Locations of visitors to this page
A drawing of Malmesbury Abbey

Malmesbury Abbey drawing

This drawing of Malmesbury Abbey shows how it would have appeared in the 14th century.

The brightened area is what survives today, following the collapse of the spire and West Tower. It is this brightened area that forms the modern (and fully in use) Malmesbury Abbey.

Photographed by Adrian Pingstone in February 2005, from an undated drawing on view in the Abbey.

Malmesbury Abbey was founded as a Benedictine monastery, dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul around 676 by the scholar-poet Aldhelm, a nephew of King Ine of Wessex. It was one of only a few with a continual history from the 7th century through to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In 941 AD, King Athelstan was buried in the Abbey. Athelstan had died in Gloucester in October 939. The choice of Malmesbury over the New Minster in Winchester indicated that the king remained an outsider to the West Saxon court.

By the 11th century it was considered one of the leading European seats of learning and contained the second largest library in Europe.

During the early 11th century, the Abbey was the site of an early attempt at human flight. The monk Eilmer of Malmesbury attached wings to his body and flew from a tower. Eilmer flew over 200 yards (183 m) before a heavy landing, breaking both legs. He remarked later that the only reason he did not fly further was the lack of a tail on his glider.

The 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury was one of the community.

The current Abbey was pretty much completed by 1180. The 431 feet (131 m) tall spire, and the tower it sat upon, collapsed during a storm around 1500 destroying much of the church, including two thirds of the nave and the transept. The west tower fell around 1550, demolishing the three western most bays of the nave. As a result of these two collapses, less than half of the original building stands today.

The Abbey, which owned 23,000 acres (93 km2) in the twenty parishes that constituted Malmesbury Hundred, was closed at the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 by Henry VIII and was sold, with all its lands, to a rich merchant named William Stumpe. He returned the abbey church to the town for continuing use as a parish church, and filled the abbey buildings with twenty looms for his cloth-weaving enterprise. Today Malmesbury Abbey is in full use as the parish church of Malmesbury, in the Diocese of Bristol. The remains still contain a fine parvise(1) which holds some examples of books from the Abbey library. The Anglo-Saxon charters of Malmesbury, though extended by forgeries and improvements executed in the abbey's scriptorium, provide source material today for the history of Wessex and the West Saxon church from the seventh century.

During the English Civil War, Malmesbury is said to have changed hands as many as seven times, and the abbey was fiercely fought over. Hundreds of pock-marks left by bullets and shot can still be seen on the south, west and east sides of Malmesbury Abbey walls.

Today much of the Abbey survives, with the ruined parts still joined onto the complete structure. The existing third of the nave remains in use as an active place of worship.

(1) A room over the porch of a church — quite often found in Norman churches in England.

The West Front of Malmesbury Abbey.

The west front of Malmesbury Abbey.

Entrance to Malmesbury Abbey

Entrance to Malmesbury Abbey

A monastery was first established on the site around 676 by Aldhelm. The present building was consecrated about 1180. Henry VIII dissolved the monastery in 1539 and it was bought by William Stumpe, wealthy clothier and MP, who converted it into the parish church in 1541.

© Copyright Trevor Rickard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence