Shaftesbury is a town in North Dorset, England, situated on the A30 road near the Wiltshire border 20 miles west of Salisbury. The town is built 750 feet (over 200 metres) above sea level on the side of a chalk and greensand hill, which is part of Cranborne Chase, the only significant hilltop settlement in Dorset. It is one of the oldest and highest towns in Britain.
In 2001, the town had a population of 6,665 with 3,112 dwellings, only a small increase from 1991. There are currently 4 first schools, a middle school and an upper school, but this is soon to change to 5 primary schools and an enlarged secondary school. Major employers include Dorset Chilled Foods, Stalbridge Linen (a commercial laundry), HMP Guy's Marsh, Wessex Electrical and the Royal Mail.
Many of the older buildings in the town are of the local greensand, while others built from the grey Chilmark limestone, much of which was salvaged from the demolished Shaftesbury Abbey, and have thatched roofs. Tourism is one of the main industries in the town.
The town looks over the Blackmore Vale, part of the river Stour basin. From different viewpoints, it is possible to see at least as far as Glastonbury Tor to the north-west, and the Isle of Purbeck to the south.
The town is famous for Gold Hill, a steep cobbled street featured on the cover of countless books about Dorset and rural England, and the site of television adverts for Hovis bread, directed by Ridley Scott. At the top of the street is the 14th century St Peter's church, one of the few pre-18th century buildings remaining in the town. The town is also famous for its ruined Abbey and nearby Wardour castle.
A market is held in the town on Thursdays. The Blackmore Vale is Thomas Hardy's Vale of the Little Dairies, and until 2004 Shafesbury was the location of one of the last remaining livestock markets in Britain. The site has since been redeveloped as a Supermarket.
The town features in Thomas Hardy's Wessex as Shaston, of particular significance in Jude the Obscure.
Although Shaftesbury's recorded history dates from Anglo-Saxon times, it may have been the Celtic Caer Palladur. Its first written record 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 Shaftesbury Abbey in 888, which was a spur to the growing importance of the town. 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.
King Canute died here in 1035. In the Domesday Book, the town was known as Scaepterbyrg; its ownership was equally shared between King and Abbey. The Abbey was in the middle ages the central focus of the town. The shrine of St Edward, who is interred here, attracted pilgrims from afar.
In 1260, a charter to hold a market was granted. In 1392, Richard II confirmed a grant of two markets on different days.
By 1340, the mayor had become a recognised figure, sworn in by the Steward of the Abbess.
In 1539, the last Abbess of Shaftesbury, Elizabeth Zouche, signed a deed of surrender, 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 to the Grosvenors.
Shaftesbury was a parliamentary constituency returning two members from 1296 to the Reform Act of 1832, when it was reduced to one, and in 1884 the separate constituency was abolished.
The town was broadly Parliamentarian in the Civil War, but was in Royalist hands. Wardour Castle fell to Parliamentary forces in 1643; Parliamentary forces surrounded the town in August 1645, when it was a centre of local Clubmen activity. The clubmen were arrested and sent to trial in Sherborne. Shaftesbury took no part in the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685.
The town hall was built in 1827 by Earl Grosvenor after the Guildhall was pulled down to widen the high street.
The major employers in the 18th and 19th centuries were buttonmaking and weaving. The former became a victim of mechanisation, and this caused unemployment and emigration.
The five turnpikes which met at Shaftesbury ensured that the town had a good coaching trade. The railways, however, bypassed Shaftesbury, and this infuenced the subsequent pattern of its growth.
In 1919, Lord Stalbridge sold a large portion of the town, which was purchased by a syndicate and auctioned piece by piece over three days.
Most of the Saxon and Medieval buildings have now been ruined, with most of the town dating from the 18th century to present. 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 ... all now ruthlessley swept away—throw the visitor, even against his will, into a pensive melancholy."
- Census data (http://www1.dorsetcc.gov.uk/LIVING/FACTS/Census2001.nsf/6cadf4da179fc19500256663004afece/f6a706c8ec51150a80256ec50043c4a5?OpenDocument)
- Shaftesbury Town Website (http://www.shaftesburydorset.com/)
- Shaftesbury Abbey Website (http://www.shaftesburyabbey.co.uk/)
- Pitt-Rivers, Michael, 1979. Dorset. London: Faber & Faber.
- The 1985 AA illustrated guide to the country towns and villages of Britain.
Other places called Shaftesbury:
There have been a number of Earls of Shaftesbury. The most famous is the philanthropist Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury.