Few buildings are immortalised in print like Shrewsbury Abbey. When Edith Pargeter (Ellis Peters), the prolific and popular author of the Brother Cadfael medieval mystery series created her monastic detective, she put Shrewsbury and its famous Abbey firmly on the tourist map.
Shrewsbury Abbey has plenty to offer the visitor but what most people quickly realise is that the fictitious Cadfael is only a tiny part of the Abbey story and the real history is a lot more interesting than any novel.
It all started in Saxon times. A wooden Saxon church dedicated to St. Peter, possibly a small monastery, was recorded in the Domesday Book. Shrewsbury has always been a "stop-over' for visitors and St. Wulfstan, the Bishop of Worcester (from 1062), used to stop to pray on his journeys between Chester and Worcester.
The Benedictine Abbey you see today is a post-Conquest building, dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul. In 1083 the priest of St. Peter's persuaded Roger de Montgomery, the newly appointed Earl of Shrewsbury, to enlarge the existing church and turn it into a grand abbey.
The Earl ordered two monks to be brought from his lands in SÃ©es (Normandy) to direct the building arrangements. A monastic community was established at Shrewsbury four years later.
In the twelfth century it was considered that possession of the relics (bones or body parts) of a saint gave added prestige to a religious house and provided an important source of revenue from generous pilgrims. Therefore the Abbey monks, led by Robert Pennant the Prior, began the hunt for a suitable saint.
Unfortunately, Shropshire was not blessed with an overabundance of saints, so in 1137 the monks journeyed to Gwytherin in North Wales where they found the bones of St Winefride who died in the seventh century. They returned to Shrewsbury triumphant, bearing their grisly prize "wrapped in a linen napkin'.
The West Window
In 1386-87 the west window of Shrewsbury Abbey was glazed. Much of the window (46ft x 23ft) contained heraldic shields identical to those on display today. The original glass was replaced in 1814.
Shrewsbury Abbey was known for its many scholars and, in the early fifteenth century, its Abbot, Thomas Prestbury, was Chancellor of Oxford. Prestbury played a prominent part in the events surrounding the rebellion of Harry 'Hotspur' Percy and his uncle, the Earl of Worcester, against King Henry IV, as recorded by Shakespeare.
The legend of St Winfride
St Winefride (or St. Gwenfrewi as she was known in Wales) was the daughter of a Welsh prince who had taken a vow of celibacy. A young nobleman called Caradoc refused to accept her vows and pursued her. She ran. He caught up with her and lopped off her head with his sword.
St Winefride's head then rolled to a spot near her church where her uncle, St Beuno, was at prayer. A spring gushed forth from this spot while nearby Caradoc fell to the ground which opened and swallowed him. St Beuno replaced the girl's head on her shoulders and she lived. She died fifteen years later as the Abbess of a Nunnery in Gwytherin.
Sadly, St Winefride's shrine, which attracted pilgrims for more than seven hundred years, has almost vanished. All that remains is a small part of the reredos which currently lies under a magnificent 20th century stained glass window dedicated to the saint.
The Abbots of Shrewsbury were often drawn into political life because of their diplomatic and administrative skills. They were called upon to inspect the local militia and survey the town's castle; they served as Justices of the Peace and as even as gaolers for important hostages. More importantly, from the 13th century, they sat in Parliament.
Parliament assembled at Shrewsbury Abbey in 1283, when King Edward I was campaigning against the Welsh. It included the first ever sitting of the House of Commons. The last "true' Prince of Wales, David II, was condemned to death by the assembly and dragged through Shrewsbury at the tail of a horse before being hung, drawn and quartered.
Shrewsbury stayed at the forefront of politics. As a mark of their importance, the Abbots of Shrewsbury were given the right to wear the mitre usually reserved for bishops.
The Cadfael Window was inspired by the books of Edith Pargeter (Ellis Peters)
More than 100 years after the death of David II of Wales, Richard II summoned the 'Great Parliament' of 1398 to the Abbey.
Feeling poorly rewarded for their active part in the King's usurpation of the throne, the Percy family rebelled against the monarch and marched on Shrewsbury. The Abbot met with the rebel leaders and offered them a pardon in return for a peaceful withdrawal, but this was refused.
The two armies clashed on the Whitchurch Road, just north of the town. The Battle of Shrewsbury (1403) ensued. Henry IV was victorious, Hotspur was killed and the Earl of Worcester captured and executed in the town.
The monarchy continued to take an interest in the Abbey throughout the 15th century, and in 1487, King Henry VII issued a licence to Abbot Mynde for the establishment of the Guild of St. Winifred whose members were to offer daily prayers at the lady's shrine for the good health of the king, the Abbot and the Guild. The original guild only lasted fifty years, but was reinstated by the Abbey authorities in 1987.
After years of profitable existence, English abbeys and priories suddenly met with disaster. Monastic life came to an abrupt end at Shrewsbury during King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries (1540). The last Abbot, Thomas Botelier, surrendered his church without a fuss and was granted a hefty pension of Â£80 per annum as reward for his co-operation.
Now reduced to a "humble' parish church, the abbey was largely neglected for next three hundred years although there were major bills for repairs after the abbey was damaged during the Civil War Siege of Shrewsbury when Charles I's own chaplain was vicar. Incongruously, the Abbey was used as a prison for defeated Scots Royalists after the Battle of Worcester in 1651.
The shape of the Abbey roof was altered for ever when the clerestory and the parapet were removed in 1704-6. The Abbey had become unsafe and radical works were required to make it usable again. A new roof was installed above the tri-form gallery and in 1729 the single pitch aisle roofs were replaced with the present multi-gabled roof and the north aisle windows were installed. Despite all this work, at the end of the 18th century the Abbey was in a very sorry state.
Both the railways and Thomas Telford were instrumental in changing the look of the Abbey. Telford built the road that runs along the south side of the abbey while the new railways that linked Shrewsbury to the rest of the industrial Midlands virtually encircled the Abbey until the late 20th century.
In 1885 the Bishop of Lichfield was given Â£10,000 by Mrs Harriet Juson of Shrewsbury for the construction of a new chancel at the Abbey. This sparked a new wave of restoration led by architect, John Loughbridge Pearson. The re-construction of the east end of the Abbey was carried out by a firm of builders from Salisbury. Three years later, in 1888, building works were completed and the present structure was revealed.
Restoration has continued to the present day and a number of works of art have been added to the Abbey's treasures. More recent additions to the Abbey have included the previously mentioned stained glass window dedicated to St Winefride and another magnificent window depicting Cadfael.
Today, after much hard work and dedication, the Abbey is once again a thriving, vibrant place filled with activity and buzzing with excitement. Christopher Sims, Vicar of Shrewsbury Abbey, said: "Shrewsbury Abbey has a long and fascinating history but what the Abbey is really about nowadays is people!"
The magnificent Reredos is one of Shrewsbury Abbey's greatest treasures