Archaeologists reveal lost medieval palace beneath prehistoric fortress at Old Sarum

Archaeologists reveal lost medieval palace beneath prehistoric fortress at Old Sarum


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The archaeological site of Old Sarum located in Wiltshire, England, has a rich history stretching back at least five thousand years. But it was William the Conqueror’s selection of the site for his royal castle in the 11 th century that left the greatest mark on this historic landmark. Now geophysical surveys have revealed that what lies beneath the surface may actually be one of the largest medieval royal palaces ever found, built within the grounds of a vast Iron Age fortress, and hidden beneath fields for more than 700 years.

An aerial photograph of the site of Old Sarum. The newly discovered probable royal palace is under the grass in the quadrant opposite the foundations of the cathedral. The massive earthworks surrounding the site are from the Iron Age. The earthwork in the centre is the medieval castle mound (English Heritage)

According to a report in The Independent , the high-tech scans carried out by archaeologists from the University of Southampton, including magnetometry, earth resistance, ground penetrating radar, and electric resistivity tomography survey, have revealed the foundations of dozens of houses and an enormous, previously unknown complex, measuring 170 ms (558 ft) long and 65 m (214 ft) wide, which is believed to have been a royal palace.

“The prime candidate for constructing it is perhaps Henry I sometime in the early 12th century,” said one of Britain’s leading experts on high status medieval buildings, Dr Edward Impey, Director-General of the Royal Armouries.

The complex was arranged around a large courtyard with 3 m (10 ft) wide walls, and included a long building, which was probably a grand hall. There is also evidence of towers and multi-storey buildings. If it is indeed a medieval royal palace, it is the largest of its kind ever found in Britain. Up until now, archaeologists were only aware of the much smaller complex on top of the man-made castle mound.

A geophysical 'x-ray' image showing the structures which have lain buried in the ground of Old Sarum for more than 700 years (Environment Agency/University of Southampton 2014)

Old Sarum was originally an Iron Age hill fort, built in 400 BC on a site that had been inhabited since at least 3,000 BC. The site was used by the Romans, becoming the town of Sorviodunum. The Saxons also used the site as a stronghold against marauding Vikings.

In the 11 th century, William the Conqueror, having gained control of England, chose Sarum as the location for a royal castle. The fact that it lay inside a large hill fort meant that defenses could be constructed very quickly. The castle was built on a motte (raised earthworks) protected by a deep dry moat in 1069, three years after the Norman conquest. The construction of a cathedral and bishop's palace occurred between 1075 and 1092. A royal palace was then built within the castle for King Henry I and subsequently used by Plantagenet monarchs.

Reconstruction of Old Sarum in 12 th Century. The model includes the previously known castle of William the Conqueror in the center, and the cathedral, but does not show the newly discovered palace. ( Wikimedia Commons )

By 1219, the limitations of space on the hilltop site had become cause for concern, with the cathedral and castle in close proximity and their respective chiefs in regular conflict. The abandonment of Old Sarum by the clergy during the 1220s marked the end of serious royal interest in the castle. The castle continued in use, but was largely abandoned by the 16th century.

The new research has enabled archaeologists to piece together the layout of the old Medieval city, shedding new light on the urban planning of a Norman city. “This is a discovery of immense importance,” said historian, Professor David Bates of the University of East Anglia. “It reveals the monumental scale of building work taking place in the earlier 12th century.” While the significance of Old Sarum has been known about for some time, only now are archaeologists beginning to piece together the long-vanished city buried beneath the green fields that thousands of tourists visit every year.

Featured image: An artist's impression of the barons and lords of England swearing loyalty to William the Conqueror at Old Sarum in 1086. Credit: English Heritage .


Old Sarum Castle

Old Sarum Castle, formerly known as Seresberi Castle, is an 11th century motte-and-bailey castle built in Old Sarum, Wiltshire. It was originally built in timber and it was eventually built in stone, of which the ruins can be seen today. Only the mound and foundations of the castle survive today. The castle is owned by the English Heritage and it is open to the public, [1] along with the rest of Old Sarum.

