We use cookies to improve your experience, some are essential for the operation of this site.

Preface to Shropshire

Shropshire is a county in the West Midlands of England, bordered by the Welsh counties of Denbighshire, Mongomery and Radnor to the west; Herefordshire to the south; Worcestershire to the south east; Staffordshire to the east; and Cheshire to the north. It is approximately rectangular in outline, and measures approximately 50 miles from north to south and 35 miles from west to east. The land area of 1,346 square miles (861,440 acres) makes it the thirteenth largest of the traditional counties, but it is also one of the most sparsely populated counties in England, with a population estimated at 493,000 in 2017, and a population density of only 350 people per square mile. As will be seen below, this is approximately twelve times the population in 1086.

Landscape and geology

Shropshire divides naturally into the uplands of the south and west and the lowlands of the north and east. The southern hill country is dominated by the Shropshire Hills: actually a varied landscape of ridges, valleys and plateaux. The north-eastern end is marked by the isolated peak of The Wrekin, just beyond the western edge of Telford. The south east of the Shropshire hills includes some of the highest peaks in the county, including Brown Clee, at 540m Shropshire’s highest point. Running south west from Much Wenlock is Wenlock Edge; a low, wooded escarpment that runs for 17 miles to Craven Arms, and the gorge in which sits the town of Church Stretton runs north from here. On its eastern flank is a ridge dominated by Caer Caradoc, The Lawley and Ragleth Hill, while to the west is the Long Mynd; a massive heath and moorland plateau. Further west still, the Stiperstones and the Long Mountain extend to the Welsh border, while to the south rise the wooded hills around Clun.

The northern plain, north of Telford and Shrewsbury, is in reality the southern end of the Cheshire Plain. That is not to say that it is entirely flat. West of Oswestry a tract of upland runs into Wales, while further east are craggy outcrops at Grinshill, Harmer Hill, Bury Walls and Hawkstone Hill.

The geology is complex. Basically the oldest rocks are in the southern uplands. The Long Mynd and the Stiperstones are pre-Cambrian, while Wenlock Edge is a Silurian limestone formation. The south-eastern Clee Hills are of the Old Red Sandstone that is common in Herefordshire to the south.

The northern plain is largely of New Red Sandstone: notoriously soft and subject to erosion, but around Wem is an area of more useable sandstone that includes the important Grinshill quarry. It should be mentioned too that The Wrekin itself is of volcanic, igneous rock, and that coal measures outcrop in various parts of the county, most importantly running south from Coalbrookdale and Ironbridge in the south east, running west from Shrewsbury, and around Oswestry in the north west.

The county offers a wide variety of building stones, of which Grinshill, a white, Triassic sandstone quarried near Shrewsbury and distinguished by its high quartz content is the best known. The quarry was owned by the monks of Haughmond and used as a facing stone for their monastery. Similar stones were quarried at smaller quarries in this Triassic belt and another near Tong in the far east of the county. Other important medieval quarries were in the Severn valley at Alveley and Highley, where the sandstone was used to build Buildwas Abbey.

Main towns

The Domesday Survey mentions two boroughs in the county: Shrewsbury and Quatford. The latter receives a notice under the entry for Eardington, where it is described as a new house and a borough called Quatford, yielding nothing. This may refer to Earl Roger of Montgomery’s plans to build a town here, but by the mid-12thc the site had been moved to Bridgnorth. Today’s Quatford is a village on the Severn, south of Bridgnorth with a church, Norman in origin and a castle motte.


Shrewsbury in 1086 may have had 151 burgages, and Saunders in Darby and Terrett (1971) calculates a population of at least a thousand people at that date. There are also references to six churches, a castle and a Benedictine abbey under construction by Earl Roger. The town’s later medieval prosperity depended on wool, and on the communications provided by the Severn, which links it to the Bristol Channel, and Watling Street, linking the town to Wroxeter, London and Dover.


