History of the building by The Rev. T. Perkins, M.A., F.R.A.S. 1901
The little town of Malmesbury stands on a lofty promontory or peninsula, for two streams, the Bristol Avon and Newnton Water, flowing in a southerly direction, almost meet, leaving but a narrow ridge of ground between them, then separate again, to unite finally a little farther to the south. On the narrow neck of land just mentioned stands the suburb of Westport; across the narrowest part no doubt in former times ran a rampart or wall, and the name Westport keeps alive the memory of a fortified gateway which defended the town on the north-western side. The quadrangular space enclosed by the two rivers is occupied by the town of Malmesbury. The abbey was built at the southern end of the ridge, just where it opens out into the quadrangle mentioned above, and looked out to the north from the edge of the escarpment which rises above Newnton Water.
The early history of the town is shrouded in the dim mist of legend. One Dunwal Maelmutius, or Malmud, King Paramount of Britain, father of that Brennus of whom we read in Roman history as having forced his way into the city of Rome in the days of Camillus, is said to have founded, about the year 400 B.C., a city where Malmesbury now stands. Other chronicles speak of the existence, even in earlier times than this, of an encampment on the high ground between the Avon and Newnton Water. That such a stronghold did exist is by no means improbable, since the character of the place would naturally suggest it as being eminently suitable for defence. It is said that its original name was Bladon. Of its condition during the time of the Roman occupation of Britain we have no written record, nor have any Roman remains been found in the immediate neighbourhood. When the Teutonic tribes invaded Britain, the Celtic inhabitants fled from Bladon, and it became an important military post under the name of Ingleburne, and, standing as it did on the borders of Wessex and Mercia, it was sometimes held by one, sometimes by the other of these two rival powers that fought for the supremacy of the island.
A nunnery is said to have existed here in the fifth century of the Christian era; if so, the nunnery was in all probability destroyed and the nuns driven out or slain by the heathen conquerors. Leland, however, speaks of a nunnery existing near the Castle of Ingleburne at a somewhat later date, and tells us that the nuns, having been guilty of acts of unchastity with the garrison, were expelled by the Saxon archbishop. He also says that the nuns were under the direction of Dinoth, Abbot of Bangor. All this is, however, very uncertain. The first authentic figure that emerges from the mist of legend is one Maldulf, from whose name, according to some authorities, the word Malmesbury was derived, though another derivation is Mal-dunes-bury, the City of the Hill of the Cross. Maldulf is sometimes spoken of as an Irishman, sometimes as a Scot. Possibly he was one of the Scots who remained in their old home in Ireland when the main body of the tribe migrated to Caledonia, to which they gave the name of Scotland. Ireland in these early days was the home of religion and learning, and it was by Irish missionaries that Christianity was first introduced into the south of Scotland and north of England.
Maldulf is spoken of as a hermit. What brought him to Malmesbury we do not know. Finding the wild woodland to his taste, he made up his mind to settle here. The palace and manor of the petty king of the district were hard by at a spot known as Caer-dur-burh. Of this chieftain Maldulf asked and obtained permission to build for himself a cell under Caer-Bladon, the stronghold on the river Bladon, now known by the name Avon. Maldulf was extremely poor, if we may trust William of Malmesbury, who says, “Deficientibus necessariis scholares in disciplinam accepit, ut eorum liber-alitate tenuitatem victus corrigeret. “The pupils who were attracted by his learning were formed in course of time into a “monasterium,”by which we must understand not a fully developed monastery, but a little band of disciples living together and looking up with reverence to the wisdom of their master. The most distinguished among the pupils was the famous Ældhelm, who was of near kin to Ine, the West Saxon king. He may be regarded as the real founder of the Abbey of Malmesbury; before his death he became Bishop of Sherborne, when the great West Saxon diocese was divided about 705 A.D.
It is impossible to give the exact date of the coming of Maldulf to Malmesbury; all we can be sure of was that he came during the latter half of the seventh century. There was a deed, which William of Malmesbury incorporated in the chronicles, in which Leotherius, or Eleutherius, who was Bishop of Wessex from 672 to 676, made a grant of land for the foundation of an abbey. If this document were genuine, the date of the formal foundation is brought within very narrow limits; but documents of this nature may be looked upon with some suspicion. It has indeed been suggested that many such deeds purporting to make grants of land to religious houses were forged by the monks at the time of the Norman Conquest in order that they might not be despoiled of their land by William I., who, despite many unchristian acts, yet wished to stand well with the Church. The great West Saxon King Alfred wrote a life of Ældhelm, but unfortunately this has perished, and we have only the chronicle of Faricius, a monk of Malmesbury, who became Abbot of Abingdon in 1100 A.D., and that of William of Malmesbury, who wrote about 1140 A.D., from which to gather details of his life.
Both these men — with the view of exalting the honour of their religious house, of which Ældhelm was practically the founder, though nominally the second abbot, Maldulf being considered the first — interwove with the real events of his life many legends, some of which, on account of their miraculous character, we can reject at once, but others we can only mark as doubtful. Among the former is one closely resembling that told of the miraculous beam at Christchurch Priory, Hants. It is said that when Ældhelm was superintending the building of his church one of the beams was too short for its purpose, and was lengthened in answer to the abbot’s prayer, and that it afterwards remained unscathed, though twice in after years the roof of the church was destroyed by fire. It is also said that the ruins of the church that he built were never wet with the rains of heaven, even in the stormiest weather; it is also recorded that on one occasion when he knelt down to pray he hung his outer garment on a sunbeam, from which it hung suspended as though upon a clothes-line. Among the stories about Ældhelm that we may believe is the following. The abbot, having noticed that the country people cared little to listen to any preachers of Christianity, however eloquent they might be, while at the same time they delighted exceedingly in music, stationed himself on a bridge over which many wayfarers had to pass, and there played upon a harp and sang songs that were popular favourites of the day, and then, having thus gathered a crowd round him, he changed the character of his lays and began to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, and thus led the people to listen to the truths he desired to teach. This anecdote is related by William of Malmesbury, and he says he obtained it from King Alfred’s life of the saint.
Apart from all monkish exaggeration it may be safely asserted that Ældhelm was a man of distinguished piety and virtue. The year of his birth is uncertain. William of Malmesbury speaks of him as a lad in 670, but his name appears as one of the attesting witnesses to a Glastonbury charter dated 670, and in this he signs his name as “Ældhelm Abbas. “Again it is stated that he was Abbot of Malmesbury for thirty years, and that at the time of his death, which certainly occurred in 709 A.D., he was seventy years of age.
The grant of land for the purpose of founding an abbey contains some rather singular clauses. Eleutherius seems to fear that in future times disputes would arise between the monks and the bishops, for he says that he makes the grant with hesitation, and because he has been earnestly entreated to do so; and he expresses a hope that if trouble should arise, his successors will not lay the blame on him. When he appoints Ældhelm abbot, he says he does so after due deliberation, and gives him authority to rule the abbey with the same power as that possessed by bishops. The deed then goes on to say that the bishop bestows on Ældhelm, the priest, in order that he may lead a life according to strict rule, that portion of land called Maildulfesburg, in which place his earliest infancy had been passed and his first initiation in the study of learning had been received, and where he had been instructed in the liberal arts, and had passed his days nurtured in the bosom of Holy Mother Church. In the Malmesbury chartulary this deed bears the date 675 A.D. William of Malmesbury, however, dates the appointment three years earlier. But if we assume 675 to be the correct date, it will leave thirty years as the time he ruled the abbey before his appointment to be the Bishopric of Sherborne in 705. Soon after its foundation the abbey began to receive endowments, both from the Mercian and the West Saxon kings, and the money so obtained gave Ældhelm the means of building. On the foundations of an old church within the monastic precincts he raised a church dedicated to the Holy Saviour and the Apostles Peter and Paul; he also built within the precincts another church dedicated to St. Mary, and hard by a chapel to the honour of the Archangel Michael. Of this chapel William of Malmesbury says a few traces remained in his day, but of St. Mary’s Church he says that it surpassed in size and beauty all other old churches in England, and adds some words, about the exact meaning of which there has been much dispute — namely, “Celebris et illibata nostro quoque perstitit aevo.” But Ældhelm built not only at Malmesbury, but also erected the little church at Bradford-on-Avon which was standing in the days of William of Malmesbury and still stands, the oldest church in England of whose building we have any authentic record. He also established a monastery at Frome, of which he was abbot.
When Ældhelm died in 709 his body was laid in St. Michael’s Chapel adjoining St. Mary’s Church. The monks now used this church for their services, though the church of the Holy Saviour and the Apostles Peter and Paul was still regarded as caput loci, or chief church. A silver shrine to contain the good abbot’s bones was presented to the abbey by King Ethelwulf; on the outside of this might be seen in low relief representations of the miracles that he is recorded to have worked.
Alfred, the great West Saxon king, though he gave no grant of money or land to the abbey, attempted to raise its position as a seat of learning, but in this attempt he signally failed. He sent to Malmesbury a learned Scot, John by name, who was the author of a treatise on the “Division of Nature. “But this John met with little favour as a teacher; and the pupils of the monastery school stabbed him with the steel instruments that they used for writing, so that he died. We are not told what was the special reason for his unpopularity; it may be that he attempted to make idle pupils work against their will, it may be that his coming was resented as the intrusion of a stranger. Anyhow, he was murdered; but it came to pass that after his death he was regarded as a martyr, and his body was buried in the Church of the Holy Saviour and the Apostles Peter and Paul.
The greatest of all the royal benefactors to Malmesbury town and abbey was Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan. “What Harold was to Waltham, “says Professor Freeman, “Waltheof to Crowland, Simon de Montfort to Evesham, ‘Glorious’ Athelstan was to the no less venerable pile of Malmesbury. “It seems that in one of the numerous battles between the English and the Danes the inhabitants of Malmesbury bore themselves like men, and gave valuable help to Athelstan. In consequence of this he made the burgesses a grant of land which they still enjoy. There are now 280 allotments of 2 acres, 48 of 3 acres, 24 of 4 acres, and 12 of 10 acres. And on the marriage of one of those entitled to receive the grant, he is taken to the piece of land which falls to him, and the steward hands to him a turf cut from the soil, and gives him three strokes across his back with a twig cut from his allotment, at the same time uttering the words:
“Turf and twig I give to thee Same as King Athelstan gave to me.”
