Britannia History: Shrewsbury Abbey


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The History of Shrewsbury Abbey in Shropshire
By David Nash Ford

S H R E W S B U R Y
A B B E Y

Home of St. Winifred & Brother Cadfael

The site of Shrewsbury Abbey is a very ancient one. A wooden Saxon church of St. Peter, possibly a small monastery, was recorded here in the Domeday Survey. St. Wulfstan, the Bishop of Worcester (from 1062), used to stop there to pray on his journeys between Chester and his own See.

The Benedictine Abbey of today, however, is a post-Conquest foundation, dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul. It was in 1083 that the priest of St. Peter's, returning from a pilgrimage to Rome, persuaded Roger de Montgomery, the newly appointed Earl of Shrewsbury, to raise the already existing church into a grand abbey. Roger had two monks brought from his lands in Sées (Normandy) to direct the building arrangements and monastic life was established four years later. Fulchered, the first Abbot, also came from Sées. The founder himself took the vows in his Abbey in 1094, three days before his death.

Though the Abbey flourished, during the early twelfth century, the monks of Shrewsbury apparently felt their monastery incomplete for the lack of the relics of a special patron to honour and bring glory to the name of God - not to mention lucrative offerings from vast hoards of pilgrims. The Prior, Robert Pennant, therefore took it upon himself to find a suitable candidate whose remains he might appropriate for his Abbey Church. With his Abbot's blessing, he led an expedition into Wales where, in 1138, he acquired the bones of St. Gwenfrewi from the inhabitants of Gwytherin in Gwynedd. Known as St. Winifred to the English, this lady was brought back to Shrewsbury and enshrined, probably behind the high altar, with great ceremony. Her holiness did indeed make the Abbey a major pilgrimage centre, bringing honour and prestige to its Abbots.

The Medieval Abbots of Shrewsbury were some of the most significant ecclesiastics in the Country. They were often drawn into political life because of their great diplomatic and administrative skills. They would be called upon to inspect the local militia and survey the town's castle; they served as Justices of the Peace and as gaolers for important hostages; and, from the 13th century, they sat in Parliament.

In those days, parliament moved around the country and met at important sites, chosen by the King according to where he happened to be staying. Parliament gathered at Shrewsbury Abbey in 1283, when King Edward I was campaigning against the Welsh. It included the first ever sitting of the House of Commons. The last native Prince of Wales, David II, was brought before the assembled crew who were to decide his fate. The poor man was condemned to death and dragged through the town before being hung, drawn and quartered. A hundred years later, Richard II also used the Abbey for political business, summoning hither the 'Great Parliament' of 1398. Only the previous year, the Abbots of Shrewsbury had been given the right to wear the mitre usually reserved for bishops.

Shrewsbury Abbey was known for its many scholars and, in the early fifteenth century, its Abbot, Thomas Prestbury, was even Chancellor of Oxford. He played a prominent part in the events surrounding the rebellion of Harry 'Hotspur' Percy and his uncle, the Earl of Worcester, against King Henry IV, as recorded by Shakespeare. Feeling poorly rewarded for their active part in the King's usurpation of the throne, the Percys rose up against the monarch and marched on Shrewsbury. The Abbot met with the rebel leaders and offered them a paerdon in return for withdrawal, but this was refused. The two armies clashed on the Whitchurch Road, just north of the town and the Battle of Shrewsbury (1403) which ensued was one of the most brutal of the Medieval period. Henry IV was victorious, Hotspur was killed and the Earl of Worcester captured and executed in the town.

Seal of St. Winifred's Guild The monarchy continued to take an interest in the Abbey throughout the 15th century, and in 1487, King Henry VII gave issued a licence to Abbot Mynde for the establishment of the Guild of St. Winifred whose members were to offer daily prayers at the lady's shrine for the good health of the king, the Abbot and the Guild. It lasted only fifty years, but was reinstated by the Abbey authorities in 1987.

As with all English abbeys and priories, monastic life came to an end at Shrewsbury during King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries (1540). The Abbey's annual income, as returned just before its suppression, was £615. The last Abbot, Thomas Botelier, surrendered his church peacefully and was granted a hefty pension as reward his co-operation. The King, at one time, intended to make Shrewsbury the seat of a bishop and to endow the See out of the revenues of the Abbey, the church of which would have been the cathedral. But the Act drafted to this effect was never passed. It would have been the means of preserving some other great churches too, such as Bury St. Edmunds or Reading. Other plans to make the site a school or a residence for Royal guests also failed.

Eventually only the nave of the church was saved. It was given to the parishioners of Holy Cross, while the rest of the buildings were sold to one William Langley. The choir, transepts, high altar and lady chapel were all demolished and a new eat wall erected at the head of the nave. Other monastic buildings survived for some centuries, however, particularly the cloister's western range and the so called "Old Infirmary" which still stands today, though in a much reduced form. Demolition continued though and, as a parish church in the following centuries, the historic abbey was largely neglected. There were major bills for repairs after the abbey was damaged during the Civil War Siege of Shrewsbury when Charles I's own chaplain was vicar. It was even used as a prison for the defeated Royalists after the Battle of Worcester (1651). By the early nineteenth century, it had been engulfed by the Railways, though land adjacent to the church was saved from redevelopment by an Act of Parliament establishing The Abbey Cemetery Company in 1839. Interest in the building was finally revived by the new Archaeological Societies of late Victorian England and, in 1885, the Bishop of Lichfield was left £10,000 by Mrs Harriet Juson of Shrewsbury for the construction of a new chancel at the Abbey. Over the next two years, the church was carefully restored, by John Loughbridge Pearson, to the beautiful structure that we see today. And it is a pilgrimage centre once more, made famous throughout the World by Ellis Peters and her literary creation, Brother Cadfael: abbey herbalist and detective extraordinaire.

Click for the Architectural Details of Shrewsbury Abbey.




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