Ludlow, in the south of the county is only ten miles from the Welsh border, and this location has dominated Ludlow’s history. It was not mentioned by name in the Domesday Survey, but was part of the large parish of Stanton, held by Walter de Lacy. Walter’s son Roger began the construction of Ludlow castle on a hill overlooking the River Teme c.1075, and the town grew in planned stages throughout the twelfth century. Defensive town walls were built in the 13thc. The town prospered and by 1292 had borough status and an annual market and fair. Its parish church, St Laurence’s, is the largest in the county, was recorded in 1199-1200 and was enlarged in various stages thereafter. In 2011 Ludlow had a population of 10,266.


Bridgnorth occupies both banks of the River Severn; the High Town on the west bank and the Low Town on the east, the two now linked by a funicular railway, opened in 1892. Bridgnorth was a borough by 1101, having taken over the status of Quatford. It was given to Roger of Montgomery after the Conquest, and passed to his son, Robert of Bellême, 3rd Earl of Shrewsbury, who built a castle and a church in the High Town. In the following year his castles, including Bridgnorth, were forfeited to Henry I following Robert’s attempt to depose the king in favour of his brother, Robert Curthose. The town walls were built in the 13thc, it had a market and fair, perhaps as early as this too, and was a busy river port. Its population in 2011 was 12,079.


Shropshire’s largest settlement today is Telford, a New Town designated in 1963 as Dawley New Town. Work began in 1967, and in the following year the designated area was increased, and the name was changed to Telford in tribute to the civil engineer, Thomas Telford. The population at the 2011 census was 142,723 .

Local Government administration

The traditional county of Shropshire was designated a non-Metropolitan county in 1974, with a county council and six district councils (Bridgnorth, North Shropshire, Oswestry, Shrewsbury and Atcham, South Shropshire, and The Wrekin). In 1998 The Wrekin was renamed Telford and Wrekin, and was designated a Unitary Authority. In 2009 the remainder of the county was also reconstituted as a Unitary Authority, so that for local government purposes the traditional county now consists of two Unitary Authorities; Shropshire and Telford and Wrekin.

The Domesday record

Shropshire in 1086 was rather different from today’s county, largely because of the interchange of parishes between Shropshire and the surrounding counties, notably Cheshire, Staffordshire, Herefordshire, Montgomeryshire and Warwickshire. Domesday Shropshire was divided into 15 hundreds, and the number of separate places mentioned in the county is 437. The Shropshire assessment is in hides, virgates (1/4 of a hide) and occasionally acres, and there is ample evidence of the 5-hide unit in operation here. Most of the population fell into one of five classes: villeins, bordars, serfs, oxmen and radmen. Apart from these there were burgesses, who were only recorded in Shrewsbury, and such miscellaneous folk as cottars, Welshmen, priests, Frenchmen and freemen. In general, the population was concentrated in the upper Severn valley, a belt running across the centre of the county where the soil is rich and loamy. Here, and in the far south around Ludlow the recorded population rose to around 6 recorded people per square mile. Elsewhere, especially in the north, it fell to 2 people per square mile or fewer. These are assumed to be households, of which only the head was recorded; the total number being perhaps 4 to 5 times this.

Domesday tenants-in-chief

Before the Conquest the main landowners were the king and queen, Earl Harold, Earl Leofric and his wife Godiva, and his sons, the Earls Edwin and Morcar. Outside the Mercian group were two important thegns; Edric the Wild and Siward, a distant kinsman of King Edward. By 1066 there were practically no royal holdings in the county, and the chief landholder was Roger of Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury. The Bishops of Hereford and Chester had important holdings, as did the Abbot of Saint-Remi, and only a few others held land here, mainly in the south. Earl Roger’s successor Robert de Bellême was stripped of his titles following his involvement in the revolt against Henry I in 1102, and the Mortimer dominance in Shropshire was dismantled.

Religious history

Shropshire had no medieval cathedral; the present Shrewsbury diocese dates only to 1851. In the medieval period the southern part of the county was in the Hereford diocese, and the north in the diocese that moved from Lichfield to Chester, and then to Coventry between 1075 and 1102.

As to religious houses, Roger of Montgomery founded two new monastic houses at Wenlock and Shrewsbury (now Holy Cross)

The Chapter House entrance of Wenlock Priory

and after 1102 the other main houses were the Augustinian house at Haughmond, founded by the FitzAlans, main beneficiaries of the fall of the Montgomeries, and the Arrouasian house of Lilleshall, founded by Robert de Bellême. The other great house in Shropshire, the Savignac house at Buildwas, was a joint foundation of both families.

