Loose Stones Could Reveal New Information On Shaftesbury Abbey’s History

There are many loose stones and tiles around Shaftesbury’s Abbey Gardens. On14th September, architectural historian and broadcaster, Dr Jonathan Foyle, will explain how these remains could reveal a great deal of information about the history of a once significant religious building.

“Since the excavations in the early 20th century, the site has been turned over and many of the historic stones have become rockeries. It’s all very attractive but it leaves the problem of where did the stones come from originally and what they mean. When you look closely at a number of them, you start to see images that speak quite clearly of the Virgin Mary.”

Jonathan says that details featuring roses or the fleur-de-lys suggest a dedication to St Mary, and it’s possible to analyse each design to uncover a deeper meaning. “One of the things I will be talking about is what this imagery is and what aspects of the saint they refer to. And also, how does that package ideas about life, hope, aspiration and belief when the abbey existed and was the centrepiece of Shaftesbury, over 500 years ago.”

Jonathan says that the loose stones can identify construction periods, too. “We know that the abbey was founded in 888 AD and it was destroyed in 1539. There were certain periods of intervention – the Norman Conquest is most obvious. William the Conqueror tended to rebuild most of the cathedrals on the Norman French model. The Anglo-Saxon churches tended to be smaller and strung out, rather like carriages on the train. We know that the late 11th century was one of the great periods of construction,” explained Jonathan.

“Shaftesbury Abbey got quite wealthy between the late 14th century and early 16th century. You see hints of that in the remains of the stones from the shrines, which are in the Abbey museum. But the loose stones that we are talking about, if I can date some of those stones to one of these phases of history, then we can start to map them and look at the evidence to suggest when there were building campaigns.”

Jonathan has been talking with the Abbey trustees about trying to pinpoint the location of the foundations of the late ninth century structure. And he has an idea where it might have been located.

“It’s very notable, when you are standing in the ruins of the Abbey and you look towards the town, that you can see the tower of St Peter’s Church. Early Saxon churches, especially those with a Virgin Mary dedication, tend to be aligned with churches of St Peter. That happens at Lichfield and Stamford. What I think we’re looking at is a key to the possible site of the original Saxon church,” said Jonathan. “If we were to take an axial line through St Peter’s Church and the High Street and draw it through the Oxfam bookshop, it will come through the grounds of the Abbey. That would be my first place to look for the basis of that entire monastery complex.”

Jonathan says we’re never going to have a full answer but thinks this is still a ‘big chance’ to understand much more about Shaftesbury. “In a way it’s an overlooked building because there’s next to nothing that is above ground,” said Jonathan. “In Shaftesbury, everybody is looking in the other direction, over the Blackmore Vale, because of the astonishing view, or to Gold Hill. The site itself is planted with flowers. That’s the area where we can start to transform people’s understanding of what was once there.”

Earlier this year a team of Austrian archaeologists came over to survey what lies beneath the ground using state-of-the-art laser scanning and ground penetrating radar. Jonathan says he was unable to talk to them about his theory before they visited but he’s pleased to be involved with the Abbey now, at an exciting time.

“I haven’t dealt with them at all. My involvement is very recent but I think we’re looking for a roundtable meeting in September, where we can start to put everything together and ask ‘what have we all been doing?’ And ‘how are we seeing the evidence coming together for the site?’ We can talk about planning a project. It’s a very exciting moment,” he said.

Jonathan Foyle’s lecture takes place at Shaftesbury Arts Centre on Friday 14th September at 7.30pm. You can buy tickets from the box office for £12, or £10 if you are a Friend of the Abbey or a student.