The earliest evidence of human activity in Malmesbury is a flint knife, along with flint chips, dated to the late Neolithic or Bronze Age, approximately 4,500 – 3,000 years ago. In the Iron Age, around 800BC, people built a defensive structure around their settlement on top of the escarpment. They built a rubble bank and ditch along with presumably a timber palisade. This was replaced around 500BC with the first of two stone walls that stood 4-5 metres high making it a very impressive structure indeed. Over the following 700 years or so these defences were maintained or rebuilt, until the end of the Iron Age and the coming of the Romans.
Anglo-Saxon defences were built and rebuilt on the remains of the previous walls. Malmesbury is known to have been one of King Alfred’s burhs and these relate to that defensive system.
In the early 12th century the walls were rebuilt in stone by Bishop Roger of Salisbury. He built a castle somewhere around where the Old Bell hotel now stands. At the petition of the Abbey this was demolished about 100 years later.
No archaeological evidence of Civil War defences was found; presumably they were well and truly slighted in 1646.
This history of the town walls is based on excavations carried out in 1998 and 2000 for a hundred yard stretch to the south of the north east gate. This work was supported by English Heritage.
Substantial evidence of the walls still exists. The site of the north east gate is clearly visible; the road to Cirencester runs through it. Along the eastern boundary much remains; if you go to the rear of the library and look down you realise that even now with erosion of the slopes and reduced height to the walls how difficult it would be to scale the defences especially if you were being bombarded with missiles the while. The walls can easily be seen from the river walk and the layout of the town clearly shows where the walls were. The gates which all have modern roads running through them have been marked by the local council with brass plagues set in the pavement.
For less than 400 years the defences of the town have not been needed but for over 2,400 years before that our ancestors continuously invested an enormous amount of energy, effort and time in protecting their town.
Naturally there are no defences from the Roman period; they were unnecessary during Pax romana. A counterfeit roman coin was found at the foot of the wall.
Malmesbury has another claim to fame. Bones found in the dig from the iron age included some from a domestic cat. It had been thought that cats were introduced by the Romans; not so. They were in Malmesbury long before the Romans arrived.