Malmesbury Abbey watches over the Cotswold town from its hilltop setting and as well as being a beauty to explore, it has some wonderful – and gory – stories from history to share.
The abbey was originally founded as a monastery in around 676AD and was built up to its largest form by 1180. Surprisingly it survived destruction during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1500s, mainly due to the fact it was considered unimportant (read poor) at the time. This was likely due to the fact that a catastrophic storm earlier in the century lead to the collapse of its impressive tower (at 431 feet it was much higher than Salisbury Cathedral’s current tower), which destroyed a good chunk of the nave and transept.
Although it may now look rather different than it did in its prime, the abbey is currently in great condition with wonderful architecture and stain glass windows to view, making it well worth a visit. Warm and well lit, its small book and coffee shop also means that it’s full of life, devoid of the dark and cold feel many ancient UK churches hold.
King Ãthelstan’s tomb
Over the centuries the abbey has played its part in many stories recorded in history and even houses a king’s tomb, which you can visit today.
King Ãthelstan The Glorious was buried here in 969. The nephew of King Alfred, he was crowned King of Wessex in 924. He became known as a great military and political leader, and by 927 he had united and created the kingdom of all England. On his death a tomb was created in the abbey and his body is known to be buried under a long lost church tower somewhere on the abbey’s site.
The flying monk
Having gone through many highs and lows throughout it’s long existence, back in the 1100s Malmesbury Abbey actually housed Europe’s second biggest library and considered a true place of learning. It can even state that it was part of early attempts at human flight, thanks to the well-known story of Eilmer, the flying monk!
Forward thinking Eilmer dedicated his life’s work to human flight, one day going so far as to attach wings to his body and leap from the abbey’s tower. He managed to fly over 200 metres before falling to the floor and breaking both his legs, but straight away knew the problem he needed to create a tail for his next glider!
In the 1920s a stained glass window was installed in memory of the ‘flying monk’. Sadly it’s not in the main part of the church, but a kind volunteer was happy to take us through to the closed off area where Eilmer’s window can be found.
Death by tiger!
One of the most interesting stories you discover at the abbey is that of the death of Hannah Twynnoy, a tale that truly deserves its very own Horrible Histories book!
Hannah was a barmaid back in the 1700s and it is reputed that she was the first person in England to be killed by a tiger! The story goes that a menagerie could be found along one of the town’s main streets and that every day on her way to and from work Hannah would walk past the animals. She particularly liked to antagonise the tiger, and would rattle a stick against its cage.
Although the animals’ owner would shout at her and warn her of her folly, she never stopped annoying the poor creature and one day it had had enough and lunged at her through its cage, breaking the chains and escaping. Catching its claws on her cape, she wasn’t able to untangle herself and escape in time, and the townsfolk could only look on as the tiger mauled the young woman to death.
Her gravestone can still be found in the abbey’s graveyard, with a poem that reads:
In bloom of life
She’s snatched from hence
She had no room
To make defence
For tyger fierce
Took life away
And here she lies in a bed of clay
Until the Resurrection Day
Malmesbury Abbey – well worth a visit
A visit to Malmesbury Abbey is a great way to spend half a day if you’re visiting the Wiltshire region of the UK. A trove of treasures for history and architecture lovers, the wonderful volunteers are truly welcoming, and always willing to share the abbey’s wonderful tales and plaques dotted around the abbey also provide a wealth of information.
The abbey also hosts many special events such as concerts and even turns into an ancient skate park for kids once a year during school holidays. Head to its website to find out what’s on during your visit.