Monday, 17 June 2013

Wingfield's Tower - A Safe Stronghold

 The other week, visiting the Headmaster’s House and seeing the town wall running through it made me think about the rest of that old wall. I mentioned it a while ago, writing about its somewhat startling appearance downstairs in McDonalds, but tonight I thought I'd go online and find out a bit more. I also thought I'd write about my visit to Wingfield's Tower.

In 1086, Shrewsbury was recorded in the Domesday Book as a town of two hundred and fifty two houses and four churches.  No mention was made of any defensive wall, but the fact that the old name for the town, ‘Scrobbesbyrig’, derives from the words ‘scrub’ and ‘fortified place’ suggests that it had some sort of protection.  Maybe this was just the natural protection of the River Severn but  again, in the 9th century, Shrewsbury was granted a royal charter that gave it the status of a ‘burgh’ - and this word, too, suggests a fortified place.

It’s a matter of record, however, that the construction of the town walls as known today are dated between 1220 and 1242. Walls were needed in order to apply tolls on goods coming into town.  More importantly at that time, they were also needed for keeping out the Welsh. 

In 1215, the town had fallen to the forces of Llywelyn the Great, and the Regency of the new English King, Henry III, was determined this wouldn’t happen again. Henry visited the town on a number of occasions whilst fighting the Welsh. In fact, the fear of invasion was only put to rest when Llywelyn the Great’s grandson [known by some still as the last real Prince of Wales] was defeated in 1282, and his brother brought to Shrewsbury to be hung, drawn and quartered on the High Cross at the top of Pride Hill.

All the same, the English kings were taking no chances. At the start of the 14th century, Shrewsbury Castle was rebuilt and strengthened by Edward I.  Further rebuilding and repairing of  walls took place a century later, courtesy of a commission from Henry IV. Nowadays, of course, none of the town’s fabulous medieval gatehouses survive, guarding the town’s two bridges. Nor, apart from the archway on St Mary’s Water Lane, does it appear that any of the old gates have survived.   However, parts of the old walls remain all round the town, and amongst them is one of the wall’s original towers, leaning slightly as if bowed by age.

I'm talking about Wingfield Tower, which stands on Town Walls, close to the Girls’ High School. I’ve been looking at this tower for years, and wanting to see inside.  In fact so much has it fascinated me that I’ve even featured it in my novel ‘Sabrina Fludde’.  In the book it’s inhabited by Sir Henry Morgan – not the buccaneer Sir Henry out of history, but a modern equivalent restoring the last of the Severn’s flat-bottomed trows – and by the story’s heroine, Abren, who is trying to regain her memory and figure out who she is. The tower starts out as a place of fear to her, but ends up becoming a gateway to discovery.

Well yesterday it was my own gateway to discovery because I finally got into the tower, courtesy of the National Trust.   Little is known in general terms about the use of these towers after they ceased to be required for defensive purposes, but this one became known as ‘Waring’s Tower’ because in the 15th century it was leased to the Warings, a big wool merchant family.  A ground floor cruciform crossbow slit was blocked up when a fireplace was installed, but other arrow slits still remain.  The battlements are reckoned to be a later addition, possibly Victorian. The tower’s slate-roofed lean to was added in the 19th century as a privy.  When it became Wingfield's Tower, or why, I've no idea. Perhaps if anybody knows they could tell me.

An engraving of Wingfield's Tower, dated 1809, suggests that it may have been derelict for a while [certainly it had shrubs growing out of its cracks and crevasses].   By 1816, however, it was known as the workshop of the watch-maker, John Massey.  In the 1860s it was converted into a dwelling, and provided accommodation for the coachman at Swan Hill Court, whose gates lie opposite to the tower to this day.

The Humphreys were the family who owned Swan Hill Court.  The daughter of the family, Rachel Hunter, made over the tower to the National Trust in 1930.  From then onwards it was occupied until the 1980s.  Starting with the Swan Hill House gardeners, who vacated in 1937, these are the people who inhabited the tower: 1937-1954, Mrs Janet Mitchell; 1954 to1967, Mrs B Curtis; 1968 to 2012, leased by Mr and Mrs Hector; 2012 to present day, leased by Shrewsbury High School.  

The interior of the tower is tiny, as you’d imagine, but surprisingly habitable.  Guided around from floor to floor I could almost see myself living there. Fireplace, gas lights and paneling were added when the tower was made a dwelling in the 1860s. The glazed windows were added at this stage too, but the pavement outside the tower, installed to keep traffic at bay, didn’t arrive until 1991.

Here’s a map of Shrewsbury, showing the tower and the rest of the town walls.  It’s the Burleigh Map of Shrewsbury, one of the town’s great treasures, originally commissioned as a gift for Elizabeth I, currently housed in the British Library. What’s so special about this map [as I was told by Phil Scoggins of the Museum Service] is that it shows Shrewsbury not only in Tudor times but - as it preceded a huge building spurt - in medieval times too. 

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been blowing up sections of this map and turning them into contemporary hand-woven tapestries.  Clear to see in most of them are the town’s walls.  I haven’t woven Wingfield’s Tower yet, but I will. I’m hoping that in years to come, having woven sections of the map, I’ll acquire a loom big enough to weave the whole thing in one piece. 

If you want to visit Wingfield’s Tower yourself, the best way to go about it is to check out the National Trust website for Open Weekends.  The link is

I love it that our town was once walled, and that some of those walls remain to this day.  When I’ve been away, as I have over the last week, there’s a profound and very deep sense of coming home that attaches itself as I drive over the English Bridge and up Town Walls.  I’m reminded of the old Reformation hymn, composed by Martin Luther, called ‘Ein Feste Burg’. ‘A Safe Stronghold’ is how it translates into English - and that’s how I think of Shrewsbury.  Long may that remain.

[For more about my woven tapestries visit
To buy a copy of 'Sabrina Fludde' click HERE]


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