Malmesbury Abbey

Malmesbury Abbey is a lovely abbey church in Wiltshire originally founded in 676. The present building dates from about 1180. Over half of the great church has disappeared, but the remainder is used as a parish church and boasts some fine Romanesque architecture and art.


History of Malmesbury Abbey

A Saxon monastery was first established on the site in around 676 AD by Aldhelm. In 941, King Athelstan was buried in the Abbey.

By the 11th century, Malmesbury Abbey was home to the second largest library in Europe and was considered one of the leading European seats of learning.

The abbey also hosted an early attempt at human flight - in 1010, Monk Eilmer of Malmesbury flew a primitive hang glider from an Abbey tower. Eilmer flew over 200 yards before landing, breaking both legs. He later remarked the only reason he did not fly further was the lack of a tail on his glider.

The present Norman abbey, which housed monks of the Benedictine order, was substantially completed by 1180. The 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury was of the community. During the next two centuries the building was expanded, including the addition of a spire which was even taller than that on Salisbury Cathedral (now the tallest in England).

The 431 feet (131 m) tall spire, and the tower it was built upon, collapsed in a storm around 1500 destroying much of the church, including two thirds of the nave and the transept.

Malmesbury Abbey owned 23,000 acres (93 km²) when was closed at the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 by Henry VIII. It was sold, with all its lands, to William Stumpe, a rich merchant. He returned the church to the town for continuing use as a parish church, and filled the abbey buildings with twenty looms for his cloth-weaving enterprise. It was consecrated on August 20, 1541, and has been a place of worship almost continuously since then.

Over time, however, the building fell into disrepair. In addition, the west tower fell around 1550, demolishing the three western bays of the nave and leaving a gaping hole behind what is now the rear of the nave. As a result of these two collapses less than a half of the original building stands today.

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.

By the 18th century, the church was being used to store hay and shelter pigs and donkeys. Restoration work began early in the 20th century and what remains of the abbey is now in regular use as a parish church and as a concert venue.

What to See at Malmesbury Abbey

The most notable feature of this important and attractive church is the south porch, through which today's visitors and worshipers enter. It is a riot of 12th-century Romanesque carvings depicting the usual mix of biblical figures, mythical beasts, and other designs.

Over the south porch is a fine parvise, which housed the monastery library. There is also a fine vault with roof bosses and an unusual watching-loft in the nave.

Quick Facts on Malmesbury Abbey

Site Information
Names:Malmesbury Abbey
Categories:churches; monasteries
Status: active
Visitor and Contact Information
Coordinates:51.584750° N, 2.098356° W
Lodging:View hotels near Malmesbury Abbey
Note: This information was accurate when first published and we do our best to keep it updated, but details such as opening hours and prices can change without notice. To avoid disappointment, please check with the site directly before making a special trip.

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© Adrian Fletcher
© Greg Baker
© Greg Baker
© Andrew Stawarz
© Andrew Stawarz

Map of Malmesbury Abbey

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