tales from shropshire

This series of articles looks at some of the stories from the wider county of Shropshire that are little-known or which have been forgotten about by most people in Shropshire. These articles are written by Civic Society historian, Russell Game. Scroll down the page until you reach the articles you are interested in.

Edric the Wild, Anglo-Saxon Rebel

Dealing with Plague (Shrewsbury 1650)

The Battle of Wem, 1643

The Death of Prince Arthur, 1502

The Blight of Christmas Past

The Dissolution of Wenlock Priory

Edric the Wild, Anglo-Saxon Rebel

(Article first appeared Winter 2020)

William I, aka William the Conqueror, became King of England on Christmas Day, 1066. However, despite our modern acceptance of the Normans as a feature of our history, the Normans were in effect an occupying army and faced much resistance.

Initially, the Normans only had firm control in the South East – elsewhere in England they faced considerable resistance, including along the Welsh border.

‘Edric the Wild’ was a powerful Saxon lord holding many lands in Shropshire. Little is known of him as an historic figure, but it is certain that he was fighting against the Normans in 1067. Under pressure from the Normans entrenched in nearby Herefordshire, Edric made alliances with Welsh princes, and together they attacked Hereford, causing much damage.

Edric was also known to be a participant in the Great Rising of 1069, though – according to the chronicler Simeon of Durham – he made his peace with the Norman king in 1070. This was, however, after he had burned Shrewsbury and laid siege to Shrewsbury castle, albeit unsuccessfully.

Edric was one of William’s personal followers when the Norman king launched an expedition against the Scots in 1072 – an arrangement that may have been designed to keep him under close Norman scrutiny.

It is at this point that history seems to have left him, other than a reference in the Mortimer genealogy, which has ‘Edric’ holding Wigmore Castle in 1075. There is a mention of ‘Edric’ in Domesday, which hints at Normans taking over his holdings. It is hard to be sure because Edric was a common name at the time, and it is uncertain which holdings exactly belonged to which Edric. It is not known when he died, but, at this point, legend intervenes.

Apparently, Edric coming to terms with the king did not please the local people, who then placed a curse upon him. This led to his imprisonment in the Stiperstones lead mines, along with his wife and his men. It is claimed that these prisoners cannot die, and that they are released from the mines whenever England is under threat, so that they can lend their fighting prowess to defeat the danger. They then have to return to the mines once the danger has gone.

There are claims that he and his followers have been seen galloping across the Shropshire hills, including reports from 1853 (before the Crimean War), 1914 (before the First World War) and 1939 (before the Second World War)

Dealing with plague – Shrewsbury 1650

(Article first appeared Spring 2021)

At a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has forced three lockdowns on Shrewsbury, it is perhaps natural to look at the past and wonder how people dealt with outbreaks of contagious disease, and perhaps to wonder what might have been learned from the sufferings of people in the past.

Plague has to be counted amongst the most virulent of diseases in the past, and a particularly bad outbreak occurred in Shrewsbury in 1650. Lacking the media outlets of the 21st century, the first that the inhabitants of the town might have heard of an outbreak of disease would have come through rumour, a more frequent tolling of funeral bells and the town crier, who would have been the 17th century equivalent of the modern government briefing.

It is likely that the people in 1650 would have been looking for the tell-tale signs of bubonic plague in any of their friends and relatives. Such signs would have included fever and vomiting, but the clear ‘giveaway’ was the appearance of buboes, – lumps which were thought of as the mark of God – for death! Like today, people asked about who might be responsible for the outbreak, how it might be avoided and when it might come to an end.

Health experts of the day tended to blame bad air for the outbreak of diseases, the so-called ‘miasma theory’. Shrewsbury Town Corporation had tried to follow this science and had made something of an effort towards greater hygiene within the town. A street cleaning programme had been introduced for main streets on Wednesdays and Saturdays (back streets got cleaned once a week). As a result, dunghills were cleaned away and water ditches emptied regularly. (The reader can only imagine what the town might have been like before these measures were adopted!)

