Old Sarum Revisited

The castle from the cathedral, Old Sarum

A few weeks ago I visited my first English Heritage site since covid arrived here. It was Old Sarum and I was attending an event put on by English Heritage for members. It wasn’t exactly a guided tour, but an expert member of staff took us to various places on the ramparts while talking about the history of the site in chronological order. Since it was originally an Iron Age fort that was later occupied by the Romans and then, possibly, the Saxons, it took a while to get to the part that really interested me. This isn’t to say that the stuff about the Ancient Britons and Romans wasn’t interesting, it was, but I had come to learn more about the medieval castle.

The day was gloriously sunny, if somewhat windy, and it was wonderful to find out a bit more about Old Sarum, described by English Heritage as ‘one of the most enthralling historic sites in southern England’. This is an interesting claim, given that Stonehenge is, literally, only a few miles up the road.

So, what did I learn about the things I was most interested in: the medieval castle and cathedral? The first was that a tunnel had been built under the outer bailey and the ramparts in the Middle Ages which probably led to a sally port on the other side of the ramparts. What, you might be asking, is a sally port? It was a small, fortified door, probably well-hidden. In this instance the tunnel leads north to Salisbury Plain. Our guide informed us that this was probably where a besieging army would camp. The sally port would allow the defenders of a castle to leave it, probably under cover of darkness, and harass the besiegers. I suspect that they might also have used it to send for help. I had heard of sally ports before, but had no idea how they might work. In other castles the sally port was at the least defensible part of the castle. This would enable the defenders to surprise the attackers and deter them from focusing on that area. The castle at Old Sarum was never besieged, so the sally port, if there was one, was never used in a desperate situation.

Probably my favourite new fact from the day is that the ramparts, being made of compacted chalk, would have been white when they were first restored in the Middle Ages and the outer walls of the castle were whitewashed. Forget the grey blobs of stone that we see on the tops of hills these days; the builders of these castles wanted to make a statement. Old Sarum was built by William the Conqueror very shortly after he arrived in England and he wanted the Saxons to know that he was in charge. A white castle on top of a white hill would have given exactly that message. It was still white a century or so later when relations between the castle and the cathedral had broken down. One of a long list of complaints that the monks sent to the pope was that the castle and its hill were so white that it blinded them to look at it. Not long after this a new cathedral was built a few miles away in what is now Salisbury.

The final thing I learned was that there were probably only about twenty soldiers at Old Sarum, castles being built so that you didn’t need lots of defenders. I think this must have been the number when the king wasn’t in residence, but it does seem a small number for what is a very large site. The hill on which the castle sits is very steep, however, and I for one would not like to try to climb up it whilst arrows and other things were being launched at me from above. Perhaps it would only have taken twenty men to protect it after all

Old Sarum by John McNeill
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Castle, Medieval Buildings

14 responses to “Old Sarum Revisited

  1. Is this where the term “sally forth”
    originated? Or is the term older?
    It seems French. Did it come with the Conqueror?

    Thank you!🌹

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the reminder, Shaunn. I should have explained it in the post. A sally was the going out of the soldiers from the besieged castle to fight. Apparently it comes from the Old French ‘salir’, which means to jump.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love picturing the castle and its hill being so white that they blinded people who looked at them. Do you know why the hill was also white? Was it covered it white wildflowers rather than grass?

    Liked by 2 people

    • It was made of compressed chalk, which is white. Eventually grass grows on it, but it stays white if you can keep the grass off. There are lots of things carved into chalk hills. They need maintenance to stay white, but you can see that a bare hill would be pretty impressive. Here’s a link to a few of them https://www.wanderlust.co.uk/content/giant-chalk-hill-figures-england/

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’ve never heard of chalk surviving outside—that’s so cool! Just thinking of my childhood driveway masterpieces that would melt away upon the first rain. 😂 These English hillside drawings are majestic!

        Liked by 1 person

        • They’re not drawings. They’re carved into the hillsides, The hills are made of chalk: the geological kind, not the school kind. Every few years someone has to come along and remove any plants that have decided to take root in the exposed chalk in order to protect the image.

          Liked by 2 people

      • That’s why England’s chalk cliffs stay so dazzling! Vertical, they constantly erode cleanly, keeping them free from vegetal cover.

        Remembered seeing a geologic chart showing how much of England is covered in chalk; pretty considerable! Stratifications at Beachy Head look like striped fabric, clearly showing how chalk was laid in layers.

        Across the Channel, Normandy also has incredible chalk cliffs and formations. Some were scaled during the D-Day invasion of WWII.

        Sidewalk, writing and art chalk are ground, colored (if required), and compressed with or without binders. They are usually easily dissolved.

        England’s chalk dissolves away, like any lime strata (such as coastal cliffs), but in the downs, protected by vegetation, water just sinks through into aquifers and runs into streams and rivers. One of the reasons England’s rivers are so naturally clean. An excellent natural filtration system!

        The beautiful limestone figures, as April stated, need regular cleaning to keep pristine. Otherwise vegetation covers them, and they’re only identified by the swales they leave.

        England is so lovely and unique! ♥♥♥

        Liked by 3 people

  3. Sad there’s not much left of it. White would have been glorious.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I remember seeing a castle in France, outside Orange, on top of a steep hill, where it had no source of water except whatever rainwater they could collect. I remember thinking (a) that it would be pretty vulnerable to siege and (b) that hauling that water uphill would’ve been horrendous. Did Old Sarum have a well, do you know?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Access to water is so ingrained in human history that no matter where one finds ruins, some source of water was present. When water became inaccessible, entire cities and fortifications would be abandoned.

    Aquifers might dry up, be poisoned, become saline, or any number of problems. Any one would doom fortress or community.

    I can’t imagine any town or fortification in Europe being built before first ascertaining that adequate potable water was available. Rainwater is just too iffy, and adequate containment difficult to maintain.

    Lead was a common metal used for piping, and it was dangerous if a population were to thrive. Wood might moulder and leak, and pottery making not sophisticated enough to create adequate containers for storage.

    While there were kegs, chaldrons, etc., They might work for wines but not water. Too much was needed.

    Liked by 1 person

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