Malmesbury - St Aldhelm, King Athelstan and Eilmer the Flying Monk
Malmesbury has an extraordinary history. It is the burial place of Athelstan, the first King of England, and also of St Aldhelm. Given this history you would think it would be a place of significance today, well known in all corners of England. It certainly was at the time of the Norman invasion in 1066. But today it is a quiet, small town. Very much worthy of a visit, but still under the radar. It is a place I wanted to spend some time with before writing this article, because I think it really is a hidden gem of Wiltshire. The good weather we have been having in late spring 2023 gave me an opportunity to find it at its best. With blossom, buttercups, blue skies and warm air.
Today, the town sits on a hill, surrounded by the waters of the River Avon (or the Bristol Avon). On the day of my visit, I took a walk around the river lined perimeter which provided some stunning views across water meadows back to the town itself. The most impressive building to be seen is Malmesbury Abbey. Unlike most other similar buildings in England, its core structure survived the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, and today it serves as the parish church of the town, in the Diocese of Bristol. The Abbey was founded as a Benedictine monastery in 676 by Aldhelm, who became Abbot. This was an important town in the medieval period, a real centre of learning and significance, such that Athelstan, King of England and grandson of Alfred the Great chose to be laid to rest here in 939.
Contained within the town is the Athelstan Museum inside the Town Hall. It is a delightful place, and as well as telling the substantial history of the town has some magnificent exhibits such as the Malmesbury Coin Hoard, consisting of 1,266 coins. Upstairs is the original J.M.W. Turner painting of Malmesbury Abbey, painted in 1827.
After exploring the town, abbey and museum, we decided to follow footpaths around the rivers which encircle the town. This allows you to see the town from all angles and uncovers sights such as the remains of the old medieval walls that once surrounded the town. We also spotted the remains of the old railway line that led into a 96 metre long tunnel.
Dotted around the town you will see references to Eilmer the Flying Monk. Around the year 1005, he decided to craft some wings and jump from the tower of the abbey. It didn't end well. William of Malmesbury wrote about it:
He was a man learned for those times, of ripe old age, and in his early youth had hazarded a deed of remarkable boldness. He had by some means, I scarcely know what, fastened wings to his hands and feet so that, mistaking fable for truth, he might fly like Daedalus, and, collecting the breeze upon the summit of a tower, flew for more than a furlong [201 metres]. But agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of air, as well as by the awareness of his rash attempt, he fell, broke both his legs and was lame ever after. He used to relate as the cause of his failure, his forgetting to provide himself a tail.
A few days after my visit I discovered that Malmesbury was also home to the naked gardeners, Ian and Barbara Pollard. They lived in the Abbey House and transformed the gardens from 1994 until divorce, ill health and Ian's passing in 2019 led to the end of the naked gardening era. I did think about putting a photo of them up for illustrative purposes, but decided that the curious can use google to find out more !
Another notable person who came from Malmesbury is Thomas Hobbes the philosopher best known for his 1651 work called Leviathan. For such a small town, it has its fair share of notable people who share in its history. But my favourite residents have to be the Tamworth Two. Back in 1998 two Tamworth pigs escaped from the town's abattoir and swam across the river. They made their way across fields and set up residence in an orchard. They were on the run for a week before being rescued, and rewarded with living the rest of their lives in an animal rescue centre. The story was picked up and reported around the world, and the BBC even made a drama about it called The Legend of the Tamworth Two.
So Malmesbury has it all. A King. A Saint. A flying monk. A philosopher. Escaped pigs. If this doesn't raise some curiosity to pay a visit to the town yourself, I don't know what else will.