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HREWSBURY, the capital of Shropshire, is situated on an eminence that rises over the eastern bank of the Severn and is enclosed within a peninsula formed by the river. Shrewsbury owed its existence to the Britons, who, having been driven by the Saxons from their city, the Roman Uriconium, or Wroxeter, fled for refuge farther up the Severn. On this peninsula, formed by the protecting river, they found a shelter, and built themselves a new town of wattled huts. Pengwern was their name for it. It became afterwards Shrewsbury. It was at that period surrounded by morasses, and was consequently a very strong place in which they might hope to defend themselves against "the blue-eyed heathen."

But even here the relentless Saxons followed them; they cared neither for river nor morass, but attacked Pengwern and set fire to the new buildings. Lighted by the flames of their burning homes the unhappy Britons, in despair, took refuge in the western mountains.

By-and-by, however, a portion of Shropshire, including Pengwern, then unoccupied by the Saxons, became part of the British kingdom of Powis. It was so lovely and romantic, that it obtained from a British poet, Llywarc Hen, the prince of the Cambrian Britons, the name of the "Paradise of the Cymry." Nothing is known, however, of the kings of Powis, who dwelt in the wattled palace of Pengwern, except that they were engaged in perpetual conflicts with the Saxons, till, after a terrible struggle of two centuries' duration, Offa the Terrible, King of Mercia, annexed Shropshire to England.


To secure this great fruit of his victories, the Mercian cast up the vast entrenchment known as Offa's Dyke, which, "extending from the river Wye, six and a half miles northwest of Hereford, boldly traverses, for upwards of a hundred miles, mountain and plain, until it terminates in the parish of Mold, Flintshire, sixteen miles from the estuary of the Dee. In its course northwards this stupendous work forms the boundary between Shropshire and Montgomeryshire, in the former of which counties it is still very complete for a distance of twenty miles. 1

Then Pengwern became the property of the Mercians, who called it Shrewsbury; the word signifying "a fenced eminence overgrown with trees."

Ethelfleda, Lady of the Mercians, and worthy daughter of Alfred the Great, succeeded, in 912, to her deceased husband's territories, and founded St. Alcmund's Collegiate Church in the then growing town of Shrewsbury.

In the reign of Athelstane, that glorious Saxon whose charters and inscriptions so often bear the wonderful words:-

"As free make I thee
As heart can wish or eye can see,"

Shrewsbury was considered important enough to have a mint, and several pennies stamped Scrob-Scrobbesbyrig was the same name as Shrewsbury - and with Athelstane's name on them, have been found.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us, that when the Danes were cruelly ravaging the country in the south of his kingdom, Ethelred the Unready, the doomed son of the wicked Elfrida, passed in 1006 over the Thames into Shropshire, and there took up his abode, "during the mid-winter's tide," and he dwelt "in sorrow and perplexity at his manor in Shropshire, continually pained and mortified by the tidings borne to him of the Danish cruelties."

One of the most infamous of the men of that period, Ethelred's son-in-law and vicegerent, the base, treacherous Edric Streone, Earl 0f Mercia, resided here, and when he (Edric) forsook his father-in-law, Ethelred, and went over to the Danish king, Knut or Canute, the men of Shropshire followed the example of their earl, and made peace with the Danes. We are glad to record that Edric was punished by being put to death by Canute's orders, and his body thrown into the Thames, while the men of Shropshire were severely punished the following year by Edmund Ironsides.

The condition of Shrewsbury in the reign of Edward the Confessor is recorded thus in Domesday Book; we extract it from the County History:-

"In the town of Shrewsbury there were 252 houses, in the time of King Edward, with a burgess residing in each house; these altogether paid an annual rent of £7 16s. 8d.! King Edward received the following fines, etc., from the towns:-

"If any person wilfully infringed a protection given under the king's own hand, he was outlawed. He who violated the royal protection given by the Sheriff forfeited 100s. and the same sum was exacted for an assault committed on the highway, and for a burglary. These three forfeitures were paid to king Edward in all his demesne lands throughout England, over and above the reserved rents.

"When the king resided in this town, twelve of the better sort of citizens kept watch over him, and when he went out a hunting such of them as had horses guarded him.

"A widow paid the king 30s. for a licence to marry, a maiden 10s. for the same permission. If a house was burnt by accident without negligence, the burgess who inhabited it paid a fine of 40s. to the king, and 2s. each to his two next neighbours. The king had 10s. for a relief upon the death of every burgess dwelling within the royal demesne; and if it was not paid by the time the sheriff appointed, a fine of 10s. more was exacted. If a man wounded another so as to draw blood, he paid 40s. for this offence, etc., etc."

