By Tim Lambert
Shrewsbury in the Middle Ages
Shrewsbury began as an Anglo-Saxon town. It was first mentioned in the year 901. Its place name ending ‘bury’ showed it was once a fortified settlement called a burgh. (The Saxons created a network of fortified settlements across England). Shrewsbury was probably protected by a ditch with an earth rampart and a wooden stockade.
In the 10th century, Shrewsbury had a mint so it must have been a fairly important place. At the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 Shrewsbury probably had a population of about 1200. It would seem tiny to us but Medieval towns were very small.
The Normans built a wooden fort at Shrewsbury. However, in 1069 a rebellion occurred and the rebels laid siege to the fort. When Norman reinforcements arrived the rebels set the town alight then fled. Although part of Shrewsbury was burned the town soon recovered. (Fire, whether deliberate or accidental was a constant hazard in Medieval towns when most buildings were of wood with thatched roofs. On the other hand, if they burned down they could easily be rebuilt).
Shrewsbury Abbey was founded in 1083 by Roger de Montgomery the first Earl of Shrewsbury. The same man built a castle in Shrewsbury to replace the rough wooden fort.
Medieval Shrewsbury flourished. By the 12th century, it had 2 bridges. In the early 12th century King Henry I gave Shrewsbury a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). King Richard, I gave Shrewsbury a second charter in 1189. In the 13th century stone walls were built around Shrewsbury.
By the 14th century, Shrewsbury probably had a population of about 3,000. To us, it would seem no more than a village but by Medieval standards, it was a fair-sized town.
There was an important leather industry in Shrewsbury. There were skinners and tanners in the town as well as shoemakers and glovers. In the late Middle Ages Shrewsbury grew prosperous on the Welsh wool and flax trade. There were many drapers and tailors in Shrewsbury.
In the 13th century, friars arrived in Shrewsbury. (Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach and help the poor). Franciscan friars were called grey friars because of their grey costumes. Dominican friars were called black friars. There were also Austin Friars in Shrewsbury.
The Abbot’s House in Butchers Row was built in the mid-15th century.
During the 13th century, there was frequent warfare between the English and the Welsh. Shrewsbury was, obviously, in the front line because of its position. In 1215 Shrewsbury was captured by the Welsh under their leader Llywelyn the Great. However, the Welsh only held the town for a short time. Nevertheless, warfare between the English and the Welsh continued through the 13th century.
Then in 1403, the Battle of Shrewsbury was fought. A powerful noble called Henry (Harry) Percy (also known as Harry Hotspur) led a rebellion against the king and his forces marched to Shrewsbury. King Henry IV led a larger army against him and the two sides met in battle. At first, the fighting was between archers and the rebels seemed to be gaining the upper hand.
However, when fighting began between men at arms the king’s army prevailed. Crucially Harry Hotspur was killed ending the rebellion. The Battle of Shrewsbury was a bloody one. How many men died is not known but the figure ran into many thousands.
In 1540 Henry VIII closed Shrewsbury Abbey. Henry also closed the friaries.
Nevertheless, the town of Shrewsbury thrived in the late 16th century and the 17th century. It was famous for its wool industry. Drapers Hall was built in 1658. By that time Shrewsbury was an important town with a population of around 6,000. Meanwhile, Shrewsbury School was founded by Edward VI in 1552.
Several famous buildings were erected in Shrewsbury in the 16th century. Ireland’s Mansion was built around 1575. The Old Market Hall was built at the end of the century, probably around 1596. Owen’s Mansion was built around 1592. Rowley’s House was built in 1618.
By the 18th century, Shrewsbury was a large and important market town. It was also an important coaching town. Stagecoaches traveling from London to Holyhead (for ships to Ireland) stopped at Shrewsbury.
In the 18th century, the 2 bridges in Shrewsbury were rebuilt. English Bridge was built in the 1770s. Welsh Bridge followed in 1795. Meanwhile, an infirmary was built in Shrewsbury in 1743. Furthermore, St Chad’s Church collapsed in 1788 but it was rebuilt in 1792.
Robert Clive, also known as Clive of India was MP for Shrewsbury from 1762 until his death in 1774. He was also once mayor of Shrewsbury, in 1762.
Furthermore, at the end of the 18th century, Shrewsbury Castle was ‘modernised’ to make it a comfortable home.
Shrewsbury in the 19th century
In 1801 the population of Shrewsbury was a little under 15,000. By the standards of the time, it was a large town. By the middle of the 20th century, the population of Shrewsbury had risen to almost 20,000. Meanwhile, in 1809, Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury.
During the 20th-century conditions in Shrewsbury improved. In 1821 an Act of Parliament created a body of men called Improvement Commissioners with powers to pave, clean, and light the streets of Shrewsbury.
However, like all towns in the early and mid 19th century, Shrewsbury was dirty and overcrowded. There were outbreaks of cholera in 1832 and 1849. Still, things improved later in the 19th century when sewers were built. Meanwhile, a railway from Shrewsbury to Chester opened in 1848. Another railway to Wolverhampton opened in 1850.
The Music Hall was built in 1840 and the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Shrewsbury was built in 1856.
A statue of Clive of India was erected in Shrewsbury in 1860. A corn exchange (where grain was bought and sold) and a market were built in Shrewsbury in 1869.
Two new bridges were built in Shrewsbury in the 19th century, Greyfriars in 1880 and Kingsland in 1882.
Shrewsbury in the 20th century
Conditions continued to improve in the 20th century. In the 1930s slum clearance took place in Shrewsbury. The first council houses in Shrewsbury were built between the wars. Castle Bridge was built in 1951. A new market was built in Shrewsbury in 1963.
In the 20th century industries in Shrewsbury included malting and engineering. Another important industry is tourism.
Several museums opened in Shrewsbury in the 20th century including Rowley’s House Museum in 1938, Coleham Pumping Station in 1970, and Shropshire Regimental Museum in 1985. Shrewsbury is also a regional shopping centre. Darwin shopping centre opened in 1989.
Shrewsbury in the 21st century
In the 21st Century, Shrewsbury is flourishing. The Darwin Gate was built in 2004. In the same year, 2004 Old Market Hall Cinema opened. In 2022 the population of Shrewsbury was 76,000.