At the heart of the historic and beautiful town of Shrewsbury, founded about the year 900, stands the church of St Alkmund which celebrated its 1100th anniversary in 2012.
Who was St Alkmund?
He was a Prince of the royal house of the kingdom of Northumbria, and was born about 770. Northumbria had become a Christian kingdom in the middle years of the preceding century – about 735. Unfortunately, in the following century this northern Saxon kingdom was suffered from the tendency of one rival faction to drive out or kill the reigning king in order to seize power. A victim of this process was Alhred, who was elected King in 765. In 768 he married Osgifu, who bore two sons – Osred and Alkmund. In 774 the good times came to an end, when Alhred was exiled to Scotland and Osgifu with her two young sons fled south to the Kingdom of Mercia for protection. It is likely that they sheleterd in Northworthy, close to Derby. Northworthy stood at the northernmost frontier of Mercia with Northumbria, where the ancient Roman Road, known as Ryknield Street crossed the river Derwent. It was a good place for Northumbrian refugees to find protection as it was on a main thoroughfare between Tamworth, an important town in Mercia and York, a city in the southern part of Northumbria. If the exiled Northumbrians wanted to invade their home territory and attack York, Northworthy was a strategic place to be. While the two young princes grew to manhood further upheavals took place in Northumbria, but in 788 Prince Osred was elected King. His reign lasted only a year before he was forced by a rival to enter a monastery on the Isle of Man, subsequently being lured back to Northumbria, where he was murdered.
In 798 there was a battle at Billington Moor on the west side of the Pennines. The current king of Northumbria Eardwulf found himself opposed by Wada. It is likely that Alkmund, by now about 28 years old, may have fought with Wada against Eardwulf. Whatever the situation, King Eardwulf defeated his rivals and Alkmund fled to Northworthy. In 800 Eardwulf sent members of his bodyguard across the frontier into Mercia to Northworthy, where they murdered Alkmund. Needless to say, this action flouted the principle of royal protection by a neighbouring king – in this case Kenwulf of Mercia – and a brief war broke out between Mercia and Northumbria. Peace was restored by 802, and it seems that sometime before 803 Alkmund had been proclaimed a saint – probably through the influence of Hygeberht, the last Archbishop of Lichfield – in Mercia.
Two churches called St Alkmund’s were founded in the Northworthy area – one at Duffield and one in Derby – the name given to the modern city by the Danes in the ninth century.
It is very probable that King Kenwulf of Mercia paid for the expensive carved stone sarchophagus now to be seen in the museum in Derby, and found in 1967 in the remains of an early church beneath the existing Derby St Alkmund’s, which was being demolished for the construction of a ring road.. This sarchophagus could only have been created for an important purpose – to house the bones of St Alkmund?
Other churches dedicated to St Alkmund
There is a church in Lincolnshire at Blyborough.
There are three churches in Herefordshire (at Aymestry) and in Shropshire (at Shrewsbury and Whitchurch). These three churches are in a line running south/north between Gloucester and Chester along old Roman roads. Why?
Aethelfleda, eldest daughter of King Alfred
By 850 the Saxon kingdoms were subject to annual raids by Danish invaders. The situation became desperate when a very large Danish army plundered Northumbria, East Anglia, London , Mercia and parts of Wessex in the south-west. Successive Kings of Wessex struggled to maintain their independence, including the three elder brothers of Alfred, who eventually become King and saved the situation. About 870 his eldest daughter Aethelfleda was born. By 877 Alfred was sheltering for his life on the island of Athelney as the Danes pressed westwards into Wessex. In 878 a battle was fought at Edington in Wiltshire, and Alfred emerged the victor. Although the wars flared up again and again in the ensuing years, Alfred was gradually recognised as the leader of the English people with ultimate authority over Mercia. Mercia covered the midlands and the west up to Offa’s Dyke, with a fortress at Gloucester and at Chester at its northern frontier. Mercia was ruled by Aethelred, who eschewed the title of king, and was content to be an Ealdorman and to acknowledge Alfred as his overlord. He gave faithful service to Alfred (died 899) and to his son Edward, until his death 911. In about 889 Aethelred married Aethelfleda, daughter of Alfred. She was undoubtedly a powerful woman. It seems that she governed Mercia in partnership with her husband, and after his death she governed in her own right on behalf of her brother King Edward, enjoying the title ‘Lady of the Mercians’.
As Alfred became established as King the English began to build fortified enclosures or towns into which the country people could flee if the Danes appeared on marauding expeditions. Aethefleda was active in pursuing this policy and built fortresses at Bridgnorth and Chirbury in Shropshire amongst others. Shrewsbury would have been a natural such fortress town – on a hill surrounded almost entirely by the river Severn. It is mentioned in a Chronicle dated 901. Aymestry may well have been another fortified town, and Whitchurch (formerly Roman Mediolanum) another. All three fortified towns were on the road between Gloucester and Chester. It was safer to build churches in fortified places as they were less likely to be burnt than those wooden churches that might stand in villages in the country. A town church would serve the people living in the town but also those in the country districts outside the walls of the town.
