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Wealth, a martyr’s bones and dissolution

The Abbey at Shaftesbury was once one of the richest religious houses in the country. Tony Burton-Page recounts its turbulent history.

Garden at the abbey at Shaftesbury
A view across the garden to the modern altar, designed to accommodate the bones of St Edward the Martyr if ever they should return to the Abbey

‘An Abbey at Shaftesbury? I didn’t know there was one!’ ‘It must be that church on the sky-line. I’ve seen it from Compton Abbas airfield.’ ‘You mean Shrewsbury Abbey – you’ve been reading too many Brother Cadfael books!’ ‘It doesn’t exist!’

These were some of the replies offered when I asked my friends what they knew about Shaftesbury Abbey. I was reminded of Thomas Hardy’s description of Shaftesbury in his novel, Jude the Obscure, as ‘the city of a dream': when Jude arrives at Shaston (Hardy-ese for Shaftesbury), Hardy comments that the ‘vague imaginings’ of its former architectural glories ‘throw the visitor, even against his will, into a pensive melancholy, which the stimulating atmosphere and limitless landscape around him can scarcely dispel’. This is late Hardy at his most cheerless.

Garden at the abbey at Shaftesbury
A Purbeck marble coffin in what was the South Aisle of the Abbey – possibly the resting-place of Abbess Juliana de Bauceyn (d. 1279)

But one of those ‘vague imaginings’ is Shaftesbury’s ‘magnificent apsidal abbey, the chief glory of South Wessex’, and Hardy, as a former architect himself, knew what he was talking about. He never saw it, though. That friend of mine who said it doesn’t exist was right: it was demolished almost immediately after its closure in 1539 when Henry VIII shut down all the monasteries and nunneries in his kingdom – the infamous ‘Dissolution’, which was his revenge on the Roman Catholic church. But an architect’s ‘vague imaginings’ are more reliable than those of a mere mortal and we should treat Hardy’s opinion with respect. I have much admiration for those who can visualise great buildings from a mere two-dimensional plan and this is all Hardy had. You can try it out for yourself: go to the site, walk around the foundations and picture yourself in a massive 12th-century abbey made of Chilmark stone. If you find this kind of visual imagination as hard as I do, despair not, for the Abbey Museum has installed a computer which takes you on a ‘virtual tour’.

Statue of King Alfred
AThe statue of King Alfred by Andrew Dumont stood at the entrance to King Alfred’s Middle School in Shaftesbury before it was closed by Dorset CC in 2004

But wait – we are twelve centuries ahead of ourselves. We need to go back to the days of King Alfred. On the back of his decisive victory over the Danish invaders at Edington in 878, Alfred, a devout Christian, decided to establish a monastery at Athelney and a nunnery at Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury was a well-fortified hilltop settlement – safe enough for him to install his teenage daughter, Aethelgifu, as its first abbess. Alfred made sure that his new abbey was well endowed, generously supplying it with large tracts of Dorset and Wiltshire – indeed, he gave it such a good start that Shaftesbury Abbey became the wealthiest religious house in the county; a popular medieval saying maintained that ‘if the Abbot of Glastonbury might marry the Abbess of Shaftesbury, their heir would have more land than the King of England’. As you leave the site today and look south, most of the land you can see – and you can see a long way – would have been Abbey land.

The Abbey’s fame was assured because it was the first religious house solely for women. Previously, monks and nuns had had to share a ‘double house’. But a hundred years later, fame became notoriety when the body of the murdered King Edward, a youth of about 17, was ceremoniously transferred from its resting place at Wareham to the Abbey at Shaftesbury. His murder at Corfe Castle was the sensation of its time; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claimed that ‘no deed worse than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain.’

Garden at the abbey at Shaftesbury
The stained glass roundel in the modern shrine to St Edward is by Rupert Moore

The blame for the murder has traditionally been apportioned to Edward’s stepmother, Aelfthryth, and although she has been the subject of special pleading over the years, she seems a plausible culprit: Edward’s father, King Edgar, had died suddenly, leaving Aelfthryth to look after his two heirs, Edward and Ethelred, only one of whom was her own son. With Edward out of the way, Ethelred became king, but as he was only seven, someone would have to act as Regent and the obvious candidate was Aelfthryth. The label ‘wicked stepmother’ seems to have been invented especially for her.

