views updated May 18 2018

Shropshire is a large and beautiful county. The hilly southern part includes the Wrekin, the Long Mynd, Clee Hill, and Wenlock Edge: the north, adjoining Cheshire, is flatter, with some notable meres. The Severn, running from west to south-east, bisects the county: the Teme, which forms the boundary with Herefordshire, drains the southern part, the Tern much of the north. Shrewsbury grew up as an important crossing over the Severn and as a bastion against the Welsh. Whitchurch is the chief town of the northern half, Ludlow, in Tudor times home to the Council in the Marches of Wales, of the south.

In Roman times, the area fell between the Cornovii and the Ordovices; Caratacus' last stand against Ostorius' Roman legions may have been at Caer Caradoc, near Church Stretton. The Roman road Watling Street ran through the county and Viriconium (Wroxeter), where it crossed the Severn, was an important legionary base. The region was disputed between Britons and Saxons and at one stage much of it belonged to the kingdom of Powys, whose capital, Pengwern, may have been at Shrewsbury. By the 8th cent. it formed part of the kingdom of Mercia and Offa's Dike runs through the western parts of the shire, from near Oswestry to near Clun in the south-west. Bridgnorth was mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as early as 895, when a Danish army wintered there, and Shrewsbury in 1016. For ecclesiastical purposes, the area came under Lichfield, until the parishes south of the Severn were moved into the new diocese of Hereford. By the 10th cent. it was in existence as a shire. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1006 referred to it as Scrobbesbyrigscir, after the town.

The Normans, finding Saxon pronunciation difficult, called the county Salopescira and studded it with castles, at Shrewsbury, Ludlow, Bishop's Castle, and Clun. Even so, the western parts were defended against the Welsh with difficulty. Taking advantage of English weakness during Stephen's reign, the Welsh took Oswestry in 1149 and, though it was recovered, it was once more destroyed by Llywelyn during John's reign in 1213. The county was again at risk during Glyndŵr's rising in the early 15th cent., when Clun was destroyed, but Glyndŵr's allies, the Percies, were defeated just north of Shrewsbury in 1403 and Henry Percy (Hotspur) killed.

The Severn crossing and the proximity to Wales made Shropshire important during the Civil War. Charles I, having raised his standard at Nottingham in 1642, made straight for the area and delivered a recruiting speech at Wellington. Many of the men who fought in the first battle at Edgehill came from Shropshire. The county remained royalist territory but suffered from raids and incursions. There was a vicious exchange at Stokesay castle, where adversaries fired at point-blank range between the castle and the church. The loss of Shrewsbury itself in February 1645 to a daring raid from the parliamentary garrison at Wem was a heavy blow to the royalists. Charles II took refuge at Boscobel in the east of the county after his defeat at Worcester in 1651 and the celebrated oak tree, in which he hid, was a place of pilgrimage for years.

Until the 18th cent. Shropshire was overwhelmingly an agricultural county, famous for sheep, but the development by the Darby family of a great mining and iron industry at Coalbrookdale produced the strange phenomenon of blast furnaces and chimneys amid lush wooded valleys. The Ironbridge, built in 1777, and now the centre of a splendid museum complex, was for decades regarded as one of the wonders of technological progress.

Shrewsbury retained its primacy as county town without difficulty, hosting the assizes and the parliamentary elections. When Celia Fiennes visited it in 1698 it had its own water supply and ‘an abundance of people of quality’, who took walks in the abbey gardens, amongst orange and lemon trees, hollies, myrtles, and aloes. Thirty years later, Defoe found it ‘beautiful, large, pleasant, populous and rich: they speak all English in the town, but on a market-day you would think you were in Wales.’ A statue of Llywelyn kept guard over the Welsh bridge. In the later 18th cent. Shrewsbury became a fashionable provincial centre, with regular assemblies, horse-races, balls, and concerts. Its central position was enhanced by the coming of the railways in the mid-19th cent., which confirmed its importance as a route centre. In 1851 its population was over 20,000, with Ludlow, Whitchurch, Market Drayton, Bridgnorth, and Oswestry about the 5,000 mark. The county was not affected by the Local Government Act of 1972, but the balance of population began to change with the development of a new town in the east, absorbing Dawley, Oakengates, and Wellington. It was renamed Telford, after the great engineer who was county surveyor from 1788 to 1834. By 2002 Shrewsbury, with a population of 97,400, had been overtaken by Telford with 153,000. Yet it is also a county trapped in amber. If Dorset is Hardy country, Shropshire belongs to Housman, buried at Ludlow, and poet of Clun, of Uricon and Wenlock Edge, ‘the land of lost content’.

J. A. Cannon


views updated May 29 2018

Shropshire (Salop) County in w England; the county town is Shrewsbury. Shropshire is crossed by the River Severn. To the n of the river the land is generally low-lying, while to the s it rises to the Welsh hills. Part of Mercia in Anglo-Saxon history, after the Norman Conquest it became part of the Welsh Marches. The economy is primarily agricultural. Mineral deposits include coal, and industries include metal products. Area: 3197sq km (1235sq mi). Pop. (2000) 284,600.