Old Sarum (or old Salisbury) is an exceedingly historic place in the county of Wiltshire about 25 miles north of the south coast of England and a couple of miles north of modern-day Salisbury. It likely began around 400 BC as an Iron Age hill fort.
In August 1086, 20 years after his violent seizure of England, William the Conqueror, the Norman master of a formerly Saxon country, summoned his barons and principal landowners to Old Sarum to take the “Oath of Salisbury” and swear personal allegiance to him. The Oath established that ownership of all land in England derived solely from the king.
It is 933 years and 3,800 miles from the Oath and Salisbury to present-day Christiansburg. Yet the two places are deeply connected by law, land and land titling.
This month, the 14th edition of the annual Virginia History Forum will take place at Longwood College in Farmville. This columnist is on the program to speak about Virginia’s western counties and their role in transforming a string of coastal colonial English colonies into an American continental superpower and the subsequent rise of 20th century Anglo-American dominance.
Preparing his presentation has made him think about what happened at Old Sarum and how and why it began the nine centuries journey to the present-day global preeminence of the English language and Anglo-America.
During the first half of 1086, agents of William the Conqueror in the many counties of England made an inquest into everything that people owned, from property to sheep to servants, and especially their land. The agents built on the already well-developed Anglo-Saxon bureaucracy of the conquered Saxons.
Collectively, the survey documents generated by this inquest are called the Domesday Book and arguably comprise the single most important English historical document. As the most complete survey of a pre-industrial society that exists, it enables us to reconstruct the politics, government, social arrangements and economy of 11th century England. In 2010, Oxford University scholar and Domesday Book authority Stephen Baxter wrote: “No contemporary text explains why Domesday Book was made. … The book does, however, enable readers to identify the lands held by King William and his barons very quickly and precisely.”
Baxter added: “The barons were prepared to yield this instrument to the king since it gave them what they wanted most following the greatest tenurial revolution in England’s history – greater security of title to their lands.” Henceforward and until the present day in England land ownership derives from the king or queen. In Virginia, after the Declaration of Independence, it derives from the General Assembly. The system begun at Old Sarum persists today throughout the world’s English-speaking nations.
In 1734, Orange County, Virginia, the precursor of Montgomery County, was created under the authority of King George II in the 8th year of his reign. In October 1776, with Independence already declared, Montgomery County was created by the Virginia General Assembly under its own authority in the first year of its “reign.” In both 1734 and 1776 the authority for the granting of land derived ultimately from the Salisbury Oath.
In 1086 King William grabbed the Saxon land of England and legalized it as the Norman king’s land at Old Sarum. In 1734, William II, acting through his Virginia assembly, grabbed all the land from the Blue Ridge to the “utmost limits of Virginia.” The utmost limits were left undefined, most historians today choose the Mississippi River, some pick the Pacific Ocean.
The westward extension of Virginia after the creation of Orange County fell to the land speculators and surveyors and the settlers they brought. Always the objective was to secure clear title to land and have it embodied in law via registration at the appropriate courthouse and in the colonial capital in Williamsburg.
An excellent account of this land engrossment process can be found in Sarah Hughes’ 1979 book “Surveyors and Statesmen.” As she points out, every Virginia courthouse contains an abundance of paper land records dating from the year the courthouse was established.
That situation has dramatically advanced during the past two decades with the coming of computerized data and online land record information. Land records have become thoroughly digitized.
For Montgomery County, the link https://www.montgomerycountyva.gov/igis leads to the county’s Geographic Information System (GIS) through its “iGIS” map portal. Maintained by the county’s GIS and Mapping Services department, here can be found GIS products such as the mapping of all county addresses and street names, detailed information about every lot of land in the county, aerial imagery and LiDAR (pulsed light surveying) information, and data linking the emergency telephone 911 system to the location of incoming calls.
Many working professionals such as Realtors, title lawyers, land use planners, insurers, firefighters and law enforcement personnel, routinely use the Montgomery County GIS. Homeowners can see exact maps of their property, its sales history, and assessment and tax information.
If you are a county resident unfamiliar with the portal, you might find it enlightening to study it.
Anyone using the Montgomery County Geographic Information System, is many years and many miles away from Sarum and Domesday book, yet remains connected to them. History is amazing.