Aethelfleda may well have supposed, perhaps with good reason, that Alkmund was her ancestor. It may therefore be understandable that as she exercised vigorous authority in Mercia, attending to the people’s needs and struggling to build defended towns and to wage war against the Danes when opportunity arose, she named churches after Alkmund. It is therefore understandable that about the year 912, when she was sole governor of Mercia, she may have founded St Alkmund’s, Shrewsbury.
Aethelfleda’s last years
Following 911, Edward and Aethefleda pursued a policy of reconquest of all England south of the river Humber. As Edward moved northwards on the east side of England, Aethelfleda and her army pressed north-eastwards beyond Tamworth towards Derby. In 917 she captured Northworthy. Archaeological study undertaken n 1967 showed that the remains of the early church where the ringroad now runs had been repaired at a later date, suggesting that the church built t the time of Alkmund’s canonisation in 803 had been destroyed by the Danes in the middle of the ninth century but repaired, perhaps on the orders of Aethefleda when she recovered possession of it. It may be it was at this time that the bones of St Alkmund were removed from Northworthy to the new church of St Alkmund in Shrewsbury. Possibly Aethelfleda thought that the relics would be safer further away from the untrustworthy Danes and Northumbrians across her northern frontier.
Aethelfleda died at Tamworth in 918. About forty years later her great-nephew King Edgar endowed St Alkmund’s Shrewsbury with great wealth to support canons to serve the outlying countryside. Why should he do this if not because the church built by his great aunt housed the relics of the saint? It is well known that two hundred years later circa 1150 the Abbey of Lilleshall was founded with the authority of King Stephen, and St Alkmund’s endowments were transferred to the new Abbey leaving St Alkmund’s poor. Shortly afterwards, on a petition of the clergy in Derby to King Stephen being granted, the relics of St Alkmund were removed once again and restored to St Alkmund’s Derby.
St Alkmund’s Church, Shrewsbury
St Alkmund’s Church stands at the highest point in the town of Shrewsbury. It is known that there was a Saxon market called the King’s Market at the heart of Shrewsbury all round the church of St Alkmund. Nothing visible remains of the church that Aethelfleda founded. What we see today is part mediaeval and part Georgian. The tower and spire (56 metres high) was built about 1475 in the Perpendicular style. It forms one of the five notable buildings that make the skyline of Shrewsbury so unforgettably interesting. The poet A.E.Housman immortalised this view in his words: “High the vanes of Shrewsbury gleam islanded in Severn stream”.
Following the collapse of a neighbouring church (old St Chad’s) in 1788 the congregation of St Alkmund’s became concerned that their church might also collapse. Whether this was truly the case or not, the decision was taken to demolish the old mediaeval church except for the tower and spire, and a local architect, John Carline, was commissioned to build a new church in the Gothic Revival style.
Had his work remained intact, St Alkmund’s would have been one of the best examples of this style in England. Carline built a wonderfully light church with twelve identical windows made with the latest technology of the period. They had frames made of cast iron at Coalbrookdale – about fifteen miles from Shrewsbury. Superbly crafted in sections, and filled with clear glass, three of these magnificent windows have survived and have recently been completely repaired. They are contemporary (1795) with the great house at Fonthill that William Beckford was building for himself in the same style, and would held their own in that famous creation. Fonthill collapsed with thirty years, but St Alkmund’s still stands, although nine of the twelve windows were altered in the late 19th century, when ideas about what was correct architecture for a church differed from those of the Georgian period.
We in our time have had to compromise. We cannot remove the stone tracery inserted by the Victorians in place of the cast-iron frames in nine of the twelve windows, but we have replaced the frosted glass which they inserted with clear glass, thus regaining as far as possible the lightness of the church which Carline intended.
He also created a plaster ceiling with Gothic enrichments. It was a bold venture to create suach a wide ceiling without any pillars to support it, and this caused trouble over the years. By 1900 the Victorians had covered it with the wooden ceiling we see today. It is a fine piece of craftsmanship, and probably contributes to the excellent acoustic in the church, which is well-known as a good venue for concerts.
The east window
The east window is the great treasure of St Alkmund’s. It is indeed a notable survival of the work of Francis Eginton, famed in his time as an enamel painter on glass. Living in Handsworth, Birmingham, where he had for a time been a partner of Matthew Boulton, Eginton received a commission to paint a window for the new church of St Alkmund in 1794. He was allowed £150 for the work, and immediately stated that he could not do anything remarkable for that sum, but that the budget could be increased to £200 he could do something notable.
It represents an emblematic figure of faith, copied from an engraving of a painting of the Assumption of the Virgin by Guido Reni (1642), then in a collection in Mannheim in Germany. It is now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. He copied the figure of the Virgin, changing the colopurs, and brilliantly changed to surroundings of the figure to create an image of Christian pilgrimage. The cost came out at 210 guineas – that is, £20.10.0 over budget! That was more than a maid in domestic service would have been paid in a year. However, the churchwardens were so pleased with what Eginton had produced that they paid up on the nail and caused a letter of thanks to be sent to him. The Window was installed in October 1795 and has survived, although much of Eginton’s work suffered from changes in taste in the 19th century and was removed or lost.
The west window contains two pieces of Tudor ar oriel glass, one displaying the arms of France and England quarterly surmounted by the crown and the other by the arms surmounted by a mitre of Richard Sampson, Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry 1543-55 which were in the south window of the old church.
The North elevation
The south elevation
Solid oak panelling on the north elevation wall