A Brief History of Malmesbury

Malmesbury is located in a strategic position with the river on three sides. It is therefore no surprise to learn that, according to recent evidence, the site may have been originally settled around the start of the first millennium BC. However it is the arrival of an Irish monk named Maildub (also known as Maidulph) in 642 that saw the beginning of the development of the town as we know it. He established a hermitage around which a settlement grew up. A young monk named Aldhelm came to study under him who soon gained a reputation as a preacher and a scholar. After travelling widely around Europe Aldhelm returned and founded a monastery in 676. This quickly became a centre of pilgrimage. The present Abbey was built in the 12th Century and consecrated in about 1180.

The Market Cross
The Market Cross (1490)

 

Lower High Street
The Lower End of High Street

Malmesbury lays claim to being the oldest borough in England. King Alfred is reported to have granted a charter in 880, though there is no direct evidence of this. His grandson, Athelstan, came to the throne in 925 and made the town his capital. He used it as his base for reclaiming Saxon control, and he can be considered the first King of all England. He died in 939 and was buried in Malmesbury. His tomb is in the Abbey, though it does not contain his remains.

William of Malmesbury who lived from around 1095 to 1143 was librarian at the Abbey and much can be learnt about life at the time from his writings, his most well-known work being Gesta Regum Anglorum (History of the Kings of England). Another son of Malmesbury whose work has had wide recognition is the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588 to 1679).

With the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century the Abbey was no longer the centre of town life. Instead the wool trade brought prosperity to the area. The town figured prominently in the Civil War between 1642 and 1646, its strategic situation on the road between Oxford and Bristol making it a prized possession. It changed sides no less than six times during the course of the conflict.

In the late 18th Century, the introduction of mechanical methods of production enabled the textile trade to expand for a time. This was followed by a period when the town became a centre of the lace-making industry. However, with its established stone buildings and compact centre inhibiting the construction of new factories, the Industrial Revolution generally passed Malmesbury by. The railway arrived in 1877, a branch line being built from the Great Western main line at Little Somerford, though this was closed in the 1960s.

During the 20th century the town became a prosperous commercial centre. A number of companies have found the town a congenial place to establish a business, one of the most successful, being Dyson. They are now the town's largest employer at their Tetbury Hill site, which is their base for research and development of their bagless vacuum cleaner and revolutionary designed washing machine.

At the same time, the town is conscious of its historic past, there being around 400 listed properties. It became a conservation area in 1971, and there continues to be a healthy debate about how to reconcile these responsibilities with a desire not to be locked in the past.

For more information about the history of Malmesbury, see details of some of the many books that have been written about the town. Particularly recommended is John Bowen's book "The Story of Malmesbury".

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