Malmesbury Abbey is one of England's oldest religious sites. John Leland, the English antiquary, reports an oral tradition that "a house of nuns" existed at what is now Malmesbury, sometime around the start of the 7th Century. However, it is known for certain that Maildubh, an Irish monk, founded a hermitage and school here towards the middle of the 7th Century. In 676AD, Leutherius, Bishop of Dorchester, re-founded this hermitage as a religious house. Aldhelm, a student of Maildubh's and nephew of King Ine of Wessex, became its first abbot.
King Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, was one of Malmesbury's earliest patrons. He donated money, books and religious relics to the abbey, with the relics in particular making it a popular destination for pilgrims. Æthelstan was buried here upon his death in 941AD. By the time of the Norman Conquest, Malmesbury Abbey had already secured a reputation as a great centre of learning, and was home to a significant library. The last Saxon abbot, Beorhtric, was removed by King William in 1077AD.
Around 1118AD, work began on rebuilding the abbey in a grander Norman style. Work was completed and the church consecrated in 1180AD. Further additions and modifications took place in the 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries. Amongst these modifications was a central tower with a spire rising 30 feet higher than the spire of Salisbury Cathedral, and topped by a golden ball. Disaster struck around 1500AD when the tower was hit by lightning and collapsed, inflicting heavy damage on the church.
Malmesbury Abbey was dissolved in 1539AD, and its holdings sold to a local merchant who allowed the abbey church to be used for worship by the parish. The west tower of the church collapsed around 1550AD, destroying a substantial portion of the nave and the west front, leaving only half of the original church building still standing.
Notable in the history of Malmesbury was the presence of William of Malmesbury (1095-1143AD), the famous medieval chronicler. William studied at the abbey's school, and later took oaths as a monk. He went on to write extensively about Britain's history, creating what were (for the time) very detailed and accurate accounts. One of William's more amusing anecdotes tells of Eilmer, "The Flying Monk":
‘He was a man of good learning for those times; of mature age and in his early youth had hazarded an attempt of singular temerity: he had by some contrivance fastened to his hands and feet in order that he might fly as Daedalus, and collecting the air, on the summit of a tower, had flown for a distance of a furlong (200m); but agitated by the violence of the wind and a current of air, as well as the consciousness of his rash attempt, he fell and broke both his legs, and was lame ever after. He used to relate as the cause of the failure that he had forgotten to provide himself with a tail.’
Malmesbury Abbey continues to serve as a parish church to the present day. Although much reduced in size, the remaining building is still impressive. The south porch contains what is widely acknowledged as being one of the finest examples of 12th Century European carvings, with representations of the apostles and of Christ sitting in majesty.
Also worth noting are the octagonal market cross that sits close the abbey (dating from around 1490AD) and St Paul's bell tower. The latter stands apart from the abbey, and is all that remains of the previous parish church, which fell out of use following the dissolution.