The town of Wenlock grew up around an abbey or monastery founded around 680 by Merewalh, a son of King Penda of Mercia, with the small town within its parish boundaries. King Penda installed his daughter Milburga as abbess in 687. Milburga of Wenlock was credited with many miraculous works. The abbey flourished until around 874 when it is thought that a Danish Viking attack occurred.
In the 11th century another religious house was built on the same site by Leofric, Earl of Mercia and Countess Godiva his wife. In the 12th century this was replaced by a Cluniac priory, established by Roger de Montgomerie after the Norman Conquest, the ruins of which can still be seen and which is now in the hands of English Heritage. It prospered until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. Other architectural attractions include the 16th century Guildhall, many other historic buildings in the Early English style and an annual well dressing at St Milburga’s Well on Barrow Street.
In the 19th century the town and much of the surrounding land came into the possession of James Milnes Gaskell, from his wife’s family the Williams-Wynns. James was MP for Wenlock for many years. His son Charles Milnes Gaskell restored the Priory lodging as a home with his wife Lady Catherine, daughter of the Earl of Portsmouth. There they entertained many famous people of the day, writers, politicians, artists and explorers, among them Thomas Hardy, Henry Adams, Henry James, Thomas Woolner, Henry Morton Stanley, Isabella Bird and Phillip Webb.
The Domesday Book of 1086 records the manor as ‘Wenloch’ and forming part of the hundred of Patton. It was already at this time a fairly large settlement, with 73 households. The abbey is also recorded in the Book, separately. The borough of Wenlock was incorporated under the “Bailiff, Burgesses and Commonalty” by Edward IV in 1468 at the request of Sir John Wenlock, and “in consideration of the laudable services which the men of the town performed in assisting the king to gain possession of the crown,” and the charter was confirmed in 1547 by Henry VIII and in 1631 by Charles I.
Much Wenlock has become known as the birthplace of Wenlock Olympian Games set up by Dr William Penny Brookes and his Wenlock Olympian Society (WOS) in 1850. In 1861 he was also instrumental in setting up the Shropshire Games and later in 1866, the National Olympian Games. Dr Brookes is credited as a founding father of the Modern Olympic Games. In 1890 it was the turn of the Raven Hotel to be the venue for the annual post Wenlock Olympian Games’ dinner, and Baron Pierre de Coubertin was the guest of honour. Copies of some of the WOS’s archive images are on display in the hotel, including letters from Coubertin to Brookes. The Wenlock Olympian Games, a nine-day event staged on eight sites across Shropshire, are still held annually during July, and are still organised by WOS. Much Wenlock’s secondary school is named after Dr Brookes.
The Olympic mascot for London 2012 was named Wenlock to honour Dr Brookes, WOS and Much Wenlock. On 30 May 2012, the Olympic flame of the London 2012 Summer Games, was carried through Much Wenlock to acknowledge the founding footsteps of Dr Brookes. WOS Vice-President, John Simpson, carried an Olympic torch from the town into the William Brookes School.
A borough of Wenlock existed until 1966 which, at its height, was – by area – the largest borough in England outside London and encompassed several of the towns that now constitute Telford. The borough had unusual boundaries, covering Much Wenlock itself, but also Little Wenlock, Broseley and Ironbridge, a total area of 71 square miles (180 km2). In 1966 the core Wenlock parts became part of the Bridgnorth Rural District, with other parts also going to Dawley Urban District and to Wellington Rural District.
Much Wenlock was the location for the third episode of the first series of the archaeology television programme Time Team in 1994.
Much Wenlock was the first community in the West Midlands to have a neighbourhood development plan. The plan was put to a parish referendum on 22 May 2014. There was a 41.8% turnout, and 84.6% of those voting said “yes” to the referendum question: “Do you want Shropshire Council to use the Neighbourhood Plan for Much Wenlock to help it decide planning applications in the neighbourhood area.” The Neighbourhood Plan was “made” (adopted) by Shropshire Council on 17 July 2014. Planning applications in the town and surrounding parish must be considered against the Neighbourhood Plan as well as existing planning policy where appropriate, such as the Shropshire-wide Core Strategy and as well as the National Planning Policy Framework.