No stranger coming to Malmesbury, however long he may reside there, can obtain an allotment; none but the sons of former holders or one who marries a daughter of a former holder can obtain the grant, and no unmarried man can claim it. The names of those eligible for it are entered on a list, and they are appointed in rotation; and when vacancies occur, those who hold a two-acre plot are promoted to a three-acre plot, and so on. The holders may not build on the land, nor does the holding convey any political or municipal rights.
Among other valuable gifts, King Athelstan gave to the abbey two most precious relics — a portion of the Holy Cross and a thorn from the Crown of Thorns. No wonder that the possession of such priceless treasures brought pilgrims to the abbey. Moreover, when two of Athelstan’s nephews were slain in battle with the Danes, he brought their bodies and buried them at the head of the tomb of their sainted kinsman Ældhelm, and when he himself lay a-dying at Gloucester he desired that his remains should be borne to Malmesbury. Here he was buried in a spot which it is hard to identify. William of Malmesbury says “he was buried under the altar of St. Mary in the tower, wherefore they are wrong who say that the Abbot Ælfric built the tower, since he was not appointed abbot until thirty years after Athelstan’s death. “But in “De Gestis Regum” the same writer asserts that “he was buried at the head of the sepulchre of St. Ældhelm” — that is, in St. Michael’s Chapel. Are we from the contradictory nature of these two assertions to come to the conclusion that William is not accurate in his details, or can we reconcile them by supposing that he is speaking in the former passage of the spot to which Ældhelm’s bones were afterwards removed when Dunstan, in fear of the Danes, took them from the silver shrine in St. Michael’s Chapel and laid them in St. Mary’s Church ?
King Edwy was no lover of monks, and he showed his hatred of them at Malmesbury by expelling them and putting secular clergy in their place, turning the monastery, as one of the injured monks says, into “a sty of secular canons.” The monks, however, retained possession of the bones of Ældhelm, who had been dead some two hundred and fifty years, and showed them to the king as they lay within the silver shrine, on whose crystal cover the saint’s name shone in letters of gold. Whereupon Edwy, out of respect to the memory of his illustrious kinsman, restored the monks to their former place, and moreover bestowed on them the Manor of Brokenborough, one of the most valuable gifts they had yet received.
In the reign of Edgar the Peaceful things looked brighter for monks throughout the land. In a document dated 974 this king says: “Considering what offering I should make from my earthly kingdom to the King of kings, I resolve to rebuild all the holy monasteries throughout my kingdom, which as they are outwardly ruinous with mouldering shingles and worm-eaten boards even to the rafters, so what is still worse, they have been internally neglected and almost destitute of the service of God. Wherefore ejecting those illiterate clerks (i.e., the secular clergy) subject to the discipline of no regular order, in many places I have appointed pastors of a holier race that is of the monastic order, supplying them with ample means out of my royal revenues to repair their churches wherever dilapidated. One of these pastors by name Ælfric I have appointed guardian of that most celebrated monastery which the Angels call by the twofold name Maldelmsburg. “We may here notice that this peculiar form of the name seems to have been formed by combining the names of Maldulf and Ældhelm. There are conflicting accounts of the architectural work carried out by the Abbot Ælfric. William of Malmesbury, when speaking of Athelstan’s time, says: “It may be necessary to observe that at that time the Church of St. Peter was the chief of the monastery which now (that is, about 1140) is deemed second only; the Church of St. Mary, which the monks at present frequent, was built afterwards, in the reign of Edgar, under Abbot Ælfric. “But it is not clear whether we should regard Ælfric’s work as an entire rebuilding or as a restoration of St. Mary’s Church. Certain it is that St. Mary’s now became the chief church, although the smaller Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, once the caput loci, seems to have stood until the dissolution; for Leland, who was at Malmesbury in 1540, in his description of what he saw there, says: “There was a little church joining the south side of the transept of the abbey church in which some said that John the Scot, the preceptor, was slain by his pupils in the time of King Alfred — weavers have now their looms in this little church, but it standeth and is a very old piece of work.”
It is recorded that Dunstan gave to the new or restored Church of St. Mary a large organ with pipes of metal and a brass plate, whereon was an inscription in Latin verse of his own composing. But this was not the first organ that the abbey possessed, for one had been built under the direction of Ældhelm, who himself described it as a mighty instrument of innumerable tones, blown with bellows and enclosed in a gilded case. This is the first instance on record of an organ being used in England.
Dunstan, as has been mentioned above, removed the body of Ældhelm from its shrine and placed it in a stone tomb at the right-hand side of the high altar in St. Mary’s Church.
During the time of Æthelred II. the monks suffered in many ways; the heathen Danes obtained a footing in the country, and destroyed churches and monasteries. A party of marauders attacked the church at Malmesbury, and one of them tried to break off the precious stones from the shrine of St. Ældhelm, but fell back as though shot; whereupon the rest fled, and so Malmesbury escaped the destruction that overtook many other religious houses at that time. On another occasion two Danish chieftains were seized and put to death by order of Æthelred; the widow of one of them was carried a prisoner to “Malmcestre,” as the chronicler Langtoft spells the name. This lady was young and endowed with great beauty, and when Edmund, the king’s son, afterwards known as “Ironside,” heard thereof, he straightway took horse and rode to Malmesbury, and there and then wedded her without his father’s knowledge.
During the reigns of Cnut and his two sons, little is heard of Malmesbury save that one Constantine, a refugee archbishop, became a monk of Malmesbury, and planted a vineyard for the monks to make wine for themselves with all of the quality of which, however, no record has come down to us.
In the year 1059, when Edward the Confessor was king, Abbot Brithwald was buried, as many of his predecessors had been, so says William, in the Church of St. Andrew. As this church is not elsewhere mentioned, it may be that St. Andrew is a lapsus calami on the part of the chronicler for St. Michael, a chapel in which we know that Ældhelm was buried, and probably some of his successors, who would naturally wish that their bones should lie as close as possible to those of the great saint. Be this as it may, the dead abbots were greatly incensed that Brithwald, who had not been a holy man, should make his grave with them, and their ghosts began to disturb the monks, until they decided to dig up the unwelcome intruder’s body and to cast it into a marsh outside the abbey precincts. When this was done, the dead abbots’ ghosts walked no more. It was during the vacancy caused by his death that Herman, a Fleming who had been the king’s chaplain, and had been appointed Bishop of the Diocese of the Wilissetas, and had his bishopstool in the cathedral church, which stood at what we now call Old Sarum, near Salisbury, sought to unite the Abbey of Malmesbury with all its revenues to the episcopal see. Edward the king gave his consent to this arrangement; but the monks strongly resisted the attempt to absorb their abbey, just as in after times the monks of Glastonbury objected to the incorporation of their abbey in the See of Bath; so Herman had to abandon the attempt. He is said, however, to have built a detached bell-tower at Malmesbury.
William the Conqueror was a benefactor of the abbey, and gave it sundry valuable gifts which he had brought from his capital, Rouen, among them the head of St. Ouen, and appointed three Normans successively to rule over it. One of these, Warin de Lyra, annoyed that the remains of abbots of the conquered race should occupy positions of honour near the high altar, had their bodies exhumed and cast into a hole in the Chapel of St. Michael, “conglobata velut acervum ruderum.” Among them was that of John the Scot, whose murder by his pupils has already been recorded. Warin, however, afterwards repented of his irreverent conduct, and in order to make some reparation he, together with Bishop Osmund of Sarum and Abbot Serlo of Gloucester, who took part in the ceremony, removed the bones of St. Ældhelm from the stone tomb in which Dunstan had laid them, and replaced them in the original silver shrine, the gift of Ethelwulf. William’s queen, Matilda, made a grant of land to the abbey, and an annual festival of five days, afterwards extended to eight, was appointed to be observed in honour of St. Ældhelm. This festival was still observed at the time of Leland’s visit in 1540.
We hear nothing of Malmesbury during the troubled days of the Red King; but important events occurred in the reign of his successor, for at that time Roger was Bishop of Sarum, and he revived the claim to the abbey that Herman had made. He was more successful than the former claimant had been, for, despite the resistance of the monks, he obtained and held the revenues for twenty years. His success was, without doubt, due to the fact that he stood high in the favour of Henry I., a much stronger king than Edward had been. Roger was a great builder. He rebuilt his own cathedral church at Old Sarum, and built castles at Sherborne, Malmesbury, and Devizes; and he has been regarded by many authorities as the builder of the church at Malmesbury, part of which forms the church we see there at the present day. That this church was erected after his death seems certain to the writer; but the evidence for and against the earlier date assigned by many to the building will be given. It is singularly unfortunate that we have not absolute documentary evidence of the date of this church. We would gladly give up the knowledge of the exact dates of many other dated buildings if we could only be sure of that of Malmesbury nave. A claim has been put forward that Gothic, as distinct from Romanesque, had its origin in the He de France, and that such Gothic features as may be met with in English work are simply importations from France, due to the buildings having been planned by or executed under the direction of French architects. Now undoubtedly the vaulting of the aisles at Malmesbury, which remains, with some trifling alterations hereafter to be mentioned, just as it was left in the twelfth century, has Gothic characteristics; in this church we meet with ribbed vaulting and the pointed arch. If we could assume that these aisles were vaulted by Roger, we should be able to claim that we have a Gothic building older than St. Denis at Paris and contemporary with those earlier French churches, the ambulatory of St. Martin des Champs, Morienval, St. Etienne at Beauvais, and others, in which the Gothic principles of construction make their first appearance. And even if we must give up the date formerly confidently assumed (about 1135), we still can lay claim to the origin of Gothic in England quite apart from He de France influence. It seems as if when the hour for the birth of Gothic had come, the principles on which it was based appeared almost simultaneously in various districts, although when once they had been discovered there is no doubt that they were most thoroughly developed in the He de France.
Rickman, one of the earliest systematic writers on English architecture, gives the date of the building of Malmesbury Abbey as 1115 1139. In this he is followed by J. H. Parker. Professor Freeman gives the date of its commencement as 1135, though he allows that the nave may not have been finished until twenty or thirty years after that date; but he supposes it by no means improbable that it may have been gradually erected from one original design. Professor Moore speaks of it as nearly contemporaneous with St. Denis; that would be about 1140. Professor Moore’s remarks on Malmesbury Abbey Church are so interesting that they must be quoted in extenso:
“Few instances of the constructive use of the pointed arch, or of the employment of groin ribs in vaulting, occur in England prior to the re-building of Canterbury Cathedral by a French architect, which was begun in 1175. One instance, however, occurs at an early date in Malmesbury Abbey, a building which is nearly contemporaneous with St. Denis in France. Here, in the vaults of the aisles, we have a distinct approach to Gothic construction. These vaults, though simple in form and ponderous in their parts, are yet certainly advanced in character for their time. In them the principle of interpenetrating round vaults, the forms of whose arches are necessarily determined by the forms of their surfaces, gives place, in a measure, to that of an independent system of arches, which command the forms of the vaults. … It will be seen that the pier arch and the transverse arches are all pointed, and that the diagonals are semicircular. It will be seen, too, that the crowns of the diagonals reach to a considerably higher level than those of the transverse and longitudinal ribs, and that consequently the vaults are, like early French vaults, considerably domed. . . .
