Tales of Malmesbury Abbey

Illustration of Abbey as wasFounding and early churches cover the early Christian community in Malmesbury. We now tell of the building of the abbey and take our story through to today.

We believe that work started on the abbey in c1145. This is 4 years after Peter Maurant had been made abbot of the monastery and it is thought that his drive initiated the project. William of Malmesbury makes no mention of the new building and he died in 1143 although he wrote little in his final years.

There is a suggestion that Roger, Bishop of Sarum (Salisbury) and Chancellor of England was one of the instigators. He was certainly active in politics and the power struggle of those times. He tried to have Malmesbury as the centre of the see and he built a castle in Malmesbury, as well as others elsewhere. However by the time he died in 1139 his influence had waned and the abbey was still a dream. But perhaps he sowed the seeds.

Perhaps the power struggle continued because c1177 Pope Alexander III wrote instructing the Bishops of Worcester and London to have the church dedicated even if the Bishop of Sarum was making trouble.

By 1180 the building had advanced far enough to enable a large service, presumably the consecration, to be held.

The new abbey flourished. It became a centre for learning and a major centre for Christian learning, although the library was at its peak in William’s time. In later years the library was scattered and destroyed. John Aubrey records of the grandson of William Stumpe, who bought the abbey, that he “was a proper man and a good fellow; and when he brewed a barrel of his special ale his use was to stop the bunghole, under the clay, with a sheet of manuscript; he said nothing did it so well, which methought did grieve me much to see”

Abbey entranceThe twelfth century abbey when finished was much bigger than the relic surviving today; there were 9 bays in the nave to the west of a low tower and 3 to the east. The west end of the abbey was spectacular with twin towers. It is thought Salisbury cathedral’s west end was modelled on Malmesbury.

The great porch built to face the town is on the south side. It is among the finest examples of 12th century carving in Europe. Comparisons have been made with Chartres and it is credibly postulated that a specialised team of masons came from France to do the carving and then went on to do other churches round the country. Inside the porch are carvings of the apostles with an angel overhead and the figure of Christ in majesty with two supporting angels over the doorway. The outer carvings arranged in three circles are thought to be based on a poem, Psychomachia, by a 4th century Spanish poet, Prudentius relating the Battle of the Virtues and Vices.

In 1284 on St Martin’s day fresh water flowed into the abbey lavatorium; it was brought by a conduit from Long Newnton, nearly four miles away. The Abbot William of Colerne was responsible for the work which cost £100.

In the fourteenth century the cathedral at Salisbury was taking shape. To “keep up with the Jones’s” dramatic additions were made to the abbey. The presbytery was doubled to 6 bays and beyond it a lady chapel was built. A tower was erected at the west end, the porch encased in massive masonry, and the crowning glory was a spire which soared 30ft higher than Salisbury. Harold Brakspear, the architect for Malmesbury Abbey suggested that the weight of the spire, which was of wood sheathed in lead, pushed the four columns on which it stood 23cm (9in.) into the ground.

The fifteenth century saw the rebuilding of the cloisters. The walkways were paved in elaborate patterns with tiles featuring a Griffin, the symbol on the then coat of arms of the abbey.

Lightning Striking the AbbeyIn 1542 Leland, visiting the town, recorded that the spire had fallen “in hominum memoria” (in living memory). It is thought that a lightening strike turned water in the masonry on which the spire stood, in to steam so that the stone would have literally exploded. Down came the spire and the great golden ball on the pinnacle fell, so local legend has it, into the High Street, halfway down where the George Inn stood.

On 15th December 1539 Abbot Robert Frampton handed the abbey to Henry VIIIth’s commissioners as part of the general dissolution of the monasteries. He and the monks were all pensioned off – on quite good terms.

William Stumpe, who was one of the commissioners, bought the Abbey and donated the body of the church to the town to be a parish church. He retained much of the site and other buildings to use in his wool cloth business.

The Abbey suffered further damage during the civil war. Assaults on the town were from the west along Abbey Row, so the Abbey ‘fielded’ much stray shot; marks can still be seen on the western walls. During the war cannon were hoisted on to the top of the west tower to give a greater range and to command the western approaches.

The four columns that had supported the spire still stood, but in 1660 the southeast one fell; it is suggested as a result of cannon fired to celebrate the restoration of the monarchy.

In 1822 considerable restoration took place. A gothic window was put in the west wall to replace the small original one and a gallery was erected beneath it. The floor was raised 23cm (9in.) and new pews put in place. Ironically much of this work was removed a century later.

Cannon underneath AbbeyA cannon from the Crimea war stood beneath the ruined arches of the west end of the Abbey. When it went to fuel the drive for iron during World War II it required a Herculean effort from the biggest local shire horse to shift it.

By the end of Victoria’s reign the Abbey had deteriorated considerably, to the point of some parts being in danger of collapsing. By 1905 the work had been completed. The southwest turret on the west front had been rebuilt as had the western end of the wall of the south nave. Buttresses were repaired and missing pinnacles replaced, other works were carried out to the drainage systems.

In 1927, after the trauma of the First World War, the parishioners felt sufficiently enthused to tackle the interior. The Abbey closed for a year and in this time the gallery at the west end was removed, the organ was put into store, new choir stalls and pulpit were installed, the floor relaid and the east wall decorated with painted plaster. Not even Athelstan himself was safe; his tomb was moved to the north aisle where it is today.

Abbey interiorThe east wall has attracted much attention and many are the suggestions as to what could be done to enhance it. In the 1960’s a committee researched many alternatives. Ultimately a national competition was held to choose a sculpture. This was dogged with misfortune; the winner died; the runner up, whose piece although spectacular was more controversial, failed to meet with approval from some of the numerous bodies of worthies that considered the scheme. And the committee, disheartened, went into hibernation. Proposals still surface; the latest in 2007 for tall thin windows of modern stained glass fared no better than its predecessors.

Malmesbury Carnival raised money for flood lighting. With the help of Linolite, a local lighting firm, a makeshift system was installed. This lasted longer than expected and on its demise the Friends of Malmesbury Abbey in 2002/3 raised, with a local appeal, sufficient funds for a complete modern floodlighting system.

A History of Malmesbury Abbey and other titles are available from the Museum Shop.