Malmesbury was a community long before the Abbey was built, indeed long before Christanity was brought to England by St Augustine, but it was the existence of a monastery and then the presence of the Abbey which encouraged the growth of the town. Town and Church have been mutually dependent and supportive for well over a thousand years.
The Spire – St Paul’s Church
All that remains today of St Paul’s church is the spire. There was a church here in Saxon times but nothing of that remains. It is thought that the present church was built around 1300AD and the spire added about 100 years later; less than 250 years later the nave of the church was ‘ruinous’ and Stumpe, who had bought the Abbey extensive estates from the crown for £1516 15s 21/2d, gave the abbey nave to the town as a parish church and the license to use it as such was granted in 1541.
Remains of the south wall of the chancel have been incorporated into other buildings and this can be seen clearly from Birdcage Walk.
The spire houses 8 bells for the Abbey even though in early times it was in a different parish. The oldest is the treble, sixteenth century or even older; the youngest three were added in the 1959s when the rest were retuned.
The clock, which only has two faces, was made by Henry Weight, a local clock maker, in 1858. The clock almost certainly was bought in kit form and he assembled it. The mechanical drive was replaced by an electric motor in 1952 and the works lay neglected until the museum with the aid of RAF Hullavington restored them. Unfortunately lack of room in the museum means they cannot be displayed there but they can be seen by appointment in the bell tower. For more details see the booklet “Telling the time for Malmesbury” available in our shop.
Over the centuries the ground level has risen and so you now have to step down through an ancient doorway with a very low lintel to enter the bell tower.
The Founding of Malmesbury Abbey
The founding of the Christian church in Malmesbury is reasonably well documented but often by authors writing centuries after the event.
A monk of Malmesbury writing in c1366 in a book titled the Eulogy of Histories tells of Maidulph’s coming to Malmesbury. “A certain monk Maidulph by name who in his own country was so worn out by the depredations of thieves … he decided to escape and made his way to England … he at length came to rest under the castle of Bladon, called by the Saxons which had been built by a British king … named Dunwallo Molmutius in the year 642 … there was a royal residence belonging now to the pagans and now to the Christians at Caindurburgh which is now called Brakeburg or Brokenburg. The aforesaid Maidulph chose a place beneath the castle as a site for a hermitage and obtaining leave from the garrison constructed a cell. When … he began to be short of the necessities of life he gathered some scholars around him to make a living … the school grew into a small convent. Aldhelm brought up in this community made the best use of his opportunities.”
In 675 a charter from Leutherius, fourth bishop of the west Saxons, states “ to hand over and present the land which is called Mealdumesburg to the priest Aldhelm to lead a life according to rule”.
Bede writing about the year 705 says when Hedda, Bishop of the west Saxons “died the see was divided into two dioceses … the other to Aldhelm who presided over it vigorously for 4 years … Aldhelm, while he was still a priest and abbot of the monastery known as Mailduf’s town”
The story continues with Aldhelm’s building of many early churches.
Malmesbury Abbey Lands
Undoubtedly Malmesbury Abbey held very considerable estates both locally and further afield. However much of the evidence is lost and records are fragmentary and unreliable.
The earliest charters date to the 7th century. Unfortunately they are somewhat suspect. It seems the good monks were not above rewriting history if they felt the past wasn’t good enough. These charters claim that in 675AD Bishop Leutherius granted the site of the abbey to the monastery; that in 701AD King Ine gave them Rodbourne and Corston and in 956AD King Edwy conferred a 100 hide estate at Brokenborough on them.
The Malmesbury hundred which the monastery held in fee farm was granted to it in 1215AD. A hundred was a division or area within a county which held its own court. It was formed by the merger around Malmesbury of the Cicemethorn (Chedglow) hundred to the north and the Suteledberg (Startley) hundred to the south. This large territory stretched from Crudwell in the north to Sutton Benger in the south, from Norton in the west to Brinkworth in the east (20 X 16 kilometres approximately). The monastery had an estate of 23,000 acres or 93km².
The abbot of Malmesbury had a lodge in the 13th century at Cowfold Park. This is thought to be Cole Park and to have been where the present house stands.
