Shaftesbury Abbey, Dorset


★★★★

West end of the garden
Steps to the crypt

Foundations of an ancient and once very powerful abbey, founded in 888 and dissolved in 1539. Now incorporated into a garden, accompanied by a museum
Entry
£3 adults, £2.50 children
Location
Park Walk, near the centre of Shaftesbury; SP7 8JR
The ruins of Shaftesbury Abbey are incorporated into a pretty floral garden, and are accompanied by a well-regarded museum, making the site one of the top historic attractions in town, though the actual remains are very limited, only the lowest foundations of the abbey church, partly reconstructed to show the complete outline, with just one more substantial part, the walls of the crypt.

Unlike most medieval abbeys, the institution at Shaftesbury was occupied by nuns rather than monks, and it had an unusually long history, established in 888 by Alfred the Great and in operation continuously at the same location until dissolved in 1539 by order of Henry VIII, after which all buildings were quickly demolished, the site abandoned, and the land eventually incorporated into houses and gardens.

The site of the abbey church was excavated for the first time in 1861, and finds from this and other archaeological investigations are displayed in the museum, which opened in 1999. Besides the masonry foundations the ruins also include a few sections of tiled pavement, and several original stone coffins. The site is open daily between April and November.




History


The nunnery at Shaftesbury was founded by King Alfred as part of national celebrations following an important victory over Danish invaders, and his daughter Aethelgifu was appointed as the first abbess. The most momentous event in the early history was the reburial of the remains of the murdered King Edward, later sanctified as St Edward the Martyr, who died at Corfe Castle in 978 - they were initially interred beside the high altar, then later moved to a more visible location. Partly because of this important relic, and continued patronage from the royal family, the abbey became especially wealthy, a major location for pilgrims and a site of several miracles. The abbesses managed extensive lands across what is now Dorset and Wiltshire - between Purbeck in the south and Bradford-on-Avon in the north, all of which were seized by Henry VIII following the abrupt closure in 1539. The initial Saxon church was replaced with a larger version in Norman times, and it is the foundations of this which can be seen today.



The Ruins


The original settlement of Shaftesbury, of which the abbey was a part, is positioned on the flat top of a narrow ridge, with commanding views over the surrounding countryside. A small Saxon fort once stood at the western edge, contemporary with the abbey, and giving rise to the name Castle Hill, but no trace remains. The abbey site is reached along Park Walk, a pedestrianised street overlooking the undulating lands to the south. The ruins are concealed behind a high wall; entrance is through the museum/gift shop, and admission is 3. The garden contains the foundations of the cruciform abbey church, about 210 by 110 feet in size, with walls at most 2 feet high. The footprint is almost complete, missing only the westernmost section of the nave, the remainder buried beneath the garden of Abbey House to the west. Visible components of the original structure are the external walls, the columns of the nave, the transepts, and the chancel with its semi-circular apse and two aisles at either side (used as chapels), while modern emplacements include a monument to St Edward, a statue of King Alfred, a stone cross, and replicas of an Anglo-Saxon herb garden and a medieval orchard. The early 14th century crypt in the northeast corner is reached by a short flight of steps, and has surviving walls about seven feet high, retaining a few bases of the ribs from the vaulted ceiling. The only other significant relic from the abbey is a lengthy section of the exterior precinct wall, along Gold Hill to the south; between here and the church were the cloisters and chapter house, while the other monastic buildings stood to the north and west.