Wem is a market town in North Shropshire and gets it’s name from the Old English word for marsh.
Wem Rural: As You Like It
The gentle hills and lush fields of Wem Rural hold a secret: they are woven into the fabric of English literature, because this enchanting countryside served as the inspiration for Thomas Lodge Jr.’s Tudor pastoral tail Rosalynde (1590), which later blossomed into Shakespeare’s beloved play As You Like It.
Lodge was inspired by what he called this “fair valley, compassed with mountains”, painting a vivid picture that mirrored the “Content” scenery around him.
Shakespeare, in turn, was captivated by Lodge’s tale and borrowed heavily from it, weaving it into the beguiling Forest of Arden, a place of escape and renewal. Shakespeare’s own words echo the atmosphere of Wem Rural today
I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it.
The story of the Wem Rural landscape stretches back many centuries, woven with tales of lost treasure, conquests, a mysterious battle, and the ushering in of the English Renaissance.
Before the Romans conquered Britain, the Cornovii, a Celtic tribe of the Iron Age, likely inhabited the land around present-day Wem. Evidence of their presence lies in the nearby Bury Walls hillfort, which, unusually, continued to be occupied even during the Roman era.
The Roman road connecting Uriconium (Wroxeter) and Deva Victrix (Chester) passed close by, running east of Soulton, and, intriguingly, historians suspect a lost Roman camp, named Rutunium, might have existed in the Wem area. Unfortunately, its exact location remains a mystery to us today…
Saxon and Norman and Medieval times
The area experienced turbulence in the Early Medieval period. Saxon fortifications are understood to have been built in the wider area by Æthelflæd ‘Lady of the Mercians’, daughter of Alfred the Great in the 900s, at a time when the Vikings were traveling south through Shropshire and reaching as far as Bridgenorth. Underlining this, in 2019, a significant archaeological find was made near Wem: a collection of coins, known as the Wem Hoard, deposited in this time, after the Roman withdrawal from Britain.
The Domesday Book of 1086 paints a picture of a Wem Rural as a scattered small community with manors, fields, and woodlands.
William Pantulf, the first known Lord of Wem, received the town of Wem after the Norman Conquest which he joined William I in undertaking. Pantulf lived a long life noted for its loyalty to the Crown, even assisting in putting down rebellions. He planned and built a castle town at Wem. Medieval market days in Wem were officially established by King John’s charter in 1202 on Sundays, later shifting to Thursdays
A notable historical event unfolded in Wem Rural in 1483, which Shakespeare referenced in his play Richard III. This was when the Duke of Buckingham, disguised as a laborer, hid in a ditch at Lacon after leading a failed rebellion against King Richard III. He was betrayed and ultimately executed.
The Tudor period in Wem Rural was marked by significant changes in ownership, religious practices, and cultural influences. Lord Dacre, died in 1563, initiated the felling of Northwood, a project later completed by his granddaughter, the Countess of Arundel.
This period also saw the rise of the statesmen-philosopher Sir Rowland Hill, who established a headquarters at Soulton in Wem Rural, to do sensitive work such as protecting people and cultural artifacts as he worked on the Geneva Bible publication. His activities, like the Lodge family’s are, are also believed to have inspired elements of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, cementing that play’s connection to the area.
Cotton family, known for holding the only existing copy of Beowulf and several copies of Magna Carta, originated in the area. By the 16th century, they held the manor at Alkington and even supported the early works of architect Inigo Jones at Norton-in-Hales. Records from 1589 reveal two annual fairs.
English Civil War
The seventeenth century witnessed dramatic moments.
In 1643 Wem became the first town in Shropshire to declare for Parliament. Fortifications were hastily built but the town had a garrison of possibly as few as fourty soldiers, and the famous “Wild Women of Wem” even played their part in repelling a Royalist attack of around 5000 troops inspiring, cannons great guns and mortars.
It has been suggested this engagement was more focused on the safe evacuation of important state papers from the area, including Magan Carer and potentially the Beowulf manuscript.
Restoration and modern periods
The later 17th and 18th centuries witnessed continued prosperity, marked by the establishment of Adams’ Grammar School in 1650. The area remembers proudly that in this time efforts to run witch trials were firmly rebutted,
In this period, three notable figures, each leaving their mark on different artistic landscapes, shared Wem Rural as their birthplace: William Wycherley (a playwright whose wit and satire captured the spirit of the Restoration period); John Ireland (the novelist, poet, and playwright); and William Hazlitt (the prominent thinker and critic). Their shared origins paint a fascinating picture of Wem Rural’s potential to nurture diverse talents.
The nineteenth century brought the Agricultural Industrial Revolutions, both things that Shropshire contributed heavily to influencing. This time also saw one of the major flowings of the internationally important Hawkstone landscape, which incubated modern theme parks.
Today, Wem Rural is a thriving tourist destination, its rich heritage attracting many visitors. Traces of Wem Rural’s intriguing past are visible everywhere you look. The imposing remains of the many lost moted enclosures castles stand as a testament to its deep history. The charming historic buildings hold tales of the area’s story, which is one of resilience, adaptation, and harmony.
As you explore the area, listen closely, and you might just hear the echoes of the past, whispering the mysteries that continue to captivate hearts today.
You can read more about the history of Wem on the Wikipedia page here.