700-year-old stone head likely of King Edward II unearthed in Dorset

700-year-old stone head thought to depict King Edward II is unearthed by archaeologists on the former site of Shaftesbury Abbey in Dorset

  • Archaeologists unearthed the decapitated statue during a dig among the ruins
  • They believe it once formed part of a gallery of Kings and Queens in the abbey
  • Once the second-richest nunnery in England, Shaftesbury was built in 888
  • It was destroyed at the order of Oliver Cromwell in 1539 during the reformation 
  • The team believe that damage to the head may have been occurred at that time

A stone head carved around 700 years ago that is thought to depict King Edward II has been unearthed during a dig at the former site of Shaftesbury Abbey in Dorset.

Archaeologists said that ‘stunning’ find may once have formed part of a previously unknown gallery of sculpture of Kings and Queens within the grand building.

The statues, the experts suggest, may have helped screen off the public part of the abbey from the section reserved for the members of the nunnery alone.

Founded in the year 888, Shaftesbury Abbey was once the second-wealthiest nunnery in England — behind only Syon Abbey, located on the Thames in Isleworth.

Shaftesbury was dissolved by the order of Oliver Cromwell in 1539 — amid the reformation — at which time the abbey itself was destroyed and its lands sold off.

A stone head carved around 700 years ago that is thought to depict King Edward II has been unearthed during a dig at the former site of Shaftesbury Abbey in Dorset. Pictured: archaeologist Julian Richards holds the head while standing in the remains of the abbey

KING EDWARD II 

Edward II was the King of England from July 8, 1307–January 20, 1327.

In 1308, he married the daughter of France’s King Philip IV, Isabella, oft-dubbed the ‘She-Wolf of France’.

Despite this, he was widely rumoured to have been homosexual, largely due to his close friendship with Piers Gaveston, the first Earl of Cornwall.

In fact, the nobleman was repeatedly exiled from England for being too much a favourite of Edward.

Edward II was unpopular at the time, given his favouritism, debts and defeat at the hands of the Scots, led by Robert the Bruce, in 1314.

The king was deposed follow an invasion by his wife — who installed their son, Edward III, in his place.

He was imprisoned in Berkeley Castle, where he was ultimately murdered. 

Shaftesbury Abbey was built by Alfred the Great, the King of Wessex, in the ninth century.

Before it was destroyed in the reformation under Henry VIII, it was about the same size as Westminster Abbey in London.

Within 15 years of it being torn to the ground there was virtually nothing left of the abbey, with much of the rubble salvaged and recycled for building materials.

A six-week excavation of the site was undertaken to explore what lies under the ruins, thanks to funding from the National Lottery.

The team of archaeologists and students were thrilled when they dug up the life-sized head, which bears a crown.

Although it remains in remarkable condition, the sculpture has suffered damage to its nose and jaw.

Experts say that this could have been the result of someone taking a sledgehammer to it when the abbey was destroyed.

‘The significant thing is it is wearing a crown. This is a royal figure, a statue of a king or queen. It might be Edward II, but we’re not sure,’ said archaeologist and excavation leader Julian Richards.

‘The quality of the carving is just absolutely stunning. You can even see the eyelids. It’s slightly battered around the face, as if it’s been deliberately defaced’

‘It’s just a sad reminder of what was here and what was smashed up.’

‘We think this statue formed part of a row of statues that formed a stone screen that separated the public part of the church.’

‘There may have been an entire gallery of kings and queens at this particular point in the church,’ Dr Richards added.

‘Somebody has taken a sledgehammer and smashed this up because it’s broken across the neck. Or maybe they just pushed it over, it fell and the nose got broken.’

‘We think it dates to the 1340s. It is clearly royal because of its crown. It would probably have been painted as well. The hair is flowing and the jawline is quite square,’ the archaeologist continued.

‘It is a very exciting find that has told us about the layout of the church.’

The statues, the experts suggest, may have helped screen off the public part of the abbey — depicted here in a cutaway as it would have looked during its heyday — from the section reserved for the members of the nunnery alone

Although it remains in remarkable condition, the sculpture has suffered damage to its nose and jaw. Experts say that this could have been the result of someone taking a sledgehammer to it when the abbey was destroyed

The head has been sent off for cleaning and further analysis — and it is ultimately planned that it will go on display at the Shaftesbury Museum.

Shaftesbury was an important royal town back in Anglo-Saxon times.

King Alfred built a settlement there to help counteract the threat from the Vikings.

After he had defeated the Danish invaders, he built the abbey in about 888AD. His daughter, Aethelgiva, was the first abbess there.


Shaftesbury was an important royal town back in Anglo-Saxon times. King Alfred (depicted in sculpture, left, and illustration, right) built a settlement there to help counteract the threat from the Vikings. After he had defeated the Danish invaders, he built the abbey in about 888AD. His daughter, Aethelgiva, was the first abbess there

The abbey expanded in size to became one of the wealthiest in the land — thanks to the visitors who came to worship at the shrine of the Saxon King Edward the Martyr.

His remains — which were brought to the Abbey after his murder at Corfe, Dorset, in 978 — were said to have the power to perform miracles.

The only part of the abbey that remains today is the excavated ruins of the abbey church, which lie within a walled garden. 

The only part of the abbey that remains today is the excavated ruins of the abbey church, which lie within a walled garden, pictured

Founded in the year 888, Shaftesbury Abbey was once the second-wealthiest nunnery in England — behind only Syon Abbey, located on the Thames in Isleworth

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