After Maidulph’s death in 675, the leadership of the community was given to St Aldhelm, nephew of the Saxon King Ine, who is generally regarded as the founder of the Abbey proper, in 676. The present church was consecrated in 1180, and expanded as the monastery grew in prestige and wealth, especially in the period from 1260 under William of Colerne. Royal visits by Henry III and Edward I demonstrate the importance of the Abbey by the 13th century, and at its zenith in the 14th century, it featured a spire over 431ft (131m) high, greater even than that of Salisbury.
Alas, this achievement was also its undoing, as at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, the tower collapsed, taking the crossing, transepts and chancel with it. All that remains of this area are two great crossing arches, and a wall of the south transept. Further disaster came with the Dissolution in 1539, when the Abbey was sold to a local clothier, and given to the townspeople as their parish church, and the other monastery buildings demolished.
The Abbey continued to decay further, not helped by another disaster – the collapse of the Western tower in the 16th century, demolishing the first two bays of the nave. In the Civil War, Malmesbury is said to have changed hands between the Royalists and Roundheads seven times, and the church walls are riddled with pock-marks from the bullets and shot. By the 18th century, it was being used for storing hay, and housing pigs and donkeys.
The church was saved by thorough restoration in the 20th century, and it is once again a busy and well-loved parish church, albeit just one third of the size of the original building. The church is now best approached from the car park by the river at the foot of the hill to the north of the town. The silhouette of the Abbey – complete with ruined arches – dominates the hillside. Once at the top, it continues to dominate the little town, which otherwise has a slightly sad air of neglect about it.
The structure is, as you might expect, hard to decipher from the outside, thanks to the variety of ruined walls and empty arches. Approached from the south side, you first come to the original Norman south porch, built around 1130. Unremarkable from a distance, close up you can begin to see the delicate carvings that make this one of the masterpieces of European Romanesque: the main entrance has eight arches of carving, depicting biblical scenes, enclosed in roundels formed by twisted branches.
And there is more inside the porch: two huge panels depict the apostles at Pentecost. There are six on each side, seated with flowing robes in stylised poses, angels overhead, sitting above blind arcading with dog-tooth decoration. Finally, the inner doorway has a tympanum with Christ seated and supported by two flying angels, with three arches of curving motifs around the door.
After all this drama, the nave can still hold its own: the nave has robust Norman arcades and a triforium, both with dogtooth decorative carving, with a Decorated Gothic clerestory and a spectacular vaulted roof, replete with huge carved bosses. The south arcade has an abbot’s oratory set in the triforium, and the other feature of interest is in the north aisle, the tomb of King Athelstan, (895-937) who united England, Wales and Scotland for the first time between 927 and 937. The tomb is late Gothic Perpendicular in style, though badly damaged.
The south aisle contains the chapel of its founder, St Aldhelm, as well as a bright Burne-Jones window depicting Faith, Courage and Devotion. Another window depicts England’s first aviator, an intrepid monk named Eilmer, who flew in a primitive sort of hang glider from one of the abbey towers in 1010. he glided an impressive 200m before landing, breaking both legs (but he lived to tell the tale).
Before you leave, be sure not to miss the small museum housed above the porch. Accessed by a steep and narrow spiral staircase, this contains illuminated manuscripts, prints and other items from the abbey’s historic past.
Abbey Row, Malmesbury, Wiltshire SN16 0AA