In 1069, after recognising the defensive qualities of Seresberi, now known as Old Sarum, William the Conqueror built a motte-and-bailey castle within an older Iron Age hillfort known as Sorviodunum, constructed around 400 BC. [2] The courtyard was added around 1100 by Bishop Roger [3] and he also began work on a royal palace during the 1130s, prior to his arrest by Henry's successor Stephen. [4] and directed the royal administration and exchequer along with his extended family. [5] This palace was long thought to have been the small structure whose ruins are located in the small central bailey it may, however, have been the large palace recently discovered in the southeast quadrant of the outer bailey. [6] This palace was 170 m × 65 m (560 ft × 210 ft), surrounded a large central courtyard, and had walls up to 3 m (10 ft) thick. A 60-metre-long (200 ft) room was probably a great hall and there seems to have been a large tower. [6] At the time of Roger's arrest by King Stephen , the bishop administered the castle on the king's behalf [7] it was thereafter allowed to fall into disrepair but the sheriff and castellan continued to administer the area under the king's authority. [8]

In 1171, King Henry II ordered that improvements are made to Old Sarum (which last until 1189), including a new gatehouse, drawbridge, inner bailey walls and a treasury constructed within the keep of the castle. [7] In addition to this work refurbishment of the quarters for Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine are completed for the period of her house arrest at Old Sarum, which would last also until 1189. Following continued repairs and maintenance, a new hall, kitchen and bakehouse are built for the sheriff starting from 1201 and ending before 1215. [7] After most of the population of Old Sarum had relocated to Salisbury by 1220, the castle became unused and was in ruins by 1240 but it was eventually repaired, only to be demolished by King Edward III in 1322. [1]

Edward III eventually ordered £700 to be spent on repairs and maintenance of the castle within Old Sarum around 1350, but the additional £600 required to repair the keep was never spent and the state of the castle started to deteriorate over time. [7] The castle grounds were sold by Henry VIII in 1514. [9] [10]

The site of the castle and cathedral ruins at Old Sarum are considered a highly important British monument: it was among the 26 English locations scheduled by the 1882 Ancient Monuments Protection Act, [11] the first such British legislation. That protection has subsequently continued, expanding to include some suburban areas west and south-east of the outer bailey. [12] It was also listed as a Grade I site in 1972. [1] Old Sarum Castle, along with the cathedral ruins, is now administered by English Heritage. Its paved carpark and grass overflow carpark are located in the eastern area of the outer bailey.


Bustling prehistoric city which became Iron Age hillfort had circular route, was heavily built up during Middle Ages

Massive defensive buildings, residential areas along an inner ditch, industrial kilns and furnaces and evidence of quarrying have been found at Old Sarum, a mysterious medieval city in Salisbury built during the Iron Age and used as a fortification for 300 years before disappearing during the 13th century.

No plan has ever been made of the city, which has origins around the time of the Roman conquest. But archaeologists have used modern technology to subtly plot its layout and buildings, revealing that a circular route would have provided access around a “thriving” site.

“Our research so far has shown how the entire outer bailey of the monument was heavily built up in the Middle Ages, representing a substantial urban centre,” says Kristian Strutt, who is part of a team from the University of Southampton with designs on continuing their investigations next year following a productive summer of discoveries.

“Results have given us compelling evidence as to the nature of some of the structures. It is clear, however, that there is more non-intrusive work that could be carried out to further expand our understanding of the site.”

Heather Sebire, a Property Curator at English Heritage, which owns Old Sarum and invited the archaeologists to explore, describes the initial findings as a “great start” to an intriguing story.

“Having the team of archaeologists on site over the summer gave our visitors a chance to find out more about how important historic landscapes are surveyed,” she says.

“From this work we can surmise much about the site’s past.

“While we can’t conclusively date the findings, it adds a new layer to Old Sarum’s story.”

Magnets, earth resistance, electric tomography and radar systems were used during the survey, which repeated techniques used effectively at landmarks including Bishop’s Waltham Abbey and Bodiam Castle.


Prehistoric ⟬o-house' 1,300 years older than Stonehenge discovered by archaeologists

Archaeologists have discovered the oldest prehistoric building ever found in the Stonehenge landscape – but fear a new road tunnel could severely damage the site.

Dating from around 6,300 years ago – at least 1,300 years before Stonehenge – it was built immediately adjacent to a sacred Stone Age spring.

