Malmesbury Abbey

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
The main entrance (the South Porch) seen from the graveyard. This picture shows the modern extent of the Abbey

Malmesbury Abbey, at Malmesbury in Wiltshire, England, is a religious house dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul. It was one of the few English houses with a continual history from the 7th century through to the Dissolution of the Monasteries.[1]


Malmesbury was founded as a Benedictine monastery around 676 by the scholar-poet Aldhelm, a nephew of King Ine of Wessex. In 941 AD, King Athelstan was buried in the Abbey. Æthelstan had died in Gloucester in October 939. The choice of Malmesbury over the New Minster in Winchester indicated that the king remained an outsider to the West Saxon court.[2]

By the 11th century it contained the second largest library in Europe and was considered one of the leading European seats of learning. The Abbey was the site of an early attempt at human flight when, during the early 11th century, the monk Eilmer of Malmesbury attached wings to his body and flew from a tower. Eilmer flew over 200 yards (200 m) before landing, breaking both legs. He later remarked that the only reason he did not fly further was the lack of a tail on his glider. The 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury was of the community.

The current Abbey was substantially completed by 1180. The 431 feet (131 m) tall spire, and the tower it was built upon, collapsed in a storm around 1500 destroying much of the church, including two thirds of the nave and the transept. The west tower fell around 1550, demolishing the three westernmost bays of the nave. As a result of these two collapses, less than half of the original building stands today.

An early-20th-century engraving of King Athelstan's tomb

The Abbey, which owned 23,000 acres (93 km2) in the twenty parishes that constituted Malmesbury Hundred, was closed at the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 by Henry VIII and was sold, with all its lands, to William Stumpe, a rich merchant. He returned the abbey church to the town for continuing use as a parish church, and filled the abbey buildings with twenty looms for his cloth-weaving enterprise.[3] Today Malmesbury Abbey is in full use as the parish church of Malmesbury, in the Diocese of Bristol. The remains still contain a fine parvise which holds some examples of books from the Abbey library. The Anglo-Saxon charters of Malmesbury, though extended by forgeries and improvements executed in the abbey's scriptorium, provide source material today for the history of Wessex and the West Saxon church from the seventh century.

During the English Civil War, Malmesbury is said to have changed hands as many as seven times, and the abbey was fiercely fought over. Hundreds of pock-marks left by bullets and shot can still be seen on the south, west and east sides of Malmesbury Abbey walls.

Today much of the Abbey survives, with the ruined parts still joined onto the complete structure. The existing third of the nave remains in use as an active place of worship.

Other burials[edit]

  • Aldhelm, first Bishop of Salisbury and Saint
  • Hannah Twynnoy: Supposedly the first person to be killed by a tiger in England, she is buried in the churchyard, her grave inscribed with a poem. She was an early-18th-century barmaid working in a local public house, killed on October 23, 1703.

See also[edit]


The Abbey in the 14th century. Only the brightened area is now used, following collapses of the spire and West Tower
The fine parvise over the south porch
Interior of the Abbey, showing the unusual watching-loft projecting above the nave.
The Abbey interior. The ruined area lies beyond the blank wall rising above the altar


  1. ^ S.E. Kelly, editor, 2005.Charters of Malmesbury Abbey In series Anglo-Saxon Charters (Oxford University Press)
  2. ^ Sarah Foot, ‘Æthelstan (893/4–939)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2011
  3. ^ D. A. Crowley, ed. Victoria History of Wiltshire XIV: Malmesbury Hundred, (Oxford) 1991.


  • Smith, M Q: The Sculptures of the South Porch of Malmesbury Abbey: A Short Guide, 1975

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°35′05″N 2°05′54″W / 51.5847°N 2.0984°W / 51.5847; -2.0984