Tuesday, 08 July 2014 01:00

Malmesbury: A Brief History

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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.

Moving into the early AD centuries, we initially see Malmesbury becoming part of Wessex (an Anglo-Saxon kingdom belonging to the West Saxons located in South-West England) after a Saxon invasion in about 570.

Soon, Christianity reached the site of Malmesbury. The earliest recorded religious leader to settle in Malmesbury was Maildulph, a 7th century Irish-Celt monk who founded a Hermits Cell on the site of the present Abbey in around the year 600. He went on to become a famous religious teacher, founding a small monastery school for sons of the nobility. He either retired or died around 675.

Malmesbury’s rise to prominence: Aldhelm and Athelstan (675 – 940)

Maildulph’s successor, Aldhelm, is much more famous and central to the development of Malmesbury. Saxon by birth and possibly closely related to the Kings of Wessex, Aldhelm reputedly became the first Abbot of Malmesbury Abbey. His royal connections gave him control of the surrounding villages and his close connections to the Pope saw the Abbey being placed under papal jurisdiction, a high honour. He became Bishop of Sherborne, with a diocese extending through Wiltshire, Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall.

As an individual, Aldhelm was well respected and loved by the local community. Local stories tell of Aldhelm playing music and attracting large audiences, who he would then tell stories of the life of Jesus, inspiring devotion. He was well educated; speaking both Greek and Latin. It is also said that he was a skilful architect, great scholar and good technician and that in around 700; he built the first organ in England in the Abbey. On his death (c.709-710), Aldhelm’s remains were carried to be buried in Malmesbury. Here his remains were enshrined, making Malmesbury an important focus for pilgrimage. A feast and fair were held in his honour at St. Aldhelm’s Mead, a tradition that continued for 840 years (until 1540, when it was discontinued due to rioting and debauchery). Aldhelm was later canonised as a Saint in 1080.

Another important development for Malmesbury was the granting of its Charter in 924 during the reign of Edward the Elder (901-925). Malmesbury was known for its active fighting men, which is likely the key reason the town was given the Charter.

King Athelstan, born in 895, was central to Malmesbury’s development and rise to fame. He was the first king of all ‘England’ and the first to introduce a common currency; silver coins were imprinted with his head. He proved to be an effective king and was also aware that law should be made specific for certain areas. He introduced ‘shrievalty’ which appointed shire reeves (or ‘sheriffs’) to act as important officials overseeing the shire or county. He also increased his powerbase by marrying his sisters to influential Europeans, with the precious jewels and sacred relics from these dowries often being kept in Malmesbury Abbey.

Athelstan showed real affection for Malmesbury, especially towards its people who had helped him in battles. As a result, in 937 he started the ‘Commoners of Kings Heath’ or the ‘Old Corporation’. Through this he gave those that had helped him in battle land from Kings Heath, which continues to be passed down through the descendents of these freemen to this day. Upon his death in 940, Athelstan was buried in Malmesbury Abbey, but his remains have since been moved.

From Flying Monk to William Stumpe (1010 – 1490)

Eilmer of Malmesbury sml

The next figure of note in Malmesbury’s history was Eilmer, 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 fly for just over 200m in active flight before falling and breaking both of his legs. He wished to try again but the Abbot refused to allow him and he returned to his talents in astronomy, living to a good age. His attempted flight makes him the first recorded aeronaut in the world.

Our knowledge of Eilmer owes much to another prominent character in Malmesbury’s history, William of Malmesbury. One of the greatest historians of his time and sometimes referred to as the ‘Father of English History’, William was a Benedictine monk who resided in Malmesbury Abbey as its librarian.

William was born half-Norman, half-Saxon and spent most of his childhood and adult life in Malmesbury. He was educated at Malmesbury Abbey where he spent most of his time in the library, helping to make it one of the finest in Europe. It is said that even the Pope used to borrow books from there. He had a good grasp of Latin and travelled a good deal, but his greatest quality was his love of truth and accuracy. He ensured we have a fine collection of Saxon history, especially concerning Kings and Prelates, and is responsible for the only known authentic account of the First Crusade. William died at some point between 1143 and 1148.

William must have lived through a time of significant changes to Malmesbury, the present Abbey Church was completed by 1180, but must have been a work in progress many years prior to this. William also provides us with some information about a less well known Malmesbury landmark. 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. The Abbot was given papal authority to excommunicate members of the castle garrison for their ‘depredations on the Abbey’ and for interfering with their water supply.

