Salisbury: The word 'Sarum'

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

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'Salisbury: The word 'Sarum'', A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 6, (London, 1962), pp. 93-94. British History Online [accessed 12 June 2024].

. "Salisbury: The word 'Sarum'", in A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 6, (London, 1962) 93-94. British History Online, accessed June 12, 2024,

. "Salisbury: The word 'Sarum'", A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 6, (London, 1962). 93-94. British History Online. Web. 12 June 2024,


The word 'Sarum' or 'Sarrum' is traditionally and rightly explained as an inaccurate extension of the abbreviation 'Sa [character]' standing for Sarisberia, Sarisbiria, Sarrisbirie (plur.), or some such form. The inaccuracy is supposed to have arisen in the following way. In medieval scribal practice words suspended at a letter, the concluding stroke of which on or near the base line was approximately horizontal, often carried as a sign of their suspension an obliquely curving mark through their final stroke. The letter most commonly carrying this suspension mark was that form of r (the Arabic 2) that was consistently written after a and o. Latin genitive plurals of the first and second declensions, suspended at the earliest point at which the grammatical case had become apparent, are the most usual occasions for employing the mark. In consequence the 'Arabic 2' r carrying it [character] in such words or phrases as 'Ebo[]' and 'Bathon' fo[]' came to be wrongly extended as 'Eborum' and 'Bath Forum'. (fn. 1) Of these strange forms, however, 'Sarum' is the only one that has gained a wide currency. As a Latin word it was treated as an indeclinable noun, sometimes feminine singular, sometimes feminine plural, and sometimes neuter singular. (fn. 2)

'Sarum' is no recent arrival. It is found on many medieval seals: on the first seal of St. Nicholas's Hospital, in use in 1239; (fn. 3) on the first mayor's seal, in use in 1303; (fn. 4) on the seal of Robert Wyvil, as bishop elect of Salisbury, used in 1330; (fn. 5) on his signet, used in 1344; (fn. 6) on the second mayor's seal, in use in 1338; (fn. 7) on the seal of William Montague, Earl of Salisbury, apparently in use in 1380; (fn. 8) on the third mayor's seal, in use in 1398; (fn. 9) on the seal ad causas of Bishop Metford (1395–1407); (fn. 10) and on the municipal counterseal for the recognizance of debts, in use in 1401. (fn. 11)

Its appearance in manuscripts, if more sporadic, is as early. The curious word 'Sarrūbiriens" occurs in the close roll of 9 Henry III, (fn. 12) strong evidence enough that 'Sarrum' was already known in 1225 and its correct extension not understood. The death of 'Willelmus Lungespe comes Sarum' (1226) has been entered in the Lacock Annals in a hand that makes no further entries after 1275. (fn. 13) 'Sarrū' occurs twice in a verdict returned at the Wiltshire eyre of 1281. (fn. 14) 'Sarum' is found in Archbishop Chichele's register in wills made in 1425 and 1429, (fn. 15) and 'Sarū' in the Arlingham breviary of c. 1460, (fn. 16) and in another breviary assigned to the period 1446–61. (fn. 17)

The word also appears in leonine verses inscribed upon the brass at Wanborough commemorating Thomas and Edith Poulton (d. 1418). (fn. 18) In this epitaph 'Sarum' occupies such a position in a pentameter that the line would neither scan nor rhyme internally if 'Sar" or 'Sarisberia' were to be substituted for it. Thus at the time the brass was executed the word was pronounced as it was spelt. 'Sarum' is also found in a similar position in another set of leonines — those cut upon the stone slab at Lacock Abbey that once covered the remains of Ela, Countess of Salisbury, the foundress of that nunnery. Sir Harold Brakspear thought that these verses were 'no older than the 14th century', meaning presumably that they might be of that date. (fn. 19) More recently, however, it has been suggested that they are an 18thcentury composition. (fn. 20)

