Abandoned Communities ..... Old Sarum
1086: The swearing of allegiance by the barons
The effigy of Saint Osmund holding his cathedral, in the crypt of St Peter’s in the Vatican
Aerial view, from the north in late afternoon

The site of Old Sarum has been occupied and abandoned several times over the last five thousand years. But as this website is only concerned with abandonments that have taken place since the Middle Ages we will confine the account here to its fortification and settlement soon after the Norman Conquest and the evacuation that occurred when the decision was taken to build a new cathedral in Salisbury.

William the Conqueror chose Sarum as the location for a royal castle, royal in the sense that William and later kings would sometimes stay here, and also in the sense that important national events could be held within it. The site was chosen because it lay inside a large Iron Age hill fort, and initial defences could be constructed very quickly. Just four years after the conquest, in 1070, having gained control of England, William used the castle to pay off his troops. They were paid with the proceeds of treasure left for safety in their minsters by Anglo-Saxon inhabitants. According to the handbook produced by English Heritage payment to some of the troops was deferred for forty days as punishment for complaining about the hardships they had suffered in the campaign in the north and midlands of England during the previous winter.

Derek Renn, Old Sarum, English Heritage, 1994.

In 1086 the enormous survey of the economy of England that resulted in the Domesday Book was completed. Much of the writing of the Domesday Book was done by scribes based at Sarum. On 1 August that year William summoned all the barons of England to Sarum. William confirmed their ownership of large areas of land, but in return demanded that they should swear an oath of allegiance to him.

A wonderful imaginative painting of this event has been made by Peter Dunn. It is reproduced on this page, but a high resolution copy of it can be obtained from the Photo Library at English Heritage.


Later kings used Sarum for other purposes. When Henry II discovered that his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had joined his sons Richard and John in plotting against him, he ordered her imprisonment. She remained in detention from 1174 until Henry's death in 1189, being held at Old Sarum as well as at Winchester Castle and Nottingham Castle. Only at Christmas would Henry sometimes allow Eleanor to stay briefly with him at Windsor.

A second major development at Sarum was the founding of an important religious community. The local diocese had in fact been created just before the Norman invasion, probably in 1059. In 1075 the bishop, Hereman, gained permission for a cathedral to be built at Sarum, replacing the cathedral at Sherborne. However, Hereman died in 1078, leaving the task of completing the cathedral to his successor, Osmund.

Bishop Osmund was a remarkable person in many ways. His origins are uncertain, but he almost certainly came from a high ranking Norman family, and may have been related to King William. Before becoming bishop he occupied the position of chancellor to the king. He showed great respect for established English customs, for example adopting the Anglo Saxon saint, Aldhelm, as his role model. From his own wealth he provided funding for the construction of the cathedral and made an endowment of land to generate income for the cathedral in future. The endowment meant that a large group of about thirty clergymen could be appointed to serve the diocese. The cathedral became a major centre for the study and replication of manuscripts, of which a large collection survives today in the library of Salisbury Cathedral.

For more on the life and significance of Osmund read Diana Greenway, Saint Osmund: Bishop of Salisbury 1078 to 1099, published by the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury Cathedral, 1999.

After the death of Osmund it was generally agreed that he deserved to be declared a saint. At that time the case for canonisation depended to a large extent on the number and type of miracles performed by the person on whose behalf the application was made. Evidence of sudden healing experienced by sick and disabled visitors to Osmund's grave was gathered, and the first application for Osmund's canonisation was made to the pope during the 1220s. It was not successful. Further applications were made during the fourteenth and fifteenth century, and eventually, on 1 January 1457, Osmund was declared a saint by Pope Calixtus III.