“It is evident that the central aisle was originally designed for vaulting with quadripartite vaults, since a group of three vaulting shafts rises from each pier capital. These shafts clearly belong to the original construction, as may be seen by their perfect adjustment with the imposts of the great arcade, and by their being banded by the original triforium string. They emphasise the divisions of the bays, and give a continuity to the vaulting system, like that which is characteristic of Gothic designs in France.
“The existing high vaults are of late English construction, and are ill-suited to the lower portions of the building. If the originally intended vaults were ever built over the central aisle, the effect of the interior must have been both grand and impressive, though the scale of the building is not large.” — Moore’s “Development and Character of Gothic Architecture” (1890), pp. 124-126.
The advocates of the early date base their opinion on passages in the writings of William of Malmesbury, a chronicler of whom already mention has been made. So famous is this historian that a little space may be here devoted to a brief sketch of his life and writings. He was born somewhere about 1075, since, when speaking of himself, he says “utriusque gentis sanguinem traho,” it may be inferred that he was the son of a Norman father and an English mother. He received his early education at Malmesbury Abbey, and afterwards assisted Abbot Godefrey in collecting books to form the first library of the monastery. Of this library he subsequently became librarian, and thus had ample leisure for gathering materials for his own writings. In 1140 he might have become abbot, but he declined this honourable post, probably because its duties would have given him less leisure for study. In his later days he enjoyed the friendship of Robert, Earl of Gloucester, half-brother of Matilda, and champion of her cause against Stephen. This Robert was a patron of learned men and of letters, and so was naturally attracted to the studious monk William. William, too, was a staunch supporter of Matilda, and was one of those who attended a meeting of her adherents at Winchester in 1141. Soon after this he died. His two great works are “De Gestis Regum Anglorum,” which covers the ground from 449 to 1128, and is one of the chief sources of English history up to the latter date, and “De Gestis Pontificum Anglorum,” which brings down the history of the church to 1140. The fifth book of this work relates the story of St. Ældhelm, and gives far more details of it than the earlier chronicle of Faricius. We might fairly expect William to give a definite account of his own monastery, but his record is by no means so precise as we could desire. He tells us that of St. Michael’s Chapel nothing more than some ruins were standing in his day. “Cujus nos vestigia vidimus.” Of the Church of St. Mary, which is spoken of as Ældhelm’s, he says:
“Lata majoris eccleste fabrica Celebris attjue illibata nostro quoque perstitit levo” (“De Gestis Pontificum,”lib. v.).
Professor Freeman says the use of the past tense “perstitit” clearly shows that the church was no longer standing when he wrote, and that it had been destroyed to make room for a new church during his lifetime. But “perstitit” may be translated “has stood,” and is still standing as well as “stood,” so that this passage does not seem conclusive evidence for the demolition of Ældhelm’s church before the time when William wrote. There is, however, a passage about Roger in the “De Gestis Regum” (lib. v.) which runs thus:
“Pontifex magnanimus et nullis unquam parcens sumptibus, dum quae facienda pro-poneret, sedificia prgesertim, consummeret; quod cum alias, tum maxime in Salesberia et Malinesberia est videre. Fecit enim ibi sedificia spatio diffusa, numero pecuniarum sumptuosa, specie formosissima; ita juste composito ordine lapidum, ut junctura perstringat intuitum, et toto maceriam unum men-tiatur esse saxum. Ecclesiam Salesberiensem et novam fecit et ornamentis excoluit, ut nulli in Anglia cedat, sed multas praecedat; ipseque non falso possit dicere Deo ‘Domine delexi decorem domus tuge.'”
Now, with respect to this passage it may be remarked that the words et Malinesberia are not to be found in some texts, and, moreover, even if they are genuine, it is by no means certain that they refer to the church at Malmesbury, for we learn from the second book of William’s “Historia Novella,” a continuation of the “De Gestis Regum,” that Roger had begun (hichoaverat) a castle at Malmesbury. The church at Sarum has entirely disappeared, so that we cannot compare its masonry with that of the existing church at Malmesbury, which indeed is exceedingly good, and might well be considered to accord with William’s praise, when we consider that most of the buildings which he was accustomed to see had wide-jointed masonry. These passages are the only evidence that can be brought forward in favour of an earlier date than 1140 for the building or planning of the church. On the other hand, it may be said that it seems almost inconceivable that if the old church had been already pulled down, even in part, or was to be pulled down to make room for a finer church, that William, writing on the spot, should not definitely have said so, for the reconstruction of their abbey church must have been of absorbing interest to all the monks at Malmesbury living when it was in progress. The style, moreover, is decidedly advanced for the first half of the twelfth century; and it must be remembered that the Benedictines — and Malmesbury was a Benedictine house — were a very conservative body, as Mr. Prior points out, and clung tenaciously to the Romanesque forms for some years after the Early English style had been employed in the churches of secular canons. Roger, indeed, may have been imbued with a love for the newer ideas, and might, if the work was his, have forced them on the monks. Still, the silence of William on the matter seems to lend weight to the opinion that nothing was actually done towards the rebuilding, even so far as the preparation of plans, before his own death. Had the choir remained to the present time, had there been any sketch or verbal description of it, the problem of the date might have been an easier one to solve. Whether the pointed arch was used in the choir we cannot tell. Beneath the central tower it certainly was not used, though there it would have been an easier expedient than the use of the stilted Norman arch, which we see on the north side, to overcome the difficulty of getting unequal spaces spanned by arches springing from the same level and rising at their crowns to the same height. This was the plan adopted in St. John’s Church, Devizes, where, as at Malmesbury, the arches under the north and south sides of the tower were narrower than those beneath the east and west sides.
Another argument sometimes brought forward to show that Roger could not have built the nave of the abbey church is that he is said to have begun a castle in the very churchyard itself, not a stone’s throw from the church, and that there would not have been room for the western part of the nave as long as the castle remained standing, and that Roger would not have planned a church part of which would occupy the site of his castle. This argument is not of much weight, as there is nothing to show that the churchyard was not at that time more extensive than now. After the dissolution of the monasteries, it is as likely that the western part of the churchyard was encroached on for building-purposes as the eastern part, where we see an Elizabethan house built upon the foundations of some of the monastic buildings. A road also has been cut through the site of the choir, and the steeple of St. Paul’s Church which once stood in the churchyard is now divided from it by a road. The castle was not demolished until the time of King John, who granted to the monks its materials for building-purposes. These they may have used for some of their domestic buildings, for we have record that extensive buildings were erected during the thirteenth century, though all of these have now disappeared.
It seems reasonable to suppose that the rebuilding of the church was undertaken early in the second half of the twelfth century, possibly after the civil war was over. As the country round the abbey was in a disturbed condition during the reign of Stephen, much of the fighting taking place in the neighbourhood, it seems hardly likely that this time would have been chosen by the monks for extensive building-operations. The character of the architecture itself would indicate the second half of the twelfth century as the most probable time for the erection of the church. The massive pillars of the nave, the round-headed arches, and the chevron moulding of the triforium are remnants of the Norman style, while the pointed arches of the nave arcading are an early introduction of the style which was destined to prevail in the thirteenth century. It may be noticed that the pointed arches are not very sharp, and that, as at Wimborne Minster, their pointed character is somewhat masked by the grotesque heads carved at their points. It is also worthy of note that pointed arches are only found in connection with the vaulting of the aisles — namely, in the main arcading of the nave and the transverse arches of the aisle vaulting. In the triforium both the main and sub arches are Norman in character. The clerestory was from the first very fully developed, as can be seen from the exterior pilasters, which rise almost to the top of the walls; this shows that the walls were not much raised when the clerestory was reconstructed in the fourteenth century, and the church covered, probably for the first time, with stone vaulting. It is evident that a stone vault was contemplated from the first, although for a time probably the nave was covered by a wooden ceiling. The original clerestory was without doubt pierced by tall, narrow, round-headed windows. The central tower was probably originally a lantern, such as that at Wells and Salisbury, though, like them, It afterwards had a vault inserted beneath it. This was done at Malmesbury during the Perpendicular period, possibly with a view of making the church warmer and more comfortable for the monks, as some of the choirstalls were situated beneath the tower.
Although we cannot exactly date the rebuilding of Malmesbury Abbey Church, we may safely say that it is a very early example of Transitional work. The treatment of the pointed arch in the groining is more systematic than that of the pointed arches in the vaulting of the nave at Durham, which is dated 1128-1133, and is earlier than the Transitional work at Kirkstall, which was completed in 1182, and the Transitional work at Wells in Bishop Reginald’s time. Thus the church at Malmesbury forms an important link in the chain connecting the Romanesque and Gothic.
In 1190 a dispute again arose between the monks and the new Bishop of Sarum, Hubert Walter, who had been consecrated in 1189. The story shall be given in the quaint words of the chronicler, Richard of Devizes:
“The King of Darkness that ancient firebrand between the church of Sarum and the Abbey of Malmesbury applying fresh fuel kindled the old fire into a blaze. The Abbot was summoned not upon the question of making his profession to the Bishop, but that of laying aside altogether his name and the staff of a pastor. The King’s letter to the Chancellor was produced, ordering the Abbot to answer in law to the demands of the Bishop of Sarum. But the Abbot (Robert de Melun), whose fortune was at stake, was one whom no danger found unprepared, and who was not a man to lose anything by cowardice. He gave blow for blow, and got other letters from the King counteracting the former ones. The Chancellor, perceiving the shameful contradictions in the King’s mandates, in order that the King’s character might not suffer if any further steps were taken, put the whole case off until the King’s return”; and then the whole matter seems to have dropped.
King John proved himself a benefactor to the abbey, and, as has been stated above, gave the monks the materials of the castle built by Bishop Roger, and, moreover, in the seventeenth year of his reign, bestowed on them the Manor of Malmesbury.
