The History of Salisbury
The history of the ancient Wiltshire city of Salisbury dates back to pre-history. Old Sarum is the site of a Neolithic settlement which was later an Iron Age hillfort. The Romans gave the name of ‘Sorviodunum’
to the fort and later, the Saxons occupied the area. The Normans built a castle there after subduing the Saxons after the Battle of Hastings of 1066. The fortified settlement was referred to as ‘Salesberie’ in the Domesday Book of 1086. Sarum is possibly a scholarly shorthand corruption of ‘Saresberie’ used in texts and communications that would have always been written in Latin.
Old Sarum gradually declined after the the clergy fell out with the Norman military occupying Old Sarum. Earlier incarnations of Salisbury Cathedral had been already built, twice, on the Old Sarum site by 1120. However, the building of an entirely new cathedral on a site nearby marked the end of the old settlement and the true beginnings of modern day Salisbury. New Sarum, or Salisbury, was founded in 1220 by Bishop Richard Poore. It was the same year the Bishop started on the new cathedral. Only 38 years later, in 1258, the main body of the spectacular cathedral had been completed. The spire, which stands at 400 feet, is the tallest in Britain. The tower and spire were completed around 1334. The Bishop’s Palace was also built at the time of the initial works on the cathedral. A large mechanical clock was installed in the cathedral in 1386, this remains the oldest surviving mechanical clock in Britain.
The Bishop selected a grid pattern for his new town, to be situated in a delightful vale of the River Avon . He chose the site well as Salisbury had a charter by 1227 and it rapidly grew to be Wiltshire’s principle town by the 14th century. Salisbury did not benefit from Roman or Norman fortification as the fort was across the way back in
Old Sarum! All of Salisbury’s fortification had to be started from scratch in the 14th century. A four gated city wall was built to surround the cathedral close, a hint at who the main sponsor might have been. A fifth gate was added at a later date to allow access to Bishop Wordsworth's School. The close was used by King Charles II who held court there during the great plague.
Salisbury’s early growth was aided by the new town’s site along the main road from Exeter to London . Salisbury’s proximity to the ancient market town of Wilton, which itself stood on the Southampton road, further helped to fuel the town’s development. A stone bridge was built to take all the traffic wanting to cross the River Avon at Salisbury. While the town derived revenue from travellers along these roads, in the Middle Ages it was wool that made Wiltshire towns like Salisbury rich. Wool, much of it from sheep reared on the desolate hills and plains surrounding Salisbury, was brought to the town for trading and processing. The River Avon provided both water for the fulling and other processes as well as water power to help beat and weave the cloth.
The proximity of Southampton meant the wool and finished wool products like cloth or clothing had an easy route to the thriving export market. The population of Salisbury grew to around 8,000 by the 15th Century. However, the wool industry went into decline around the 17th century. The population slipped to 7,000 but the town was also granted a new charter, in 1612. This charter cut loose the ties with the Bishop and made Salisbury independent from the church that had established it.
Both parliamentary and royalist armies occupied the town during the Civil War of 1642 - 1646. By 1801 Salisbury’s population was still only 7,668, but this was enough for it to be one of the principle urban centres of the area. Despite missing out on the population and industrial boom of the Industrial Revolution Salisbury grew to reach 17,000 by 1901. Agriculture and tourism are the mainstays of modern cathedral city of Salisbury, and city’s proximity to the famous Stonehenge ancient monument has helped it to remain an important stopping place for many travellers.
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