Brief History of Malmesbury

Malmesbury Civic Trust

Malmesbury has been a fortified settlement since the Stone Age – recent archaeology has found a wall dating to 2500 BC. This could make it the longest permanently occupied settlement in England. Its position is naturally defensive, being situated on a rocky outcrop surrounded on 3 sides by rivers.

In 642 an exiled Irish monk called Mailduib established a hermitage beneath the castle. Needing to provide for himself he set up a school. This then attracted craftsmen to support his community. The town’s name is probably a corruption of Mailduib’s.

Aldhelm, kinsman of Wessex King Ina, was sent to study under Mailduib. Aldhelm gained a reputation as a preacher, was a great scholar and these attributes with his royal influence brought prestige to the school. He corresponded with the other great centres of learning at the time – Bonn, Cologne, Paris and Pisa. He also founded the Abbey, made the first organ and became the first Abbot in 675. After his death in 709 and burial in the Abbey he was canonised. Pilgrims came to his shrine in the hope of witnessing the many miracles attributed to him. Examples are; when building St Mary’s Church here a roof timber was too short, Aldhelm prayed and it fitted. Another time he threw off his cloak believing a servant was behind him but it was carried off hanging from a beam of sunlight. Malmesbury became a centre of pilgrimage enhancing its wealth and trade.

By the 9th Century Malmesbury was well established and King Alfred made it a royal borough. He rebuilt the defences after recapturing it from the Vikings who had sacked it. His charter of 880 makes it the oldest borough in England. The street layout in the centre remains as it was in Saxon times. Being on the border between Wessex and Mercia its strong defence was essential.

King Athelstan (Alfred’s grandson) further enhanced Malmesbury’s position, making it his capital. holding court here and being buried in the Abbey. He was the first King of all England. Coins minted in Malmesbury proudly state this. Athelstan brought further riches to the monastery and to the townspeople. After men from Malmesbury played a great part in defeating the Danes, he gave the freemen 5 hides (700 acres) of land, still known as Kings Heath. This is situated to the south-west of the town.

The Abbey heavily influenced the early development of the town. It attracted considerable talent, notably monks called Elmer and William. Elmer became the world’s first aeronaut in around 1010 when by fastening wings to his hands and feet he flew from the Abbey. About a century later William of Malmesbury gave the monastery a fine library and wrote several great histories of Britain.

By the time of the Norman invasion Malmesbury was one of the most significant towns in England. It is listed first (i.e. most important) in the Wiltshire section of Domesday. Henry I’s chancellor, Bishop Roger of Sarum, seized the monastery under his bishopric in 1118 and held it for 20 years. Roger, renowned as a great builder, rebuilt the town walls and castle using stone rather than wood. His fame and influence brought the famous and influential to the town.

At the dissolution of monasteries in 1539, the economic base of the town changed. Fortunately it was a time of boom in the woollen industry and the town became an important centre for cloth manufacture using the abundant water around it.

The position of Malmesbury on the Oxford – Bristol road made it a strategic point. During the 12th Century civil war between King Steven and the Empress Matilda, the succession agreement between Steven and Henry of Anjou (later Henry II) was reached after their armies faced each other across the impassable Avon at Malmesbury in the winter of 1153. Steven lost face by refusing battle.

During the 17th Century Civil War Malmesbury changed hands no less than 6 times, due to its position between the opposing camps – the King in Oxford and the Roundheads in Bristol. In 1646 Parliament ordered that the town walls be destroyed.

The decline of the wool industry in the 18th Century brought a decline in influence for Malmesbury. The need for inland defensive sites had gone and other towns were better placed for trade. Main routes of roads, canals and railways missed the town. It had more than its fair share of listed properties (around 400) with a higher than average proportion of grade I and II.