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Shaftesbury Abbey, Dorset

See also Shaftesbury

Shaftesbury Abbey ruins in garden by Barbara Ballard Shaftesbury was founded as a town c. AD 880 by King Alfred the Great. He had in mind a place that would serve as a safe haven for people living locally as well as provide a place of worship. With this in mind he founded Shaftesbury abbey in AD 888 strictly for nuns. The first abbess was his daughter, Aethelgifu. It is thought the abbey was built originally of stone as it is plentiful in the area. The abbey continued in existence until 1539 when Henry VIII dissolved all of the abbeys in Britain.

Shaftesbury Abbey effigy by Barbara Ballard Shaftesbury Abbey gargoyle by Barbara Ballard The wife of King Edmund, Elgiva, was buried in the abbey c. 944, and in 978 the presumed body of King Edward (murdered at Corfe castle by his step-mother) was brought to the abbey from Wareham. Edward was canonized in 1001, and his bones were said to have miraculous properties. From this time the abbey served as a place of pilgrimage.

Shaftesbury Abbey grave by Barbara Ballard The restoration of the Saxon buildings that took place in 1035 is credited to King Canute who favoured the abbey. Other famous people connected with the abbey were Elizabeth, the wife of Robert the Bruce, who was held prisoner in 1313 and Catherine of Aragon who married Prince Arthur and Henry VIII. Because of the involvement of royalty the abbey became rich. Between 1080 and 1120 the Saxon buildings were replaced by Norman ones, and the abbey’s land holdings grew large.

Shaftesbury Abbey cellar by Barbara Ballard Shaftesbury Abbey grounds by Barbara Ballard When the abbey ceased to exist there were 50 nuns living there. The stone from the buildings was stolen and used by townspeople for their own purposes. The property came into the hands of the earls of Pembroke, after which it changed hands a number of times. The Shaftesbury abbey and museum preservation trust company took over in 1985. Excavations uncovered carved stones, ruins (now the focus of the garden on the site), and artefacts. A lead casket containing bones dating to the time of Prince Edward was found, but they ended up in a Russian orthodox church near Woking.

Shaftesbury Abbey floor tiles by Barbara Ballard Shaftesbury Abbey gargoyle by Barbara Ballard The abbey museum tells the story of the abbey and contains the carved stonework, medieval floor tiles, and other finds from the site. The garden’s plants are authentic to the time of the nuns who grew herbs and healing plants. There is a “medieval” orchard with apples and pears, varieties of which date from the 15th through the 19th centuries.

Shaftesbury Abbey Museum and Garden
Park Walk
Shaftesbury, Dorset
Tel. 01747 852910
Open April-Oct, 10am-5pm; park in free car park by Tesco and walk there
Audio tour, gift shop

Shaftesbury Tourist Information Centre
8 Bell Street
Shaftesbury, Dorset SP7 8AE
Tel 01747 853514

All photos copyright by Barbara Ballard


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