Despite its unpopularity, the castle played a key role in the 12th century. The siege of Malmesbury in 1153 saw the castle playing a vital role in the conflict between King Stephen and the challenger to the throne, Henry, the Duke of Anjou. One section of the defences, known as ‘Jordan’s Tower’, managed to hold out for an extended period of time, but fell after a long siege. In 1215, the Abbot of Malmesbury Abbey sent a plea to King John to remove the castle. He obliged and the structure was demolished after existing for no more than 100 years.

The Old Bell Hotel, potentially occupying the location of the old castle, has origins dating back to around 1220, when a new building was erected on the site to house important guests. The fireplace inside the Great Hall dates from this period and it contains paintings from the late medieval period. The building has also been open as a pub since at least 1703, originally known as the Castle, acquiring the name the Bell Hotel in 1798.

During this period, the present Abbey building was also completed. It is believed that its consecration service was in about 1180, after only about 35 years of being under construction. The layout chosen was typical of other major 11th and 12th century churches, especially in France. Over the next couple of centuries, the Abbey saw further improvements, most notably the building of the Abbey cloisters and the Abbey spire, which was the tallest of its kind in England and 30 feet taller than the Salisbury spire.

In about 1490, the Market Cross was built in Malmesbury, and remains one of the town’s most distinguishable features. 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’).

A Time for Change: William Stumpe and Thomas Hobbes (1497-1679)

With the Dissolution of the Monasteries came a new era in Malmesbury’s history, beginning with the role of William Stumpe. A wealthy clothier, Stumpe was famous in Malmesbury for his ownership of much of the Abbey properties and the changes he made to the town’s trade. He became prominent in the area from 1540 onwards, when he obtained the Abbey buildings and associated lands from King Henry VIII. His acquisition of the Abbey lands and property saw some buildings becoming workshops, and the cloth trade flourished, gaining a reputation throughout Europe for its excellence. Stumpe also represented Malmesbury at parliamentary level, first from 1529-36 and then from 1547-52. He was also respected in Malmesbury for giving the townspeople back their parish church in 1541, and helped raise funds to preserve the Abbey as best he could. When he died, Stumpe left a huge fortune and multiple properties and holdings to his family.

Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, one of the most famous English philosophers renowned for his work on political philosophy, was born prematurely in the Westport area of Malmesbury in 1588. He spent the first 14 years of his life in Malmesbury, attending Westport Church School and growing up as part of the Malmesbury community. At 14, he then left for Oxford to continue his education. His family remained in the same household in Westport, and Hobbes returned to visit Malmesbury on multiple occasions throughout his life.

Civil War, Tigers and Foxes (1642 – 1806)

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.

The first assault on Malmesbury took place on 21st March 1643, where a force under the command of the parliamentarian, Sir William Waller, took the settlement with relative ease, his force sustaining only three casualties. Waller attacked through Westport, usually considered to be a weak point in the otherwise naturally well defended town.

The second assault was altogether more aggressive. On 24th May 1644, Colonel Massey, another parliamentarian, attacked Malmesbury with troops and artillery, again choosing Westport as the main area to attack. A vivid description of the battle has survived the years and it appears that once the bloody conflict had ended, Massey refrained from plundering the town. As far as Malmesbury was concerned, the conclusion of this battle marked the end of its direct role in the Civil War.

Jumping ahead a few decades, we come across Hannah Twynnoy, a maid working at the White Lion Inn during the early 18th century, famous for her unusual death. When a travelling circus came to visit in the town, it brought with it a tiger which Hannah reputedly teased, despite warnings from its keeper. It eventually broke free from its shackles and killed her. Her grave can be seen in the Abbey grounds.

Charles James Fox, a prominent British Whig statesman notable for his strong support for the colonists over the issue of the American Colonies, held the seat of High Steward of the Old Corporation, in the years between 1769 and 1775. He also represented Malmesbury at parliamentary level for the earlier part of this period, but his resignation over the issue of tea duty meant he never represented Malmesbury again.

Industrial and Social development in a Market Town: The Silk Mills, Malmesbury Branch Line and The Triangle (1600 – 1962)


The Avon Mill site is best known for its previous 19th century Silk Mills but has been the site of a mill since the 13th century. In about 1600, Avon Mill became a fulling mill (process during which cloth was thickened and shrunk by pounding it in a solution of fullers earth), but ceased to have such a role in 1622. A century later, the woollen industry in Malmesbury as a whole had closed down.

In 1852 it was bought by silk manufacturers. Silk ribbons were very much in demand in the Victorian era and at its peak the factory employed around 400 people. The business failed in 1899, but was reopened and by 1900 there were 150 workers. The mill was forced to close yet again that year, but as before it reopened, this time in the early 1920’s by Avon Silk Mills Co. Ltd. Silk production continued until 1941. In 1984 both of the main buildings were converted into flats.

