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