Historical Development

The unique quality of Malmesbury is in the combination of the Saxon hill-top town with the magnificent Norman Abbey, still used as the Parish Church and which continues to dominate the Town. With its steep streets and stepped walls reminiscent of Continental fortress towns, Malmesbury is possibly the only surviving example of its kind in this Country.

Old towns such as Malmesbury are a great cultural and social asset to the country. Each generation has contributed to their general character, resulting in an environment which contains interest with spaces of differing shape, character and scale, surrounded by buildings of various ages and styles in juxtaposition. An understanding of the general historical background is beneficial in identifying particular qualities.

A monastic community was established on the site of Malmesbury some time towards the middle of the seventh century and this community formed a centre of attraction for secular settlement, thus beginning the process of urban growth. The greatest impetus to urban development occurred during the ninth century when Malmesbury was chosen to be the site of a burgh or fortified settlement, one of a series which provided a defensive system designed to protect Southern England from Danish incursions.

Within the defences of the burgh, the land was divided into rectangular tenements which fitted into a grid pattern of streets. It is the layout of these tenements or hagas ( the origin of the later term Hay or Hayes)and the subsequent building development along the plots which has provided the town with a great deal of its character.

Early in the twelfth century, the borough was enclosed with substantial stone walls, sections of which still survive and at the same time a strong castle was built in the north west corner of the town, on old monastic lands. The castle was acquired by the Abbey and subsequently demolished, allowing the Abbey to be extended onto its site.

Two main suburbs appear to have developed during the medieval period, at Westport and Nethwalles. The former, with its burgage type property boundaries, guild hall and market, seems to have had all the attributes of a twelfth century satellite plantation, while the latter developed ribbon-fashion between the South Gate and St.John’s Hospital at the Avon Bridge. During the 13th and 14th centuries Malmesbury was an important centre of the woollen trade and this prosperity encouraged the development of the town.

There are not many buildings remaining within Malmesbury which date from the Medieval period. A small number are located within the area of the Abbey and some, such as the Old Bell, were formerly part of the Abbey’s outbuildings. The Abbey itself, has features dating from the Norman period and is the most important medieval structure in Malmesbury. The Market Cross dates from around 1500 and is considered to be one of the finest in England. In the old Nethwalles area of the town St.John’s Almshouses (built on the site of the Hospital) and the former Court House, contain sections dating from the Medieval period, although the buildings as a whole have been much altered since that time. The old town wall has sections surviving in various parts of the town, notably in Holloway, at the site of the former East Gate and may still be traced for most of its length.

During the 16th century Malmesbury continued as a centre for the cloth trade. Although a decline set in before the end of this century, it regained its position as an industrial centre with the growing importance of lace manufacturing in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Most of the surviving buildings within the historic core, including the suburbs of Westport and Nethwalles date from this period, with a number of 20th century buildings or façades.

A large proportion of the buildings within the centre of Malmesbury are on the list of buildings of special architectural and historic interest compiled by the Department of the Environment.

The majority of buildings within the historic core of Malmesbury have natural stone façades and stone slates on their roofs. These were traditionally the local building materials and their widespread use gives a unifying effect to the many various building styles in Malmesbury. A number of the older houses have been rendered in order to improve their weathering capabilities and examples maybe found in Cross Hayes Lane / Oxford Street, Gloucester Street, High Street and Lower High Street. There is also a number of scattered brick houses, either painted or unpainted brick and these tend to be the newer buildings. It is the High Street itself which presents the greatest variety of building types and materials and contains buildings of every century from the seventeenth onward.

The roofing materials in the town are predominantly stone slates although a number of buildings have Welsh slates. Some of the buildings of the 19th century have roofs composed of pantiles and Roman tiles.

During the 20th century development occurred to the west of the old town, with the building of Parklands and later, White Lion Park. This has resulted in imbalance to the town, with the western residential area sprawling as far as 1½ kilometres from the town centre and encouraging the use of the motor car for most trips into the town centre. Infilling has also occurred on a number of sites, notably within the Westport area. Generally, the infilling has been inappropriate in design and layout when compared with the existing buildings.

As the use of motor vehicles increased, the level of traffic within and passing through the Town escalated. Efforts were made to maintain the flow by widening roads where feasible and introducing traffic management schemes. The intolerable level of traffic and attendant nuisance was relieved to some extent by the construction of a By-pass to the east of the Town in 1973.

Historical Details © Malmesbury Memories

Historical Details © Malmesbury Memories

17 August, 2017
All images and written works by David Forward are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License