The Abbey Church of St Mary and St Edward, King and Martyr
For some seven hundred years Shaftesbury Abbey stood here – a complex of buildings with a church at its centre. Five times larger than the Victorian church that stands on the slope above, the Abbey church would have loomed in front of you, filling the whole of the long grassed area in the centre of the garden and stretching beyond the wall on the left.
Built by King Alfred in around 888 it was the first religious house solely for women. Until then those who wanted to lead a religious life joined a “double house” which was shared by both monks and nuns. Alfred installed his young daughter Aethelgifu as its first Abbess and it became the model for other royal nunneries. We do not know whether Alfred’s church was built in timber or in stone, though the easy availability of the latter in the area, the exposed position and the presence of Anglo-Saxon stone carving from the site make such a building of that period a possibility.
Over the centuries Shaftesbury Abbey grew and prospered. Royal patronage and St Edward’s shrine made it very rich. Grander Norman buildings replaced the Saxon ones between 1080 and 1120 and through grants of land over the centuries, the Abbey came to own large estates in Dorset, Wiltshire and beyond. When leaving the Abbey most of the land you see before you would have been owned by it. Its wealth and power attracted royal visitors – including King Canute who died here in 1035. Perhaps he had come on a pilgrimage, as did thousands of others, to worship at the shrine of the Saxon King, Edward the Martyr – for Edward’s remains, which were brought to the Abbey after his murder at Corfe in 978, were said to perform miracles.
With its wealth and fame the Abbey seemed set to last for ever. In March 1539 the Abbey was closed by order of Henry VIII who had commanded that all religious houses be closed. The nuns were forced to leave. Shaftesbury, the oldest nunnery, was the last to do so – and six hundred and fifty one years of continuous worship ended when the gates slammed behind them. Soon the Abbey, once a glorious building, was a ruin.