Academics have dubbed it an “eco” house because the base of a fallen tree was used as one of the walls.

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The building is important as it appears to have been constructed by indigenous Mesolithic hunter-gatherers at the time when the very first semi-agricultural European-originating Neolithic settlers were arriving in the area.

The tools found in the building are Mesolithic (ie, pre-Neolithic) – but the period they date from is the dawn of the early Neolithic. Archaeological discoveries are revealing that, within just a few generations, the population at the site had adopted Neolithic tool-making traditions – or alternatively had been physically displaced by Neolithic settlers.

The potentially semi-permanent nature of the newly discovered house is suggested by the deep post-holes used to construct it and by a large cobbled area (covering at least 90 square metres – and including a pathway), immediately adjacent to it.

The cobbled path led down to a spring which Mesolithic people used as a place for making ritual offerings.

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So far, archaeologists at the site, just over a mile east of Stonehenge, have found tens of thousands of objects placed by these Stone Age people in the spring – including more than 20,000 flint tools, a large sandstone animal skin smoother, a slate arrow head from Cornwall or Wales, pieces of burnt flint and more than 2,400 animal bones .

Archaeologists are now worried that the Government’s plan to improve the Stonehenge landscape by putting the A303 in a cutting and tunnel, will change the local water level and thus destroy or severely damage the spring and any important and potentially unique water-logged archaeological remains.

“I am very concerned that any reduction in the groundwater level at the spring site and elsewhere in the Avon valley might potentially be a threat to archaeologically important waterlogged organic artefacts and ancient environmental evidence,” said University of Buckingham archaeologist David Jacques, directing the excavation.


Archaeologists reveal layout of medieval city at Old Sarum

A research team of students and academics carried out a geophysical survey of the ancient monument, scanning ground at the site with state-of-the-art equipment to map the remains of buried structures. They concentrated their survey around the inner and outer baileys of what was once a fortification, with its origins in the Iron Age and the Roman conquest.

Their investigations reveal the layout of a settlement including structures from the late 11th century, contemporary with the construction of a cathedral and castle. The city was inhabited for over 300 years, but declined in the 13th century with the rise of New Sarum (Salisbury).

The project findings mainly concentrate on the medieval period and highlight:

• A series of massive structures along the southern edge of the outer bailey defensive wall, perhaps suggesting large buildings of a defensive nature.

• An open area of ground behind these large structures, perhaps for mustering resources or people, or as part of a circular route through the city.

• Residential areas in the south east and south west quadrants of the outer bailey alongside the inner bailey ditch.

• Evidence of deposits indicating industrial features, such as kilns or furnaces.

• Features suggesting quarrying at the site after the 1300s and following the city’s decline – indicating a later period of habitation at the site.

Archaeologist Kristian Strutt, Experimental Officer and Director of Archaeological Prospection Services at the University of Southampton, says: “Archaeologists and historians have known for centuries that there was a medieval city at Old Sarum, but until now there has been no proper plan of the site.

“Our survey shows where individual buildings are located and from this we can piece together a detailed picture of the urban plan within the city walls.”

The research was conducted as part of the Old Sarum and Stratford-Sub-Castle Archaeological Survey Project, directed by Kristian Strutt and fellow Southampton archaeologists Timothy Sly and Dominic Barker. Old Sarum is under the custodianship of English Heritage, who kindly granted permission for the investigation to take place.

Heather Sebire, Property Curator at English Heritage, comments: “Having the team of archaeologists on site over the summer gave our visitors a chance to find out more about how important historic landscapes are surveyed. The use of modern, non-invasive surveying is a great start to further research at Old Sarum.

“From this work we can surmise much about the site’s past and, whilst we can’t conclusively date the findings, it adds a new layer to Old Sarum’s story. We welcome the chance to find out more about our sites, and look forward to exploring ideas for further research in the future.”

The team used a variety of techniques to examine the outer and inner bailey of the site. These included the use of topographic survey methods and geophysical survey techniques – comprising of magnetometry, earth resistance, ground penetrating radar (GPR) and electric resistivity tomography (ERT) survey.

Kristian Strutt concludes: “Our research so far has shown how the entire outer bailey of the monument was heavily built up in the Middle Ages, representing a substantial urban centre. Results have given us compelling evidence as to the nature of some of the structures. It is clear, however, that there is more non-intrusive work that could be carried out to further expand our understanding of the site.”

