Travels Through Historical Fiction: On the Marches at Shrewsbury
Despite several trips to the UK, I have not yet traveled to Shropshire. My interest in the area is based solely upon one of my favorite historical fiction series, the Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters. Sadly, the author is no longer with us, but during her life, she wrote prodigiously under several pseudonyms, including John Redfern, Jolson Carr, Peter Benedict, and her real name Edith Pargeter. Of all her characters, Brother Cadfael seems to be the most well known. Brother Cadfael, a rare Benedictine, was played by the wonderful Derek Jacobi for several years on the BBC/PBS Masterpiece Theater series of the same name. The Cadfael stories are set in Shrewsbury, a Shropshire principal town, during the time of the struggle between Empress Maude and King Stephen for the English throne (1141-1153 C.E.).
As is expounded upon in Peters’s novels, Shrewsbury was once charged with guarding the border between England and Wales, a.k.a. the Welsh Marches. This conflict between the Anglo-Norman marcher lords (i.e., men appointed by the king and given land along the border) and the Celtic Welsh runs throughout the Cadfael series. It was not only a fight over territory. The very cultures of the two groups were at odds over everything from rights of inheritance to language and beyond. For example, the Welsh believed that all children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, had rights to a share in their fathers’s estates. The English believed that those children so unfortunate as to be born on the, ahem, “wrong side of the blanket”, were entitled to nothing, not even acknowledgement of their parentage. It was into this turbulent period that Peters chose to set her protagonist, who happened to be Welsh by birth.
Much of the action in the novels takes place in Shrewsbury Abbey where Cadfael is the herbalist, a sort of medieval blending of our modern day professions of pharmacist and physician. Cadfael is a former Crusader who has chosen to take the cowl and live the religious life, but not exactly apart from the wider world that is 12th century Shropshire. In cooperation with his friend Sheriff Hugh Beringar, Cadfael adds amateur sleuthing to his considerable repertoire of skills. Together, these two solve many mysteries and bring to justice the perpetrators of all deeds most foul.
Knowing a little of the area’s history makes the novels even more enjoyable. The following is found on the website Shrewsburyguide.info:
It is believed the area of Shrewsbury was settled in the 5th century by refugees from the nearby Roman City of Wroxeter, but the first physical evidence dates from the 7th century Saxons who named the town “Scrobbesbyrig”.
The next major developments occurred after the Norman conquest, when Roger de Montgomery founded the Castle (1074) and the Abbey (1083). The castle was built on a defensive site occupying the only land entry into Shrewsbury. The rest of the town being enclosed by a loop in the River Severn. Later the settlement was walled for added protection, the remains of which can be found throughout the town, most notable remains of the wall are on the side of the town wall gardens along the river.
The Welsh Conflicts
Over the next two hundred years the Welsh made repeated attempts to capture Shrewsbury. The most notorious being Llywelyn II who after many years and many battles was killed in 1282. A year later his brother David was also defeated and brought to Shrewsbury where he was hung, drawn quartered on the High Cross on Pride Hill. His body parts were dispersed around the country and his head sent to the Tower of London.
The First English Parliaments
Edward I was a regular visitor to the Shrewsbury area and it is believed that he convened the first English Parliament at Acton Burnell Castle in 1263. Further meetings took place at the Chapter House in Shrewsbury Abbey.
The Battle of Shrewsbury
One of the bloodiest battles in English history took place just north of the town. This was, ‘The Battle of Shrewsbury’, in 1403, it saw the death of over 6000 soldiers over a period of just three hours. Sadly bodies were strewn over a three mile area. Shakespeare immortalised the events in his Henry IV plays.
The site has been designated as a heritage area and can be visited, as can the nearby memorial church. The best known fatality of the battle was Harry Hotspur. His dead body was also brought to the High Cross, beheaded and quartered. This Cross is a marker for many slayings, and today you can see on the wall of Barclay’s Bank a cross, from a replacement cross, and a plaque telling of all the executions.
The Civil War
In 1642, at the start of the English Civil War, Shrewsbury was a Royalist stronghold, but not very well defended and as a result, was very quickly overwhelmed by the Roundheads. The town then remained in Roundhead hands until the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.
The Industrial Revolution
Despite the proximity of Ironbridge, the industrial revolution had little effect on the character of Shrewsbury. It remained essentially a country market town. Thomas Telford did leave his mark on the town, for example he ‘modernised’ the castle and drove one of his roads through the middle of Shrewsbury Abbey grounds. In 1809 Charles Darwin was born in the town and was educated at Shrewsbury School before moving on to University.
Origin of the Shrewsbury Name
The original Saxon settlement was named “Scrobbesbyrig”. It is thought to have been derived from two Old English words – “scrubb”, meaning be scrubland and “burh” which means fortified place.
Thus it is the fortified place in the scrubland, probably referring to the nearby plains which in Saxon times were sparsely populated with alder trees, especially in the boggy regions alongside the River Severn.
Over the years this became corrupted to Shrewsbury, which nowadays is pronounced usually in two different ways:
“Shrows-bury” or Shroos-bury”. Both variations seem to have equal merit amongst the townsfolk, so prepare for a good debate if you choose to discuss the subject with a group of locals!
People occasionally refer to the town as ‘Salop’, particularly in historical records or publications. In fact Salop is the original name of the county of Shropshire, which, of course, includes the town of Shrewsbury. Locals will still often describe themselves as ‘Salopians’, as do students past and present from the Shrewsbury Boys School.
By whatever name, Shrewsbury and Shropshire appear to be lovely areas and definitely worth a visit. I hope to see them for myself in the not too distant future!
A Selection of Cadfael Covers and Shropshire Gallery