The History of Malmesbury
Described by Sir John Betjeman as ‘a jewel in the crown of North Wiltshire, the queen of hilltop towns; Malmesbury has a strong claim to being the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in Britain. There have been recent archaeological discoveries in the area of a stone wall that defended the town, it dates back to the Stone Age around 2500 BC.
The history of the town is as rich as it is long and it is full of fascinating characters. The first of these is the exiled Irish monk, Mailduib. He established his hermitage beneath the castle at Malmesbury and later set up a school. One of his students was Aldhelm, a kinsman of the Wessex King Ina; who became highly reputed preacher and scholar. This bought prestige to the school and enhanced the status of Malmesbury. Aldhelm travelled Europe and later returned to Malmesbury, founding a monastery there in 676 AD. He was buried at the monastery and it rapidly became a focal point for pilgrims.
Malmesbury is currently believed to be the oldest borough in England, a claim also made by Barnstaple , having been awarded borough status in 880 AD by King Alfred . The famous English King recaptured the town from the Danes, who had ransacked the town, and then rebuilt its defences. The town got and even bigger boost in its status when Athelstan , first King of all England and grandson of King Alfred, made Malmesbury his capital in 925 AD. Malmesbury was the command centre from which he regained Saxon control over the whole of England. King Athelstan died in 939 AD and was buried in Malmesbury. There is a tomb dedicated to him at the Abbey, but his remains were not buried in the tomb.
The Abbey attracted some of the finest young student monks of the day, including the rather adventurous monk Eilmer . The monk made history when he designed a pair of wings for human flight. In the year 1010 he decided to try his invention out. It looked something like a pair of bats wings held together with scaffolding but apparently took the young monk some two hundred yards successfully through the air. The landing was not so good, young Eilmer’s flight of fancy was brief and his landing hard. He was crippled for life after breaking both of his legs! The Abbott disapproved and banned further experiments. The length of the flight may well have been more due to geographical factors than the quality of Eilmer’s design work. Malmesbury stands high on a hill, making it an ideal defensive position - and a pretty good place to launch a hang-glider. Another, less adventurous but historically more important monk was William of Malmesbury. He was librarian to the Abbey in the early part of the 12th century. His writings have become important historical documents; particularly his most famous work ‘Gest Reglum Angorum’ (History of the Kings of England). At this time Malmesbury was still one of the most important towns in England. In the Domesday Book written at the end of the 11th century, it was the first town listed in the Wiltshire section of the book; meaning it was considered the most important in the county. The town was seized by Bishop Roger of Sarum in the early 12th century, who rebuilt the town’s defences from stone instead of wood.
The town’s prosperity came under threat in the 16th century, following the dissolution of the monasteries. Fortunately, another of the town’s favourable geographic features helped it take advantage of the changing economic climate of the time. The town benefits from being surrounded by three rivers, providing an abundant supply of water and making it an ideal centre for the wool and cloth trades, which were on the rise at the time. During the centuries that followed, Malmesbury became the centre of the lace making industry, yet was largely unchanged by the Industrial Revolution . This would help to account for the fact that present day Malmesbury is a relatively small town with a population of under 5000. Many such towns grew hugely on the back of the Industrial Revolution during these centuries. Adding to the list of famous names associated with the town is Thomas Hobbes , the famous English 17th century philosopher, who was also from Malmesbury.
Present day Malmesbury is a charming market town retaining much of its charm and it still has the original Saxon layout at the heart of the town. The main employer in the town is now Dyson the world famous vacuum cleaner manufacturers, who have their main headquarters situated just outside of Malmesbury. Tourism is also important to the town, much of it drawn by Malmesbury’s ancient history and historical character. A further attraction was added to the town in the 1990s when the Abbey Gardens were opened to the public.