The team hopes to return to complete the survey of the inner and outer baileys and survey the Romano-British settlement to the south of Old Sarum in Easter 2015. The project fieldwork in 2014 was used as a training season for undergraduate and postgraduate archaeology students at the University, continuing a long tradition of research-led teaching at some of the most impressive archaeological sites in the south of England. Previous fieldwork has been conducted by students at Portchester Castle, Netley Abbey and Bishop’s Waltham Palace in Hampshire, and at Bodiam Castle in East Sussex.


Finding the Hidden Palace of Otford

In the article “The Lost Palace of Henry The VIII” Diarmaid Walshe tells the story of the Lost Palace of Henry VIII up to the death of Archbishop Warham in 1532.

This article takes us onwards through the gradual deterioration of the buildings over the following four centuries to the start of its rebirth as a site of significant historical interest and an interpretation centre for the history of Otford and the Darent Valley.

Thomas Cranmer succeeded Warham as Archbishop in 1553 and began his work on the English Book of Common Prayer the following year. It is tempting to claim that the book was written in the North-West Tower but perhaps the reality is that some of it was written (or revised) while he was resident in the Palace!

Henry VIII acquired Otford Palace in the course of the English Reformation and in 1537 it became a Royal Palace with the title The Honour of Otford. Although Henry spent some money on it, it was not enough and the fabric deteriorated. Cardinal Reginald Pole, the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury lived there from 1553-1558 – the last of 56 Archbishops of Canterbury to occupy the Palace.

Elizabeth I was not very interested in Otford, and over the years it fell into disrepair. In 1761, the North East Tower of the Palace was demolished and the stonework carried to Knole, Sevenoaks, where it was used to build Knole Folly which lies to the South-East of Knole House. Over the years it was used as a farm with the remaining part of the North Range turned into a cattle shed. (The cottages between the Tower and the Gatehouse, were a Victorian conversion).

It was listed as a scheduled monument in 1928, and in 1935 the site and the buildings were transferred to Sevenoaks Rural District Council (now Sevenoaks District Council – SDC). In the early 1960’s some extensive repair work was carried out. Unfortunately, the builders used cement instead of traditional mortar and we are still suffering the consequences of this error. After this, the site remained untouched until 2015 when further repair works were needed to replace decaying masonry, remove the cement mortar – and put a roof on the Tower.

In 1973 work started to build four houses on Bubblestone Road on the South East corner of the Palace site, and then a sharp-eyed individual noticed old foundations on the building site. The area (now included within the scheduled monument) was excavated and this revealed the remains of the South East Palace Tower as well as underlying structures – Romano-British remains, the 12th and 13th Century Manor House, and the 14th Century Manor House. The Palace has a very long history.

For many years the Palace has been an iconic symbol of Otford and there have been discussions on what might be done to preserve it as a community asset. In the spirit of carpe diem the Archbishop’s Palace Conservation Trust was formed as a charity in 2017 with the objectives of:

1 – Subject to the assent of Historic England and with the agreement of Sevenoaks District Council, to have the freedom to maintain and develop the Palace buildings and their grounds.

2- To assemble the talents, finance and management skills required to build and manage a self-sustaining centre for the dissemination of knowledge about our Tudor and our Valley’s heritage.

3 – To develop a lasting heritage landmark within the Sevenoaks region.

Two years later the Trust was granted a 99-year lease by SDC. The good news was that we had the lease: the bad news was that we now had to raise a significant sum of money and achieve our objectives!

In summary, the plan is to conserve the North-West Tower, reinstate the missing floors and the spiral staircase and add a small atrium on the Southside of the Tower as an entrance and shop. The ground floor will be a museum and interpretation centre, the first floor will be used as an exhibition space and the top floor will be a library and archive. The Gatehouse will, in time, become a secure study centre for school parties and other visiting groups. You can find out more from the Trust’s business plan which can be downloaded from the website at otfordpalace.org.

However, the best-laid plans can be disrupted by global pandemics and an early consequence of the lock-down was that the major funding agencies put their programmes on hold (except for emergency funding for those already in receipt of grants. We now have an enforced twelve-month delay on the building programme and it is unlikely that the work will be completed before the end of 2024. But what is another year in the 1200-year history of the Palace?

