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  Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > The Cities of Vortigern > Old Sarum

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The 'Cities' of Vortigern
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Caer Guorthegirn
Robert Vermaat

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Old Sarum

Old Sarum
Very good access for the disabledAccess restricted to opening times
Nearest town: Salisbury
Nearest village: Stratford sub Castle
Map reference: ST 137326
Location of Old Sarum by UK Streetmap

William of Worcester wrote in his notes made during his travels around Britain in the late 15th century about all he could find on antiquarian material. In his chapter written during his stay in Oxford in 1480 he wrote this:

Itineraries, Oxford, 1480:
Beginning of the ancient names of the cities of Britain:
The first city of Britain is called Caer Guorthegirn (that is to say the Castle of Vortigern, now Salisbury).

The reader may be surprised how this identification might have come so far south, but it is not that far from Bradford-on-Avon, once called Wirtgernesburg ('town of Vortigern'). Old Sarum, as the picture below shows, was once a Iron Age hillfort just above the river. Later a Roman town by the name of Sorviodunum was founded below the hillfort. This town below the fort was never a large city though, and by Vortigern's day its importance as well as size had declined sharply. However, the fort still occupied a crossroads of two major Roman roads, which must have lent it some strategic importance. Later, Anglo-Saxons and Normans both occupied the fort and the remains we see today span roughly four thousand years.

History of Old SarumThe Norman motte inside the Iron Age hillfort of Old Sarum.

The outer ramparts were probably first constructed around 1000 BC as Bronze Age tribal groups sought to protect themselves and their cattle. In the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age the ramparts would have been strengthened and a barbican constructed outside the main gate.

The fort would then have experienced little change until the invasion of the Roman Empire in AD 53. Having subdued local resistance the Romans brought a period of relative stabilty to the bulk of what is now England. At Old Sarum this is evidenced by the fact the the hillfort appears to have served as little more than a garrison. The Roman settlement (such as it was) established itself a few hundred yards from the fort, down in the bottom of the river valley at what is now Stratford-Sub-Castle. It is clear that the settlement established here , although not terribly large, would have been of some importance as four Roman roads converge on the old fort. Most probably Sorviodunum/Sarum would have been the site of a regular market and other forms of trading which depended on quick efficient transport and communications.

What exactly happened after the departure of the Romans is hard to tell but it is known that the Saxons fought over it on a battle recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as taking place in AD 552:

552   This year Cynric fought the Britons at the place now called Salisbury, and won. Her Cynric gefeaht wi Brettas in re stowe e is genemned t Searobyrg. 7 a Bretwalas gefliemde.

We may take this 'Saxon' takeover with a pinch of salt, as the name of the Saxon king (Cynric) is a British one (Cunorix), as is the name of his father Cerdic (Ceredig) and his son Ceawlin (Collen). Recent thoughts on this subject see the West Saxons as having been of very mixed origin, only to be 'germanised' later when the Anglo-Saxon culture had taken over England. 'Celtic' finds in north Wiltshire and the growing certainty that the West Saxons (or Gewissae as they were called earlier) started out in the Thames Valley may strengthen this view. In all probability, the kingdom of Wessex conquered Salisbury only later, after the (equally mixed) kingdom of Mercia started to push south from the Midlands. The 'Saxon' origins of Wessex were acquired after it took over south Hampshire and the island of Wight from the Jutes. The Jutish origin-legend is heavily influenced by that of Kent, hence maybe the connection to Vortigern and Hengist (below).

Anyway, the new owners thereafter made use of the fortifications and a sizeable town developed. The Saxon settlement must have been fairly formidable as it was given a wide berth by the invading Vikings of King Sweyn in 1003. Other settlements in the area were not so lucky. The nearby town of Wilton, only four or five miles away suffered badly at the hands of the Vikings.

The fortress eventually did change hands following the Norman invasion of 1066 and it was then that the most striking remains seen today were first built. As you can see from the aerial photograph the hillfort was remodelled into a Norman Motte and Bailey design. The first wooden fort was constructed in 1069 when the central Motte was constructed. In 1070 William the Conqueror paid off his entire army in the outer bailey of the new castle and in 1089 the major landholders of William's kingdom gathered at Old Sarum to swear their oath of loyalty.


Of course, there is the strong connection between Ambrosius and Amesbury, but also Ambrosius with Vortigern, and lastly between Vitalinus and Ambrosius, who fought near Wallop in Hampshire, which is only a few miles to the north-east of Salisbury. Ambrosius' estate may have been situated in the fort near the abbey in Amesbury, giving the family name to the whole area.

Sorviodunum as it may have looked in Vortigern's days.

But these connections point to Stonehenge as well, which may have to be considered a slightly better candidate for a Caer Guorthigirn. That Geoffrey of Monmouth later confused Ambresbyrig (the fortress of Ambrosius) with Ambrius Mons (the hill of Ambr(os)ius) causes no wonder, for the Anglo-Saxon byrig can easily be confused with burgh. And a hillfort can be both 'fortress' (burgh) and 'hill' (byrg) at the same time! It is clear that both names can be about one and the same place: Amesbury and the surrounding area, but they could likewise point to Old Sarum.

Another possibility, referred to above, is that the Germano-British kingdom of the Gewissae, pushed south by Mercia, found an existing Jutish origin-legend in this area, related to the Jutes of Kent. As the Gewissae (as the West Saxons were known before king Alfred) had no real West Saxon origin-legend of their own, we think they incorporated their own kings into the existing Jutish one. By the time the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was written down, the Cerdic was the founder of Wessex and 'landed' on the Hampshire coast in AD 495 'and fought the Welsh', as good Saxon kings ought to have done. We can see in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle a number of double enties, where the West Saxons are supposed to have landed and fought their way inland during both 495-508 as well as 514-527.

I think it may be a possibility that Salisbury, conquered by Cynric in AD 552 from the Jutes of Hampshire, and may have been a 'fort of Vortigern', supposedly given to Hengist as part of the ransom after the treason of the long knives. This treason may, after all, have taken place nearby, or at least one of Vortigern's battles was fought at Old Sarum's doorstep. This legend, or at least the Vortigern part of it, may have stuck in local tales.

Whatever the origin of this tale, Old Sarum was apparently still important enough to be fought over by the mid-6th century. However, the importance of the town vanished after this conquest, not to re-emerge until the Norman Conquest, when its new-found wealth and pride may have been cause enough for writers like Geoffrey of Monmouth to get confused.

Therefore, it may be a candidate for a Caer Guorthigirn because of the strong connections with Vortigern to the area, for which reason he might have made it a stronghold, or because the area had connections to the Jutes and the Kentish origin-legends. However, its inclusion in the list is most probably based solely on ties to Amesbury and Stonehenge.

Visiting Old Sarum

The hillfort of Old Sarum lies to the immediate north of the modern town of Salisbury. A 15 minutes bike-ride will get you there, but there is a bus connection as well, and of course you can park the car close by the monument. There is an admission fee to enter the Norman inner fortress, but when you are not interested in that, or the very nice views from the top of the ruins, you can wander around the outer area for free. This area is what's left of the original Iron Age fortress, and one can but wonder how many people may have lived here at one time, or Vortigern's time for that matter. During late summer, there's usually a re-enactment event which can help imagining what those times were like.

Battle at Old Sarum


  • Tolstoy, Nikolai: The Quest for Merlin, (Little & Brown 1985)*
  • William Worcestre: Itineraries, edited from the unique MS. Corpus Christi College Cambridge, 210, Latin and trans. John Harvey, (Oxford 1969).

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