A history of Salisbury, British Heritage
The history of the city of Salisbury is one with a major difference: the city has occupied two sites; the ancient hill-top where Celts created a fortified settlement probably as far back as 600BC, and which had perhaps been occupied since 3000BC; and the ‘modern’ site, to which the then Bishop removed his see and established a planned community.
For Iron Age Britons and their forebears the defensive potential of the hill north of the present city was significant, and they improved that quality with earthworks. When the Romans conquered Britain in the 1st century AD they apparently had similar considerations in mind when they used the place; but for the Romans with wider geographic concerns it was also strategically placed on trade routes linking then more significant towns: Winchester, Dorchester, Cirencester, Silchester and Downton; and it was on the rivers Avon and Bourne. Only an oppidum, a small town, Sorviodunum as they called it nevertheless had a market.
In sub-Roman Britain Sorviodunum may have been largely abandoned, and when the Saxons swept across the land, defeating the local Celts in a battle very nearby in about 552, the location did not attract them until they in turn were threatened with invaders, the Danes. Alfred made the site one of his network of defensive burghs, naming it Searesbyrig or Searoburh, a status which also brought a trading market, and in 1003 a mint moved from less protected Wilton when the Vikings raided it.
The Normans who conquered England in 1066 recognized the usefulness of the site very quickly, setting up a motte and bailey fort it is thought as early as 1070; of greater long-term significance was the establishment there in 1075 of a Bishop’s see in what had become Sarisberie, the name morphing into Salesberie by 1089 when the Domesday Book was drawn up.
What had made the site attractive once, its hill-top position, eventually limited its growth, and the Cathedral took up a major portion of the available land. Inevitably tensions between the clerical and civil parties grew; when Richard Poore became Bishop in 1217 he soon saw the need to change, in 1219 deciding to relocate his Cathedral to church owned land to the south.
Legend has it the new location was decided by the shooting of an arrow from the old site; given the carry is two miles we can discount that, Bishop Poore’s choice being determined by the attraction of a crossroads where routes from the old site to the south and Winchester and Wilton east-west met.
Work began on the new Cathedral in 1220. The great building was consecrated in 1258, and finished in 1266, rapid progress for such an enormous structure in that period. The spire, still Britain’s tallest at 404 feet, was added by the 1330s.
The advantage of the lowland site attracted development, which was made according to a grid pattern, not only of streets but of watercourses using the Avon, dividing the settlement into its famous chequers, rough rectangles surrounded by running water. By the mid-14th century rapid economic development was evidenced by various individual markets being established, for poultry, dairy products, wool and larger livestock. Accordingly merchants made their fortunes in the new Salisbury. Trade there, and the excellent trade routes to it, brought travellers and sparked the development of great inns: as in the Roman era travel through the area was vital to its prosperity; in medieval times travel became directed to Salisbury itself, for pilgrimage as well as economic reasons. To this day tourism is of great importance in Salisbury’s economy. But the Cathedral which was the seed of the city also restricted it, local government remaining in clerical hands until 1612 when a new charter superseded that granted in 1227.
In the medieval era wool and weaving were important to Salisbury, the striped ‘ray’ cloth its speciality, shipped abroad and via the coastal trade to other English cities from Southampton. Failure to adapt to technical changes and new market demands meant that by the 17th century this industry had declined radically, and the following century it in effect died out, though lace making continued: this served the tourist industry of the time, visitors attracted by Stonehenge and by the Cathedral.
During the Civil War Salisbury already in decline economically and not having town walls was of little strategic value, but it did change hands several times. More significant was the rising against Cromwell in 1655 that had its roots in Salisbury.
In the 18th century travel became still more important: workshops grew to provide for example cutlery as souvenirs for visitors and the coaching trade that passed through, and in 1777 a theatre was opened to cater for the same customers – though they had been offered theatrical entertainment in the great inns for many years prior to that opening. When in 1847 the railway reached the city it proved very damaging, the coach trade on which the city thrived ending within years. And in 1832 another profitable franchise disappeared when the rotten borough of Old Sarum, the almost uninhabited original settlement, was finally deprived of its right to elect two MPs (Pitt the Elder once one of them).
The Industrial Revolution saw the absolute end of the textile industry in Salisbury, which reverted to an agricultural centre. Its travel trade continued, though the regular outbreaks of cholera and smallpox in the 18th and 19th centuries, like the plague which hit it during the 17th, did not help trade – though Charles II did hold his court in the Cathedral close during the Great Plague in London in 1665.
At the end of the 19th century the Army began holding exercises on Salisbury Plain, buying large tracts of land up to WWII, its presence providing a new boost to the economy. The city expanded rapidly in the 20th century, its economy mixed, though with a present population of 40,000 it is far from the place it once held in medieval times as one of England’s 10 most populous settlements.