Malmesbury lace was also once central to Malmesbury’s economy. Renowned nationwide for its quality and unique characteristics, the earliest record of lacemaking in the Malmesbury area dates back to the English Civil War (1642-48). Lacemaking became even more prominent after Charles II’s 1672 declaration allowing Dutch artisans to settle in England. Many of these individuals settled in Wiltshire and Dutch influence certainly had a refining impact on lacemaking. By 1795, Malmesbury inhabitants claimed they could earn more by lacemaking than they could by working at a factory. However, by 1826 the hand lace industry was declining, due to the introduction of machinery. Whereas in 1851 Malmesbury had 150 adult lacemakers, by 1881 it had only 11.

There were attempts to revive the practice, namely by Lady Suffolk, who in 1907 realised that lacemaking in Malmesbury was in danger of disappearing. She set up a lace school in the Kings Arms Hotel, which saw children and young women from a wide area joining. By 1908 it had 30 pupils and two teachers. It is unknown when the class closed but it was before the 1920’s, when the Kings Arms changed hands.

Another important development in the 19th century was the railway in Britain, which had an enormous impact nationwide. 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.

On 17th December 1877, the Malmesbury Branch Line and station had its grand opening. The impact on trade was immediately noticeable; Malmesbury’s market prospered and saw its best attendance in 30 years in February 1878. The railway was well utilised in both of the world wars, the first saw large numbers of troops travelling through the town and the second saw significant numbers of refugees coming to Malmesbury. Despite its usage though, the railway closed down, first to passengers in 1951 and then to goods in 1962.

An area that has undergone constant changes in Malmesbury is The Triangle, which used to be the location of a bustling market. The First World War Memorial located at the Triangle was dedicated in March 1921, and remembers 74 men, including one civilian. The site of the Three Cups Inn has been occupied by a pub since the 15th century, with the present building dating back to the 17th century. In its earlier history, Elizabethan cloth and yarn traders would stay here and in March 1643, it was reputedly the headquarters of General Waller when he was besieging the town. By 1930, Stroud Brewery had renovated the pub, installing electric lights.

Malmesbury during the Second World War (1939-1945)

Two locations in Malmesbury had a particularly key role in the Second World War. The first, Cowbridge House, has seen varied roles throughout its 250 year history, but significantly at the end of August 1939, the Electrical Appliances Division of E.K. Cole Ltd., was instructed by the RAF to establish a ‘shadow factory’ to produce radio equipment. More specifically, Cowbridge House helped to develop radar for the Allies to utilise in the Second World War. Unknown to the residents of Malmesbury and the 1,000 or so employees working at the factory, they were at the cutting edge of wartime technological development.

The second location, the site where The Maltings is now located, was home to Linolite Ltd. in 1941. The company had patented a tubular electric lamp in 1901, obtaining the name Linolite Ltd. in 1933. The company specialised in filament strip lights but during the Second World War they became the main supplier of hose clips for bomber aircraft de-icing systems (they made 7.5 million hose clips during the war).

Films and Vacuum Cleaners: Athelstan Cinema to the Present Day (1935 – Present Day)

Malmesbury has had noticeable developments in the 20th century, one of the earliest being the building of a cinema. 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. The cinema closed later in 1988 and was eventually demolished in 1993.

One of the most significant developments to the town, especially in terms of its recent history involves the Dyson headquarters at the top of Tetbury Hill. 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). The Malmesbury site is still used as Dyson’s main headquarters and research and development for Dyson products is also carried out there.


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Blanchard, Joan., Malmesbury Lace (B.T. Batsford Limited, London: 1990).

Bowen, John. (Edited By Allnatt, Graham), A Story of Malmesbury (Hackman Print, Rhondda: 2000).

Hodge, Dr. Bernulf., A History of Malmesbury (5th Edition; The Friends of Malmesbury Abbey, Minety: 1990).

http://www.athelstanmuseum.org.uk/people_hannah_twynnoy.html (last accessed 11/07/2011).

http://www.bbc.co.uk/wiltshire/content/articles/2004/09/01/entertainment_days_out_cowbridge_feature.shtml (last accessed on 11/07/2011).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charter (last accessed on 06/06/2011).

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Luce, Major-General Sir Richard H., The History of the Abbey and Town of Malmesbury (The Friends of Malmesbury Abbey, Minety: 1979).

Vernon, Charles & Malmesbury Civic Trust., An Historical Guide to Malmesbury (Malmesbury Civic Trust, Chippenham: May, 2005).

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