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Old Sarum, Wiltshire

Old Sarum is a prominent hilltop site about two miles north of the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire. The history of the site goes back to Iron Age times, when a giant earthwork was raised to enclose a camp some 56 acres (23 hectares) in area. It was occupied almost continuously by Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes and Normans.

A Norman castle and cathedral were built, as well as houses and other buildings, but there were two main problems with this arrangement that came to a head in the early 13th century. The first was that the military and ecclesiastical authorities could never agree over who had priority over the running of the city, and the second was that this windswept hilltop might have been OK for a relatively small group of Iron Age farmers, but it did not suit the needs of a growing urban community. In particular, water supply was always a problem.

There was, however, plenty of water in the open space to the south of Old Sarum, where four rivers joined together. The clergymen therefore decided to build a new cathedral to the south, using stones from the old building. This became the Gothic edifice of Salisbury Cathedral, which was usable by 1258, but without its magnificent spire, which came later.

The population of Old Sarum gradually migrated to “New Sarum” and the old city was eventually abandoned when the castle also fell into decay. Evidence of what was once there is limited to a few fragments of the castle and the outline of the cathedral foundations.

However, the fact that Old Sarum was virtually dead by the mid-13th century did not prevent the original borough from being given the privilege of sending two members to the English Parliament founded by Simon de Montfort in 1265. This right was maintained for more than 500 years until the Great Reform Act of 1832 did away with the “rotten boroughs”, of which Old Sarum was one of the most rotten!

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