The best of Dorset in words and pictures

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.

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

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

The 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

The stained glass

roundel in the modern shrine to St Edward is

by Rupert Moore

The modern museum

is full of striking displays of finds and other

history associated

with 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

‘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.

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’.

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.’

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.

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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