"An ancient Saxon hilltop town", claims the sign as you enter Shaftesbury, though it may be that the town's history extends much further into the past. Tradition says that the town may have been known as Caer Palladur in Celtic times. Shaftesbury's first recorded appearance as a town is in a document known as the 'Burgal Hideage'. King Alfred knew a strategic site when he saw one and so it was here that in the 9th century he created a burgh, or fortified settlement, as a defense against the encroachment of the Danes.
Alfred also founded an abbey for his daughter, Ethelgiva in AD 880, who became its first abbess. The foundation of the Abbey led to prosperity for the town, and Athelstan authorised a royal mint which struck silver pennies bearing the name of the town. and this became the wealthiest Benedictine nunnery in England. The remains of King Edward the Martyr, (reputedly murdered by his stepmother at Corfe Castle near Wareham), were interred here in 979 and later King Canute died here, although he is buried at Winchester.
By 1086/7 when the Domesday book was being compiled, the town was known as Sceapterbyrg, and owned half by the King and half by the Abbey. It is recorded that there were 66 houses in the King's lordship and 111 in that of the Abbess. The three moneyers were each paid 1 silver mark and 20 shillings whenever the coinage was changed. Shaftesbury was the only Borough in Dorset to have three mooneyes. Dorchester and Wareham had two and Bridport one.
For much of the medieval period the town was dominated by the Abbey and its fortunes closely linked with it. The shrine of St Edward drew many pilgrims, and a badge, probably worn by one as a memento of the visit can be seen in the local history museum. 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. In 1260 is noted the first emergence of the town as a commercial centre with the granting of a charter to hold a market. In medieval times the trade of the town was carried out at fairs and markets, the abbey and the King levying tolls on wagons and produce. By 1350 the Mayor is a recognised figure, though still being sworn in by the Steward of the Abbess. In 1392 Richard II confirmed a grant of two markets in the town, on Mondays and Saturdays.
The Borough Mace, which is still in use, was first recorded in 1475. Shaftesbury and the surrounding district were represented in Parliament by two members from 1296 until 1832, then with the Great Reform Bill, by only one until 1884, when it merged with the County Constituency. The Abbess and nuns of Shaftesbury added to the wealth of the Abbey estates. Many were well connected to the great families of the times and the Abbey was a great landowner. However, all this came to an abrupt end in 1539, with the signing of the deed of surrender by Elizabeth Zouche to the king, Henry VIII. Within a very short space of time 600 years of history had been wiped out. The nuns were dispersed, the abbey church demolished and the lands sold.
Sir Thomas Arundel of Wardour purchased the abbey site and much of the town in 1540. He was later executed for treason and his estates forfeited. The lordship of the town passed through various hands, from the Arundels to Pembroke, then Cooper and finally the Grosvenors. Deprived of custom from pilgrims to the abbey the town suffered a decline.
The Mayor and Burgesses were only a corporation by prescription, and at an inquisition taken at Sturminster in 1583 they were unable to prove their rights as an officially incorporated body. The market tolls and dues were escheated to Queen Elizabeth who granted them by letters patent to private persons.
It took nearly a century of lengthy litigation for the town to recover its dues and status. The 'new guildhall', a small building set on arches, was in the middle of the High Street near St. Peter's church. It was pulled down in 1822 in order to widen the highway, the present Town Hall being built in 1827 and given to the town by Earl Grosvenor. A charter of 1604 granted by James I made the town a free borough with a common seal, and it is here that records note the appearance of a second mace. This charter, together with one of Charles II dated 1665, is to be seen in the town hall. Records seem to show that the town was in sympathy with Parliament during the period of the Civil War. Wardour Castle fell to Parliament forces in 1643.
Parliamentary forces surrounded the town in August 1645 when a meeting of Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire Clubmen was held. Some 50 of the leaders were arrested and sent for trial at Sherborne. Shaftesbury avoided involvement in the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, but along with many other towns had to display dismembered remains of some of the rebels as a grim warning to anyone who may have been involved.
The chief industries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were button making and gloving. The buttons were the best known and there were several types: a cross wheel made with brass wire and cotton and others known as Dorset Knobs, for decorative use. The display of a button making machine at the Great Exhibition in 1851 spelt doom for the local cottage industry. The decline threw many out of work and they became paupers, some emigrating to other countries.
There were five turnpike roads which converged on Shaftesbury and the town had a good coaching trade. Coaches with names like 'Quicksilver' and 'The Phoenix' made regular runs. Extra horses were needed to climb Tout hill to the Red Lion, now the Grosvenor Hotel. Here can be seen a magnificent carved sideboard depicting scenes from the 'Ballad of Chevy Chase'. Carved by Gerard Robinson it was intended for one of the Dukes of Northumberland, but he died before it could be completed and it came to the Grosvenor by purchase.
The coming of the railway age put the town at some disadvantage. The nearest station in the Victorian era was at Semley; the nearest now is at Gillingham, a town some five miles to the north. The arrival of the motor car in the twentieth century has redressed the balance. One of the great events early in the century was the sale of a major part of the town by Lord Stalbridge in 1919. It was purchased en bloc by a syndicate and then re-sold over a period of three days by public auction.
Today Shaftesbury is a bustling town which is also host to one of England's most famous streets. Undoubtedly the focal point of the town for visitors is picturesque Gold Hill, a steep, thatched cottage lined cobbled street made famous by the Hovis bread adverts of a small delivery boy streaming down the hill on his bicycle. The advert's haunting melodies from Dvorak's New World Symphony roll down the steep street. This steeply cobbled street is to be found behind the Town Hall, with cottages on one side and the buttressed precinct wall of the abbey on the other. The At the top of the hill is a museum containing an interesting collection of buttons, for which the town was famous. The older part of the town with its shops and historical features is situated on the headland spur. The conservation area of the town takes in much of the Saxon and Medieval areas.
Due to its height Shaftesbury offers panoramic views and bracing air. There are many sunny days when the views from Park Walk and Castle Hill can be spectacular.