Meanwhile efforts were also made to remove the livestock that roamed the streets, notably dogs and pigs, whilst all cats were slaughtered – which was a self-defeating remedy as the cats might have helped to reduce the rat population, which was responsible for carrying the plague-infested fleas into the town.

None of it made any difference, and plague was a constant feature of life for several decades. Physical contact with others was avoided wherever possible, though there was no specified social distancing as recommended in 2020. In 1650, most strangers were mistrusted, with the most obvious ‘suspects’ being those wearing the fashionable new periwig (had it been made from the hair of a plague victim?) and the garrison of parliamentary soldiers at the castle (though many people in the town would have regarded them with suspicion anyway).

The question of how to isolate the victims of the plague was a prime consideration – there was no real PPE at the time, though the so-called plague doctors might have worn some sort of rudimentary protective garment. The Plague Act of 1604 had given watchmen the legal authority to keep people shut up, and this policy was pursued vigorously in Shrewsbury.

So-called searchers were employed to root out the afflicted, looking for signs of illness in people and reporting them. This did cause a problem as the searchers tended not to have medical qualifications (such as they might have been in 1650) and so were prone to confuse other ‘pernicious and contagious fevers’ as symptoms of plague – a bit like mistaking the common cold for symptoms of Covid19. Searchers actually put their lives at risk, and they received no thanks or gratitude – mostly because they were perceived to have come into close contact with plague victims, who were always treated as outcasts long before death released them from their isolation.

Central Government, even in 1650 when Oliver Cromwell was in charge, could not resist intervening in the local situation. It ordered the closure of the nearby Grammar School (nothing new in 21st century school closures, then) and it ordered any ill soldiers at the castle to be removed outside the town walls (the other soldiers were effectively quarantined in the castle). Soldiers outside the town walls were put into a field to lie ‘till it be seen how the Lord will dispose of them’. In other words, they were left to die or survive by themselves, though it is uncertain how they might have been able to feed themselves or how they might have proved that they had become free from the disease.

A special isolation hospital – the ‘pesthouse’ – was set up in Frankwell for those who could not ‘self-isolate’ at home. Anyone leaving isolation was deemed guilty of a felony and could be hanged. However, reports from the time speak of grass growing in the streets, which implies most people stayed at home, presumably only leaving for essential reasons.

Keeping up a food supply was difficult – in times of plague nobody wished to come to the town. This made it difficult for the Town Corporation, which was supposed to announce the existence of plague to the outside world at the time of an outbreak. The Corporation knew, however, that any such announcement would bring the town’s economic life to a virtual standstill. The tension between saving lives and destroying the economy was one that was still debated in the 21st century! Central Government was well aware of attempts by Town Corporations to cover up the reality of plague, so in 1600 the government had made it a condition that it would only provide financial help when the local authority had agreed to set up a cordon sanitaire during time of plague.

In 1650 Shrewsbury lost 250 people to the plague within six months – most of them dying in the Frankwell isolation hospital.

Plague disappeared from England by the end of the 17th century. Nobody really knows why – theories have been put forward that suggest better hygiene reducing the black rat population, a mutated, less effective bacillus and greater ‘herd immunity’ among the populace. The real reason for bubonic plague – the flea carried on the black rat – was not recognised until much later than the 17th century. The bacillus responsible, ‘Yersinia Pestis’ was only discovered in 1894.

The Battle of Wem, 1643

(Article first appeared Winter 2020)

Most people in Shrewsbury are aware of Traitor’s Gate, the name given to the water-gate at the bottom of St Mary’s Water Lane. The name derives from the English Civil War, and stems from the day when parliamentary forces were ‘allowed’ through the gate, from where they went on to capture the town for Parliament.

Many people are also aware that Shropshire as a county was predominantly Royalist, and those who sympathised with Parliament tended to keep their opinions to themselves. This is not to say that there were no areas of support for Parliament…

When the Civil War broke out in 1642 the King, Charles I, was in Nottingham. However, he found only lukewarm support for his cause there, so he moved to Shrewsbury, hoping for greater success in raising an army.

