Shaftesbury is a town in Dorset, England. It is situated on the A30 road, west of Salisbury, near to the border with Wiltshire. The town is built above sea level on the side of a chalk and greensand hill, which is part of Cranborne Chase, the only significant hilltop settlement in Dorset. It is one of the oldest and highest towns in Britain.
In 2001, the town had a population of 6,665 with 3,112 dwellings, only a small increase from 1991.
Many of the older buildings in the town are of the local greensand, while others built from the grey Chilmark limestone, much of which was salvaged from the demolished Shaftesbury Abbey, and have thatched roofs. Tourism is one of the main industries.
The town looks over the Blackmore Vale, part of the River Stour basin. From different viewpoints, it is possible to see at least as far as Glastonbury Tor to the northwest. A particularly scenic road is Gold Hill, the steep cobbled street that film director Ridley Scott used as the setting for an iconic television advertisement for Hovis bread that was frequently broadcast in the 1970s and 1980s. Shaftesbury is also celebrated for its ruined abbey and the nearby Wardour Castle. About to the west of Shaftesbury rises the conical mound of Duncliffe Hill, visible for miles and home to Duncliffe Wood and a nature reserve.
There is no substantive evidence that Shaftesbury was the "Caer Palladur" (or "Caer Palladwr") of Celtic and Roman times, and instead the town's recorded history dates from Anglo-Saxon times. Its first written record as a town is in the Burghal Hidage. Alfred the Great founded a burgh (fortified settlement) here in 880 as a defence in the struggle with the Danish invaders. Alfred and his daughter Ethelgiva founded Shaftesbury Abbey in 888, which was a spur to the growing importance of the town. Athelstan founded three royal mints, which struck pennies bearing the town's name, and the abbey became the wealthiest Benedictine nunnery in England. On 20 February 981 the relics of St Edward the Martyr were transferred from Wareham and received at the abbey with great ceremony, thereafter turning Shaftesbury into a major site of pilgrimage for miracles of healing. In 1240 Cardinal Otto (Oddone di Monferrato), legate to the Apostolic See of Pope Gregory IX visited the abbey and confirmed a charter of 1191, the first entered in the Glastonbury chartulary.
Shaftesbury took a small role with the civil war between Queen Matilda and King Stephen, in which a small castle was built on Castle Hill. .
In 1260, a charter to hold a market was granted. In 1392, Richard II confirmed a grant of two markets on different days. By 1340, the mayor had become a recognised figure, sworn in by the steward of the abbess.
Edwardstow, Shaftesbury's oldest surviving building, was built on Bimport at some time between 1400 and 1539. Also in this period a medieval farm owned by the Abbess of Shaftesbury was established (where the Tesco supermarket car park is today).
In 1539, the last Abbess of Shaftesbury, Elizabeth Zouche, signed a deed of surrender, the (by then extremely wealthy) abbey was demolished, and its lands sold, leading to a temporary decline in the town. Sir Thomas Arundel of Wardour purchased the abbey and much of the town in 1540, but when he was later exiled for treason his lands were forfeit, and the lands passed to Pembroke then Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, and finally to the Grosvenors.
Shaftesbury was a parliamentary constituency returning two members from 1296 to the Reform Act of 1832, when it was reduced to one, and in 1884 the separate constituency was abolished.
The town was broadly Parliamentarian in the Civil War, but was in Royalist hands. Wardour Castle fell to Parliamentary forces in 1643; Parliamentary forces surrounded the town in August 1645, when it was a centre of local clubmen activity. The clubmen were arrested and sent to trial in Sherborne. Shaftesbury took no part in the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685.
The major industries in the 18th and 19th centuries were buttonmaking and weaving. The former became a victim of mechanisation, which caused unemployment, starvation and emigration, with 350 families leaving for Canada.
The five turnpikes which met at Shaftesbury ensured that the town had a good coaching trade. The railways, however, bypassed Shaftesbury, and this influenced the subsequent pattern of its growth.
The Westminster Memorial Hospital was constructed on Bimport in the mid-19th century with a legacy from the wife of the Duke of Westminster (today it is a small community hospital with about 20 beds, a radiology department, a daytime minor injuries department and out-patient clinics).
In 1919, Lord Stalbridge sold a large portion of the town, which was purchased by a syndicate and auctioned piece by piece over three days.
Most of the Saxon and Medieval buildings are now ruined, with most of the town dating from the 18th century to present. Thomas Hardy, whose Wessex name for Shaftesbury was Shaston (or Palladour), wrote:
"Vague imaginings of its castle, its three mints, its magnificent apsidal abbey, the chief glory of south Wessex, its twelve churches, its shrines, chantries, hospitals, its gabled freestone mansions—all now ruthlessly swept away—throw the visitor, even against his will, into a pensive melancholy, which the stimulating atmosphere and limitless landscape around him can scarcely dispel."
During the 1950s and onwards a large amount of low-cost housing has been established around the outskirts of Shaftesbury.