At the time of the Norman Conquest there were two Earls of Mercia, Edwin and Morcar. They had foolishly delayed joining Harold at Hastings, and now, perceiving that they were unable to resist the victorious Norman, they took the oath of fealty to him. But they did not keep it. In the desperate attempt made by the English to free their country from the Norman yoke, in 1068, the brothers (though they had been confirmed by William in their joint earldom) took part. But the effort was vain, and the earls had to take refuge at last in the marsh environed Isle of Ely. Here they might have remained in safety, for William's heavy men-at-arms could not penetrate to this last refuge of the English; but Morcar suffered himself to be deluded by the false promises of the Conqueror, and quitted the camp of refuge to attend the court of William. No sooner, however, was he beyond the entrenchments than he was seized, loaded with irons, and carried to a dungeon. Edwin, infuriated at the treachery shown to his brother, left the isle, to endeavour to deliver him and to free his country. But he was betrayed by one of his own attendants to the Normans, and attacked by them. At the head of twenty of his knights he made a brave defence against terrible odds, retreating backwards as he fought, till he was stopped by a swollen brook, and fell overpowered by numbers. His head was cut off and carried to William, who wept as he gazed at the fair curls of the gallant Saxon, whom he would fain have attached to himself.

On his death-bed, sixteen years afterwards, the Conqueror remembered the imprisoned Morcar, and full of remorse for his many crimes (amongst which was his treachery to the young Earl of Alercia), he ordered him to be set free. Immediately after the Conqueror's death, however, Rufus managed to seize Morcar again, and shut him up in prison, from which he was set free only by death.

Thus ended the brother earls of Mercia - the Lords of Shrewsbury. They were remarkable for personal beauty, great valour, and integrity of life. They were of princely birth, and their vast estates gave them great power; while, as the champions of English freedom, they were idolised by the people. The clergy and monks offered continual prayers for them, and the poor made daily supplications for the souls of Edwin and Morcar.

Shrewsbury was the scene of one of the most hardly fought battles of English history.

The Percies, who had been the chief of those nobles who had placed Henry Dolingbroke on the throne, considered themselves ungratefully treated by the king. He neglected, in spite of their repeated applications and remonstrances, to pay the soldiers who formed the defensive force on the Borders. Harry Percy, the famous Hotspur, complained of being nearly ruined by his outlay for the Government; 2 and Henry brought their anger to a climax by refusing to allow them to ransom Sir Edmund Mortimer, who had been taken prisoner by Owen Glendower at the battle of Knyghton. Edmund Mortimer was uncle to that young Earl of March who was the rightful heir to the Crown, but whom Henry kept in custody; and of course the king was not favourably disposed to Mortimer - dreading the house of York.

Hotspur was excessively angry at the kings refusal, for Mortimer was his wife's brother. The Earls of Northumberland and Worcester, his father and uncle, took up the quarrel, and Scroop, the Archbishop of York, advised then to dethrone Henry, and put the boy-Mortimer - the true heir - in his place. They formed a close league with Owen Glendower, who gave his daughter in marriage to Edmund Mortimer, and promised to assist them with twelve thousand Welsh; Hotspur had taken prisoner the Douglas, at the recent battle of Homildon Hill, and refused to give him up to the king. He set him at liberty without ransom on condition that he should join their army with his vassals.

Douglas accordingly re-crossed the Border with a large force. The Earl of Northumberland was very ill, and Hotspur took command of part of his forces; his father was to follow with the other part. He (Hotspur) marched towards North Wales, where he hoped to meet Glendower. The Earl of Worcester joined him on the march with a large body of the renowned archers of Cheshire, and the knights and squires of that county.

But Henry, who had started for the North with his army, learned the direction they had taken, and turned off to the west, intending to throw himself between Percy and North Wales. He marched very rapidly, and reached Shrewsbury before the insurgents. He had scarcely entered the town before Hotspur's forces arrived outside it. Percy was very angry at finding that Owen Glendower and the Welsh were not arrived, but he encamped at no great distance from the town; the king's army came out of it, and encamped beyond the eastern gate. Then night closed over the opposing armies.

Owen Glendower had arrived on the other side of the river, and attempted to cross, but heavy rains had fallen, the Severn was flooded, and the fords were impassable; Henry was in Shrewsbury, and the bridge was strongly guarded.

During the night the insurgents sent their defiance to Henry, charging him with usurpation, broken pledges, and the murder of Richard in Pontefract by cold and famine. The king did not write any reply; but he sent to offer them pardon if they would disperse, and the Percies meet him at court to discuss their grievances.