Edward’s body was hastily interred at Wareham and almost immediately, rumours of miracles began to spread. It was said that a spring of clear water broke out from beside the grave, and ‘many persons bathed their eyes in it to receive the benefit of restored sight.’ The news of the boy martyr’s miraculous powers spread and the following year his remains were removed to Shaftesbury and solemnly re-buried in the Abbey graveyard. This may well have been nothing more than a good public relations move by the authorities, as there had been widespread revulsion at a murder which was horrific even by 10th-century standards. According to the legend, however, his body was whole, incorrupt and without decay, so he was an obvious candidate for sainthood and canonisation followed in 1001.

He was now St Edward the Martyr, and the Abbey Church of St Mary added his name to its dedication. This was a young man described even by one of the more favourable reports as having ‘a quick and very violent temper; and childhood tantrums, far from being outgrown, had developed by the time he reached his teenage years into fits of black rage’. Yet his shrine soon became one of the most important places of pilgrimage in the country. King Canute, a Christian convert, decreed that St Edward’s feast-day should be observed throughout England, a decision which brought even more visitors – and their offerings – to Shaftesbury. Canute died at Shaftesbury while he was praying at St Edward’s shrine.

The Edward cult made the nunnery ever more prosperous, which was good for the town, too. Subsequent Saxon kings made further gifts of land to the Abbey; later, Henry III even granted it wrecking rights on the Purbeck coast. Its wealth increased with the dowries which accompanied novice nuns, some of whom came from highly reputable and well-born families.

So it was hardly surprising that Shaftesbury’s Abbey caught the eye of Henry VIII when he had his great quarrel with the Church of Rome; the Dissolution of 1539 was as much a financial move as a religious one. The Abbey’s lands were sold off and the building demolished. There is a legend – of course! – that the Abbey’s treasures were secreted away in some of Shaftesbury’s numerous tunnels, but the priest who had hidden them had a heart attack before he could tell anyone the exact location.

The Abbey then fades out of history; it was forgotten for many years. There were one or two desultory excavations before the Wiltshire Archaeological Society’s dig in 1861 revealed the crypt and some of the foundations. Interest increased over the next half-century and the site was sold to Mrs George Claridge and her son, John Wilson Claridge, who revealed more of the foundations. But it was their gardener who dug up a small lead box containing the bones of a young male. Who else could it be but St Edward?  The cynics smirked, but the carbon-dating agreed with the theory. At present the bones are revered as holy relics by a group of Russian Orthodox brothers at Brookwood Cemetery, although the connection between Edward the Bad-Tempered Martyr and the Orthodox faith is tenuous, to say the least. In 1995 a new altar was blessed in the Abbey in the hope that one day the bones will return to a more appropriate resting-place.

Garden at the abbey at Shaftesbury
The modern museum is full of striking displays of finds and other history associated with the Abbey

Shaftesbury Abbey today is represented by a superb museum built with funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund and opened in 1999 by the celebrity archaeologist, Julian Richards. There has been serious work on the site over the last decade – for instance, the 6000 floor tiles which were discovered have been catalogued by Elinor Murphy and Sheila Himmel over a period of eleven years. Two years ago, the museum launched its audio tour of the site – the entry fee includes the loan of a hand-held aural guide, which conducts the visitor round the Abbey foundations and through the Anglo-Saxon herb garden. Anna McDowell, chairman of the Abbey Museum Trust, encourages a fascinating mix of events on site, from performances of Shakespeare by actors from Stratford-on-Avon to outdoor showings of films. This year, she aims to have the museum registered with the Museums Association – the Premier League in the museum world. The Abbey Museum is now working closely with the town’s museum on Gold Hill, which is very fitting when you realise that the massive ramparts on Gold Hill are all that remain of the original wall that once surrounded Shaftesbury Abbey and kept the secular world at bay.

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