Shrewsbury through the Ages

There is no doubt about the fact that Shrewsbury is an English town that we should be proud of. Its location on a hill. with the river creating an almost complete loop for protection, its mediaeval charm with a wealth of timber-framed buildings. some of which lean so crazily that I'm surprised they still stand, and its history which seems to be almost visible, are all things which make Shrewsbury unique.

But that's not to say it doesn't have its faults. Its position in the loop of the river is the main cause of the traffic problems of today, and its mediaeval charm is a continuous cause for concern and discussion when any developer makes a move towards the town. And even its history has caused controversy over the years amongst those puritans who do not wish to mix fact and fiction in Shrewsbury.


Early History
For a town with so much history, its origins are not as clear as one would expect. Some believe that Shrewsbury owes its origins to the Britons who deserted Viriconium on the banks of the Severn a few miles downstream and found refuge from the invading Saxons at a place they called Pengwern, from where, later, the Prince of Powys ruled his lands.

But is that true? Some think that Pengwern was more likely to have been further north, near Baschurch, at a place they call The Berth. If that is true then Shrewsbury did not come into being until later, when Offa the Terrible put his mark on our county in the eighth century.

King Offa built a dyke to act as a dynastic boundary between Mercia (England) and Powys (Wales). By the time Offa died at the end of the 8th century, there had been a settlement where Shrewsbury stands today for quite a long time. The obvious reasons for the choice of site were, the almost complete loop of the river for defence, and, the river for transportation. But we have to wait until 901 before Shrewsbury is actually mentioned in a charter. 'acta es, . . . in civitate Scrobbensi'. The words indicate a defensive administrative centre exercising control over a considerable area.

By 925, Athelstan, the first Saxon King of Britain, passed a law to unify coinage, and Shrewsbury was one of the places thought suitable to mint the new unified coins. At the end of the 9th century, Alfred was on the throne and Shrewsbury would have consisted of little more than a wooden tower and stockade on its highest point, perhaps where the castle stands today. Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred, is said to have founded St. Alkmund's church, dedicated to a prince of the Royal house of Northumbria.
But where did the name come from?

Some historians believe that the name Scrob is derived from scrub or shrub, mainly the latter so that it can be interpreted as the town of shrubs. But others believe that it comes from a personal name, after all, there was a Richard le Scrob, a pre-Conquest Norman who built Richard's Castle (near Ludlow) and who administered this part of the border region.

But is it Shrewsbury or Shrowsbury? The traditional pronunciation of the 'ew' in Shrewsbury survives in the word 'sew'. In earlier days when spelling was more phonetic the name appears as Shroesbury and Shrowesbury, the 'ow" being sounded as in 'show'. It is a very handsome word when thus enunciated and befitting of such a beautiful mediaeval town. But just to confuse the visitor, you will find the locals pronouncing it both ways!

After the Norman Conquest
It is said that in one day in September, 1066, a kingdom was lost and won. The winner was, of course, William 'the Conqueror'. But 'conquering' the Welsh border region was not as easy as he would have liked. One of the main objectors to the new regime was Edric Sylvaticus, a Saxon who controlled large estates in Shropshire and Hereford. He has passed into history as Wild Edric, and in an alliance with the Welsh he even besieged Shrewsbury in 1069.

Eventually he was captured but instead of being punished he was given lands along the border, the theory being that the problematic Welsh would now be his problem. But it was a problem that would not go away, and Shrewsbury soon became an important town in the control of the border region known as The Marches.

The job of controlling this area was given to the Norman Earl Roger de Montgomery, son of William's cousin. Roger was the first Earl of Shrewsbury, and one of his first tasks was to replace the earlier wooden fort with something more substantial. The castle still stands today, although it has been altered considerably over the centuries, and the oldest parts now visible probably date from the time of Henry II in the 12th century.

Earl Roger has passed into history as one of the 'good guys', unlike some who followed him, and it is known he was a religious man as he founded Shrewsbury Abbey, the remnants of which today are only a tiny part of a vast complex with the church itself being over 300 feet (almost 100 metres) in length.
But such a building programme did have its opponents as houses and buildings were knocked down to make way for Roger's new town. These objections, amongst other interesting facts about 11th century Shrewsbury are recorded in the Domesday Book. (See next page)