Monastic Foundations at Haughmond, Lilleshall and Buildwas

Anglo-Saxon and Romanesque buildings and sculpture

Little remains standing of indisputable pre-Conquest date. The chancel of Barrow, a chapel of Holy Trinity Much Wenlock, falls into this category and the N chancel wall of Wroxeter church has Anglo-Saxon masonry, a lot of it re-using Roman material. Stanton Lacy and Diddlebury churches have late-Saxon features but may be post-Conquest. Turning to sculpture, there is a tomb slab at St Mary, Shrewsbury and cross shaft fragments at Wroxeter and Diddlebury. The noteworthy dragon tympanum at Uppington has Ringerike-like features and is certainly 11thc in date, but more probably post-Conquest than pre-.

The dragon tympanum over the N doorway at Uppington

According to the current CRSBI estimate, Shropshire has 106 sites with some Romanesque sculpture. Early Romanesque work can be seen at Holy Cross, Shrewsbury, and at Ludlow Castle in the gatehouse passage and the chapel.

The N arcade at Holy Cross, Shrewsbury

Such parish churches as Holy Trinity, Much Wenlock, Claverley, Hope Bagot and Quatford also have work of c.1100.

The chancel arch of St John's, Hope Bagot

The tiny church of Aston Eyre possesses what in Pevsner’s opinion is ‘the noblest piece of 12C figure sculpture in Shropshire’ attributed to the Herefordshire School in error in his 1st edition. The late-12thc date offered by Zarnecki seems too late to the present author.

The Entry into Jerusalem at Aston Eyre

The ruined abbeys at Lilleshall, Haughmond and Buildwas all have notable 12thc sculpture, while the magnificent chapter house of Much Wenlock Priory and its lavabo both date from the later 12thc. Also of this period is the sophisticated chevron ornament of the S doorway of Edstaston, related to Haughmond Abbey, St Mary’s, Shrewsbury and St Michael’s Lilleshall.

Chevron at Edstaston and Haughmond Abbey

Sculpture by the Herefordshire School is found in the font at Stottesden and in fragments of carving at the former Bell Inn in Alveley.

The font at Stottesdon

The deeply-carved Holdgate font has been linked to the Herefordshire School by the VCH but the comparison does not convince.

The Holdgate font

Another workshop specialising in Grinshill stone fonts appears at St Michael’s Lilleshall and Edgmond as well as Church Eaton and Bradley over the border in Staffordshire. This workshop appears earliest at Gnosall (Staffs), and the group also includes the Shawbury font which uses the same motifs in a dissimilar way.

Fonts at Edgmond and Shawbury

Another workshop carved the fonts at Cound, Lindley and Morville.

Fonts at Cound and Morville

Fieldwork and recording

Fieldwork was undertaken initially by Barbara Zeitler in 1998-2000 using 35mm B/W film. Further work in the county was undertaken by Ron Baxter from May 2017 onwards, with the aim of augmenting the photographic coverage. In this digital phase, a Fujifilm Finepix S1 camera was used. The CRSBI would like to thank the clergy and churchwardens of Shropshire for allowing access to the churches in their care, sometimes at inconvenient hours, and English Heritage and the owners of the former Bell Inn at Alveley for helping with access to their sites.


  1. D. H. S. Cranage, An Architectural Account of the Churches of Shropshire, 10 vols, 1894-1912.
  2. R. W. Eyton, Antiquities of Shropshire, 12 vols, London 1854-60.
  3. F. Leach (ed.) The County Seats of Shropshire: a series of descriptive sketches, Shrewsbury 1891,
  4. J. Newman and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Shropshire New Haven and London 2006,
  5. N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Shropshire, Harmondsworth 1958.
  6. V. A. Saunders, ‘Shropshire’, in H. C. Darby and I. B. Terrett, The Domesday Geography of Midland England, Cambridge 1971, 115-62.
  7. Victoria County History: Shropshire, vols 1-4, 6, 8, 10, 11, 1908-98.