SHAFTESBURY ABBEY

Shaftesbury is a town in north Dorset, England, near the Wiltshire border. The town is built 750 feet (over 200 metres) above sea level on the side of a chalk hill, which is part of Cranbourne Chase, and is one of the oldest and highest towns in Britain. The town looks over the Blackmore Vale, part of the river Stour basin. The town is also famous for its ruined Abbey and nearby Wardour castle.

Although Shaftesbury historically dates from Anglo-Saxon times, it may have been the Celtic Caer Palladur. Its first recorded appearance as a town is in the Burgal Hideage. Alfred the Great founded a Burgh (fortified settlement) here in 880 as a defence in the struggle with the Danish invaders. Alfred and his daughter Ethelgiva founded the Shaftesbury Abbey, a Benedictine community for women, in 888, which was a spur to the growing importance of the town. Ethelgiva was the first Abbess of Saftesbury. Athelstan founded three royal mints, which struck pennies bearing the town's name, and the abbey became the wealthiest Benedictine nunnery in England. In 1240 Cardinal Otto, 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.

From AD 888 to 1539 the Abbey was one of the most important in the country, maintaining links with the Royal House of the day. It is thought that, at one time, as many as 350 people lived in the Abbey community, including nuns, novices and all those employed by the Abbess. Mary Plantagenet (d. ABT 1216), sister of King Henry II, was Abbess of Shaftesbury, and also Margaret St. John (d. 1492), related to Henry VII. Other Abesses were Agnes Ferrar, Joan Formage and Juliana Baucyn.

The shrine of St Edward, who is interned here, attracted pilgrims from afar, and made the Abbey rich and famous. The young King Edward was murdered at Corfe in 978, supposedly at the instigation of his stepmother, to make way for her son, Ethelred. The body, found later, was laid to rest here with great ceremony in 979 and Edward was canonised in 1001

The Danish King Canute thought so highly of this religious community that he was said to have given instructions for his heart to be buried at the Abbey. Elizabeth, wife of King Robert the Bruce, together with her stepdaughter, was detained for two years at the Abbey, being released after the Battle of Bannockburn. Catalina of Aragon stayed there on her way to London to marry Prince Arthur, the elder brother of her future husband, King Henry VIII. A letter was addressed to Thomas Cromwell in the years he was the most powerfull man in England, asking that Dorothy Wynter, natural daughter of Cardinal Wolsey, might continue at Shaftesbury till she be old enough to take the vow.

In 1539 the last Abbess of Shaftesbury, Elizabeth Zouche signed a deed of surrender and the abbey was demolished, and its lands sold, leading to a temporary decline in the town. Sir Thomas Arundel 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 Cooper and finally the Grosvenors.

The pensions given differed greatly, and the heads of wealthy houses were allowed considerable sums. Thus Elizabeth Zouche, Abbess of Shaftesbury, the yearly income of which house was taxed at 1166, received 133 a year and all her nuns to the number of fifty-five were pensioned. Dorothy Wynter received a pension after the Dissolution, and died there in about 1553.

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