|Shaftesbury is on the Dorset border and
28 miles northeast of Dorchester. The town is on ahill with a
steep ascent and one of the most famous pictures of this is the one of
Golden Hill which has featured in the Hovis adverts.
St Peters parish covers the main part of
the town, St James the lower part which has mainy small tenements and
Holy Trinity is to the south and west And under the Local Government Act
of 1894 large pieces of these three parishes were made into the Borough
of Shaftesbury and the church of Holy Trinity which is in Bimport Street
was completely rebuilt on its old site in 1842.
The town stands on a ridge of sandstone 700ft
above sea level and is the only hilltop town in the county. To those
people living in England, the old Hovis bread advert of the steep
cobbled street will be remembered, this was in fact Gold Hill in
Shaftesbury. Gold hill is steep and the road is curved and cobbled
and has some lovely stone cottages on one side and on the other is a
buttressed wall from medieval times, the climb to the top though is
worth it as here can be seen some breathtaking views.
On the top is perched the Church of St Peter which is
15th century though it has later additions to it, 18th century panelling
and an iron poor box from the 17th century. Next to it is the Town Hall
that was built in the 1820s and this has been built in semi-Tudor style.
Park Walk is reached by a small passage way and here can be seen what is
left of a Benedictine Abbey that was built for nuns around 888AD by King
Alfred. His daughter Aethelgifa was its first abbess and it is thought
that she had around a hundred nuns in her care.
Around 963 -78AD,Edward the Martry the
assassinated boy king was buried in this abbey and his tomb is visited
by thousands of pilgrims who believe it has healing powers. During the
late 1530s when the abbey was disillusioned his relics were
believed lost but excavations during the 1930s unearthed a box made of
lead that was found to hold the bones of a boy in his teens, and these
were believed to be the mortal remains of the king. To commemorate him a
small shrine has been built here.
Just below the ruins of the abbey is the parish of
St James, named after the church of the same name that was built at the
end of the 1869s and cost £3,350. St James Street with its terraces of
stone cottages is nearby and this enters into St Andrew's Pump Yard
where an ancient pump still stands.
Shaftesbury has not only elegant town houses but
also some rather attractive thatched cottages, most of these are on Gold
Hill and also in Bell Street, St James Street and Angel Lane.
Between Magdalene Lane and Abbey walk is the
Westminster Memorial Hospital built in the 1870s in commemoration of
Richard 3rd Marquis of Westminster who owned land in the area.
The town also has to rather unique historical
attractions, the Byzant and elaborately carved Chevy Chase sideboard.
The former is a strange ornamental relic that the people of the town
carried when paying an annual courtesy visit down the hill to the lord
of the manor of Gillingham. Water fro the town came from springs at
Enmore Green which is in the borough of Gillingham. It was decorated
with flowers, feathers and ribbons and also jewellery worth around £200.
The ceremony however stopped in 1839 and the Byzant is now in the town
The Chevy Chase sideboard was in the Grosvenor
Hotel and this was made to celebrate the Battle of Chevy Chase which was
fought in 1388 at Otterburn Northumberland .
A NOTE ON THE EARLY HISTORY OF SHAFTESBURY
The greatest glory of this town are the views over the vales. It is
doubtful if any town in England can show such views and no one should
miss them. Starting from the Town Hall in the High Street, follow the
little passage near the garage and there you are on what is called The
Park and catch your breath. The abbey is
on your right and after you have seen it just follow the direction signs
round the headland till you come out again at the top of Tout Hill and
so once more to the Commons and the shops.
That sets the present day scene and a visit to the
Museum takes one back to scenes of the past. Shaftesbury, or
Shaston as it was once called is the only promontory borough in England
and being 700ft. above sea level is one of the highest boroughs of any
sort. There is no real proof of there being any settlement here before
our greatest monarch, the Saxon
Alfred the Great built one of his three abbeys here on this greensand
promontory. It seems impossible that a permanent settlement could ever
have taken root where no water has ever yet been found.
The abbey and the usual Saxon slums which grew up around it for mutual
service had good natural defences to the north, south and west, but to
complete them on the east a great ditch was dug to connect the top of
the two gullies known as Gold Hill and Tout Hill and thus cut off the
abbey and town from invasion. Later, and when times got safer the town
spread eastwards outside this ditch and over the 'common-lands' the
remains of which still remain as a small triangle known as 'The Commons'
outside the Grosvenor Hotel. Abbeys were not only religious
establishments. They too had to live and were also commercial and
industrial in their interests, and water for tanning and brewing and
laundry and for 'stew ponds' (fish ponds for Friday and all that) was
available in this case round
the base of the hill in St. James's and Enmore Green and there good
wells still exist. There is a tale told that when the drunkenness of the
Shaftesbury folk was complained of the Burgess's of the town made excuse
that having no water they had to drink beer; but one tale is good until
another is told. At the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, the
townspeople came in and used the abbey as a quarry, in the customary way
of those days, and set about using the material to improve their
habitations here and in the two villages below.
