Julie decided we needed to go to Shrewsbury. We got a Shopmobility buggy, did a few shops, then I escaped and walked down to Shrewsbury Abbey. Beautiful and welcoming, with a good website and excellent guidebook. I’ll use the guide as the basis for this blog. Grid reference SJ498125. As you walk from the town you cross the River Severn, go under the railway – I would suggest the Church of England looks after its infrastructure rather better than Network Rail.
Up to the west door of the Abbey. Good welcoming noticeboard, into the Abbey, and a welcome in the Shop. It is a stunning building.
In 1070 William the Conqueror sent his relative Roger de Montgomery to Shrewsbury, and shortly afterwards he was made Earl of Shrewsbury. In March 1083 he placed his gloves upon the altar of the Saxon church and vowed that he would found an Abbey. He died in 1094, and this stone slab is C12.
The Abbey was Benedictine. This window commemorates Benedict, and is by Jane Grey (1997). It also commemorates Shrewsbury’s most favourite monk – Brother Cadfael, by Ellis Peters. In the TV series he was played by Derek Jacobi – my only complaint about the TV series was that it did not show how basic the daily round of prayer was to Cadfael and his colleagues.
Regular monastic life began in 1087 with Fulchred of Sées, the first abbot. The original church was 302 feet long and 133 feet wide – much bigger than the present church. It was a good place for an abbey – able to link into the river trade, trade on the main road, and a monopoly on milling. All of these feature in Cadfael. Ellis Peters also gives a version of the finding of the body of St Winefried. The name means “Blessed Stream” in Welsh, and she was the daughter of a C7 Welsh prince. She was murdered by her rejected lover Caradoc, but her uncle, Saint Beuno, was nearby and replaced her head on he shoulders, and she lived. Later she became abbess of a nunnery at Gwytherin in North Wales. In the C12 any monastery worth its salt needed relics, and in 1137 Winefried’s relics were bought to Shrewsbury and buried in a shrine at the west end of the Abbey Church. Now only part of a reredos remains, along with this modern window, also by Jane Grey.
The shrine attracted many pilgrims – Henry V came in 1416 to give thanks for his victories over the French. The Guild of St Winefride was founded in 1487 for prayer and almsgiving. The shrine was destroyed at the Dissolution in 1540. The Guild re-started in 1987. Gothic work was done on the building in the C14, and you can see where the Norman and Gothic intertwine. In 1386-7 the West Window was reglazed.
By the time of Henry VIII the Abbey ranked 34th out of 602 monasteries, and had an income of circa £600 pa. At the Dissolution in 1640, the last Abbot, Thomas Botelier, received a pension of £80 pa, an ordinary monk £6.80 pa. No justice even then! From earliest time the people who lived nearby had been allowed to worship at the altar of the Holy Cross in the Abbey nave. A lay priest had been appointed in 1220 to serve their needs. At the Dissolution the nave was left intact to serve as the parish church. The rest of the Abbey, the transepts, choir, high altar, associated chapels and vestries, were all demolished, and a new east window was built to close off the head of the nave. Apparently Henry VIII had plans drawn up for this to become a Cathedral, but they fell through – we are still in the Diocese of Lichfield.
During the Civil War the town started on Charles’s side, then fell to Parliament 1645. Some of the Scots taken prisoner by Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester were kept in the Abbey Church – the accounts survive of the cleaning bill afterwards. Celia Fiennes visited Shrewsbury in 1698, and wrote about the abbey gardens: “They were laid out with gravel walks set full of all sorts of greens, orange and lemon trees … there were also firs, myrtles and hollies of all sorts and a green-house full of all sorts of curiosities of flowers and greens.” It sounds so much nicer than the road next door, but we’ll come on to that.
There are some lovely monuments in the church, some of which came from other churches as they closed. Here are a selection. Mary Anne Burd, who now keeps an eye on the hymn books.
Alderman William Jones and his wife came from Old St Alkmund’s church – the notice says that he died in 1612 and she died in 1623, but her name is not noted. Their grandson, another Jones, became Chief Justice (Jones the Chief Justice).
The floor tomb is William and Anne Charlton of Apley Castle (1571) and the wall plaque is Alderman J. Lloyd who died in 1647.
As you can imagine, I took lots of photos in this lovely church. So let me see what I have missed so far. The font, the reredos behind the altar in the south aisle, and a nativity window.
The Reverend Philip Whitcombe wrote to George Gilbert Scott in 1859 to ask him to give advice on the restoration and some rebuilding of the Abbey Church. When his fee was too expensive, he turned to a local architect, S. Pountney-Smith, and he made a good start. In 1885 John Loughborough Pearson, who we came across at Cullercoats last week, designed a new east end – and he did a good job. The restoration took ten years. The reredos was commissioned by Pearson, made by Clayton and Bell, and was restored in 1992. It shows scenes of the Passion, the 12 apostles, and 4 statues of local saints. Pearson also designed the altar frontal, which was embroidered by the Leek Embroidery Society, and restored in 1987.
Above the busyness of the shop is the WW1 memorial. One of the names is Wilfred Owen. He had been killed on 4 November 1918. His parents, Tom and Susan Owen received the telegram telling them their poet son had died on the morning of 11 November – as the Abbey bells, just down the road, were ringing for victory.
Life has not always been easy for this church. Being close to the Severn it has tended to flood. I remember that a Cadfael centre opened early 1990s, but closed after flooding. There were plans at the Millennium to move the road – Thomas Telford built it in 1836 and it broke through the Abbey Precinct destroying much that was left, and bringing too much traffic next to the church. Now they have a new appeal and plans for the future – here are two of the panels. How wonderful to see a church that recognises the importance of music, knows that traditional music and choir can be an opportunity for outreach and bringing young people in, and that has the increase of baptisms and weddings are one of its priorities.
Abbey Foregate station was just across the road from the abbey – lovely photos on this website. The Great Western line is on the north side of the abbey, indeed the abbey was almost encircled by lines. Shrewsbury station is lovely, and Severn Bridge Junction signal box (just north of the Abbey) is huge. You can buy a 105 minute long dvd which shows the excitement of a summer Saturday in the signal box – go on the Video 125 website … now, what are you waiting for? Last time I came through Shrewsbury on the train was early in the morning while returning from Cardiff to Bury St Edmunds, having been to Cardiff on Cathedral business. I had to spend the night in Cardiff, and the Dean said he would pay for a hotel. It was cheaper to catch the night train to Fishguard Harbour, then return to Swansea, catch the 0422 (I think it was) up the Central Wales Line (which is a gorgeous ride), change at Shrewsbury, and back to Suffolk via Birmingham. The Cathedral accountant took some persuading!