Posted by: kljolly | May 7, 2012

Oakley to Old Sarum

Once we have located Aldred and Bishop AElfsige south of Woodyates at Oakley, the question remains, where were they coming from and going to?  Presumably they followed much of Ackling Dyke one direction or the other, or both if they made a round trip by the same route.

Ackling Dyke runs southwest to Exeter, an intriguing place to consider as a destination for the bishop and provost in terms of liturgical reform and manuscript production, something I may look into later.  Northward on Ackling Dyke, the direction from which they would have initially come, is Old Sarum (Roman Sorviodunum, Anglo-Saxon Searobyrg).

3 Roman roads converge at Old Sarum:  due north from Circencester; northeast on the main Portway from London which continues southwest to become Ackling Dyke; and east from Winchester.  Coming from Northumbria, they may have passed through any of those routes and returned by the same or another, if they were inclined to visit different religious houses.  Winchester seems a likely destination, but also on the north road is Wilton as well as Amesbury, where Queen AElfthryth founded an abbey in 979.

This particular map of Roman roads (courtesy Wikipedia) does not show all of the roads converging at Old Sarum, but it does suggest the main paths by which Aldred and AElfsige might have traveled from Northumbria to the site south of Woodyates at Oakley.  The most direct would presumably be Dere St to York, Ermine St to London, then the Portway to Old Sarum and southwest along Ackling Dyke.  Alternatively, they could have cut over at the Fosse Way from Lincoln down to Exeter, then come back up Ackling Dyke.

That they passed through Old Sarum one way or the other seems likely.  What would they have seen?

My visit on the day after the excursion to Oakley Down involved taking the tourist bus to Stonehenge with a stop at Old Sarum on the return.  The difficulty is that much of what is visible at the site is the Iron Age earthworks and the remains of the Norman fortifications and church, with precious little about the Anglo-Saxon era between.

The outer earthwork ring dates to the Iron Age era when a natural mound on a ridge was enhanced by digging a trench and banking the sides (chalk and flint land, as at Oakley).  The site is between the rivers Avon and Bourne, just north of their confluence (the site of present day Salisbury), with surrounding agricultural land on a broad flood plain.   Old Sarum  is one of many ring mounds in the area created and used as a defensible site and/or market location, although it is unlikely permanent settlement occurred inside the ring.  It had in this era one main entrance to the east.

The Romans obviously made use of Sorviodunum, as they named it, since they constructed roads intersecting it.  Evidence of Romano-British habitation from the first through the fourth century shows the site in use at least as a defensive location, with two settlements outside along the Portway around the east entrance.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 552 notes a battle at Searobyrg, as the Anglo-Saxons called it, between the “Britons” and one Cynric, itself a British name.

Searobyrg or Old Sarum was still in use in the later Anglo-Saxon era, but not necessarily as a prime defensible town for Wessex, since the Burghal Hidage lists Wilton in that role, not Old Sarum.  Nonetheless, kings and nobles, marketers and other travelers traipsed through the area on the roads, as evidenced by finds of a King Ethelwulf (839-58) ring nearby, a brooch from Athelstan’s reign, and coins of Athelstan and Edgar, the latter in Aldred’s time.

Old Sarum, approaching from the north

Agricultural settlement must have continued on the surrounding lands throughout the Anglo-Saxon and Viking era, during which the fortification would have been a likely retreat during attacks.  For example, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes for 1003 that King Sweyn of Denmark went to Searobyrg after trashing Exeter and Wilton, on his way back to the sea.  Subsequently, the Wilton mint and three  moneyers set up shop in Searobyrg, presumably as a defensible location for their operations.

Meanwhile, and of greater significance to Aldred and AElfsige, tenth century shifts in the episcopal sees of the area eventually brought Old Sarum into prominence.  In 909, the see encompassing Wiltshire and Winchester split, creating the new see of Ramsbury over Wiltshire and Berkshire.  This was an ill-fated and short-lived division, since they were joined with Sherborne in 1058.  But during that interval in the tenth century, Old Sarum was apparently an episcopal estate, and developed enough that the reunited see was moved from Sherborne to Old Sarum in 1075 under the Normans.  All of the stonework visible today at Old Sarum dates from this Norman development of the site with keep, castle, and cathedral.

Old Sarum view of the surrounding landscape.

Thus the tenth century era of Old Sarum is as mysterious as Aldred’s Northumbrian one.  If Old Sarum was an episcopal estate, it probably had, by the tenth century if not earlier, at least a small church serving the inhabitants.  Whether that church was inside the ring fort or outside is unknown. On the one hand, a pre-tenth century church serving the agricultural settlements would have been in their village.  On the other hand, the bishop of Ramsbury might have developed his estate manor and a chapel or church inside the ring, a precursor to later episcopal developments.  Unfortunately, the archaeological investigations of the area have not delved into the late Saxon era.

At the time of Aldred, the bishops of Ramsbury were Oswulf (949/952-970) and AElfstan (970-981).  The PASE data, linked here, does not give exact dates from episcopal lists and charter attestations, and Wikipedia relies on Powicke’s British Chronology.  But the date of 970 as the transition from Oswulf to AElfstan  is intriguing for this project–if Aldred and Bishop AElfsige were around the Ramsbury see at the time a new bishop was installed, that might be interesting to pursue, along with visits to other religious houses in the area, as well as Exeter and Winchester.


“Old Sarum,” Vortigern Studies.

Old Sarum, English Heritage Guidebooks (2006).

PASE (Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England).


  1. There is a suggestion that Emporer Severus held court at Old Sarum. I can’t remember where I’ve seen this mentioned, but I found this on Google books:

  2. That would be John of Salisbury’s 12th century account of Severus in the Policraticus, but I don’t know whether his assertion that Severus camped there and gave his name to the place is accurate (I think the placename is Celtic in origin). Severus’ main campaigns were in Caledonia, weren’t they?

  3. […] Jolly of Revealing Words has been plotting her landscape around Oakley: routing to Old Sarem, Oakley’s landscape, and extending to around […]

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