In the 16th and 17th centuries the forms are met with too often to justify the recitation of individual examples. Special mention may, however, be made of the official imprimatur given to the word in the heralds' visitation of 1565, (fn. 21) and in the city's 'governing' charter of 1612. (fn. 22) In fact it was by the name of 'New Sarum' (civitas nostra nove Sarum) that the city was then incorporated, and this fact must surely have dictated civic practice ever afterwards. Since the time of Bishop Piers (1577–89) bishops have signed 'Sarū', or 'Sarum' instead of 'Sar". (fn. 23) The 'use of Sarum' has been so called since 1570, (fn. 24) and any alternative is almost a pedantry. With so much authority, therefore, on its side it need cause no surprise that 'Sarum' should be strongly preferred in 17th century deeds of local manufacture (fn. 25) or that Shakespeare should have written about 'Sarum plaine'. (fn. 26) The more accurate forms 'Salisbury' and 'Sarisberia' and the abbreviation 'Sar' 'were not, however, ousted by 'Sarum' and have continued in abundant circulation. In the Victoria History of Wiltshire 'Salisbury' is always used except when mentioning the extant earthworks and ruins of the old city, the constituency of Old Sarum as it existed in 'unreformed' Parliaments, and any official title in which 'Old Sarum' or 'New Sarum' occurs. (fn. 27)


  • 1. L. C. Hector, Handwriting of Engl. Docs., 31–32.
  • 2. Hist. MSS. Com. Var. Coll. i. 342 (note by R. L. Poole).
  • 3. D.L. 27/10. The legend is defective but it is the same seal as that described in V.C.H. Wilts. iii. 356.
  • 4. See p. 178.
  • 5. D. & C. Sar. 3/2/1.
  • 6. B.M. Add. Ch. 20262; cf. B.M. cast lviii. 62.
  • 7. See p. 179.
  • 8. B.M. Cat. of Seals iii. No. 11861.
  • 9. See p. 179.
  • 10. B.M. cast lviii. 74.
  • 11. See p. 179.
  • 12. Rot. Litt. Claus. (Rec. Com.), ii. 71.
  • 13. W.N. & Q. iv. 571.
  • 14. Collectanea (W.A.S. Rec. Brch.), 95.
  • 15. Chichele's Reg. (Cant. and York Soc. xlii), ii. 347, 348, 390 and notes to those pp.
  • 16. Antiphonale Sarisburiense (Plainsong Soc.), 44.
  • 17. B.M. Arundel MS. 130, f. 10.
  • 18. E. Kite, Monumental Brasses of Wilts., 27 and Pl. VI. There is a rubbing of the brass in B.M. Add. MS. 32490 s.21.
  • 19. W.A.M. xxxi. 210.
  • 20. W. G. Clark-Maxwell, 'The Tombstone of the Countess Ela', ibid. xlv. 528.
  • 21. Genealogist, n.s. xii. 240; checked with MS.
  • 22. Hatcher, Salisbury, 773; checked with original charter in Sar. Corp. MSS.
  • 23. Signing 'Sar', Jewel (S.P. 12/36 No. 7), Guest (D. & C. Sar. Press 4, Box L); signing 'Sarū', Piers (S.P. 12/154 No. 44), Colwell (S.P. 12/254 No. 39), Cotton (S.P. 14/47 No. 27), Davenant (S.P. 16/11 No. 26); signing 'Sarum', Ward (E 331/6).
  • 24. O.E.D. quoting Foxe's Acts and Monuments.
  • 25. Cal. Antrobus D. (W.A.S. Rec. Brch.), Nos. 146, 154, 157, 161.
  • 26. King Lear, 2.2.78 (Q1., 1608).
  • 27. For an earlier discussion of this subject see W.N. & Q. iv. 383–4 (A. Story Maskelyne), 418–19 (C. Wordsworth), 571–2 (W. G. Clark-Maxwell).