The most casual examination of the church will show that there is no thirteenth-century or Early English work to be seen in it. There seems a gap in its architectural history of a whole century. Much twelfth-century work, as we have seen, there is; fourteenth and fifteenth-century work may also be seen. What were the monks about during that great building-epoch, when the Cistercians were so busy in Yorkshire, when the great secular Church of Lincoln received its most splendid additions, and St. Mary’s rose on a new foundation at Salisbury ? It seems probable that, the church having been completed and standing in all its massive grandeur, the abbot and monks rested for a time contented with the work, and then, when once again they turned their attention to architectural work in the second half of the thirteenth century, it was not upon the church, but upon the domestic buildings that they spent their money and their labour. It was by William de Colerne, who became abbot in 1260, that the great work of remodelling and rebuilding the various parts of the abbey were directed. We hear of a great hall and a lesser hall, of a kitchen and a larder, of a dormitory and a chapter-house, of a bake-house and a brewhouse, of a stable and a workshop, all built or rebuilt by him; we also read of his planting a vineyard and enclosing it with a stone wall, and of his making a garden of herbs adjoining it and of his planting vines and apple-trees in his own garden. Moreover, he improved the water supply, and the stream he led into the abbey by a conduit flowed into the lavatory for the first time on St. Martin’s Day, 1284.
All these buildings have vanished, destroyed after the dissolution; in them, had they remained, we should have found examples of the Early English style.
About the same time a hospital of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem was founded at Malmesbury near the south bridge. A single arch of this is still standing. In the thirteenth century we find mention of the Church of St. Paul, the vicar of which was appointed and paid by the abbey. This no doubt stood on the same site as the Church of St. Paul, all of which has been swept away save the steeple, which now serves as a bell-tower for the present parish church.
We have little written record of Malmesbury Abbey for many years, but from studying the building we can discover what was being done during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. No eastern extension seems to have been made after the church was finished in the twelfth century, unless it were the lady-chapel mentioned by William of Worcester, who visited Malmesbury in the time of Henry V. He tells us he measured its length and breadth, as he did the other dimensions of the church, not by any measuring-rod, but by counting his own steps. We are informed in Dugdale’s “New Monasticon” that William of Worcester’s step was 19 in. This value seems rather too small, for there are some parts of the building which we can still measure whose length William of Worcester gives in his own steps. The interior projection of the transepts beyond the aisles is 39 ft. William of Worcester says the projection of the transepts beyond the aisles is 22 steps, but he does not say whether he is speaking of interior projection or not. If he is, then his step must have been about 21 in. The lady-chapel, he says, measured 36 of his steps in length and 9 in breadth, which would make it about 58 by 14 ft., or 63 by 15 ft. 9 in., according to the value we give his step — 19 or 21 in. This is exceedingly narrow if the length of the chapel ran east and west; but it may have run across the east end of the choir. He gives as the total length of the building 172 steps — that is, about 280 or 300 ft.
A considerable amount of work was done during the fourteenth century. The clerestory was remodelled and larger windows inserted in it. The walls of the eastern part are probably the original twelfth-century walls; but the western parts have been rebuilt. The present vaulting was thrown over the nave, and flying buttresses and pinnacles were added to counteract the weight of the new roof. Besides these changes, two large windows with very peculiar tracery were inserted in the south aisle and one in the north aisle. The sills of the other windows were brought lower down. These alterations were no doubt made partly to admit more light (for mediaeval Churchmen had no predilection for “a dim religious light”), partly to display painted glass. The peculiar tracery of the windows on the south side may have been designed with reference to the subjects of the glass that was destined to fill them. On the north side, as the cloister would not allow of the sill of the new window being brought down so low as those on the south side, a gable was carried up in the aisle wall, and vaulting introduced below it. In the fourteenth century also the south porch was cased on its southern side, the old hood moulding and terminations being either copied or used again. It is almost certain that the porch never received a vault, for, if it had, there would have been no occasion for placing the present ceiling below it. A parapet was also added to the walls of the nave, the aisle, and porch on the south side, but not on the north. At what time the central tower, which probably at first did not rise much above the ridge of the roof, was raised and the spire added we cannot tell. The spire, which is said to have been more lofty than that of the cathedral church at Salisbury, probably consisted of a timber framework covered with lead.
In the fifteenth century a western tower was built. It may be that the addition of a spire and the tampering with the arches beneath the central tower when the vaulting was introduced beneath the lantern had rendered it risky to ring the ten bells which hung in the central tower, so that another tower was built to contain them. But this western tower was built in a most insecure way. It was not erected upon foundations on the ground beyond the west front, but its western face was built upon the existing west wall of the church, the north and south faces on the clerestory walls, and the eastern face upon an arch crossing above the vaulting of the nave but below the external roof. To strengthen it an additional flying buttress was inserted on the south side beneath the fourteenth-century flying buttress; of this we may be sure, since it has remained to our own day, although it has been rebuilt during the restoration commenced at the end of the last century. Probably a similar buttress was built at the north side also. A flying buttress was also built eastward across the clerestory window, which may still be seen on the south side.
At the same time a large Perpendicular window was inserted in the west front, and a Perpendicular doorway within the original great western doorway, which was partially walled up. Whether this was done to strengthen the wall or simply for aesthetic reasons we cannot tell. Both the towers fell — we do not know exactly when; all we know is that Leland, writing in 1540, says the church had two steeples: “one that had a mightie high pyramis felle daungerously in hominum memoria and sins was not re-edified, it stode on the middle of the transeptum of the church and was a marke to al the countrie aboute. The other yet stondeth, a great square toure at the west end of the chierch. “The ruin, however, of the central tower was not so complete as it is now, for it is recorded that portions of its pillars were thrown down by the concussion of guns fired to celebrate the Restoration of Charles II. The rood-screen beneath the western arch of the central tower was not destroyed, but still stands as a reredos to the present church. The carving on this, however, indicates a date late in the fifteenth century.
Professor Freeman thinks that before the central tower actually fell the monks having abandoned the choir and crossing migrated into the nave for safety, for he says:
“Just east of the rood-screen the arch is built up as high as the impost with a solid wall which appears to be older than the destruction of the eastern part of the church. I ground this belief chiefly on the fact that the masonry up to this height is quite different and of a much better character than that which blocks the arch itself, which last exactly resembles that with which the arches between the transepts and the nave aisles were clearly blocked at the time of the destruction. “He is inclined to believe that when the tower showed signs of weakness the wall upon the rood-screen was introduced to remedy the weakness and put off” the evil day for a time.
During the fifteenth century Perpendicular tracery was inserted in the Norman windows of the aisles, and the cloister door was reduced in size.
The string course above the nave arcading seems, for some unaccountable reason, to have been partially hacked away some time before the fall of the western tower, for we find that the string course above the arcading of the ruined part of the church was treated in the same way.
The watching-loft projecting from the south triforium is of late fourteenth or early fifteenth-century date.
We cannot fix the date of the fall of the western tower within very close limits. All we know is, that it was standing at the time of Leland’s visit (1540), but that it was gone in 1634, for a tourist, whose name we do not know, visited the church in that year, and says he found the two turrets at the west end quite demolished, but says nothing of any western tower. He apparently had no knowledge that such a tower ever existed. It would therefore appear that in all probability the fall was not a recent event in 1634. At some time after the tower fell the present west wall of the church was built, cutting off the two western bays of the nave, and a finely proportioned window was inserted in it. The tracery of this is modern. The vaulting of the two western bays within the existing church, as well as that of the two still farther to the west, was ruined by the fall of the tower. The stone vault was never replaced, but within the present church a very well-executed plaster vault was put up to take its place.
In the time of Edward III. the Abbot of Malmesbury was, with twenty-four other abbots, summoned to sit in Parliament; but it was not until the days of Richard II. that the abbot received a mitre.
In the reign of Henry VIII. the abbey was dissolved. The exact date of the surrender was December 15, 1539-The last abbot, Selwyn, together with about twenty monks, were pensioned off, and all the abbey property was seized by the king. The annual value was returned to the king’s commissioners as £803.
After the dissolution the monastic buildings gradually disappeared. Some portions were seen by the anonymous tourist above mentioned in 1634, and John Aubrey in 1650 speaks of the remains of the kitchen standing on four strong pillars to the north-west of the church.
The Tudor house, still known as Abbey House, to the north-east, was built upon the lower story of some part of the domestic buildings, possibly the infirmary. The original windows may still be seen on the north side. Once there was a central row of pillars within the undercroft, but these have now been destroyed, together with the vaulting, and the undercroft is used as a wine-cellar. It is supposed by some that the house above this was built by William Stump, a rich clothier of North Nibley, in Gloucestershire, who for the sum of £500 bought off Henry VIII. the site of the abbey and the buildings thereon standing. He used some of the domestic buildings as workshops, others as residences for his workmen, filling even the chapel at the south end of the transept with looms, but presented the remains of the nave to the parish, to be used as a parish church in place of the dilapidated church of St. Paul,
The tower of this church and its spire, a broach of the Perpendicular period, alone remain to the present day, and serve as a campanile for St. Mary’s, which has no bells of its own, seeing that no tower remains in which bells could be hung. Before the fall of the central tower it contained ten bells, one of which bore the name of St. Ældhelm, and was rung to scare away lightning.
It was on August 20, 1541, that Cranmer granted the license for the use of the nave of the parish church for parochial purposes.
At the time of the dissolution the manuscripts of the abbey library were scattered — some were sold as wastepaper or parchment; some, says John Aubrey, were used by him and his schoolfellows to cover their school-books; he also tells us that Mr. William Stump, great-grandson of the purchaser of the abbey, had several of the abbey manuscripts. “He was a proper man and a good fellow; and when he brewed a barrel of special ale his use was to stop the bung-hole, under the clay, with a sheet of manuscript; he said nothing did it so well, which methought did grieve me much to see. Afterwards I went to school to Mr. Latimer at Leigh Delamere, where was the like use of covering of books. In my grand father’s days the manuscripts flew about like butterflies. All music books, account books, copy books etc were covered with old manuscripts as we cover them now with blue or marbled paper; and the glovers of Malmesbury made great havoc of them and gloves were wrapped up in many good pieces of antiquity. “When he was grown up Aubrey went to his first school at Yatton-Keynell, to see if he could find any remains of Parson Stump’s manuscripts, but he could light on none. “His sons were gunners and soldiers and had scoured their guns with them”; but he saw some ancient deeds bearing the abbey seal. Some few scraps of Malmesbury manuscripts were discovered, though in a very mutilated condition, by the late Rev. Canon Jackson, for many years rector of Leigh Delamere, the parish of which Latimer, Aubrey’s schoolmaster, was rector in the seventeenth century. These manuscripts were shown by Canon Jackson at a meeting of the Wilts Archaeological Society at Malmesbury, and, despite the rough usage to which they had been subjected, still showed traces of gold lettering and the beautiful penmanship of the monks,
The South-West Angle
After the destruction of the cloister of the abbey, buttresses were built against the walls of the north aisle.
