the proximity of the two are considered, it may be wondered whether they were not in some way linked together, Salisbury perhaps being regarded as the defensive place for the sheriff and his shire-town. The arrangement by which the revenue of Salisbury market passed through the account of the Wilton farm in 1130, (fn. 23) an arrangement which may be a survival of an old standing relationship, makes the suggestion a little more than a mere speculation.

Events of the later Danish wars strengthen this view. The Chronicle records that in 1003 the Danish army under Sweyn went up into Wiltshire. (fn. 24) Sweyn plundered and burnt Wilton; he went thence to Salisbury, and thence again went to the sea. It is not recorded that Salisbury was taken or even assaulted.

The settling of the chronology of the coin types of Ethelred II, and in particular the acceptance of the view that the short cross pennies must be divided into two classes, one issued at the beginning of the reign and the other at the end, brings to light an interesting conclusion. The Salisbury issues of coins begin with the fifth, or helmet, type of Ethelred; and if it can be assumed that the six substantive types were issued during periods of equal duration, the type should have begun about 1003. The moneyers striking these helmet pennies at Salisbury were Godwine, Goldus and Sæwine; until that issue moneyers of those names were striking pennies at Wilton. (fn. 25) The conclusion that these men fled from Wilton and took refuge at Salisbury can hardly be avoided, especially as Wilton probably did not resume coining until the reign of Cnut. In the last (small cross) issue of Ethelred, Ælfnoth and Sæman were also issuing coins at Salisbury.

In the third (quatrefoil) issue of Cnut, Wilton resumed with two moneyers (Ælfmaer and Ælfstan), later adding Ælfwine, probably brought from Salisbury. In this issue Salisbury had Ælfnoth, Ælfred, Ælfwine, Godwine, Goldus, Leofwold and Sæman, adding in the fourth (helmet) issue Leofstan, and in the sixth (arm and sceptre) Wineman. Ælfred and Godwine continued under Harold I, with Winstan; and Godwine under Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor. Under Edward there were also Ælfwold, Godric, Leofstan, Sæbode and Wineman; by comparison Wilton seems to have recovered, for it had thirteen moneyers under the Confessor. (fn. 26)

It seems that Salisbury gained in importance during the troublous period of the early 11th century. Where the civil settlement was cannot be stated with certainty. The church of St. Etheldreda, which is found later, (fn. 27) probably belongs to this period. It seems to have stood outside the defences. There is no evidence of any clearance being necessary to make room for the Norman castle on the crown of the hilltop; and the disadvantages of the site for all save defensive purposes make it likely that at this period, as later, the burgesses normally lived outside the ditch, betaking themselves within it only when security required. (fn. 28)


  • 1. The writer is glad to acknowledge that Mr. R. B. Pugh has made substantial contributions to this article. He is also grateful for the help of Mr. H. M. Colvin.
  • 2. P.N. Wilts. (E.P.N.S.), 18.
  • 3. See p. 93.
  • 4. V.C.H. Wilts, ii. pp. 121–2.
  • 5. Ibid. p. 180; see below, p. 69.
  • 6. Domesday Bk. and Beyond, 175.
  • 7. V.C.H. Wilts. ii. p. 115.
  • 8. Pipe R. 1185 (P.R.S. xxxiv), p. xxxiv.
  • 9. Pipe R. 1130 (Rec. Com.), 13.
  • 10. Sar. Chart. and Doc. (Rolls Ser.), 12.
  • 11. Pipe R. 1167 (P.R.S. xi), 134.
  • 12. Pipe R. 1185 (P.R.S. xxxiv), 205.
  • 13. Pipe R. 1188 (P.R.S. xxxviii), 139, 185.
  • 14. Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), iii. 62.
  • 15. A. Ballard, Brit. Borough Chart. i, p. xci and references there cited.
  • 16. Sar. Chart. and Doc. (Rolls Ser.), 82.
  • 17. E 372/63 Item Wilts.
  • 18. Rot. Litt. Claus. (Rec. Com.), i. 466.
  • 19. Arch. Jnl. civ. 30, 131–2.
  • 20. Ibid. 134; F. Haverfield, 'Old Sarum and Sorbiodunum', E.H.R. xxx. i.
  • 21. Two Saxon Chronicles, ed. C. Plummer, i. 17.
  • 22. Anglo-Saxon Charters, ed. A. J. Robertson, 246; see above, p. 8.
  • 23. See p. 62.
  • 24. Two Saxon Chronicles, ed. Plummer, i. 134–5.
  • 25. See p. 8.
  • 26. See H. de S. Shortt, 'The Mints of Wilts.' in Numismatic Chron. 6th ser. viii. 169–187; 'The Wiltshire Mints', Arch. Jnl. civ. 112–128; R. H. M. Dolley, 'The Sack of Wilton in 1003 and the Chronology of the Long Cross and Helmet Types of Ethelred II' in Saertryk af Nordisk Numismatisk Unions Medlemsblad, May 1954.
  • 27. See p. 65.
  • 28. The 1909–14 excavators believed that the Saxon and the medieval towns occupied the crown of the hill: Arch. Jnl. civ. 137. But no traces have been found in the outer bailey of buildings other than those associated with the cathedral and castle: W.A.M. lvii. 353.