Expert Reassembles Artefacts To Reveal New Information About Shaftesbury Abbey

An expert in historical architecture has made two discoveries that have excited Shaftesbury Abbey volunteers. Jonathan Foyle has moved pieces of stone fragments and this work has altered previous opinion about the Abbey’s appearance.

A closed door at the end of the Abbey Museum leads to a storeroom lined with floor to ceiling shelving. Here, dozens of chunks of masonry and fragments of carved stone decorations are stored. Dr Jonathan Foyle believes that small details on this discarded stonework give clues to where and how it was used.

Dr Jonathan Foyle

This could offer historians a clearer picture of Shaftesbury Abbey’s layout before Henry VIII had its buildings razed to the ground. “The building itself is gone, but so many of its furnishings survive. So, we have to redesign it from the inside out,” said Jonathan.

Jonathan has looked at stone pieces unearthed around the Abbey gardens over the decades. He’s studied the patterns, shapes and decorative marks on these remnants and compared them with the features of surviving religious buildings from the same period. That gives clues as to how the Shaftesbury stonework was used. And he’s tried to reconstruct those designs.

“We’ve taken them out of the stores and those with similar features, we’ve tried to line up. In some cases, where we are very lucky, you can see where broken stone just slots back together again because the breaks are compatible,” said Jonathan.

Three light coloured breeze block-sized lumps of Chilmark stone had been removed from the store and lined up next to each other. Jonathan’s forensic work has confirmed a significant design feature of the Abbey. A stone screen ran across the middle of the building.

“That was a real moment of magic. There was a gasp when we took a tall vertical section and stuck it on the bottom plinth that we’d started to reconstruct it on. This was a ‘reredos’, the screen behind the high altar. It started to emerge in three dimensions,” he explained.

Effectively he had a puzzle to reassemble. “It’s a jigsaw of which two-thirds of the pieces are missing,” Jonathan replied. “But we can get back the essential image because the mediaeval design is essentially repetition. With the reredos, you know it is one object. If you have one section of it, you just duplicate that section. It is easier than a jigsaw because the jigsaw represents a complex picture.”

Fragments of the stone reredos

The reredos, a decorative stone screen, would have run behind the altar. “At the far east end of the church, next to the high altar and before the main windows, where the sun rises through in the morning there are very often stone screens. We find them from the 14th century. This is typical of something like the 20-foot wide screen, which is vertically divided by big window mullions and which go right up to the top, with spires and pinnacles,” said Jonathan.

He can only make an informed guess at how high this screen once stood. “It was probably something like 15 to 20 feet and it may have been 2 to 3 stories high. It almost certainly had two doors in it. They went either side of the high altar if you’re walking into the choir. You’d see steps onto a tiled floor,” said Jonathan.

He continued, “There would be an altar with a cloth on in the middle of the church. Either side of that altar you could see a door within the screen, behind the altar, and you’d be invited to walk through the door. But would you find? Imagine that the oak door swung open and there, lit by the east windows of the church, is a glittering shrine. The reason it was within a concealed room was that the glittering shrine was full of jewels and precious metals and you don’t want people to nick them. You want to organise how people witness the shrine and for them to leave their money. This is a tribute to help you get into heaven. It has to be theatrical. It has to be special. It’s in restricted space and you pay your money to get in.”

The shrine would have been to King Edward the Martyr. He ruled for three years from 975 before he was murdered at Corfe. People would have travelled long distances to visit the place where the king’s bones were. The screen would have framed this tourism attraction.

“Shaftesbury Abbey was a royal and ancient foundation. It was a ninth-century church which, well after the Norman conquest, really appealed to people who thought, ‘Where are our native saints?’ They looked back to the Anglo-Saxon era. You might say that Edward the Confessor in Westminster and St Edward, his namesake in Dorset, are two bookends in the south of England,” said Jonathan. “You are on a route here that takes in some great churches – London, Winchester, Salisbury, Exeter. Shaftesbury is on that great pilgrimage route. You have traffic. You have the royal and ancient associations that can be traded on.”

Even though Jonathan can put the architectural framework back together, he wants to know why people came and what they thought of the shrine. “What was in people’s heads? That’s the next step,” he said.

Jonathan says his most exciting work has been reassembling the pieces of stone decoration known as ‘The Mass of St Gregory’. It has been on view in the Abbey, but the pieces have not been displayed in the correct order. It’s another puzzle to reassemble. “The reason it looked more like a bunch of broken stones is that half of the stones were in the wrong position and we spent the last couple of days looking at how they relate to each other and how we can regain the proportions.”

The ‘Mass of St Gregory’

It’s thought that this 15th century carved stone sculpture may have been broken into pieces when the Abbey was closed in 1539. The constituent parts were hidden behind a wall in St Peter’s Church until they were discovered when that church was renovated in 1975. “These fragments have been on display for twenty years or so. Probably 30% of the original surface is still there.”

The pictures on the stonework show a kneeling figure with his hands clasped. The hands have been broken off and so has his head. Above that is a torso of Christ, rising out of the altar. “It’s very theatrical,” said Jonathan. “The reason we are excited about a bunch of old broken stones is that we have enough of the stones to reconstruct the beautiful painted coloured surface.”

Jonathan was able to fit a piece of stone, carved to look like a bishop’s mitre, over the head of the figure. “It suggests this is a donor portrait of probably the Bishop of Salisbury in the 15th century. That’s why it so richly painted.”

Sketch of what the Mass of St Gregory looked like when complete

Jonathan was thrilled to uncover a piece of stone with an inscription on it during his search of the storeroom. “It’s late 15th century with Gothic black letter script and a big red initial. It has a Latin text, which begins a sentence saying, ‘In such an image’. It would have run right around the bottom. This is as rich as anything you will find from the late Middle Ages. It is as good as any cathedral. No others of this size and quality survive in Britain. There’s a tiny one in the side chapel in Exeter Cathedral, but this is the grandest we know about,” he said.

He can’t stress how important this find has been. “It was undoubtedly, in the 15th century, the main focus of this Abbey. Through reconstruction, we can put back before our own eyes what it was that met people’s eyes, five-and-half centuries ago.”

When Shaftesbury Abbey opens for the 2020 season on 29th March, a new display, based on the timeline of the church and town, will be presented to visitors.