Shaftesbury Abbey

Shaftesbury Abbey

Shaftesbury Abbey was an abbey that housed nuns in Shaftesbury, Dorset. Founded in the year 888, the abbey was the wealthiest Benedictine nunnery in England, a major pilgrimage site, and the town's central focus. The abbey was destroyed in 1539 by the order of Thomas Cromwell.

Early History

Alfred the Great and his daughter Ethelgiva founded the Abbey in 888 (8 years after founding the town of Shaftesbury as a burgh), which boosted the town's growth. The relics of St Edward the Martyr were translated from Wareham and received at the abbey with great ceremony. The translation of the relics was overseen by St Dunstan and Earl Ælfhere of Mercia.cite web
title =St Edward the Martyr
work =Catholic Encyclopedia
publisher =Robert Appleton Company
date =1909
url =
] This occurred in a great procession on February 13, 981 and arrived at Shaftesbury seven days later. There the relics were received by the nuns of the abbey and were buried with full royal honours on the north side of the altar. On the way from Wareham to Shaftesbury, a miracle had taken place; two crippled men were brought close to the bier and those carrying it lowered the body to their level, where upon the cripples were immediately restored to full health. This procession and these events were re-enacted 1000 years later in 1981. Many other miracles are said to have been obtained through Edward's intercession.

In 1001, it was recorded that the tomb in which St Edward lay was observed regularly to rise from the ground. King Ethelred instructed the bishops to raise his brother's tomb from the ground and place it into a more fitting place. The bishops then took away the relics from the tomb, and placed them in a casket in the holy place of the saints together with other holy relics. This elevation of the relics of Edward took place on 20 June 1001.

Shaftesbury abbey was rededicated to the Mother of God and St Edward. The town itself was then apparently renamed "Edwardstowe", only reverting to its original name after the Reformation. Many miracles were recorded at the tomb of St Edward, including the healing of lepers and the blind. The abbey became the wealthiest Benedictine nunnery in England, a major pilgrimage site and the town's central focus.

In 1240 Cardinal Otto Candidus, legate to the Apostolic See of Pope Gregory IX, visited the abbey and confirmed a charter of 1191, the first entered in the Glastonbury chartulary. By 1340, the steward of the abbess swore in the town's mayor.


It was said at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries that "if the abbess of Shaftesbury and the abbot of Glastonbury Abbey had been able to wed, their son would have been richer than the King of England" such were the lands that it had been bequeathed. It was too rich a prize for Thomas Cromwell to pass up. In 1539, the last abbess, Elizabeth Zouche, signed a deed of surrender, the abbey was demolished, and its lands sold, leading to a temporary decline in the town. Sir Thomas Arundell, 1st Baron Arundell of Wardour purchased the abbey and much of the town in 1540, but when he was later exiled for treason his lands were forfeit, and the lands passed to Pembroke then Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, and finally to the Grosvenors.

In 1539, St Edward's relics had been hidden so as to avoid desecration. In 1931, the relics were recovered by Mr. Wilson-Claridge during an archaeological excavation of the abbey; their identity was confirmed by Dr. T.E.A. Stowell, an osteologist. In 1970, examinations performed on the relics suggested that the young man had died in the same manner as Edward.cite web
last =
first =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =St Edward the Martyr
work =Necropolis Notables
publisher =The Brookwood Cemetery Society
date =
url =
format =
doi =
accessdate = 2007-09-21
] Mr. Wilson-Claridge donated the relics to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which placed them in a church in Brookwood Cemetery, in Woking, Surrey.

Thomas Hardy wrote of the Abbey ruins:


External links

* [ Museum on the Abbey site]

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