Malmesbury, during the civil war of the seventeenth century, was alternately occupied by Roundheads and Cavaliers, for it lay on the direct road between Bristol and Oxford, the respective headquarters of the opposite parties during a considerable part of the war. What injury, if any, was done to the church during this period we do not know, though during the Commonwealth it was not used for divine worship.
At the present time extensive works of repair and restoration are in progress. This work will not probably be completed for some time. The condition of the fabric was such that immediate steps were needed to secure it from further ruin. The restoration of an old building is always a process fraught with danger; incumbents often wish to make their churches smart; architects, builders, and masons always want to do too much and to insert modern imitations of old work. There is some hope, however, that at Malmesbury less mischief than usual will be done, and that the church, when it emerges from the restorers’ hands, will be not a practically new building, but an old one repaired and made sound throughout, yet still retaining its old features. Some objection may, however, be fairly made to the new carved finials placed on the pinnacles on the south side, which might better have been left in their truncated condition. The writer has had the opportunity of examining the report prepared jointly by the Society of Antiquaries and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. This report contains some admirable suggestions for the extension of the church west-ward. It is recommended that the two ruined bays at the west end should be rebuilt and this part of the church covered with a timber roof, but that the north aisle should not be extended farther to the west, as it would be unwise to tamper with the solid buttresses; that the present west wall should be retained, with its window and tracery left intact, though the glass might be removed from it. If an arch were built beneath the window to support the weight of the west wall, the modern organ-gallery, with the round-headed arches of modern date on which it stands, might be removed so as to give a greater appearance of length. The rebuilt western portion of the church would form a kind of vestibule to the church if an entrance were made in the new west wall, which should be built without interfering in any way with the remains of the original doorway. The whole scheme would be somewhat costly, and it is doubtful if funds will allow of its being carried out for some time to come.
The present contract provides for the rebuilding of the western part of the nave arcade on the south side only, with the triforium and clerestory above it, the roofing of the ruined part of the south aisle, the demolition of the walls across this aisle just to the east of the porch, and the removal further to the west of the wall which forms the present west end of the aisle, so as to throw the whole aisle open from east to west, and the building of a temporary wall under the renewed arches of the nave arcading, so as to enclose the aisle on its north side.
Before leaving the history of the building it may be well to briefly notice the fine market-cross standing outside the present churchyard to the south. Leland speaks of it having been built homimiin memorid; this well accords with its architectural features, which indicate a fifteenth-century date. It is octagonal; a groined roof springs from a central pier. In character it much resembles the Poultry Cross at Salisbury and the cross at Chichester. The gateway leading into the present churchyard at the south-east is much more modern in construction, though some of the stonework seems old; it was probably erected in the seventeenth century.
The church at Malmesbury as we see it to-day, like those at Pershore and Hexham, is but a fragment of the old abbey church, and in some respects has fared worse than these two churches, for while they can each boast of the possession of a tower, and the former of one wing of the transept, and the latter of the whole transept, Malmesbury has lost both its towers and transepts, is ruinous at both ends, and the church, as used for service at the present day, consists of little more than the six eastern bays of the original nave, its two aisles, and the great southern porch. Outside the part now roofed in, the arch, above which once rose the north wall of the central tower, still stands in all its lofty ruined grandeur, as also do the west wall and south-west angle of the south transept, and the south aisle wall to the west of the porch, a portion of the clerestory at this part of the church, and the southern half of the west front, but all in a more or less ruined condition.
It will be convenient to begin the examination of the exterior of the building with the remains of the west front. The south jamb of the original great west door may still be seen, and enough of the mouldings of the arch remains to show that the carving was of an elaborate character. On one order were represented the signs of the Zodiac, of which three only remain, in an almost unrecognisable state. There never was more than one entrance to the church at the west end; there are no doorways giving admission to the aisles. Above the west doorway there was once a great window — a Perpendicular insertion in the Norman walls, as we infer from the remains of the ends of the four transoms by which it was divided. To the south of the doorway may be seen some intersecting arches of the arcading, which, interrupted here and there, runs along the west front and the south side of the church and along that part of the transept that still remains.
The west end beyond the central part, which no doubt, before the erection of the western tower, terminated in a gable, is a simple screen of stone-work running out to a turret, oblong in plan, at the south-west angle. Malmesbury, therefore, like Salisbury and Exeter and other churches, had a western facade bearing no relation to the nave and aisles that it terminated. Professor Freeman remarks that nowhere else in English Romanesque has he found a similar sham wall. Above the arcading just mentioned, in this part cut into to allow of the insertion of a rectangular tablet, is a richly ornamented window with chevron moulding and semicircular drip-stone, with the remains of inserted Perpendicular tracery, and above it a string course which runs round the buttresses and turret. Above this is an arcade of two complete arches, with half arches on either side with richly carved mouldings without capitals. Underneath each of the two central arches of this arcade are two sub-arches rising from shafts with capitals; above this is another string course, and then another row of arcading consisting of five semicircular, non-intersecting arches with plain mouldings underneath a plain string course, and then a plain wall, once probably terminating in a parapet, which has, however, disappeared. Of the south-west turret three complete stages and a portion of the fourth still stand; the lowest is plain, with no openings. On the western and southern faces of the second are two lofty semicircular-headed arches. Beneath the two on the western face are other semi-circular-headed arches. The wall beneath the eastern arch on the south side is pierced by a long slit; over the second stage is an ornamental string course, above which the turret recedes; the next stage is decorated on the south and west faces with an arcade of intersecting semicircular arches springing from shafts with capitals. The fourth stage, of which only the lower part remains, is decorated with richly carved pilasters; similar pilasters are to be seen also on the eastern face, the corners being occupied by carved cylindrical shafts.
Turning round the angle, we find between the south-western turret and the south porch two bays of the aisle wall with a flat buttress between them. Along the wall of the western bay the arcade of intersecting arches is resumed, but it is not seen in the next bay. Each bay contains a round-headed window with inserted Perpendicular tracery, but without glass. In fact, the whole of the western part of the building consists of walls without a roof; hence, of course, no glass is found in the windows. Against the wall, between the first and second windows of the clerestory, counting from the west before the restoration was begun, rested two flying buttresses, one above the other, a second one having become necessary to support the extra weight when the western tower was built. This part of the wall is, at the time of writing, being rebuilt; the flying buttresses and the lofty pinnacles against which they abut have been one by one rebuilt of the old stones as far as possible, and at the same time fresh tracery and glass have been inserted in the clerestory windows. It is said that this part of the church was in such an unsafe condition that the parishioners were afraid to sit in the nave whenever a strong south wind was blowing, lest the clerestory windows should be blown in and fall on the heads of those seated below.
We next come to the great glory of the church, of which the people of Malmesbury are so justly proud — the magnificent south porch. This projects a considerable distance from the aisle wall, and may be divided into three parts : the outer casing and buttresses, added in the fourteenth century; the twelfth-century arch; and the side-walls and inner doorway. The outer facing has plain mouldings encircled by a hood moulding terminating in monsters’ heads of the same form as may be seen at the extremities of the hood-moulding over the arches of the nave arcading. Just within this is a plain arch, and then the original outer porch recessed in eight orders. These run round the porch without any capitals, and are profusely decorated with sculpture. The first, third, fifth, seventh, and eighth of these orders, counting inwards, are carved with scroll-work; the second, fourth, and sixth are carved with figure subjects set in ovals of scroll-work; but unfortunately they are so much weathered that many of them can now with difficulty, if at all, be made out. The process of decay has been very rapid in recent times. The Builder, in the number for March 2, 1895, contains a reproduction of an old engraving by Le Keux, by comparing which with recent photographs it may be seen how much the carvmg has been weathered in recent years. The anonymous tourist who visited the church in 1634, and has left an account of the then, existing condition of the abbey church in his “Topographical Excursion,” printed in Brayley’s Graphic and Historical Illustrator, p. 411, gives a minute description of the sculpture on the porch.
Professor Cockerell, in his work on the sculpture on the west front of Wells, also gives his reading of the Malmesbury sculptures. He agrees with the tourist with respect to Nos. 9, 10, II, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 25 on the first arch; No. 23 he takes to represent Abel’s sacrifice. He agrees with the list of subjects given above for Nos. 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 13, 15, 16, 18, and 19 on the middle arch; but thinks No. 1 represents God’s command to Noah, No. 11 the burning bush. No. 14 the rod of Moses. Speaking of the outer arch, he commences with No. 5, and generally agrees, save that he omits No. 17, and for No. 10 gives Christ before the doctors, and the betrayal.
Within the outer archway is the inner porch, rectangular in plan, with bench tables on either side, above each of which is an arcade of four arches, round-headed, wdth chevron moulding springing from capitals with square abaci, them-selves richly carved; but all the shafts, save the end ones, have disappeared. Above the arcading on either side, under a semicircular arch, is a group of six seated figures with angels flying above them, all in high relief. The seated figures probably represent the twelve apostles. These carvings seem of earlier date than those on the outer arches, and may have belonged to the earlier Church of St. Mary existing in William of Malmesbury’s day. The doorway leading into the church is recessed in three orders, elaborately carved with scroll patterns. The tympanum over the door contains a carving of Christ and attendant angels. A holy-water stoup stands on the east side of the door. The ceiling of the porch is a plain tunnel roof of plaster. The floor is paved with rough flagstones much worn. Before the restoration is com-pleted a new pavement will probably be laid; it is to be hoped that it will be of stone, not of tiles, which would not harmonise with the old stone-work.
Above the porch, as is so often the case, is a chamber, lighted here by a two-light rectangular window with square, leaded panes. The porch has buttresses at the corners, set at right angles to its faces; it is finished at the top by a horizontal pierced parapet, behind which the lead roof rises to a very obtuse angle; from the base of the parapet the heads of two monsters project. The outer porch is protected by some ugly iron railings with gates running between the two buttresses that project from the southern face of the porch. These are to be removed, so that the recessed entrance will be much better seen.
