A History of Salisbury

By Tim Lambert

Saxon Salisbury

The story of Salisbury began 2,500 years ago when an iron age fort was built on Salisbury Hill about 2 miles north of the modern town center. In the 6th century, the Saxons invaded Wiltshire. In 552 Saxons and Celts fought a battle at Salisbury Hill. The Celts were defeated and fled westwards. The fort probably lay abandoned for centuries.

However, by the early 11th century, a settlement had grown up on the site of the old fort. In 1003 the Vikings raided Wilton some of the survivors may have fled to the safety of Salisbury Hill and founded a new settlement. The new town had a mint and a market.

About 1069 William the Conqueror built a wooden castle to overlook the settlement and keep the inhabitants in line. In 1075 a bishop moved his seat there. However, Sarisberie, as it was called, was a small settlement, much smaller than nearby Wilton. It probably only had a population of a few hundred.

Salisbury in the Middle Ages

The modern town of Salisbury began about the year 1217 when the Bishop decided to move his seat to land owned by the church south of the hill. Perhaps there was friction between the clergy and the soldiers in the Norman castle. A shortage of water on the hill may have been another reason for the move. He created a new town on the plain. The Bishop laid out streets in a grid pattern and leased plots of land for building houses. So a new settlement grew up at Salisbury but the town at Old Sarum continued for centuries.

The new town of Salisbury was given a charter in 1227 (a charter was a document granting the townspeople certain rights). By 1219 Salisbury had a market and an annual fair. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. People would come from all over Wiltshire to buy and sell at a Salisbury fair.

Medieval Salisbury was very successful. This was partly because it was on the road from Wilton to Southampton. It was also on the road from London to Exeter. (In those days Exeter was a large and important town and much traffic went between those two towns). In 1244 a stone bridge was built across the Avon, which increased the traffic flowing through Salisbury. Obviously, travelers would stop at Salisbury and spend money in the town.

However, the main industry in Medieval Salisbury was making wool cloth. The wool was woven. It was then fulled. Before it was dyed the wool was beaten in a mixture of water and clay to clean and thicken it. This was called fulling. Wooden hammers worked by watermills beat the wool.

Much of this wool was exported through Southampton. Salisbury grew to be one of the largest towns in England by the 15th century with a population of perhaps 8,000.

Work on Salisbury Cathedral began in 1220 and continued until 1258. The tower and spire were added in 1334. The Bishops Palace was also built in the 13th century. Then in 1269 Salisbury was divided into 3 parishes.

Meanwhile, in the 13th century, the friars arrived in Salisbury. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. In Salisbury, there were 2 orders of friars, the Franciscans (called grey friars because of their grey costumes) and the Dominicans (known as black friars). In the late 14th century the Hospital of the Holy Trinity was founded where monks cared for the sick and poor as best they could.

The House of John A’Port in Queen Street was built in the 15th century.

Salisbury in the 16th century

In 1538 Henry VIII closed the friaries in Salisbury. However, the 2 ‘hospitals’ continued to function.

During the 17th century, the wool industry in Salisbury slowly declined. The population of the town also declined slightly to about 7,000. Salisbury was a large and important town in the Middle Ages but by 1700 it had dwindled into a medium-sized market town.

On the other hand, in 1612 Salisbury was given a new charter. This one made the town completely independent of the Bishop.

Like all towns in those days, Salisbury suffered from outbreaks of the plague. It struck in 1563, 1604, and 1627.

Salisbury in the 17th century

In 1642 came a civil war between the king and parliament. For 2 years Salisbury escaped the fighting but in October 1644 a royalist army occupied the town. In December 1644 a parliamentary army attacked Salisbury and quickly defeated the royalists taking many of them prisoner.

However, in January 1645 another royalist army attacked Salisbury. They drove out the parliamentary troops. Salisbury remained in royalist’s hands until January 1646. By then the king was losing the war and he withdrew his troops from Salisbury as they were needed elsewhere.

The civil war ended in 1646 but in 1655 a royalist uprising took place. Not many men from Salisbury were willing to join the revolt. The uprising was soon crushed and 7 rebels were hanged in Salisbury. Others were transported to the West Indies.

The Joiners Hall was built in the 16th century. Matrons College for the widows of clergymen was built by Bishop Seth Ward in 1685.

Salisbury in the 18th century

One of Salisbury’s famous buildings, Mompesson House, was built in 1701 for Charles Mompesson a merchant.

However, during the 18th century, Salisbury remained a market town of only local importance. Cloth manufacture was still the main industry in Salisbury but it continued to gradually decline. Furthermore, Salisbury suffered outbreaks of smallpox in 1723 and in 1752.

