John Aubrey

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John Aubrey was a Wiltshire born (1627) antiquarian and early archaeologist. Fifty-six chalk pits at Stonehenge are named after him (though were not discovered by him). He died (1687) shortly after his Natural History of Wiltshire was published, containing his account of Old (and New) Sarum. He visited Old Sarum in 1660.

"THE celebrated antiquity of Stonehenge, as also that stupendious but unheeded antiquity at Aubury [i], &c. I affirme to have been temples, and built by the Britons. See my Templa Druidum [ii]. Here being so much good stone in this countrey, no doubt but that the Romans had here, as well as in other parts, good buildings. But time hath left us no vestigia of their architecture unlesse that little that remains of the castle of Old Sarum, where the mortar is as hard as a stone. This must have been a most august structure, for it is situated upon a hill. When the high walles were standing, flanked at due distances with towers, about seven in all, and the vast keep (arx) [iii] in the middle crowned with another high fortification, it must needs afford a most noble view over the plaines.

(The following account I had from the right reverend, learned, and industrious Seth Ward [iv], Lord Bishop of Sarum, who had taken the paines to peruse all the old records of the church, that had been clung together and untoucht for perhaps two hundred yeares.)


'Within this castle of Old Sarum, on the east side, stood the Cathedrall church; the tuft [v]  and scite [vi] is yet discernable: which being seated so high was so obnoxious to the weather, that when the wind did blow they could not heare the priest say masse. But this was not the only inconvenience. The soldiers of the castle and the priests could never agree; and one day, when they were gone without the castle in procession, the soldiers kept them out all night, or longer. Whereupon the Bishop, being much troubled, cheered them up as well as he could, and told them he would study to accommodate them better. In order thereunto he rode severall times to the Lady Abbesse at Wilton [vii] to have bought or exchanged a piece of ground of her ladyship to build a church and houses for the priests. A poor woman at Quidhampton, that was spinning in the street, sayd to one of her neighbours, "I marvell what the matter is that the bishop makes so many visits to my lady; I trow [viii] he intends to marry her." Well, the bishop and her ladyship did not conclude about the land, and the bishop dreamt that the Virgin Mary came to him, and brought him to or told him of Merrifield [ix]; she would have him build his church there and dedicate it to her. Merrifield [ix] was a great field or meadow where the city of New Sarum stands, and did belong to the Bishop, as now the whole city belongs to him.'

This was about the latter end of King John's reigne [x], and the first grant or diploma that ever King Henry the Third [xi] signed was that for the building of our Ladies church at Salisbury [xii]. The Bishop sent for architects from Italy, and they did not onely build that famous structure, and the close, but layd out the streetes of the whole city: which run parallell one to another, and the market-place-square in the middle: whereas in other cities they were built by chance, and at severall times.

I know but one citie besides in England that was designed and layd out at once as this was; and that is Chichester: where, standing at the market-crosse, you may see the four gates of the city. They say there that it was built about the same time that New Salisbury was, and had some of those architects. The town of Richelieu was built then by the great Cardinall [xiii], when he built his august chasteau there.

Upon the building of this cathedrall and close the castle of Old Sarum went to wrack, and one may see in the walles of the close abundance of stones, finely carved, that were perhaps part of the church there. After the church and close were built, the citizens had their freestone, &c. from thence. And in Edward the Sixth's time [xiv], the great house of the Earle of Pembroke, at Wilton, was built with the mines of it. About 1660 I was upon it. There was then remaining on the south side some of the walles of the great gate; and on the north side there was some remaines of a bottome of a tower; but the incrustation of freestone was almost all gone: a fellow was then picking at that little that was left. 'Tis like enough by this time they have digged all away."



[i]   Aubury is Avebury and not the author

[ii]  Templa Druidum is discussion by Aubrey on Stonehenge, Avebury and other “Druid” temples in his book Monumenta Britannica. The Druids were here before the Romans as Caesar described them. Aubrey was correct in thinking these sites were pre Roman. At the time it was believed the world dated from (was created in) about 4000 BC.

[iii]  Arx is Latin for citadel, particularly one on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. Plural arces

[iv]  Seth Ward b 1617, appointed to see of Sarum 1667, d 1689

[v] Tuft means mound here

[vi] Scite. The site of the cathedral was subsequently lost, then to reappear as a scorch mark a hot 19th C summer. It is to the west not east within the castle though.

[vii] Wilton Abbey had fallen victim to the Dissolution in 1539. Nothing remains of it, and Wilton House stands on the site. It was granted to Sir William Herbert, (later) the Earl of Pembroke. The Abbesses 1200-1220 were Aceline and Margaret. They had to provide knights to fight for the king when asked.

[viii]  Trow is to trust or believe

[ix] Merrifield is an open or pleasant pasture


[x] John (Lackland) Born 1166 Accession to throne 1199 died 1216


[xi] Henry III (of Winchester) b 1206 a 1216 d 1272

[xii]  Our Ladies Church. Salisbury Cathedral used to be the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was built 1220 to 1258.


[xiii] Cardinal Richelieu b 1585 appointed a cardinal 1622 d 1642

[xiv]  Edward VI b 1537 a 1547 d 1553


Aubrey, John. 1686 THE NATURAL HISTORY OF WILTSHIRE Part II Chapter VI Architecture Version collated and edited by John Britton 1847 available here Project Gutenberg Ebook, 4934.txt 




Kerry O’Connor

Local History Group

October 2020

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