Yet the lock-down has had some benefits. It has enabled us to make progress with the planned merger of the Trust and the Otford Heritage Centre which will give the Centre a purpose-built home in the North-West Tower and also enable us to work towards ‘accredited museum’ status.

Diarmaid Walshe drew the obvious parallels between Otford Palace and Hampton Court. Unlike Hampton Court. Relatively little of Otford Palace remains above ground, and this present us with challenges for interpretation. How can we show visitors what the site and buildings would have looked like 500 years ago? One solution is the scale model built by Rod Shelton, but we are also looking at the technologies of augmented reality and photogrammetry to build virtual 3D models for visitors to explore.

There is far more that could be said about the history of the Otford’s Palace and our plans for the future than is possible in a short article. The story continues…

Written by Nick Rushby

Nick’s background is as a consultant in the field of learning technology and he is currently a visiting professor at the Federal University of Kazan (about 800km to the East of Moscow) where he specialises in helping staff and students in research and scholarly publication.

He became interested in the Archbishop’s Palace when he moved to Otford a little over seven years ago, and, with others, formed a group whose aim was to conserve the site and buildings for the community as an interpretation centre and museum. He was one of the founding trustees of the Archbishop’s Palace Conservation Trust.

He makes no claim to be a historian or archaeologist his knowledge of Tudor history and architecture is the result of a crash course over the past five years! However, he is a passionate advocate for Otford’s Hidden Palace with a commitment to seeing its future as a centre for the interpretation of the history of the Darent Valley.

The Archbishop’s Palace Conservation Trust

Archbishop’s Palace Conservation Trust was formed as a CIO in 2017 with the objectives of:

1 – Subject to the assent of Historic England and with the agreement of Sevenoaks District Council, to have the freedom to maintain and develop the Palace buildings and their grounds.

2 – To assemble the talents, finance and management skills required to build and manage a self-sustaining centre for the dissemination of knowledge about our Tudor and our Valley’s heritage.

3 – To develop a lasting heritage landmark within the Sevenoaks region.

Its aim is to conserve the Archbishop’s Palace and create an interpretation centre and museum for Otford and the Darent Valley. Further details are available at otfordpalace.org.

Header Image – View from southwest of remains of the Tudor northern range from an 18 th C engraving by I Bayly – © Archbishop’s Palace Conservation Trust


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1 July - 31 August 2014
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Irish history, folklore and all that

Wednesday 03 December 2014

The probable 12th century palace was discovered by archaeologists, using geophysical ground-penetrating ‘x-ray’ technology to map a long-vanished medieval city which has lain under grass on the site for more than 700 years.

Located inside the massive earthwork defences of an Iron Age hill fort at Old Sarum in Wiltshire, the medieval city was largely founded by William the Conqueror who made it the venue for one of Norman England’s most important political events – a gathering of the country’s nobility at which all England’s mainly Norman barons and lords swore loyalty to William.

An aerial photograph of the site. The newly discovered probable royal palace is under the grass in the quadrant opposite the foundations of the cathedral. The massive earthworks surrounding the site are from the Iron Age. The earthwork in the centre is the medieval castle mound (English Heritage)

The Old Sarum geophysical survey is being carried out by archaeologists from the University of Southampton – and is giving scholars an unprecedented and unique opportunity to more fully understand Norman town planning.

So far they have been able to reveal the buried foundations of literally dozens of ordinary houses – and a vast mystery complex that is likely to have been a huge royal palace.

The 170 metre long, 65 metre wide complex, arranged around a large courtyard, had walls up to 3 metres thick – and included a 60 metre long probable great hall, what appears to have been a substantial tower and multi-story buildings with upper floors almost certainly supported by substantial columns.

“The location, design and size of the courtyarded complex strongly suggests that it was a palace, probably a royal one. The prime candidate for constructing it is perhaps Henry I sometime in the early 12th century,” said one of Britain’s leading experts on high status medieval buildings, Dr Edward Impey, Director-General of the Royal Armouries.