Yet there were some improvements in 18th century Salisbury. The town gained its first newspaper in 1715. Then in 1737, an Act of Parliament formed a body of men with powers to pave, clean, and light the streets of Salisbury with oil lamps. They also appointed a force of night watchmen. An infirmary was built in Salisbury in 1774 and a theatre was built in 1777.

Salisbury in the 19th century

In 1801 Salisbury had a population of 7,668. By the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized town. However, Salisbury grew little in the early 19th century and had a population of less than 9,500 in 1851. In the late 19th century the population grew more rapidly. It reached 17,000 by 1901.

In the 19th century, the industrial revolution transformed Britain but it largely passed Salisbury by. Salisbury remained a market town and the old cloth industry died out altogether.

However, there were some improvements in Salisbury during the 19th century. In 1833 Salisbury gained gas street light and in 1836 a modern police force was created in the town. Then in 1847, the railway arrived.

However, in 1849 Salisbury suffered a severe outbreak of cholera and 192 people died. Afterward, in the 1850s sewers were dug under the town and a piped water supply was created. Salisbury Museum was founded in 1860. In 1892 a public swimming pool opened.

The original settlement at Salisbury was on a hill north of the town. By the early 19th century it had dwindled to almost nothing. It became a ‘rotten borough’ where 10 voters elected 2 MPs! This situation was finally ended in 1832. Then in 1882 Old Sarum was finally extinguished when it became a public park.

Salisbury in the 20th century

In the 20th century, Salisbury continued to grow quite rapidly but it remained an agricultural town. Today one of the main industries in Salisbury is tourism.

The first cinema in Salisbury opened in 1908. Then in the 1920s and 1930s, the first council houses were built. Some of them were needed to replace demolished slums. More council houses were built in Salisbury after 1945.

Old George Mall opened in 1968. A new library opened in Salisbury in 1975. A new swimming pool opened in 1976. The Redcoats In The Wardrobe Museum opened in 1982. The Maltings Shopping Centre opened in 1986. Wilton Shopping Village opened in 1998.

Salisbury in the 21st century

In the 21st century, Salisbury is a thriving market town. In 2023 the population of Salisbury was 45,000.

A view of Salisbury Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral

A Timeline of Salisbury

522 The Saxons and the Celts fight a battle at Salisbury Hill

c. 1003 The Saxons start a settlement on Salisbury Hill

1069 The Saxons Normans build a fort nearby

1075 The Bishop moves his seat to the settlement

1217 The Bishop moves his seat to land south of the hill and he lays out a new settlement there.

1227 The new town of Salisbury is given a charter (a document granting the people certain rights).

c. 1244 A stone bridge is built over the Avon and the new town flourishes. The main industry in Salisbury is making wool.

1258 The main part of Salisbury Cathedral is finished

1334 The tower and spire are added to Salisbury Cathedral

c.1450 The Salisbury has a population of about 8,000 making it one of the largest towns in England.

1539 Henry VIII closes the friaries in Salisbury

1563 The plague strikes Salisbury

1600 The population of Salisbury has declined to about 7,000. During the 17th century, it declines further. The old wool industry gradually declines.

1604,1627 Plague strikes Salisbury again

1612 Salisbury is given a new charter

1644 During the Civil War Royalists capture Salisbury in October 1644. In December Parliamentary troops capture Salisbury.

1645 In January the Royalists capture Salisbury again

1655 During the reign of Oliver Cromwell a royalist uprising takes place centred on Salisbury

1701 Mompesson House is built. Salisbury has dwindled to being a market town.

1715 Salisbury gains its first newspaper

1723 There is an outbreak of smallpox in Salisbury

1737 A body of men is formed with powers to pave, clean, and light the streets of Salisbury

1752 There is another outbreak of smallpox in Salisbury

1774 An infirmary is built in Salisbury

1777 A theatre opens in Salisbury

1801 Salisbury has a population of 7,668

1833 Salisbury gains gas light

1847 The railway reaches Salisbury

1849 Cholera kills 192 people in Salisbury

1860 Salisbury Museum is founded

1901 Salisbury has a population of 17,000

1908 A cinema opens in Salisbury

1968 Old George Mall opens in Salisbury

Old George Mall

1975 A new library opens in Salisbury

1976 A new swimming pool opens in Salisbury

1982 The Redcoats Museum opens

1986 The Maltings Shopping Centre opens

1998 Wilton Shopping Village opens

2001 The population of Salisbury is 39,000