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Just where is medieval Shaftesbury?

Joël Lacey wonders why so little remains of Shaftesbury built in the period of 1066 to the dissolution of the abbey

The massive buttressed walls on Gold Hill are perhaps the most visible remnant of medieval days in Shaftesbury


When asked to select a historical adjective with which to describe Shaftesbury, most would opt for ‘Saxon’, which is certainly descriptive of parts of it and because of the abbey and the period of the town’s foundation. Wandering around the Shastonian streets, though, one might wish to opt for Georgian to describe its architecture. What Shaftesbury certainly isn’t, owing to the railways only getting as close as Semley and Gillingham, is Victorian. Whilst other market towns were growing in double digit percentages as the railway arrived – Dorchester doubled in size – Shaftesbury’s population barely moved. Given the difficulty in bringing a railway to a town that is over 700 feet above sea level, the result of this technical problem is clear, when one considers how few Victorian homes there are in Shaftesbury, when compared to other Dorset towns.
There is another, perhaps less obvious, absence in terms of the town’s buildings – especially since the town can trace its existence back to around 880AD – and that is the scarcity of remaining construction or even artefacts from the near 500-year-long medieval period, from the conquest in 1066 to the Tudors in 1539.
In the time of Edward the Confessor, pre-conquest Shaftesbury was the largest of the four Dorset boroughs, with three moneyers and 257 houses. By 1086’s Domesday Book, though, there were just 177 houses. Such was the continuing effect of this reduction, that William of Malmesbury described Shaftesbury in 1125 as ‘a town no longer… only a village’.
King Alfred’s original fortified burh was centred to the west of the town today, around Bimport. Later building of a castle, still further west, was of medieval date, but this knowledge is as a result of recent archaeological excavation, not visible remains. This, along with the expansion of the abbey, could well have done for the Saxon town as materials were often ‘recycled’ rather than being quarried afresh.

Edwardstowe, the house nearest the camera, is the only wholly surviving medieval house left in Shaftesbury. It was built in what is thought to have originally been the Saxon Burh.

The most visible – indeed the only wholly remaining – medieval property is Edwardstow at the limit of Bimport as it becomes St John’s Hill. The other massive medieval contribution is, of course, the buttressed wall on Gold Hill, held to be part of the medieval abbey’s precinct enclosure.
The medieval shifting eastwards of Shaftesbury is far from unique; most towns grew eastwards with the poorest sections being the furthest eastwards. Why? The prevailing wind in England tends to be from the West, so the sophisticated noses of (in this case) nuns did not to have to deal with continuing whiff of the malodorous poor. There is also evidence to suggest that the town had a new centre of gravity, commercially at least, with the establishment of a market at the eastern side of the abbey.
As more prosperous traders ‘lived over the shop’, the merchants’ houses would have grown around this market. Churches for the not-so-great and the not-so-good, sprouted to match the growing population; the abbey having provided a priest to attend to the non-abbey crowd from the 1160s, and six churches appeared over a three-decade or so period.

When the church of St Peter was reconsecrated, this medieval pillar footing (slightly offset from its Tudor replacement) was given its own viewing window

Little visible remains of these late-12th-century and early-13th-century churches. How little is quite surprising. Beneath a trapdoor in St Peter’s church at the top of Gold Hill is a foundation for a medieval column, which is offset for the current supporting column by a couple of feet. The church also has two other medieval relics: a fireplace – of which more later – and a squint (a small arrow-slit style window) into the priest’s house, through which the priest could tell whether his flock had all assembled before he needed to make his entrance to perform his sacred duties at a service: the medieval equivalent of CCTV.
Continued growth meant that by the mid-13th century, there were a dozen churches, as well as the abbey. In 1252, Henry III ordered that his travelling judges should visit Shaftesbury, a travelling judicial caravan that also brought hangers-on and their attendant business to the town. There were other reasons for the town’s commercial success, though. Shaftesbury can be seen from as much as ten miles away and, as southern English market towns tend to be 10-20 miles apart, to be visible was the equivalent of billboard advertising. It was a significant stop on the east-west route for pilgrims, as well as nobility and their retinues. It was also almost equidistant between the very different agrarian economies of Wiltshire and Dorset, so the town prospered and, for nearly 550 years from 1295, it was represented by two MPs in the English and later British parliament.

The town hall replaced the Guild Hall which had been at the top of Gold Hill

As well as success leading to more success (in terms of the number of those attending the market as buyers and sellers) it was important that the market project a reputation for fair dealing. As well as the rents and ‘weights and measures’ fees, revenues came in from fines levied by somewhat rough and ready market courts – which went to the markets’ proprietors. These courts were known by the Old French name of ‘pied poudreux’ – dusty feet – anglicised by ordinary folk at the receiving end as ‘courts of pie powder’.
It seems odd now to think that, in the Middle Ages, England was ruled by kings whose court moved around the country; this was not so much to maintain a visible presence, but to solve the very real logistical problem of exhausting the food supply in any given place. Orders were sent by royal courier and some of these ‘requests’ still survive: on 11 November 1275, the Sheriff of Dorset was ordered to send 30 quarters of wheat to Shaftesbury to be there eight days before Christmas, an indication that Edward I (Hammer of the Scots and the founder of a permanent parliament) was planning to spend the Christmas of 1275 in Shaftesbury. The abbey was not just a medieval boutique hotel for royalty, it was also used as a prison for female diplomatic prisoners and a retirement home for royal servants. In 1312, Elizabeth, wife of Robert the Bruce of Scotland, and Margery, her step-daughter, were entertained as prisoners at Shaftesbury. The Abbey’s last crowned guest was Henry VII in 1491, its last royal visitor, Katharine of Aragon – the then bride-to-be of Prince Arthur, Henry VIII’s older brother and the eventual first wife of the man who would lead to the Abbey’s dissolution and Shaftesbury’s fading place on the national stage.

A medieval cross, which was once in the town, but now placed in the Abbey gardens

The relative power of monarch and abbess was not always as one might suspect. Abbesses who disputed financial and other rights with their Kings usually won. In 1293 the Abbess obtained the right of free warren in seven of her manors; rabbits had only been introduced a couple of decades before, and were considered a Royal delicacy.
Shaftesbury Abbey owned the manor of Kingston on Purbeck whose dangerous shore was on the then heavily-used sea route between Normandy and Wareham. In the 1260s, Luke de Tany, Constable of Corfe Castle, had claimed the right to wrecks, but in 1270 Henry III restored to the ‘Abbess and her successors the whole wreck at sea in their said manor without impediment’. The Abbey also owned the village of Arne, where more than 20 tenants worked salt pans; their dues to the Abbey being paid both in agricultural work and in salt making. Other tenants, as part of their obligation to the Abbey, had the job of carrying salt from Arne.
Despite the above facts, and the wealth implied by the oft-quoted saying that: ‘If the abbot of Glastonbury might marry the abbess of Shaftesbury, their heir would have more land than the King of England’, wealth was relative to need and by 1348, Shaftesbury, like England as a whole, had reached a point where the population was too great for the food produced.
Several wet summers reduced cereal crops while damp induced disease among the sheep, which were depended upon for their milk and meat as well as their profitable wool, causing most of the population to be weakened by under-nourishment. The Black Death certainly didn’t help matters. The difficulties of running the Abbey increased with the shortage of workmen and the Abbess was still having problems 30 years after the first wave of the disease when her ‘bondmen in Bradford, Co. Wilts refused their services’. Although no record exists of the number of townspeople who died there is some documentary information that gives us a feel for the scale of the disaster.
In four out of eight local parishes the resident priest died in 1348; in three others there is some evidence that he may have done. Even allowing for the additional risk a priest would run, in providing final rites to those soon to die, a 50%, let alone 87.5%, mortality rate is a dreadful death toll.

The Tudor Rose in the porch of St Peter's church is an ironic decoration, given Henry VIII's effect on Shaftesbury Abbey

It wasn’t all doom and gloom as a priest, though. Another medieval architectural survivor is the large fireplace under the south aisle of St. Peter’s, which is where the church’s ale was most likely brewed. Ale brewing was a very common occupation and to give an example of the scale of brewing activity, in 1471 no fewer than seventeen alehouses were fined – at a single court – for selling ale in ‘cups’ that were not of the standard measure, so there were no fewer than that many alehouses alone (inns which also rented rooms are not included in this) in Shaftesbury. In 1480 the Wardens of the Goods of St Peter’s church, the Wardens of the Fraternity of St Gregory and the Wardens of the Goods of St Clements, were all fined for the same offence. There may not be much left of medieval Shaftesbury now, but given the state that the clergy, let alone the builders, were probably in perhaps that’s not really a galloping surprise. ◗

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