A geophysical ‘x-ray’ image showing the structures which have lain buried in the ground for more than 700 years (Environment Agency/University of Southampton 2014)

It is the first time that archaeologists in Britain have ever found what is probably a previously unknown medieval royal palace of that size. Up until now historians have thought that the only royal residence at the site was a much smaller complex on top of a man-made castle mound.

“This is a discovery of immense importance. It reveals the monumental scale of building work taking place in the earlier 12th century,” said historian, Professor David Bates of the University of East Anglia, a leading authority on Norman England and author of the key modern study of the Norman world – The Normans and Empire.

Because the city was largely abandoned up to 140 years after most of it had been built, and because it has remained a green field site ever since, it is giving academics a unique opportunity to study a Norman city.

The construction of the Norman city of Old Sarum – including a spectacular cathedral – was symbolic of a large-scale monumental building trend which was taking place around the country in the late 11th century. Bury St Edmunds, Norwich and Lincoln were all being massively expanded – and cathedrals were being built in Westminster, Winchester, Gloucester and York. In London the White Tower of the Tower of London was being constructed.

However, by the early 13th century, the political and diocesan centre at Old Sarum was proving too cramped and exposed to the elements – and was therefore moved, lock, stock and barrel, to a totally new location, Salisbury, two and a half miles to the south. Even the masonry of the great Norman cathedral and other structures were transported and re-used to construct a new cathedral and other buildings in the newly established city of Salisbury.

All that remained of Old Sarum, politically, was its right to send two MPs to Parliament – until, that is, the rotten boroughs were abolished with the passing of the Reform Act of 1832. Today the site, including the medieval castle and the visible foundations of the Norman cathedral, is in the care of English Heritage.

Only now is geophysical survey work beginning to re-discover the long-vanished city – and what appears to have been its truly massive royal palace.


Archaeologists to look for lost Bishop’s palace in Ancrum

The field of Mantle Walls, immediately east of the village, has long been suspected as the site of a major medieval building.

Local traditions from at least the 18th century suggest that the then ruined building was a stronghold of the crusading Knights of Malta or that it was a Bishop’s Palace.

Since 2010, a story has steadily been emerging that Mantle Walls is in fact the probable site of a Bishop’s house or palace dating from the 12th or 13th centuries.

The medieval Bishopric of Glasgow extended at this time as far as Ancrum, and one of Glasgow’s Bishops – Bishop de Bondington who was responsible for building Glasgow Cathedral – actually died in the village after dictating his last writ to the Pope. Ancrum, it seems, was at the very centre of medieval religion and politics until the Wars of Independence.

SBC’s Archaeology Officer Dr Chris Bowles was contacted by a member of the public in 2010 who was concerned about possible illegal metal detecting at Mantle Walls.

In light of the threats to the site, Dr Bowles proposed a research project to investigate its history and determine what, if anything, survived of the supposed medieval building.

After gaining the support of Historic Scotland, Treasure Trove Scotland and the National Museums of Scotland, the project got underway in November 2011 with a geophysical survey.

Project’s second phase 1 – 5 October

Professional archaeologists, along with help from residents in Ancrum, will be conducting a further evaluation of the site. This will consist of small excavation trenches to test the results of the geophysics.

It is hoped that this will further reveal features and strong dating evidence that will prove this to be a medieval site of regional and possibly national importance. Daily site tours are planned for the public at 4pm between Monday and Thursday.

SBC’s Archaeology Officer Chris Bowles said: “From the geophysics results we obtained last year, Mantle Walls looks to be an extraordinary site. I am very hopeful that we can not only show that this is an important medieval site but that the added awareness will bring some measure of protection against illegal metal detecting.

“Metal Detecting is a fantastic way to interact with the past and find new evidence for it, and on the whole I encourage it. But metal detectorists have a responsibility under the Law of Treasure Trove to contact Treasure Trove Scotland about their discoveries. If they hand them in, on most occasions the objects are studied and sent back. Where they are seen to be of some importance the items are bought by museums at market value from the finders. This way, we are both learning important things about our past and preserving objects for future generations.”

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Watch the video: Old Sarum the movie


Comments:

  1. Hakan

    And what that to say here?

  2. Weatherby

    Tough :) We must use this post for personal gain. Necessarily!

  3. Muk

    Bravo, brilliant phrase and timely

  4. Yojin

    Quite, yes



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