The document which transfers abbey lands to William Stumpe from Henry VIII in 1544 after the dissolution deals with three areas. The first consists of numerous messuages, yards and tofts at Rodbourne, all identified by the tenants. The second refers to Brinkworth Manor and all the rights relating to that which were considerable and the third refers to lands around the Abbey at Malmesbury. Other land locally was sold to different buyers and doubtless the same happened further afield.
Malmesbury Abbey’s Architecture
The definitive description of Malmesbury abbey was published by Harold Brakspear as long ago as 1912 in Archaeologia LXIV.
The building is a fine example of the late and local Romanesque. This is a west country form of Anglo-Norman. Stone vaulting was just being introduced and Malmesbury seems to have been designed to have a stone vault.
There are early gothic influences discernable; the shallow pointing of the arches in the bay divisions in the nave and the hollow walling in the west wall of the south transept.
Malmesbury appears to have been the first in a series of west country churches. In the later churches the Romanesque had given way entirely to Gothic.
The original abbey built in the 12th century was approximately one and a half times the size that remains. The 14th century additions made the footprint twice that of today; the spire must have soared into the sky. To the north lay the cloisters and all around would be other buildings, dwellings, stores, workshops – a whole complex of religious activity.
What an achievement with the limited resources of Saxon and medieval England. What proportion of the local economy went into building the abbey?
The museum collection contains numerous drawings of architectural features of the Abbey.
Tales of Malmesbury Abbey
Founding and early churches cover the early Christian community in Malmesbury. We now tell of the building of the abbey and take our story through to today.
We believe that work started on the abbey in c1145. This is 4 years after Peter Maurant had been made abbot of the monastery and it is thought that his drive initiated the project. William of Malmesbury makes no mention of the new building and he died in 1143 although he wrote little in his final years.
There is a suggestion that Roger, Bishop of Sarum (Salisbury) and Chancellor of England was one of the instigators. He was certainly active in politics and the power struggle of those times. He tried to have Malmesbury as the centre of the see and he built a castle in Malmesbury, as well as others elsewhere. However by the time he died in 1139 his influence had waned and the abbey was still a dream. But perhaps he sowed the seeds.
Perhaps the power struggle continued because c1177 Pope Alexander III wrote instructing the Bishops of Worcester and London to have the church dedicated even if the Bishop of Sarum was making trouble.
By 1180 the building had advanced far enough to enable a large service, presumably the consecration, to be held.
The new abbey flourished. It became a centre for learning and a major centre for Christian learning, although the library was at its peak in William’s time. In later years the library was scattered and destroyed. John Aubrey records of the grandson of William Stumpe, who bought the abbey, that he “was a proper man and a good fellow; and when he brewed a barrel of his special ale his use was to stop the bunghole, under the clay, with a sheet of manuscript; he said nothing did it so well, which methought did grieve me much to see”
The twelfth century abbey when finished was much bigger than the relic surviving today; there were 9 bays in the nave to the west of a low tower and 3 to the east. The west end of the abbey was spectacular with twin towers. It is thought Salisbury cathedral’s west end was modelled on Malmesbury.
The great porch built to face the town is on the south side. It is among the finest examples of 12th century carving in Europe. Comparisons have been made with Chartres and it is credibly postulated that a specialised team of masons came from France to do the carving and then went on to do other churches round the country. Inside the porch are carvings of the apostles with an angel overhead and the figure of Christ in majesty with two supporting angels over the doorway. The outer carvings arranged in three circles are thought to be based on a poem, Psychomachia, by a 4th century Spanish poet, Prudentius relating the Battle of the Virtues and Vices.
In 1284 on St Martin’s day fresh water flowed into the abbey lavatorium; it was brought by a conduit from Long Newnton, nearly four miles away. The Abbot William of Colerne was responsible for the work which cost £100.
In the fourteenth century the cathedral at Salisbury was taking shape. To “keep up with the Jones’s” dramatic additions were made to the abbey. The presbytery was doubled to 6 bays and beyond it a lady chapel was built. A tower was erected at the west end, the porch encased in massive masonry, and the crowning glory was a spire which soared 30ft higher than Salisbury. Harold Brakspear, the architect for Malmesbury Abbey suggested that the weight of the spire, which was of wood sheathed in lead, pushed the four columns on which it stood 23cm (9in.) into the ground.
