The History of Shaftesbury

The charming town of Shaftesbury, located in Dorset, has a rich history that dates back to the Saxon era. The village was founded by the Saxons, and its name is derived from the Saxon word ‘burh’, which meant a fortified settlement. In the late 9th century, Alfred the Great established a network of fortified towns across his kingdom, and Shaftesbury was one such burh. It was strategically located on a promontory of land protected on three sides by steep slopes.

Shaftesbury was not just a fortress but also a bustling little town. In the 10th century, there were royal mints in the town and it also had weekly markets. King Alfred also founded a nunnery at Shaftesbury. However, Henry VIII dissolved Shaftesbury Abbey in 1539.

Through the centuries, Shaftesbury remained a small but busy town. In the late 17th century and during the 18th century, the main industry in Shaftesbury was making buttons. There was also a malting industry and there were many breweries in Shaftesbury.

In modern times, Shaftesbury has grown into a vibrant market town while still retaining its historical charm. Its Saxon roots are still evident today, adding to the unique character of this delightful town.

Shaftesbury history

The Modern Borough

The modern Borough of Shaftesbury, covering 1,200 acres, includes land in the E. which formerly was part of the parish of Cann, and land in the N. W. which until recently was in Motcombe, itself formerly a division of Gillingham (see above, p. 48). Straddling the Greensand escarpment and varying in altitude from over 700 ft. above sea-level in the E. to less than 400 ft. in the W., the town occupies a prominent position on the summit of a projecting Greensand spur, with precipitous slopes 100 ft. high on all but the N.E. side (Plate 57).

Shaftesbury occupies a strong natural position, and the name suggests that it was from the beginning a fortified settlement. Local tradition, embodied in a stone inscription copied by William of Malmesbury, ascribes the foundation of the town to King Alfred in the year 880—more than a decade before the organisation of the chain of fortresses with which Alfred defended his frontiers against the Danes. A fragment of this inscription, rediscovered in 1902, shows, however, that it was carved during the period c. 975 to 1050; hence the earliest reliable reference to Shaftesbury as a borough is that of the year 926 in Athelstan’s law about currency. (fn. 1) Asser reports that Alfred also founded Shaftesbury Abbey for nuns, but nothing remains of the original nunnery; a few pre-conquest carved stones have been found on the site, but the most important appears to come from a cross-shaft. The present church, represented by little more than foundations, dates from late in the 11th century.

Useful links

Shaftesbury Abbey

Situated in a commanding position with views over the Blackmore Vale, close to the famous Gold Hill, the ruins of Shaftesbury Abbey lie in a peaceful walled garden. The museum brings to life the story of the abbey and the people who lived there.

Gold Hill Museum

Shaftesbury and District’s local history museum with an award-winning cottage garden and wonderful views over Thomas Hardy’s Blackmore Vale.

St Peter’s Shaftesbury

In Medieval times it was said that if the Abbey of Glastonbury was to marry the Abbess of Shaftesbury their income would have been more than that of the king.

How to get to Shaftesbury

There are multiple ways to get to Shaftesbury. We would encourage you to chose the greenest option. Please visit our travel page to find out the best way.

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