It seems likely that Bimport (derived from a Saxon word meaning the
inside road) continued in those days eastward along the line of Bell
Street to Wilton, the next important town and so to Old Sarum in the
days before Salisbury was founded, and was later replaced as a high
street by the present High Street.
EARLY HISTORICAL NOTES
Excavations undertaken by the Shaftesbury and District Historical
Society have proved the existence of primitive man in this area, as may
be seen from exhibits preserved in the Local Museum at the top of Gold
Hill; but (notwithstanding the tradition that here was the site of the
legendary Caer Palladwr of Celtic times!) there is no proof of settled
habitation on the promontory before the Saxon era.
The name 'Shaftesbury'—the town on the point of a hill or cliff— is of
Saxon origin, and the recorded history of Shaftesbury begins A.D. 880.
In this year Alfred King of the West Saxons fortified the promontory
against the Danish invaders, probably by means of an earth wall and
wooden palisade stretching from Tout Hill to Gold Hill.
Shaftesbury Carnival marching through Salisbury Street, date
photo courtesy Karen Satterthwaite, Western Australia
Inside this wall he built an abbey for a community of Benedictine nuns,
over whom his daughter Ethelriva ruled as the first abbess. Thus began
the strong connection between the Saxons monarchy and the abbey which
was to exert so spectacular an influence on the history of Shaftesbury.
In 979 the body of the murdered King Edward the Martyr was brought to
the Abbey Church for burial;
and the miracles worked at his tomb made Shaftesbury one of the most
famous places of pilgrimage in the land. The throngs of pilgrims brought
wealth and prosperity to the Abbey. Among them was King Canute who died
there in 1035, though his body was taken to Winchester for burial.
Visitors to the site of the
Abbey Ruins will see the ground plan of the great Abbey Church and
can trace its development from Saxon times to its final magnificent
proportions. From the top of Gold Hill they will also see the mediaeval
Abbey Walls with their supporting buttresses.
Within these walls the abbess ruled supreme, and in the world outside
her power was that of the great feudal landowner, for the Abbey was
unusually rich in grants of land. Her steward presided over her manorial
Courts. And she owed to the King the allegiance due from a baron with
the corresponding right to be summoned to Parliament.
The dissolution and destruction of the Abbey under Henry VIII was a
calamity which threatened to overwhelm the entire district, for the
fortunes of the Abbey were inseparably bound up with those of the town
which had grown up at its gates.
As early as the Domesday Survey, Shaftesbury was recorded as a 'borough'
assessed as 20 hides (twice as large and important as Dorchester, and
four times as great as Exeter).
From the days of Athelstan the King's silver pennies had been minted
here, and in the reign of Edward the Confessor there were no less than
three 'moneyers' in the town. A local 'hoard' of Saxon coins may be seen
in the Museum.
The great fairs, held in June at the Feast of St. Edward the Martyr and
at Martinmas, and the more frequent markets, brought wealth and
prosperity to Shaftesbury. Pilgrims, merchants with their trains of
mules and packhorses, and crowds intent on a mixture of piety and
merry-making, would crowd and jostle up the precipitous cobbled tracks,
Tout Hill and Gold Hill, which still exist virtually
unchanged to the south and west of the town.
As Shaftesbury prospered its civic life developed. The Office of Mayor
of the Borough of Shaftesbury dates back to the middle of the 14th
century, and one of the borough maces still in use was used here in the
reign of Edward IV.
The burgesses met in the ancient Guild Hall 'against the Abbey wall' at
the top of Gold Hill; but in 1567 this was superseded by the 'new' Guild
Hall which stood in the middle of the present High Street opposite St.
Peter's Church (which alone remains of Shaftesbury's eleven mediaeval
churches). The new Guild Hall was
demolished in 1822 to enable the Turnpike Commissioners to widen the
road, and in 1827 the present Town Hall was built by Earl Grosvenor and
presented to the town.
The new manorial lords (Arundel, Wrothesleys and Pembrokes) who
successfully held the manor of Shaftesbury after the dissolution,
seriously threatened the rights of the townsfolk, and the town was
impoverished by constant lawsuits. The two Charters of Incorporation on
view in the Town Hall
which are dated 1604 and 1665, are the result of
the town's appeal to the Crown in defence of its rights. By virtue of
the Charter of 1665, as modified by statute
law, the town is officially recognised as a borough governed by a mayor,
four aldermen and twelve councillors. In 1680, Anthony Ashley Cooper
became Lord of the Manor and took the title of Earl of Shaftesbury.
From the reign of Edward I, Shaftesbury had sent representatives to
Parliament. Two representatives regularly attended from the time of
Elizabeth until the Reform Bill of 1832. From this date the borough was
represented by one member only until 1885, when it was merged in the
County Constituency for Parliamentary purposes. The century preceding
the Reform Bill was a period of disputed elections, bribery and corrupt
practices. Would-be candidates bought up property in the town in order
to secure the votes of tenants; but these properties were re-united in
1800 and acquired, in 1829 by Earl Grosvenor, whose 'Wheatsheaf is still
prominently displayed in Shaftesbury, though private ownership has now
superseded the great estates of earlier days.