Royalist sympathisers were to be found across Shropshire, and most of those who preferred Parliament left the county towards Bristol. However, Bristol fell to the Royalists in July 1643, so most of the Shropshire Parliamentarians settled in Wem, establishing the first parliamentarian garrison in Shropshire. This involved the construction of a rampart (strengthened by a palisade) and a ditch, which could be flooded.

The Royalists reacted by sending an army, said to number some 5,000, under Lord Capel to destroy the stronghold at Wem before the new defences could be completed. Capel deployed his army before Wem as, inside the town, Sir William Brereton made ready to defend it.

For three days the two armies stood within a mile of each other in a standoff that was interspersed by only an occasional skirmish. Then, Lord Capel made a sudden move towards Nantwich, attacking and plundering some of the small villages that lay in his path. Brereton responded by moving his forces into a pursuit of the Royalists, leaving Wem with practically no defenders.

Then, under cover of darkness, Lord Capel doubled back towards Wem…

The defences of the town were indeed incomplete, and the gates were not in place. Many of the guns in the ramparts were in fact dummies, and the 40 or so remaining defenders(1) , under the command of Colonel Hunt, were seriously outnumbered.

When the assault by the Royalists began, the few defenders stood up to their task, stoically assisted by the women of the town. Somehow, this group of women and parliamentarians were able to fend off the Royalist attack. A contemporary source spoke of Capel’s army suffering heavy casualties, whilst the defenders lost only three of their number. The Royalists later withdrew as the main parliamentary forces returned to Wem. Shropshire now had a parliamentarian base.

This parliamentarian victory was quickly propagandised, with a heavy emphasis on Capel’s failure to overcome the poorly defended town:

With his army badly damaged and several of his best officers dead or captured, Capel returned to Shrewsbury. He had become a laughingstock and feared the possibility of the people of Shrewsbury turning against the Royalist cause.

This did not come about, but the base at Wem remained a serious thorn in the side of the Shropshire Royalists. It was also from there that the forces were sent to capture Shrewsbury for Parliament in 1645

(1) Sources on the number of men left in Wem do differ, with some claiming that there were as many as 300 parliamentarian foot soldiers. Even so, they remained seriously outnumbered by the Royalists

The Death of Prince Arthur, 1502

(Article first appeared Summer 2021)

Prince Arthur was the eldest son of King Henry VII, and heir to the English throne. In November 1501 he was married to Catherine of Aragon and the young couple moved to their home at Ludlow Castle. At the time Ludlow was the administrative centre for the government of Wales.

A year later, the prince died. It is generally thought that he died from the sweating sickness, which was a disease that caused its victims to feel intense heat (see below).

Catherine also succumbed to the disease, but she recovered from it, causing many historians to speculate that she was healthier and more robust than Arthur. There are also sources from some members of Catherine’s retinue that comment about the ‘worrying state’ of the prince’s heath – sources that date from before the time that he came down with the illness.

However, not all contemporaries or historians accept the explanation that Arthur died from the sweating sickness. One alternative theory, posited by Peter Vaughan of the Worcester Prince Arthur Committee, suggests that Arthur was deliberately neglected by his father. According to this theory, King Henry VII knew that Arthur was not as strong as his younger brother, Henry, and concluded that it would be better if Arthur never succeeded to the throne. However, this theory has few supporters because it seems unlikely that Henry VII would have posted Arthur to Ludlow only to then neglect his oldest son to the point of death!

Others have put forward the idea that a different disease did for the prince. Tuberculosis, for example, would certainly have caused the prince’s weakness, as would pneumonia. Another theory suggests that Arthur was poisoned. However, many of these other theories fall down because Catherine became ill at the same time, and yet she survived.

This is not to say that it was impossible for another disease to have killed Arthur whilst leaving Catherine alive. It is possible that there was a genetic fault in the Tudor line which reduced the chances of those affected resisting disease – after all, Edward VI, the son of Henry VIII, died at the same age as Arthur, and Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, the later Duke of Richmond and Somerset, died at the age of 17.