At an early hour the next morning, July 21st, Hotspur drew up his forces, much less in number, opposite to the king's. There was a pause. For some years civil war had been unknown. These men of the same land hesitated to begin a fratricidal battle, and Henry sent the Abbot of Shrewsbury to try and bring the insurgents to terms; but all his offers were rejected. Then the royal trumpets sounded, and with a cry of "St. George for England!" and "Esperance, Percy!" the fight began. Hotspur and Douglas led the first charge side by side - the two best lances in Britain. It was irresistible; part of the king's guards were broken; the Earl of Stafford, Sir Walter Blount, and two other knights, who wore the royal dress, were slain (Henry had dressed several of his knights in armour exactly resembling his own, and Douglas pursued these substitutes with fatal perseverance); the royal standard was cast down, and Harry of Monmouth, the young Prince of Wales, was badly wounded in the face; but he kept on fighting in spite of the pain he must have suffered. The brilliant charge of the English and Scotch heroes was not well supported; the royal lines through which they had broken reformed and closed on their rear; and when they turned to ride through them again, they found them firm as a wall, while showers of arrows were poured on them from all sides. The battle lasted - a furious contest - for three hours, during which time some bodies of the Welsh arrived, "but the main body of the confederates could not rescue their van." Hotspur, fighting against fearful odds, was killed by a chance arrow that pierced his brain. Then there came a terrible cry, "Hotspur is slain!" and his followers lost courage and fled on all sides.

Douglas, seeing all hope has over, also fled; but fell over a precipice and was so much hurt that he was taken prisoner before he could resume his flight.

The Earl of Worcester, the Baron of Kinderton and Sir Richard Vernon were also taken, and their heads were struck off on the field of battle; but Henry treated Douglas courteously as "a foreign knight."

Owen Glendower, unable to reach his friends, climbed a great oak (the oak of Chertsey), and from its topmost branches gained a full view of the battle field, and watched with rage and regret the strife from which the rushing river kept him. He heard at last the shout that told him Hotspur's sun was set.

The numbers that fell in that wellcontested field were enormous. It is stated that the entire loss on both sides amounted to ten thousand men.

In the Wars of the Roses Shrewsbury took the side of the White Rose, and Edward IV. showed much favour to it. His second son Richard, the younger of the two princes murdered in the Tower, was born there.

The Earl of Richmond, on his way to Bosworth Field, was joyously received, when he reached Shrewsbury, by the townsmen (who must have greatly resented the Princes' murder), though the magistrates had hesitated to receive him.

Charles I. was also loyally greeted at Shrewsbury, when, during the civil war, he came to the town; he received here liberal contributions of money and plate from the surrounding gentry, and largely recruited his army with gallant Shropshire men.

Shrewsbury was, however, surprised and taken by the Parliamentarians in 1644.

There are some remains of the castle, especially of the keep, which has been modernised; also there are remains of the walls of the inner court, the great arch of the inner gate, a lofty mound on the bank of the river, and a fort called Roushill, built by Cromwell.

Shrewsbury used to be famous for a splendid show; it is still, we believe, continued, though with less splendour. It was also celebrated for brawn and painted glass works.

Its cakes are well known and thus mentioned by Shenstone:-

"And here each season do those cakes abide,
Whose honoured names the inventive city own,
Rendering through Britain's Isle Salopia's praises known."


The glorious summer sunshine
Glitters on helm and shield;
As the stately hosts of England,
Gather on Hayteley Field.

England's divided chivalry,
Close there in deadly tight;
The Percy and his gallant few,
Against usurping might.

The bloody heart of Douglas
Strange sight for Scottish pride!
And the Lion of Northumberland,
Are moving side by side,

Opposed to a great armament,
Of noble hearts and brave;
Who gather round, where high in air,
The five gold lilies wave.

Alas! for the false ordeal
The plumed victory rests,
Not on the Northern Lion,
But on Lancastrian crests.

When the crimson sunset faded
O'er that territic plain,
The lion helm was low in dust
The noblest Percy slain.

In that red sea of civil strife,
The barons' star has set;
But the Percy's truth and honour
No heart will ere forget.

They may brand with a foul slander
His true and deathless name;
They may throw the scorn of treason
Upon his spotless fame.

They may keep his corpse unburied,
And bid his head look down:-
Vain mock'ry of a traitor's doom!
O'er the great Northern town.

Small need has he of grave or pall,
Hotspur can never die
As meaner men! his name is still
A living memory.

For long as Shakspeare's language lasts,
Shall live the Percy name;
And England glory in the tale
Of the great House's fame.


(From the Rev. C. Hartshorne's "Northumberland. ")

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Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004