Founding of the Abbey

Early Medieval Period:   Founding of the Abbey

The origins of Malmesbury Abbey are usually attributed to the arrival of Maildubh circa 640AD. Maildubh was an Irish monk, or hermit, who decided to settle at what was to become Malmesbury where he founded a school, or monastery. Little more is known of Maildubh. The monastery he founded would have consisted of wooden buildings and would not have been large. As the monastery grew as a centre of learning, the town developed around it.

By 675AD, the monastery had grown to become an abbey, with Aldhelm, who had been one of Maildubh’s pupils, as its abbot. Under Aldhelm’s abbacy, the monastery at Malmesbury became wealthier and flourished. The buildings were extended greatly and the 1st organ in Britain was built at Malmesbury Abbey at this time.

St. Aldhelm remained important to Malmesbury, even after his death. In circa 839AD, King Aethulwulf built an elaborate shrine at Malmesbury for St. Aldhelm’s bones.

William of Malmesbury, writing in the 12th century records many miracles performed by Aldhelm both in his lifetime and after his death at the shrine erected to his memory.

The Abbey continued to develop as a centre of learning with monks from across Europe visiting and studying there. William of Malmesbury, in his ‘Gesta Pontificum Anglorum’ of 1125AD, records the extraordinary story of one such visiting scholar, Johannes Scottus Eriugena, or John the Scot, the 9th century Irish philosopher at the court of the Carolingian Charles the Bald, whose controversial works include ‘De Praedestinatione’ and ‘De Divisione Naturae’. According to legend, John travelled from France to Malmesbury in 871AD, and taught the monks at the abbey. Outraged by John’s views, the monks murdered him with their writing quills.

The abbey would have been the focus of life in Malmesbury throughout the Middle Ages. It would have provided a centre for trading, and a settlement would have gradually grown up around the monastery, supplying the needs of the monks.

By the 10th century, Malmesbury was a fortified town, or ‘burh’. The ‘Burghal Hidage’, a document dating from circa 900AD describes the defences of Wessex created by Alfred the Great and extended by his son, Edward the Elder, against the threat of Viking invaders.

The system of fortifications was so constructed that no one was ever more than 20 miles from a walled settlement. Malmesbury is one of the 33 burhs described in the ‘Burghal Hidage’.

King Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan, who reigned from 925 to 939AD, was a great benefactor, donating many gifts to the monastery. Many men of Malmesbury fought with Athelstan in his battles against the Danes, and in return for their loyal service, it is reputed that Athelstan gave land, known as King’s Heath, to the freemen of the ‘burh’. King Athelstan died in 939AD and is believed to have been buried in Malmesbury.

The importance of Malmesbury in the immediate pre-Norman Conquest period is evident from the location of a mint in the town from circa 985 AD, during the reign of King Aethelred II.

In the early part of the 11th century, probably around 1010AD, a young monk called Eilmer made an early attempt at flight. He attached wings to his arms and body and launched himself from the abbey tower. William of Malmesbury, writing a century later, records that he flew for a furlong before crashing to the ground, breaking his legs. Eilmer attributed his failure to fly further to forgetting to attach a tail. Despite his injuries, Eilmer live to an old age. In 1066, Eilmer saw Halley’s Comet and prophesied that hard times lay ahead.

The Norman Invasion followed Halley’s Comet, and in 1086, the Domesday Book was produced. Malmesbury is the first settlement listed under Wiltshire in the Domesday Book, which shows its importance. According to the Domesday Book, Malmesbury was one of only five mints in the country at that time.


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