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An artist's impression of the barons and lords of England swearing loyalty to William the Conqueror at Old Sarum in 1086

Archaeologists reveal lost medieval palace beneath prehistoric fortress at Old Sarum


The archaeological site of Old Sarum located in Wiltshire, England, has a rich history stretching back at least five thousand years. But it was William the Conqueror’s selection of the site for his royal castle in the 11 th century that left the greatest mark on this historic landmark. Now geophysical surveys have revealed that what lies beneath the surface may actually be one of the largest medieval royal palaces ever found, built within the grounds of a vast Iron Age fortress, and hidden beneath fields for more than 700 years.

An aerial photograph of the site of Old Sarum

An aerial photograph of the site of Old Sarum. The newly discovered probable royal palace is under the grass in the quadrant opposite the foundations of the cathedral. The massive earthworks surrounding the site are from the Iron Age. The earthwork in the centre is the medieval castle mound (English Heritage)

According to a report in The Independent, the high-tech scans carried out by archaeologists from the University of Southampton, including magnetometry, earth resistance, ground penetrating radar, and electric resistivity tomography survey, have revealed the foundations of dozens of houses and an enormous, previously unknown complex, measuring 170 ms (558 ft) long and 65 m (214 ft) wide, which is believed to have been a royal palace.

“The prime candidate for constructing it is perhaps Henry I sometime in the early 12th century,” said one of Britain’s leading experts on high status medieval buildings, Dr Edward Impey, Director-General of the Royal Armouries.

The complex was arranged around a large courtyard with 3 m (10 ft) wide walls, and included a long building, which was probably a grand hall. There is also evidence of towers and multi-storey buildings. If it is indeed a medieval royal palace, it is the largest of its kind ever found in Britain. Up until now, archaeologists were only aware of the much smaller complex on top of the man-made castle mound.

A geophysical 'x-ray' image showing the structures which have lain buried in the ground for more than 700 years - Old Sarum

A geophysical 'x-ray' image showing the structures which have lain buried in the ground of Old Sarum for more than 700 years (Environment Agency/University of Southampton 2014)

Old Sarum was originally an Iron Age hill fort, built in 400 BC on a site that had been inhabited since at least 3,000 BC. The site was used by the Romans, becoming the town of Sorviodunum. The Saxons also used the site as a stronghold against marauding Vikings.

In the 11 th century, William the Conqueror, having gained control of England, chose Sarum as the location for a royal castle. The fact that it lay inside a large hill fort meant that defenses could be constructed very quickly. The castle was built on a motte (raised earthworks) protected by a deep dry moat in 1069, three years after the Norman conquest. The construction of a cathedral and bishop's palace occurred between 1075 and 1092. A royal palace was then built within the castle for King Henry I and subsequently used by Plantagenet monarchs.

Reconstruction of Old Sarum in 12th Century

Reconstruction of Old Sarum in 12 th Century. The model includes the previously known castle of William the Conqueror in the center, and the cathedral, but does not show the newly discovered palace. (Wikimedia Commons)

By 1219, the limitations of space on the hilltop site had become cause for concern, with the cathedral and castle in close proximity and their respective chiefs in regular conflict. The abandonment of Old Sarum by the clergy during the 1220s marked the end of serious royal interest in the castle. The castle continued in use, but was largely abandoned by the 16th century.

The new research has enabled archaeologists to piece together the layout of the old Medieval city, shedding new light on the urban planning of a Norman city. “This is a discovery of immense importance,” said historian, Professor David Bates of the University of East Anglia. “It reveals the monumental scale of building work taking place in the earlier 12th century.” While the significance of Old Sarum has been known about for some time, only now are archaeologists beginning to piece together the long-vanished city buried beneath the green fields that thousands of tourists visit every year.

Featured image: An artist's impression of the barons and lords of England swearing loyalty to William the Conqueror at Old Sarum in 1086. Credit: English Heritage.

By April Holloway



It never ceases to surprise me, that archaeologist express surprise in what they find. it appears at first to be ignorance of the capabilities of ancient man... It is, as if they are wearing blinders made of modern experience and religious upbringing, that blinds them. When Dr. Reinoud de Jonge informed me, that the Origin of the word (city) of Perth was far older then anticipated..."Per" meaning go back and "Th" meaningThoth, the Egyptian God... Hence if this is correct, then the City of Perth (Scotland), must have been at one stage the site of a Temple, dedicated to Thot some 6.000 to 5.000 years ago.It is suggested that the site of the temple is hidden beneath the first Christian church ever build, this is based on past practice in Germany, where the churches were defensive buildings and used the most defensible site and prime real estate, normally the site of an ancient temple or fortress... This too may explain the origin of Stonehenge...

Justbod's picture

Great article and great pictures - thank you! Such a densely populated site, I am amazed that they are able to make such sense of the data. Such a beautiful site too, especially in the aerial shot. 

It will interesting if this latest data leads to more investigation and discoveries.

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aprilholloway's picture


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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