Aethelfleda, Lady of the Mercians

The story of Alkmund is told elsewhere on this website. By the early tenth century, he was already both historical figure and Saint. The Lady Aethelfleda of Mercia, who founded the church, likely believed him to be a royal ancestor of hers. It may be, as some have suggested, that Shrewsbury was to act as a possible safe haven for his remains should Viking ravages threaten elsewhere. The church was well endowed, but Alkmund came no further west than Lilleshall.

Information about the Saxon town of Scrobbesbyrig is indeed extremely sparse, and nothing is recorded before the tenth century – but by that time the ‘city’ was already well established on its easily-defended hilltop, surrounded by a tight loop of the Severn, and even boasted a mint.

Aethelfeda’s great-nephew Edgar further enhanced the foundation so that St Alkmund’s supported a Dean and twelve Prebendaries, but the wealth and importance of the church suffered after 1145 when a Charter saw many of its treasures ‘redistributed’ at the foundation of Lilleshall Abbey. Nevertheless, St Alkmund’s church and its tiny parish retained its place in the very heart of Shrewsbury, surrounded by narrow streets, old mansions and the bustling medieval “King’s Market”.

Old St Alkmund’s Church

The original Saxon church was rebuilt more than once: the first significant part of the building to remain to the present day is the tower and 184-foot spire, which dates from the 15th century – an integral element of Shrewsbury’s skyline, immortalised as one of Housman’s “high vanes.. islanded in Severn stream”. There is also Tudor glass in the West window, dating from mid 16th century.

Tudor glass in the West window, including the arms of the Bishop of Lichfield

St Alkmund’s survived many calamities, including the Black Death, but it was the collapse of a neighbouring church, known as “Old Saint Chad’s”, which ultimately saw the end of the medieval St Alkmund’s. A young surveyor called Thomas Telford, called in in 1788 to view troubling cracks in the tower and walls at St Chad’s, recommended drastic action, but his advice went unheeded. The subsequent fall of most of the building (at 4 o’clock one summer morning) not only led to the design and construction of a new St Chad’s church, but also saw a flurry of rebuilding elsewhere in the town.

picture: Shrewsbury Museum

John Carline was the local architect who was charged with much of this work, and at St Alkmund’s the nave and chancel were recreated in airy Georgian style by 1795. The impression of light within the building was enhanced by a wide, unpillared nave and the installation of twelve windows of clear glass in frames of cast iron from nearby Coalbrookdale. Three of these frames, state-of-the-art technology in their day and which mark the arrival in the world of the Industrial Revolution, are still in existence (though only one in the main body of the church).

Pride of place, however, has always gone to the jewel in the St Alkmund’s crown, the magnificent East Window by Francis Eginton of Handsworth, a double thickness of glass painted in enamel front and back. The figure at the centre is based closely on a painting by Guido Reni, now in Munich. That painting is of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, but here the window is entitled “Hope”. This window cost £200 when it was installed, and overran its budget, but the parishioners reportedly were glad to pay, so impressive was the result.

It is a source of regret to some that the Victorians ‘improved’ upon Carline’s design by replacing nine of his twelve cast iron window frames with slightly smaller windows set in stone tracery: some stained glass has crept in too… Carline’s plaster ceiling did not survive either – by the end of the Victorian era it had been encased by the present wooden ceiling. We may be grateful for that at least, as the wooden roof is largely responsible for the excellent acoustical properties of the present building. When the tower was remodelled at the end of the 19th century, the 1823 organ was taken from the West end gallery to the north-east. The old organ was finally replaced in 1968 – that instrument was in its turn removed (to Eastern Europe) when the present instrument arrived in the 1990s.

Left – one of the 1795 cast iron framed windows: Right – a window adapted with Victorian stone tracery
Rev Charles Wightman

Aside from the architectural heritage of the present building, St Alkmund’s has quietly played its part in the wider world as well. Prebendary Charles Wightman, who followed his father as Vicar here and whose wife Julia Bainbrigge Wightman (nee James) was a most influential lady in nineteenth-century England, played a very substantial part in the establishment of the Church of England Temperance Society a hundred years and more ago. Together, they formed the St Alkmund’s Total Abstinence Society, and the money raised paid for the Wightmans’ Hall in Shrewsbury. They also set up a ‘ragged school’ for disadvantaged children, pioneered an early form of community support for the poor, and Julia’s ideas were copied in many other places around the country and beyond. On Charles’ death, Julia saw to it that he (and his father) were commemorated in the fabric of the church they loved, restoring the pinnacles on the tower and remodelling its interior. The couple are remembered on two brass plaques at the West end of the nave. For their full story, click here.

The church provided other influential figures too: the first Anglican Bishop of Japan had his ‘roots’ at St Alkmund’s (which sent substantial missions to the Far East) and the bells which used to hang in the tower now enrich worship at St Andrew’s Cathedral in Honolulu (go to Bells of St Alkmund’s to hear their story – and, we hope, soon their sound as well!).

Recent years and an increasingly secular society have seen the town centre churches struggle to attract a sizeable congregation; St Alkmund’s has survived as a functioning place of worship (unlike St Mary’s and St Julian’s), but only the intervention of dedicated supporters from the 1970s up until the present day has kept the church from having to abandon its raison d’etre as a centre for worship and for prayer. It is to be hoped that enough interest can be generated to preserve Grade II listed St Alkmund’s and its treasures for a further 1,100 years at the heart of Shrewsbury.

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