Malmesbury, Abbey of
MALMESBURY, ABBEY OF
Malmesbury Abbey, located on a hilltop at the southern edge of the Cotswolds, had its origins in a monastery built in the late seventh century. An Irish monk, Maidulph, arrived in England around the year 642 and established a hermitage and school there near the river Bladon. He chose a very strategic location for his school; in the sixteenth century, the antiquarian John Leland wrote "The toun of Malmesbyri stondith on the very toppe of a greate slay rok, and ys wonderfully defended by nature." Several years after Maidulph established his school, a young monk named aldhelm, who was a relative of King Ine of Wessex, came to study with him. Aldhelm
also studied at Canterbury under St. Adrian the African, and later in Rome. William of Malmesbury, who in the twelfth century chronicled the Abbey's history, wrote that after Aldhelm returned to England, he received a land grant at "Meildulfesburh" (Malmesbury) from Leutherius, bishop of the West Saxons, in 672. In the document, Bishop Leutherius praised Aldhelm for his education and devotion to the church, and he gave him land "for the purpose of leading a life according to strict rule." Aldhelm returned to the site of his old school, and there founded a flourishing Benedictine monastery. As Aldhelm was much revered by his contemporaries, the site soon became a popular center of pilgrimage.
Malmesbury claims to be the oldest borough in England, having allegedly received a charter in 880 from King Alfred (r. 871–899). Half a century later, Alfred's grandson, King Athelstan (r. 925–939) used Malmesbury as a base of operations from which to fight the Danes that had encroached upon southern England. He contributed many religious relics and other gifts to the abbey, further enhancing its appeal to pilgrims and scholars. After Athelstan died at Gloucester, his body was brought to Malmesbury for burial; legend has it that he was buried under the High Altar.
In 1010, an extraordinary event happened at Malmesbury. Eilmer, a young monk, fastened wings to his arms and feet, and flew from the top of the abbey tower. According to william of malmesbury, who most likely had heard the story as a youth, Eilmer flew about 600 feet before he panicked, lost altitude and landed rather suddenly, breaking both legs. He was undeterred, however, and was planning his second flight, this time with a tail to provide him with more stability, when his abbot declared there were to be no further attempts at flight.
Malmesbury's most famous occupant was the historian William of Malmesbury, (c. 1095–1143) author of De Gestis Regem Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of the English), which chronicled England's history from the arrival of the Saxons to 1120; De Gestis Pontificium Anglorum (Deeds of the Archbishops and Bishops of the English), which recorded the ecclesiastical history of England from the arrival of the missionary St. Augustine of Canterbury to 1125; and the Historia Novella (Recent History), which recounted King Stephen's reign. A student of the Scriptures, hagiography, theology, the classics, and civil and cannon law, William represents a "golden age" for Malmesbury Abbey. He was perhaps the most popular English historian of his time; son of one Norman and one English parent, he was educated at Malmesbury under Abbot Godfrey (ruled 1087–91?), and later he became a monk there. As a child he had helped Abbot Godfrey in the library and apparently learned to love such work. William collected many historical and legal documents, and while he might have been Abbot of Malmesbury, he apparently preferred the the library, holding the office of librarian. He is considered the finest and most accurate historian of his generation; certainly he was one of the most prolific. Among his other works were the Life of St. Wulfstan of Worcester, On the Antiquity of the Church of Glastonbury, and the Life of St. Dunstan, among many other saint's lives.
The present building was begun shortly after William's death and consecrated in 1180. This Romanesque church was renowned for its remarkable sculptured friezes of biblical history and of the apostles in the South Porch. It was expanded over the next few centuries, and eventually had one of the tallest spires in England. This spire, along with the east end choir, lady chapels and several other areas of the abbey, were destroyed in a great storm of 1470; they were not replaced for lack of money. In 1539, henry viii dissolved the monastery and sold the land and buildings to William Stumpe, a wealthy clothier. Stumpe used the monastery as a textile manufacturing site for two years, and then he decided to donate it back to the people of Malmesbury. On August 20, 1541, Malmesbury became a parish church.
Over the ensuing centuries, the abbey began to decay, until it was finally being used to store hay and keep animals. In the early twentieth century, however, major renovations were begun on the abbey. The local landowners and manor houses contributed greatly toward the upkeep of the abbey, as they were, according to the Curator of Malmesbury, the only ones with the money to do so. In 1928, the floor, which was said to have had a surface like a ploughed field, was taken down six inches to its original level; the choir stalls were then introduced, the long pews removed, and King Athelstan's tomb moved to a more convenient position. That same year, the building was re-consecrated and a Bishop of Malmesbury was appointed. Today, while Malmesbury is still referred to as an abbey historically, it does not function as such.
Bibliography: d. dumville, Wessex and England from Alfred to Edgar (Woodbridge 1992). j. morris, ed. Domesday Book: Wiltshire (Chichester 1977). r. thomson, William of Malmesbury (Woodbridge 1986). r. thomson and m. winterbottom, ed. William of Malmesbury: Gesta Regum Anglorum (Oxford 1999).
[l. a. lehtola]