In the angle between the east side of the porch and the wall of the aisle is a rectangular turret rising just above the wall of the nave, with a pyramidal roof, covered, as the roof of the aisles are, with stone shingles; this contains a newel staircase leading up to the chamber above the porch, and also to the triforium on the south side. Access to this staircase can be gained either from the exterior or interior of the church.
To the east of the porch there are five bays, divided along the south aisle wall by flat pilasters; in the first two are round-headed windows with inserted Perpendicular tracery, and beneath them an arcading of intersecting arches rising from square capitals; the next two bays contain large Decorated windows deeply splayed. To make room for these, since their sills are much nearer to the ground than those of the windows whose place they took, the arcading was cut away and a plain wall built. The fifth bay is similar to the first and second, and here the original arcading remains. The windows of the clerestory contain Decorated tracery, and all save the eastern-most one have three lights; this last is narrower and has only two lights. The parapets that run along the top of the walls of the aisles and clerestory are similar to the one that runs round the walls of the porch. A very fine series of flying buttresses was added to support the thrust of the stone vault when the clerestory was remodelled and the nave vaulted with the existing roof in the fourteenth century.
The walls surrounding the three easternmost windows of the clerestory are ornamented with projecting carved medallions; there are five on each side of the window nearest the transept, and three on each side of the other two windows. One of these medallions is modern, and, according to the principle wisely adopted in the restoration, it is left quite plain. Wherever new work is added, as in the case of a pillar which was built to take the place of one that had fallen, the mouldings are left perfectly plain, so that for all succeeding time a distinction may be seen between the old and the modern work. This principle, however, has not been adopted in the new stone-work introduced into the tracery of the clerestory windows. The original flat buttresses may be seen running up against the eastern half of the clerestory wall, but there are no such buttresses against the western halt of the wall, which probably was rebuilt in the fourteenth century. The wall that rises at the east end above the roof of the aisle is provided with an external flight of steps leading up to the roof of the nave from the ruined west wall of the transept. These steps have been renewed, but an old print represents such a stairway existing before the recent work of restoration. The flying buttresses rest on vertical buttresses rising within the parapet, with gabled hefids, and loaded with plain, massive, and lofty pinnacles rising to about the level of the parapet of the clerestory, the eastern most pinnacle alone being lower. The pyramidal part of these pinnacles rises from within a battlement that runs round their bases. These have been rebuilt, and the finials are new.
The transept never had any aisle on the west side, nor can traces of any aisle having ever existed on the east side be found; possibly, however, there may have been one or more apsidal chapels. The west wall of the south transept is still standing. It consists of two bays divided by a flat buttress; at its base runs arcading similar to that which is seen along the wall of the south aisle; above it in each bay is a Norman window, in which there are no signs of inserted tracery; and again, immediately above a string course, which runs on the same level as the parapet of the aisle wall in each bay may be seen another Norman window. In the thickness of the wall at this level a gallery is pierced, which probably communicated with the triforium of the nave. When we get round the end of the wall, and are able to examine the other side, which was, of course, originally the interior wall of the transept, we find some traces of an arcading of non-intersecting arches under a carved string course. The lower windows above this are deeply splayed, and on either side of each of the upper windows are narrow, round-headed, arched openings communicating with the passage mentioned above; but these are not symmetrically placed. The character of this wall will be better understood from an examination of the accompanying illustration than from any verbal description. At the south end of the transept wall may be seen traces of weather moulding. This may indicate that a chapel once projected farther southward; indeed, it is quite possible that this was the site of the small church spoken of in the records of the abbey, which, after the dissolution, Leland says he saw filled with weavers’ looms.
The pointed arch which once led from the south aisle into the transept still remains, but it has been walled up; and above it may be seen the wide, round-headed archway opening out from the triforium, which has been blocked by masonry, through which a small rectangular opening has been made to give light to the triforium.
The great western arch between the crossing and the nave has been blocked with a wall that forms the east end of the present church. The arch is semicircular. Above it may be seen portions of the ribs of the vaulting which was inserted below the lantern. Three of the piers that supported the central tower remain, the south-east pier alone having disappeared. The tower arch piers consist of clustered shafts with square abaci. The tower itself was square in plan, but, probably with a view of providing as much blank wall as possible behind the choir-stalls, the piers are longer in section from east to west than from north to south, and the existing arch on the north side is seen to be much narrower in span than the west arch. It is consequently considerably stilted. Above this arch the vaulting ribs may be seen in a more perfect condition than over the west arch of the tower; the ribs meet in a boss of carved foliage. A fragment of the choir arcading still remains. The lower part of the arch springing from clustered shafts may be seen, and above it the shafts and a small piece of the chevron moulding of the westernmost arch of the triforium of the choir. The eastern end of the north aisle of the nave has been blocked up, and a small doorway inserted beneath the arch.
The exterior walls of the north side of the nave and its aisle are much plainer than the corresponding walls on the south side of the church. It was on this side that the cloister was built. Though monks generally preferred the south side of the nave for the cloister garth and its surrounding walks, and naturally so, since they got the advantage of the sun to warm and light three out of the four walks in which so much of their time was passed, yet occasionally the character of the ground induced them to depart from the usual custom, as they did at Malmesbury and in the not far distant Benedictine Abbey Church of St. Peter at Gloucester. The entrance to the church from the domestic buildings of the abbey was along the east walk of the cloister, through a lofty Norman doorway which led into the north aisle. This doorway may still be seen; but at some time during the Perpendicular era it was walled up and a smaller doorway made through the inserted masonry. This opening was not cut centrally, but is nearer to the east side. Some traces of the moulding of the depressed arch still remains, but it no longer opens into the aisle, as a thin wall has been built within it, its inner side flush with the interior wall, so that only a recess in the great thickness of the Norman wall remains on the outside. There is no arcading along the wall of the north aisle of the nave, but above the second offset of the buttresses there is a row of windows, one in each bay. With the exception of one to be mentioned immediately, they are of Norman date, and have had Perpendicular tracery inserted. In the fourth bay from the east a large Decorated window has been inserted, and to allow sufficient space for this the wall has been raised into a gable, forming a very pleasing feature on this side of the church. It will be remembered that two windows of a somewhat similar character are to be seen on the south side of the church; but then, as the sills could be brought near to the ground, there was no reason for raising the wall to accommodate their heads. Here, however, the cloister compelled the builder to keep the bottom of the window at a considerable height, so that he had to raise the wall to get room for the top of the window. Whether it was ever intended to alter all the windows in like manner we cannot tell. Doubtless the desire to obtain more light and to have the opportunity of displaying painted glass led to the change being made some time during the fourteenth century; possibly lack of funds — for the abbey was not one of the richest — led to the change not being carried out more fully. The Abbot of Malmesbury once had a great opportunity, which would have led to the enriching of his abbey, presented to him, but he was not brave enough to accept the chance; for when a last resting-place for the body of King Edward II., murdered at Berkeley Castle, was requested of Adam, Abbot of Malmesbury, he, like the Abbots of Bristol and Kingswood, refused to give his permission for the burial, and it was left to brave Thokey, Abbot of the Benedictine house of Gloucester, to receive the body within his walls. Had Abbot Adam granted the request, the money which in after years poured into the coffers of Gloucester from the hands of pilgrims who visited the tomb of Edward would have increased the revenues of Malmesbury, with the result that this most interesting church — the best specimen on a large scale that we possess of the transition from Romanesque to Gothic — would in all probability have been altogether rebuilt,or at any rate so much altered that its chief interest would have been destroyed; hence we may well feel thankful for the caution shown by the abbot, though no doubt his successors often regretted that he had let the chance of enriching their house pass away unused.
In the last bay that still remains on this side of the church there is a doorway with an elliptic head. The flying buttresses on this side resemble those on the south side of the church, but the pinnacles are not finished with carved finials. In place also of flying buttresses two massive, solid buttresses, or rather walls, flank each side of the bay nearest the west. These descend through the roof of the aisle down to the floor and, as we shall find when examining the interior of the church, form a small chamber at the west end of the north aisle. These walls were probably built after the fall of the western tower to secure the church from further injury. The tower would seem to have fallen chiefly towards the north. This was fortunate; otherwise, the great south porch might have been crushed. The three western bays of the north aisle were destroyed, together with the adjoining arcading of the nave, and the vault over the five western bays of the nave, and the vault over the two western bays of the south aisle. The two easternmost nave bays of the part of the church damaged by the fall were repaired, and a wall was built to the west of these to form the west end of the church. In this wall was inserted a lofty, well-proportioned window. Its tracery, of flowing Decorated type, is a modern restoration.
To the west of the outside of this wall the original church extended rather more than two and a half bays. Three pillars may be seen on the south side. The first is original, but is partially embedded in the walls erected after the fall of the tower to form a kind of lobby to the north of the great porch. The third is really a respond attached to the original west wall of the church. The second has been recently rebuilt. These piers are of the same character as those of the nave arcading to be described in the next chapter, with huge cylindrical shafts and circular abaci with scalloped capitals beneath, with the exception of the one that has been rebuilt, whose capital has purposely been left plain to show that it is modern work.
The whole of the exterior of what still remains of the abbey church has now been described in sufficient detail. The mutilated condition detracts considerably from its appearance as a whole. But in the state in which it existed after the erection of the western tower, and before the fall of the central spire, and with all its domestic buildings standing — that is to say, during the second half of the fifteenth century — it must have been one of the most imposing of English abbeys. The site alone would give it a dignity that many other similar buildings never possessed. Durham and Lincoln only could boast of sites as good. The abbey buildings stood on a lofty plateau flanked by a steep escarpment on the northern side. The abrupt nature of this escarpment is best seen from the railway just before it enters the station, or from the foot-path running up from the station by the side of the little stream called Newnton Water, on which once stood the abbey mill, and on which its successor still stands to the north side of the abbey grounds. Let us, as we stand at the foot of this hill, re-build in imagination the square western tower flanked by its two turrets, the mighty central steeple whose spire rose, so tradition tells us, to a height exceeding that of our highest existing spire — that of St. Mary’s Cathedral Church at Salisbury — the ruined transept and the eastern arm, and all the lower roofed domestic buildings, some of whose basement walls would stand upon the slope of the escarpment, even as the walls of the basement of the infirmary (if such it be) on which the Abbey House is built still stand; let us, further, imagine the whole pile of buildings flushed with the rosy light of sunrise on a bright summer morning; — and we shall have a vision of beauty such as we can in few places find in our England of the twentieth century. As the picture drawn by our imagination fades away and we see the sad reality, the mutilated remains of what was once a building of no mean order, we shall find our minds filled by conflicting emotions of regret and thankfulness — regret that so much beauty has passed away, thankfulness that so much still remains, and that it is something more than a ruin that crowns the hill before us, and that so much work of that most interesting architectural period which witnessed the development of Gothic architecture out of the Romanesque has escaped the fate that overtook so many of the religious houses of the land at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries.
