Old Sarum has a history that can be traced back deep into Britain's past. The earliest occupants of the hilltop site appear to have arrived during the Neolithic period, followed by hunter-gathers and early farming communities. During the Iron Age, the site was transformed into a hill fort, and defensive banks and ditches were constructed to protect the community within. Many Roman roads converge around the site, and it is believed that Caesar's armies utilised Old Sarum as a fort or way-station.
After the departure of the Romans, the site was largely abandoned until around 900AD, when the Saxons reinforced the fortification against the threat of Viking invasion. In the early years following the Norman conquest, a motte and bailey castle was constructed on the site, and in 1070AD, it was at Old Sarum that William paid of his troops and disbanded his invading army. It was held as a royal castle, used for councils where landowners would come and pay homage to the new king.
In 1092AD, the first cathedral was dedicated at Old Sarum. Days later, a storm brought down the tower, largely destroying the new church. Reconstruction began in 1100AD, and when the building was completed in 1190AD, the tower was said to rise above the top of the castle on the hill.
Around the same time that work on the replacement cathedral was starting, a new stone keep was also erected, replacing the earlier wooden structure. A royal palace was also constructed within the banks around 1130AD.
From around 1139AD, tensions between the civil and religious authorities began to escalate, with the close proximity of military and spiritual institutions generating conflict and disagreement. On one occasion, soldiers barred the monks from the castle precinct, preventing them from gaining access to the cathedral.
This latter incident appears to have been the final straw for Bishop Herbert Poore. Along with a scarcity of space and water, the site was proving unsustainable. Accordingly, the bishop approached Richard I in 1194, seeking permission to relocate the cathedral on a new site closer to the River Avon. The king granted this request, and by 1220AD, construction on the new cathedral had begun. The existing cathedral was systematically demolished, with materials being plundered for use in the new building.
By this time, the residents of Old Sarum had largely deserted the old town and moved down to the river, and the original site remained populated purely as a military outpost rather than as a civilian town. Throughout the remainder of the 13th Century, the castle remained garrisoned. In the years that followed however, it fell into decay, and in 1514AD, Henry VII finally ordered it demolished.
Today, little remains of the castle and cathedral, although the ground plan of both is clearly visible. The earthworks survive though, creating a striking impression and allowing the visitor to form a clear impression of the lay-out of the ancient town and fortification. Spectacular views abound, as Old Sarum rises high above the flat landscape that surrounds it. This is an atmospheric site, embodying much that epitomises English history and mythology, spanning many ages and cultures. The only slight distractions are the wind that constantly buffets the hill, and the regular noise of light aircraft departing and arriving from the local airfield. Salisbury is only a short distance away, and those visiting Old Sarum would be well advised to also visit the new cathedral whose towers are visible from the ancient hill.