Shaftesbury Abbey Museum and Garden // Shaftesbury

Set on the site of Saxons England's foremost Benedictine nunnery the Abbey was the source of Shaftesbury's prosperity. Now the site of walled gardens and museum amongst the remains of the abbey

The town of Shaftesbury was founded in 880 by King Alfred after he defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Eddington in 878. Ten years later Alfred founded the first all-female religious community and installed his daughter, Aethelgifu, as the first abbess. Shaftesbury Abbey quickly became Saxon England's foremost Bendictine nunnery, ensuring the town's prosperity for six hundred and fifty years. Royal visitors included King Canute, who died in Shaftesbury and whose heart is supposedly buried at the Abbey, Elizabeth, wife of Robert the Bruce, and Catherine of Aragon.

In 1931 archaeologists found a casket containing what might be the remains of Edward the Martyr, the boy-king who was murdered by his stepmother. It is said that Edward's remains were carried by a great procession that left Wareham on the 13th February 981 and arrived in Shaftesbury seven days later. Along the way the procession passed two cripples who were immediately healed when they came into contact with the body. Pilgrims to the shrine of Edward the Martyr played an important part in making Shaftesbury Abbey rich and famous.

Up to three hundred people lived inside the Abbey walls including nuns, novices and all those employed by the Abbess, until it was summarily dissolved and destroyed by Henry VIII in 1539. All that remain of it today are the massive ramparts on Gold Hill, which was made famous by Ridley Scott's Hovis boy and bike advert in 1973, and the excavated foundations, that lie in a peaceful walled garden. As Thomas Hardy wrote, 'Vague imaginings of its castle, its three mints, its magnificent apsidal Abbey, the chief glory of South Wessex, its twelve churches, its shrines, chantries, hospitals, its gabled freestone mansions – all now ruthlessly swept away...'

The award-winning state-of-the-art Abbey Museum is well worth a visit. Illustrations from ancient manuscripts and exhibits including Saxon carvings and medieval floor tiles excavated from the Abbey's ruins help to tell the story of the Bendecitine nunnery and its inhabitants. The musuem is decorated in dramatic colours intended to re-create the atmosphere of the interior of the original Abbey church.

The museum can be visited alongside the Abbey gardens, which have been restored and re-planted to reflect the horticultrual practices of the early and late Medieval period. The Abbey gardens would have provided not just food but herbs, dyes, insecticides and medicines for the community. St Benedict was a great believer in self-sufficiency and Shaftesbury Abbey would have been part of an extensive European netowork that would have been constantly developing and exchanging new agricultural techniques. Aethelgifu's herb collection, created in 1988, consists of over one hundred plants, selected to reflect what is known of their uses during Anglo-Saxon times. A Medieval Orchard was planted in 2004, with varieties chosen to represent the period between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. The apples and pears are being grown on a single cordon, a system used for many centuries to maximise space.

Shaftesbury is perched on a hilltop on the junction between the A30 and the A350 and has extensive views of the gentle, undulating Blackmore Vale. The excavated remains of the Abbey are in the centre of the town, near Gold Hill.

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