The church is entered by the south porch, the sculpture of which has been described in the last chapter. This gives admission to that part of the south aisle which extends farther to the west than the present west end of the nave, and which has been walled up so as to form a kind of lobby. At the western end of the wall which has been built beneath the arcading that once divided the nave from the aisle may be seen a window, to the east of this a pier incorporated in the wall, then the next archway entirely blocked up. The wall that runs across the aisle to the east has been pierced by a doorway giving admission to the church, which is thus entered at the west end of the present south aisle of the building as it is now used for service. At the eastern end of the south wall of what has been called above the lobby may still be seen some traces of the arcading which once ran along the interior of the aisle walls beneath the windows. Between this and the great south doorway is a small door opening to the newel staircase by which we can reach the room over the porch and the triforium, the same staircase as that mentioned in the last chapter, to which, as there stated, admission can be obtained from the outside as well as from the inside.
When we enter the church through the door leading into the south aisle we find that a modern screen, pierced by three semicircular arches with mouldings carved in imitation of the Norman style, has been run across the church; above this is the organ-gallery, containing a fine organ with a handsome case. The existing west end of the north aisle has been walled off; and now forms a kind of lumber-room, in which brooms, coal, etc., are kept. The result of this walling-up on either side is that within the church as it now exists we can see five bays in each aisle and six bays of the nave arcading, the organ-gallery stretching across between the western arches on either side.
The first things that probably will catch the eyes of the visitor are the massive and somewhat short cylindrical piers of the nave arcade. These are perfectly plain save for the memorial tablets wherewith the bad taste of the time which succeeded the conversion of the abbey church into the parish church of the town has disfigured all the shafts, with only two exceptions. It would undoubtedly add considerably to the dignity of the arcading could these be removed; but if it were done, a chapter in the architectural history of the building would be erased, and it is by no means clear that, in some instances at any rate, the piers themselves have not been partially cut away to receive the tablets. A considerable part of the piers is hidden by the pews, with their cast-iron poppy-heads and cast scroll-work attached to the bench ends. If all these, however, were removed, and chairs used for seats, yet the bases of the pillars would still be hidden by the wooden floor, which has evidently in modern days been raised above the original level. The lowering of the floor to its original level would greatly enhance the appearance of the church.
The diameter of the cylindrical pillars is about 5 ft., the width of the arches between them about 11 ft., and their height but little exceeds two diameters; indeed, the distance from the top of the pews to the capitals is only some 7 or 8 ft. The capitals, as will be seen from the illustrations, are very simple, and are all alike with the exception of one on the south side, which bears some carving. The capitals are scalloped, and are surmounted by circular abaci. The arches of this nave arcading are pointed, but the angle is somewhat obtuse. The sectional moulding of these arches, as will be seen from the plan and illustrations, is somewhat elaborate; but with the exception of the arches in the two eastern bays, they are not ornamented with any carved work. Over every arch there was at one time a label of billet moulding, terminated by grotesque heads, the character of which will be seen on examination of the photographic illustrations. Grotesque heads of a different kind are carved at the heads of the labels. It may here be noticed that all the labels and all the heads of the arches are alike. In several cases parts of this hood moulding and one or both of its terminations have disappeared, and the whole has vanished from above the third arch on the north side, counting from the east. One order of the mouldings of the two eastern arches on each side is enriched by carving on the side facing the nave. In the eastern arches the decoration is prismatic billet, and in the next arches star moulding. This extra enrichment, which may also be noticed in the string course above the arches, probably indicates the extent of the ritual choir, which, no doubt here, as elsewhere, extended one, if not two, bays westward of the crossing. The present choir screens at Westminster, Norwich, and Peterborough, are built across the structural nave, and at Christchurch, Hants, the two eastern bays of the nave triforium are much more elaborately decorated than the rest.
The string course beneath the triforium at Malmesbury is much mutilated, but it was once decorated with somewhat unusual carving, which has been imitated in the string course of the modern western screen. The triforium itself is very fine. The arches, decorated with chevron moulding, unlike the pointed arches below, are semicircular, thus showing that although the pointed arch had been already introduced at the time of building, the use of the round arch had not been abandoned; probably the whole was designed at the same time, though, of course, the actual masonry of the triforium must in each bay have been laid after the arch below had been completed, for there is not here any indication of the pointed arches having been a later insertion. In the eastern bay on each side the main arch of the triforium encloses three sub-arches, in the other bays four. Each of the arches rises from well-developed capitals with square abaci. The space between the mouldings surrounding the sub-arches, which are simple and uncarved, and the lowest order of the comprising arch is occupied by a plain wall. In quite recent times — probably to exclude draughts — a wall has been built behind the shafts of the triforium sub-arches, which prevents any view of the church being obtained from the triforium gallery save from one spot on the south side, where under the arch of the fourth bay, counting from the east, is a curious pro-jecting gallery, or box. Several conjectures have been made with respect to this. By some it is supposed to have been an organ-chamber, by others to have been on certain occasions the seat of the abbot. But the space seems hardly sufficient for even a small organ, and the difficulty of access renders the latter supposition improbable; it can now only be reached by crawling under or climbing over the massive beams that run across the space between the exterior lean-to roof of the aisle and the floor over the interior vault. But as the trusses are not the original ones, the place may have formerly been more accessil)le than now. In all probability it was a watching-chamber, where some official passed the night to watch over the safety of the building and give notice of any sacrilegious attempt at burglary or any outbreak of fire. It is said that after the church became parochial it was used as a post of vantage from which a parish officer might note and mark the names of those present in the church at a time when absence from public worship was punishable by fines or imprisonment, though a complete view of the church could not have been obtained from this point, as those seated in the south aisle could not be seen; from what spot they were watched is not stated. But that this watching-chamber was at one time used for this purpose was stated to be a fact by Canon Jackson at a meeting of the Wilts Archaeological Society, on the authority of an old man who remembered the place being so used.
What the windows of the original clerestory were we cannot now tell, as this part of the building was much modified in the fourteenth century. A passage runs beneath all the windows, save the two easternmost on each side, passing through the thickness of the wall between the windows. The windows now, save those in the eastern bays, which are two-light windows, have each three lights, and their tracery is of fourteenth-century character. Much of it has already been renewed, and those windows which have not as yet been touched will shortly be taken in hand. The shafts which support the roofs spring without bases from the imposts of the main piers of the nave, and the vaulting ribs spring from carved capitals formed by carrying the string course above the triforiuin round the vaulting shafts. The system of vaulting is thoroughly Gothic in principle, the thrust of the roof being counteracted by the external flying buttresses described in the last chapter.
The piers that once sustained the central tower were formed by clustered columns, and hence the easternmost arches of the nave, as we see it now, rise on their eastern sides from clustered shafts with rectangular abaci, and not from cylindrical pillars.
The east end is formed by the insertion of a plain wall beneath the original western arch of the central tower, as described in Chapter I. Against the lower part of this stands the rood-screen, probably removed from its original position farther west at a time when the tower was seen to be in an unsafe condition. The screen is 11 ft. 6 in. in height, and along the top runs a cornice ornamented with a twenty-six square paterae, carved with various devices, such as a Tudor rose, portcullis, griffins, etc. In the centre are the arms of Henry VII., on which the English leopards are quartered with the French lilies. The supporters are, on the right hand a dragon, and on the left some animal, possibly a greyhound, though as the head and limbs have disappeared, it is difficult to identify. Above the cornice runs a battlemented parapet. The rood-screen was pierced by a central doorway; this is now, of course, walled up. Over the cornice hangs a painting of the raising of Lazarus, said to be a copy of one painted by Michael Angelo, presented to the church by the Duke of Suffolk.
The vault of the nave is of stone, except that part which covers the two western bays. Here the fall of the tower destroyed the roof, and when the church was repaired these two bays were covered with a plaster roof in imitation of the original stone vault. So close is the resemblance of the plaster to the stone that from the floor of the church the difference can hardly be detected. Mr. Prior speaks in terms of high praise of this roof, saying, “the grace and strength of the traceried vault make it one of the most vigorous examples of the fourteenth century.” He also speaks of the clerestory as having “lifted the Romanesque construction of 1130 another five-and-twenty feet”; but in this, even apart from the date, there is a mistake, as some part of the clerestory walls are of twelfth-century date, and their height was slightly increased by the fourteenth-century builder. A stone vault seems to have been intended from the very first, as the vaulting shafts rising from the imposts of the main piers are not four-teenth-century additions. No doubt a wooden ceiling was at first put on, but this was only a tem-porary contrivance, intended to give place to stone as soon as funds would allow the complete design to be executed. During the thirteenth century time and money seem to have been devoted to the enlargement of the domestic buildings, and when these were completed the abbot of the day turned his attention once more to the church, and vaulted it with stone, and made sundry other minor alterations in the fabric.
The quadripartite vaulting of the aisles remains as the twelfth-century builder left it, with the exception that in two bays on the south side and in one on the north side one quarter of the filling was cut out in the fourteenth century, when the large Decorated windows were inserted. This was an easy matter on the south side, where the heads of the windows could be kept low, the enlarged area of the windows being obtained by bringing the sills down; but on the north side this could not be done, owing to the south walk of the cloister, and a gable had to be raised. This led to a com-plicated system of vaulting ribs being used. The general vaulting of the aisles is of the greatest interest, as it is a very early example of rib vaulting. It is thus described by Mr. Bilson, in a paper published in the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects: “The aisle vaults are supported on the one side by the great cylindrical piers of the main arcades, and on the other by triple shafts on the aisle wall. The arches of the main arcades and the transverse ribs of the aisle vaults are all pointed, the latter being of square unmoulded section. The diagonal ribs are semicircular, and their section shows three large rolls with two smaller rolls between them. The keys of the diagonal ribs are placed higher than those of the arcade arches and transverse ribs; the surface of the vault cells at the key of the diagonal rib is 1 ft. 5 in. above the surface at the apex of the transverse arches, and 2 ft. above the surface at the apex of the arcade arches and the apex of the vault on the aisle wall.”