The fifteenth century saw the rebuilding of the cloisters. The walkways were paved in elaborate patterns with tiles featuring a Griffin, the symbol on the then coat of arms of the abbey.
In 1542 Leland, visiting the town, recorded that the spire had fallen “in hominum memoria” (in living memory). It is thought that a lightening strike turned water in the masonry on which the spire stood, in to steam so that the stone would have literally exploded. Down came the spire and the great golden ball on the pinnacle fell, so local legend has it, into the High Street, halfway down where the George Inn stood.
On 15th December 1539 Abbot Robert Frampton handed the abbey to Henry VIIIth’s commissioners as part of the general dissolution of the monasteries. He and the monks were all pensioned off – on quite good terms.
William Stumpe, who was one of the commissioners, bought the Abbey and donated the body of the church to the town to be a parish church. He retained much of the site and other buildings to use in his wool cloth business.
The Abbey suffered further damage during the civil war. Assaults on the town were from the west along Abbey Row, so the Abbey ‘fielded’ much stray shot; marks can still be seen on the western walls. During the war cannon were hoisted on to the top of the west tower to give a greater range and to command the western approaches.
The four columns that had supported the spire still stood, but in 1660 the southeast one fell; it is suggested as a result of cannon fired to celebrate the restoration of the monarchy.
In 1822 considerable restoration took place. A gothic window was put in the west wall to replace the small original one and a gallery was erected beneath it. The floor was raised 23cm (9in.) and new pews put in place. Ironically much of this work was removed a century later.
A cannon from the Crimea war stood beneath the ruined arches of the west end of the Abbey. When it went to fuel the drive for iron during World War II it required a Herculean effort from the biggest local shire horse to shift it.
By the end of Victoria’s reign the Abbey had deteriorated considerably, to the point of some parts being in danger of collapsing. By 1905 the work had been completed. The southwest turret on the west front had been rebuilt as had the western end of the wall of the south nave. Buttresses were repaired and missing pinnacles replaced, other works were carried out to the drainage systems.
In 1927, after the trauma of the First World War, the parishioners felt sufficiently enthused to tackle the interior. The Abbey closed for a year and in this time the gallery at the west end was removed, the organ was put into store, new choir stalls and pulpit were installed, the floor relaid and the east wall decorated with painted plaster. Not even Athelstan himself was safe; his tomb was moved to the north aisle where it is today.
The east wall has attracted much attention and many are the suggestions as to what could be done to enhance it. In the 1960’s a committee researched many alternatives. Ultimately a national competition was held to choose a sculpture. This was dogged with misfortune; the winner died; the runner up, whose piece although spectacular was more controversial, failed to meet with approval from some of the numerous bodies of worthies that considered the scheme. And the committee, disheartened, went into hibernation. Proposals still surface; the latest in 2007 for tall thin windows of modern stained glass fared no better than its predecessors.
Malmesbury Carnival raised money for flood lighting. With the help of Linolite, a local lighting firm, a makeshift system was installed. This lasted longer than expected and on its demise the Friends of Malmesbury Abbey in 2002/3 raised, with a local appeal, sufficient funds for a complete modern floodlighting system.
A History of Malmesbury Abbey and other titles are available from the Museum Shop.
Malmesbury Abbey – Today’s Church
The Abbey still dominates the town and the Christian community that worship there are an important thread in the life of the town.
Malmesbury is joined by the parishes of Westport, Brokenborough, Corston and Rodbourne. It is an ecumenical church with a wide range of services and activities.
The church is open every day and stewards are keen to help visitors. The building is magnificent and houses King Athelstan’s tomb (but not, it is thought, his bones). Four volumes of a wonderful illuminated medieval bible are displayed as are other church treasures in modern showcases provided by Friends of the Abbey.
In 1945 the ‘Friends of Malmesbury Abbey’ was founded to help preserve and enhance this gem of a building; it still does so today.