The death of Arthur was very significant, however, because his younger brother became heir to throne in his place – and married his ex-wife. This younger brother ascended the throne as Henry VIII…

The Blight of Christmas Past

(Article first appeared Winter 2021)

Today’s tradition of carol singing involves well-dressed choirs singing in the name of charity in public spaces. Alternatively, images of families traipsing through the winter snows are distributed, with polite young children accompanying their parents in harmonious festive cheer. Quite often, the setting to images of carol singers is Victorian, as collective memories are drawn to a time of perfect Christmases…

In fact, the supposedly harmless tradition of carol singing in Victorian snows has little basis in Victorian fact. It would be far more likely that the singers would indulge in fights and terrorising, sometimes even murder. Many Victorians considered the carol singers to be little more than public nuisances, who congregated in gangs with the intention of terrorising people with screeching, appalling language and extortion. There were many calls to have them banned:

Stories abound from round the country, not just Shrewsbury, about carol singers having to be sent packing by residents, sometimes armed with revolvers and pistols. Many letters were sent to newspapers across the land, demanding the complete obliteration of the ‘Christmas Carol Nuisance’. One comment in the Essex Newsman (January 1887) complained that the singers indulged in ‘rowdy burlesque drunken or half-drunken orgies’, whilst a letter in the Shrewsbury Chronicle (December 1904) complained of ‘gangs of boy and men’ who hung about the streets during the dark hours with ‘festive howling’.

Interestingly, on 11th November 2009, an article in the Daily Telegraph pointed to signs in Lancashire that warned carol singers not to call. The article stated that ‘church leaders’ regarded such fears of carol singers as representing ‘an alarming reflection of modern Britain’. Perhaps some people need to read much more history…

The Dissolution of Wenlock Priory

(Article first appeared Spring 2022)

A monastery at Much Wenlock was initially founded some time between 670 and 680. It was a so-called dual house, i.e. a community of both monks and nuns, which were not uncommon between the 7th and 9th centuries. In such communities, monks and nuns had separate buildings and places of worship.

According to English Heritage, the monks had their church on the site of the existing abbey, whilst the nuns’ church stood where the parish church now stands. It is thought that it remained a dual house until the early 10th century, when nuns stopped being part of the community. Monks remained at Wenlock until the monastery was re-founded by Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury, as a Cluniac priory. The date for this is uncertain, but it must have been established by 1086 because it is mentioned in the Domesday Book.

The Cluniac movement was a significant reform movement based around Cluny Abbey in France, and there were thus clear links between Wenlock and France for some 250 years. However, the close links with an abbey in France meant that it was classed as an alien priory, which mattered after 1337 and the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. King Edward III had ordered the seizure of all alien priories, and Wenlock sought to escape this by agreeing to a payment of £170 each year to the Crown.

This amount of money represented more than half of the priory’s annual income. It was reduced to £133, but this was a still a crippling amount that the priory could not afford to pay. In the end, Wenlock escaped the payment by renouncing its ties with the French. Wenlock’s prior and monks also had to swear that they were English, taking the required oaths in February 1395 – a process that cost a one-off fee of £400.

In 1527 John Bayly became the prior at Wenlock, and it was he who was caught up in the religious revolution that is known as the English Reformation. The income of the priory was assessed at more than £400 per year in 1535, which meant it was not included in the first round of monastic closures. However, this did not spare it in the longer term, and monastic life came to an end on 26 January 1540. It was on that day that Bayly and his 12 monks surrendered the monastery to the commissioners of King Henry VIII.

Bayly was given a substantial pension of £80 per annum – the other monks received between £5 and £6. One of them, Thomas Butler, became the parish priest for Much Wenlock. The priory was stripped of its valuables, with the lead being removed from the roofs. This included the roof of the church building, which soon fell into ruin. However, the former prior’s lodging and the infirmary were preserved as private dwellings for the new owners of the site. These buildings still stand to this day, whilst the rest of Wenlock Priory is no more than a rather fascinating relic of monastic days.