The difference of level of the surface of the vaulting at the intersection of the diagonal ribs and at the apex of each transverse arch; a common feature in Continental vaults — is one of the arguments brought forward by Professor Moore to substantiate his assertion that the vaulting of Malmesbury aisles is an imitation of French forms, though a somewhat similar arrangement may be seen in the earlier vaulting of the choir aisles at Durham, the date of which is accurately known — namely, 1128-1133. At Malmesbury, however, the pointed arch is used more systematically than at Durham.
Along the interior of the south wall of the aisle ran an arcade consisting of three round-headed arches in each bay, springing from capitals with square abaci resting on shafts. This arcading, however, was much interfered with at various times, especially when the larger windows were inserted. Thus, for instance, on the south side in the first and second bays to the west of the wall across the aisle, the central arch of the three has been entirely cut away, and part of each of the side ones, in order to bring down the splay beneath the original window; this no doubt was an alteration made with the intention of getting more light. The same may be noticed in the fifth bay within the chapel formed by a screen; while in the third and fourth bays, where the large Decorated windows mentioned above have been inserted, the arcading has altogether disappeared, its place being occupied by added masonry, which increases the thickness of the wall. On the north side more of the arcading remains. In the first bay outside the east wall of the chamber devoted to keeping various lumber, the three arches with their shafts remain; in the next the arches and one pillar may still be seen, as also in the fourth bay; while in the fifth the easternmost arch is blocked. On this side, as mentioned in the last chapter, the sills of the windows are at a higher level than on the south, on account of the cloister having been on this side of the church, and consequently there is room above the arcading and below the windows for a string course with chevron ornament; this runs at a higher level in the fifth bay. The east end of each aisle is blocked with masonry under the arch which formerly led into the crossing. In the north aisle, however, a doorway is cut in the inserted wall. The last bay of each aisle is converted into a chapel, now used for a vestry, by a screen running north and south, and by a screen inserted beneath the main arcading on each side. These screens are said by some to have been brought to this church from the neighbouring parish church of St. Paul, when it was finally closed, but Mr. Brakspear says they are in situ and are the continuations of the front screen of the “Pulpitum.”
In the chapel at the end of the north aisle may be seen a stone tablet in memory of T. Stump, and also a small brass tablet, on which we can read the words, “Gift of T Stump Malmesbury Abbey Gent 1689.”
Outside this chapel, against the screen that runs beneath the eastern most arch of the nave arcading, is the only effigy that the church contains, said by tradition to be that of Athelstan the Glorious, one of the great benefactors of the town and Abbey of Malmesbury. There is no inscription to identify it. The recumbent figure rests upon an altar tomb of Perpendicular character.
Whether this statue was intended to represent King Athelstan or not, it was in any case not carved until many centuries after his death, and has been removed to its present position from some other spot. William of Malmesbury tells us that the king was buried at the altar of St. Mary in the tower. He also adds that he had once seen the body of the king in his coffin, and that he must in life have been of becoming stature, thin in person, and that his hair was flaxen in hue, and that it was still twined with the gold thread which he wore in his life-time. Of course the present church was not in existence when the great West Saxon hero was laid to rest, so that the coffin may have been removed from its original grave, and it may have been in course of the removal that William of Malmesbury saw it. This monument is said to have been removed from a building on the north side of the presbytery to its present site when the eastern arm of the church became a ruin. It is also stated on the authority of a manuscript letter of Anthony Wood who visited the church in 1678, that during the civil wars the head of the statue was broken off and destroyed, and that the inhabitants put on the present head in its place; but whether it resembled the former one or not he could not say. The head of the lion on which the feet rest is also a reproduction. Several authorities, among them John Britton, assert that this monument has no reference to Althelstan; but it is by no means unlikely that tradition is here correct, and that this statue was intended to keep alive in the town which he so much benefited, and which he chose as the burying-place of two nephews and himself, the name and fame of the victor of Brunanburh.
From what has been already said, it will be understood that the church as it now stands has no chancel, and it is not likely that any attempt to build one will be made. The communion table stands against the east wall, and the altar rails project, in the form of three sides of a rectangle, in front and at either side of it. A little distance in front of the rails on the south side stands the pulpit, and on the north the reading-desk. As we stand in front of the rails we shall notice how on each side the capitals of the easternmost cylindrical pillar have been mutilated, apparently with the intention of inserting some wooden beam. In fact, it is said that at one time not only the cloister, chapels, and domestic buildings were used as weavers’ workshops, but that looms were even introduced into the nave itself. The font stands near the western screen.
The general effect of the church is not so imposing as it would be if it were longer; the blank wall at the east end still further detracts from its appearance. To run out a chancel would no doubt be a suggestion that would meet with much favour, but it would be wholly unjustifiable, as it could not well be done without interfering with the fine ruined tower arch to the north-east of the church, and would also interfere with the old rood-loft now incorporated in the eastern wall. More length would be gained if the modern organ-gallery were swept away and the organ placed — as suggested in the joint report of the Society of Antiquaries and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings — over the altar. In this position it would help to break the plain expanse of the eastern wall, and would be near the choir, if seats were arranged for the choristers at the east end of the church. The rebuilding of the ruined part at the west end in the manner indicated in Chapter I. would also give extra length to the church. The pews might well be swept away and the floor lowered so as to show the bases of the pillars. One other alteration should be made; the gas-jets are now placed so close to the triforium walls that the heat and fumes are likely to lead to the decay of the stone; it would be far better if electric-lighting could be used, but if this cannot be introduced, the gas standards or pendants should be kept well away from the walls.
The Abbots of Malmesbury
A complete list of the abbots is not in existence, but such as are known will be mentioned.
Ældhelm was the first real abbot, though Maldulf had preceded him in charge of the religious community existing at Malmesbury, which, however, had not been formally created an abbey until about the year 680, when Eleutherius appointed Ældhelm. In 705 he was consecrated Bishop of Sherborne. According to some authorities, Daniel succeeded either at the time of his appointment as bishop or on his death in 709. William of Malmesbury makes no mention of Daniel, but speaks of a second Ældhelm, nephew of the saint, as the next abbot. Æthelhwerd was the next abbot, and resigned his office on being consecrated Bishop of Winchester in 780. To him succeeded Cuthbert, who died about 796.
A gap here occurs of nearly 200 years. Abbots, of course, there were, but their names have been lost. It may be that the records were destroyed when King Edwy expelled the monks for a time. The first of the new series of abbots was Ælfric, appointed by Edgar about 974. He became Bishop of Crediton in 977, and was succeeded at Malmesbury by Æthelwerd; his successors were Kinewerd, Brihthelm Brihtwold I., Eadric, Wulsine, Egelward, Ealwine, Brihtwold II. — the abbot whose body was exhumed and cast into a marsh. Herman, Bishop of Sarum, during the vacancy claimed the abbey; but the monks obtained the support of Earl Godwine, and elected Brithric. He was deposed by William the Conqueror, who placed Turald, a monk of Fechamp in Normandy, over the abbey. He became Abbot of Peterborough in 1070, and Warin de Lyra became abbot in 1070. Godfrey de Jumiege, who came from Ely, succeeded him in 1081. It is recorded that he wore a brazen ring around his body; he was a great collector of books for the abbey library. Edulf, a monk from Winchester, succeeded him in 1106, and ruled the abbey till Bishop Roger of Sarum deposed him in 1118 and constituted himself head of the abbey till his death. John became Abbot in 1140, and held the office for a few months only. During this time an attack was made on the abbey by one Robert, who came from the castle at Devizes, and slew all the monks who had not sought safety in flight. Peter was chosen abbot in 1141. He was succeeded by Gregory about 1159, and Gregory by Robert about 1174. Osbert, Prior of Gloucester, became abbot in 1180, and died in 1181 or 1182. Nicholas, a monk of St. Albans and then Prior of Wallingford, was the next abbot. He was deposed in 1187, and Robert de Melun, sub-Prior of Winchester, took his place. He died about 1208, and Walter de Loring succeeded to his office. On his death in 1222 John, a Welshman, became abbot. His name is found among those who signed the deed executed in 1222 confirming the Great Charter originally granted by King John. Geoffrey was abbot from 1246 to 1260. William de Colerne, who has already been mentioned in Chapter I. as a great builder of the domestic offices of the abbey, became abbot in 1260, and held the post till his death. William de Badminton became abbot in 1296. Adam de la Hooke, who refused a place of burial within the walls of his church to the body of Edward II., succeeded him in 1324, In the records of Edward III. there is a grant of a pardon to the Abbot of Malmesbury who was charged with giving shelter to one of the murderers of Edward II., but whether the shelter was given at the time of the murder by Adam or later by his successor is not very clear. If Adam were the guilty party, it may be that his refusal to grant a grave to Edward II. was due to a feeling of hostility towards him.
Of the remaining abbots a list with the dates of their entering on their office will suffice, for we know little of them beyond their names: John de Tintern, 1339; Simon du Aumenev, 1348; Walter Camme, 1360; Thomas de. He was the first mitred abbot. Loi Chelesworth, 1395; Robert Pershore, 1424; Thomas Bristowic, 1434; John Andover, 1456; John Aylee, 1462; Thomas Olveston, 1480; Robert Frampton, or Selwyn, 1533. He was the last abbot, and surrendered the abbey to Henry VIII. on December 15, 1539.
The last abbot received a pension of £33 6s. 8d., the other twenty-one pensioners sums varying from; £3 16s. 6d. to £6. In the year 1553 the Pension Rolls mention only seven recipients of the pensions; the ex-abbot and the others were by this time dead. Of those living in 1553, Walter Stagey, formerly steward of the abbey lands, Richard Asheton, marked in 1533 as farmer, and two priests, Thomas Froster and Thomas Stanley, are marked as married. Evidently they had taken advantage of the dissolution of their monastery and the growing Protestantism of the age to disregard their former vows.
Malmesbury Abbey is now a vicarage in the gift of the trustees of the late Rev. C. Kemble, and, though in the county of Wilts, is in the Diocese of Bristol. The town is reached by a branch line of the Great Western Railway running from Dauntsey station. Dauntsey is 871 miles from Paddington, and the branch line is 6 miles in length. A new loop of the Great Western Railway is now being made from Wootton-Bassett to the Severn Tunnel to shorten the distance from London to South Wales. This will pass not far south of Malmesbury, and should a station be made where the new line crosses the branch from Dauntsey, it will somewhat shorten the distance.