Statue of Alfred the Great at Shaftesbury Abbey
Alfred the Great founded a nunnery at what is now Shaftesbury Dorset in 888AD. Alfred chose a dramatic location at the top of a hill overlooking Blackmore Vale, and made his daughter Aethelgifu the first abbess. With such royal patronage, Shaftesbury Abbey quickly became an important place, and the town of Shaftesbury grew up around it. Alfred's grandson Athelstan had coinage made here.
Two generations later Shaftsbury Abbey was once again playing a central role in royal history. In 975 the reign of Anglo Saxon king Edgar the Peaceable came to an end, the throne being inherited by his son Edward. Only three years later Edward would be murdered by his brother Ethelred. To try and put a favourable gloss on events, Ethelred encouraged the veneration of Edward's remains. Edward was buried at Shaftesbury Abbey, where his grave became a major shrine. Shaftesbury then remained an important royal and religious centre for many centuries. Elizabeth, wife of Robert the Bruce was detained at Shaftesbury Abbey between 1313 and 1314. In 1501 Catherine of Aragon stayed at the abbey on her way to London to marry Prince Arthur, elder brother of the future Henry VIII. Following Arthur's early death, Catherine was to be married to Henry. Famously this marriage ended in divorce. With the pope reluctant to grant a divorce, Henry swept away the Catholic Church in England in his effort to free himself to marry Anne Boleyn. Shaftesbury Abbey was destroyed as part of this process.
Memorial to Edward the Martyr at Shaftesbury Abbey
The last abbess surrendered the abbey to the Crown on 23rd March 1539. Shaftesbury was the last nunnery to close at the Dissolution. It was then destroyed. Today only low lying walls and foundations survive. There is a statue to commemorate Alfred, and the commemorative alter for Edward the Martyr. Interestingly an Anglo Saxon herb garden has been recreated. The nuns kept such gardens to supply herbs for cooking, and for medicinal purposes. Treatment of the sick was one of the nuns' roles. No original Anglo Saxon gardens survive, so recreations such as this one, and a garden at Winchester are our only way of experiencing a garden of this period.
In 1931 a lead casket containing the bones of a young man dated to the period of Edward the Martyr was discovered during excavations of the abbey. Controversially the remains were bought by a Russian Orthodox brotherhood near Woking, where they now remain. Nevertheless a memorial alter dedicated to Edward has been built at Shaftesbury Abbey.
A visitors' centre has displays describing the history of the abbey, and the life of the women who lived there.
Address: Shaftesbury Abbey Museum and Garden, Park Walk, Shaftesbury, Dorset SP7 8JR
Directions: The abbey ruins are in the centre of Shaftesbury, which is just off the A30 in Dorset.
Opening Times: Please use contact details below.
Access: There is wheelchair access to all areas of the visitors' centre. Adapted toilet facilities are provided. The abbey remains themselves are set amongst mown grass.
telephone: 01747 852910
web site: http://www.shaftesburyabbey.org.uk/