The writer, Thomas Hobbes, who was born and bred in Malmesbury, is seen today as one of the world’s most important thinkers in the field of political science, with achievements comparable to those of Plato and Aristotle. His masterpiece, a book called Leviathan, was published in 1651. This work investigated the power of the state and developed the idea of a social contract between government and people: the state had a duty to preserve the lives and property of the public and in return people had a duty to obey government laws. These highly original ideas about politics remain influential today. Hobbes is also famous for his radical ideas about religion. He wanted to limit the power of the Church and questioned the existence of the spirit world.
His religious views were highly controversial at the time, and as a result he was called by some of his critics “The Monster of Malmesbury”.
The great philosopher was born in a house on the Horsefair in the Malmesbury district of Westport on 5 April 1588. Hobbes’s mother, whose unmarried name was Catherine Middleton, was a local woman from the nearby village of Brokenborough. Hobbes’s father, who was also called Thomas, was a curate: a junior member of Church of England clergy. His job as curate was to look after the church at Brokenborough. We know a lot about the childhood of Hobbes because his friend, John Aubrey, collected information about his life. Sadly, the childhood home of Thomas Hobbes was destroyed in the nineteenth century but fortunately Aubrey drew a sketch of the building which has survived.
Thomas Hobbes had an older brother, called Edmund, and a sister called Anne. Both of his siblings stayed in Malmesbury as adults. Edmund became a glover, married, and had three children, and became Alderman or mayor of the borough. His sister, Anne Hobbes, is a much more shadowy figure. She inherited the modest family home on the Horsefair, married a man called Thomas Laurence, and they had seven children. In later life Thomas Hobbes was extremely generous to the family of his brother but, mysteriously, he appears to have completely ignored the interests of the family of his sister. The father of Thomas Hobbes, although a priest of the Church of England, was extremely disreputable. Aubrey preserved the tradition that he was badly educated and badly behaved and spent much time playing cards in local alehouses.
Young Hobbes was first given a basic education at a school inside St Mary Westport church, just yards from his father’s house. The church building that Hobbes knew was a magnificent structure. It no longer exists as it was destroyed during the fighting of the Civil War of the 1640s. After elementary school at his local church, Hobbes was taught for a while by the Vicar of Malmesbury, Thomas Evans. Finally, Hobbes became the student of an exceptional teacher called Robert Latimer. Aubrey was very precise about locating Latimer’s school on ‘the broad place’, near St Mary’s church, opposite to a tavern called ‘the Three Cuppes’. This space was formerly known as the Sheep Fair and today is called the Triangle. The tavern still stands today and is still called the Three Cups. The site of Latimer’s school must be somewhere near the modern butcher’s shop on the Triangle. The arrival of Robert Latimer in Malmesbury was a stroke of huge good fortune for Hobbes. The resulting encounter between Hobbes and Latimer was of immense importance for the intellectual development of the future philosopher. It is no exaggeration to say that Latimer’s arrival transformed the life chances of Hobbes. Without Latimer it would have been impossible for Hobbes to have pursued a career as a writer and philosopher. Therefore without Latimer there would have been no Leviathan. Latimer gave Hobbes a first-rate classical education. He recognised the extraordinary talent of young Hobbes and used his connections to ensure that Hobbes was able to undertake higher studies at his old college within the University of Oxford.
Thomas Hobbes Senior, the father of the philosopher fled from Malmesbury and deserted his family in February 1604 following a fight with another local clergyman, Richard Jeane, the rector of Foxley, in the Abbey churchyard in the centre of Malmesbury. Hobbes accosted Jeane, abused him and then attacked him. Jeane fought back. The probable cause of the fight was a a disagreement between the two men about Hobbes’ performance as curate of Brokenborough. Jeane owned property in Brokenborough and complained that Hobbes was not doing his job properly and as a result Hobbes was in trouble with the Church authorities.
By the time that his father left the town Thomas Hobbes was already away studying at Oxford University. He was fortunate that his uncle, Francis, a prosperous glover was prepared to pay for his education. After graduating from Oxford in February 1608, Hobbes went to work for the aristocratic Cavendish family, initially as a tutor to William Cavendish (1590–1628), who later became the second Earl of Devonshire. Hobbes worked for the Cavendish family for most of the rest of his life. Cavendish patronage allowed Hobbes to think and write as he did: it gave him access to books, and connections to other philosophers and scientists in England and Europe.
Hobbes kept in touch with his family in Malmesbury. He was forty-six years old in the summer of 1634. Three decades had passed since he had left home to go to University. He decided to visit his friends and relatives in the Malmesbury area. We know this because he met the schoolboy, John Aubrey during the visit and Aubrey later recorded the event. This turned out to be his last trip to his hometown. Hobbes was about to go to France with the Cavendish family and apparently decided that, prior to a long period out of the country, he should pay his respects to two of the most important people in his life, who by this time were old men: his uncle and great benefactor, Francis Hobbes and his brilliant former teacher, Robert Latimer. Perhaps he suspected that he might never see these men again, which indeed turned out to be the case.
Francis Hobbes died around 1637 and left Thomas Hobbes a smallholding of 7 acres in extent called the Gastons Ground close to the Horsefair. Hobbes was proud of this property. Towards the end of his life he wrote an autobiography in verse. This celebrated the history of Malmesbury and its links with Aldhelm and Athelstan. The poem also stated how proud he was to be the owner of the Gastons Ground:
No matter for my money or my land,
If any ask that, let him understand,
A small parcel of land I had to show,
My own inheritance, and let him know,
Of small extent but a most fertile ground
Which did with store of bladed wheat abound.
Hobbes loved Malmesbury and, although he left home as a young man, throughout his life he called himself on the title page of all his many books, ‘Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury’. He continued to take an interest in Malmesbury long after he had left the place. In 1665 Hobbes tried, but failed, to establish a new school in Malmesbury with a royal endowment from King Charles II. The person who stopped the establishment of a royal grammar school in Malmesbury was the wife of Charles II, Catherine of Braganza. She was a very pious Catholic and maintained a private chapel which employed a substantial team of Catholic priests. It seems that these men were enemies of Hobbes. This is not entirely surprising. Hobbes was highly critical of the Catholic Church in many of his writings, including Leviathan.
ln 1677 Hobbes made his will. He described himself as ‘Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, in the County of Wilts, Gentleman’.
His identification with his hometown so many decades after he had left is striking. Malmesbury is also featured in the will because he made significant bequests to the family of his deceased brother, Edmund.