Malmesbury before St. Aldhelm (500BC – 675AD)
Malmesbury has a history dating back to around 500 BC, at which point the first mentions of the settlement of ‘Caer Bladon’ are made. This translates to mean ‘fortified place (or ‘stronghold’) on the Bladon’, with ‘Bladon’ referring to what we now recognise as the River Avon. Use of this early term suggests, and archaeological digs have since proven, that the site has been continuously inhabited since the Iron Age.
Malmesbury Abbey, undoubtedly the most striking and important feature of the town’s history, has had a varied and distinct past. The present Abbey building dates back to the 12th century but the site itself has been used as a place of worship since at least the 7th century AD.
The Old Bell Hotel shares much of its history, as well as its location, with Malmesbury Abbey. Indeed, its links with the Abbey date back as far as the early 13th century and as a result it claims to be England’s oldest hotel.
Daniel of Winchester, seen to be one of the great bishops of the early Church in England, is the individual behind the naming of ‘Daniel’s Well’, located a short distance away from the centre of the town, just off of Burnivale and The Maltings.
In June 1993, James Dyson, the industrial designer behind Dyson vacuum cleaners, located a research and development centre and factory in Malmesbury to produce his products. All Dyson vacuum cleaners and washing machines were made at the Malmesbury factory, until 2002, when production was outsourced to Malaysia (with washing machine production to follow suit in 2003).
After experiencing a travelling cinema for some years beforehand, Malmesbury finally obtained a permanent building to fulfil such a role in 1935. Athelstan Cinema, as it was known, contained 333 seats. In 1955 it obtained a panoramic screen for the first time and between 1983 and 1988 it doubled as a bingo hall for residents.
The development of the railway in Britain had an enormous impact nationwide; opening up otherwise relatively closed rural communities on an unprecedented scale. Malmesbury was at first ignored by early rail development, the first scheme suggested in 1845 was rejected by landowners, but a few decades later a branch line was developed.
Hannah Twynnoy, a maid working at the White Lion Inn during the early 18th century, is most famous for her unusual death. When a travelling circus came to visit in the town, it brought with it a tiger, a rare attraction at the time. Hannah reputedly teased the tiger, despite warnings from its keeper, and it eventually broke free from its shackles and killed her.
When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, it had far reaching implications, even for the smallest of settlements. Malmesbury was no exception; the settlement was in fact of great strategic importance due to its location between Oxford and Bristol. Throughout the course of the war, Malmesbury changed hands at least five times, twice involving direct assaults on the town itself.
In about 1490, the Market Cross was built in Malmesbury, and remains one of the town’s most distinguishable features to this day. It was built as a place of shelter and a meeting place for special occasions, and was commissioned as a joint venture between the Abbot and the town Burgesses (townspeople or ‘people of the borough’). As such, it provides an effective representation of the situation in Malmesbury when it was built, a time when both the Church and the town’s traders shared control.
In circa 1118, a castle at Malmesbury was built by Roger le Poer (Bishop of Salisbury). The chosen location was to the West of the Abbey, in close proximity to the Monastery, and its location quickly created friction with the monks of Malmesbury Abbey. Pope Alexander even gave the Abbot authority to excommunicate the members of the castle garrison for their ‘depredations on the Abbey’ and for interfering with their water supply.
Founded in 937 by King Athelstan, the ‘Commoners of Kings Heath’ or ‘Old Corporation’ was started as a way of giving those that had fought for Athelstan a reward in the form of land from Kings Heath (Malmesbury Common). This land was in turn passed down to descendents of these freemen, a tradition that continues until the present day.
Wessex was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom belonging to the West Saxons, located in South-West England. It existed from the 6th century AD until the 10th century AD, when a united English state began to emerge for the first time. It was split between the followers of William of Normandy after the successful Norman Conquest.
The term ‘Caer Bladon’ translates to mean ‘fortified place (or ‘stronghold’) on the Bladon’, with ‘Bladon’ referring to what we now recognise as the River Avon. Use of this early term suggests, and archaeological digs have since proven, that the site has been continuously inhabited since the Iron Age.
Charles James Fox was a prominent British Whig statesman who notably came out in strong support for the colonists over the issue of the American Colonies and supported an unsuccessful attempt to repeal tea duty. The lack of success over this issue actually led to him resigning his seat and standing for re-election.
William Stumpe was a wealthy clothier, famous in Malmesbury for his ownership of much of the Abbey properties and the changes he made to the town and its trade. He became particularly prominent in the area after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, from the start of 1540 onwards, when he obtained the Abbey buildings and associated lands from King Henry VIII.
Certainly one of the greatest historians of his time and sometimes referred to as the ‘Father of English History’, William of Malmesbury was a Benedictine monk who resided in Malmesbury Abbey as its librarian.
Eilmer was a monk of Malmesbury Abbey who in circa 1010 attempted to fly from the top of the Abbey using a ‘glider’ he had fashioned for himself. He managed to cover more than a furlong (just over 200m) in active flight before falling and breaking both of his legs. When he attributed his lack of proper success to having to tail, and wished to try again, the Abbot refused to allow him and he returned to his talents in astronomy, living to a good age.
Athelstan, born in 895, was the favourite grandson of Alfred and was elected to succeed him upon his death, although it required him to ‘remove’ two opponents also in competition for the throne. He was the first king to be crowned on the Kings Stone at Kingston-on-Thames, the first to be knighted by a king, the first to be anointed at a coronation and, perhaps most significantly, the first king of all ‘Britain’. He was also the first king in England to introduce a common currency; silver coins were imprinted with his head.
Aldhelm, Saxon by birth and possibly closely related to the Kings of Wessex, succeeded Maildulph as the head of Malmesbury Abbey circa 675. After being ordained as a priest, he became perhaps the first Abbot of Malmesbury Abbey.
Maildulph was a 7th century Irish-Celt monk who founded a Hermits Cell (settlement where a group of Christian Hermits would live religiously, in seclusion) on the site of the present Abbey in around the year 600. He also became a famous religious teacher, founding a small monastery school for sons of the nobility. He either retired or died around 675, to be succeeded by Aldhelm who would later become the town’s first Abbot.