Malmesbury

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Malmesbury is a market town and civil parish located in the southern Cotswolds in the county of Wiltshire, England. Historically Malmesbury was a centre for learning and home to Malmesbury Abbey. Once the site of an Iron Age fort, it is the oldest borough in England, created around 880 AD by charter from Alfred the Great. Malmesbury is a gateway town to the Cotswolds AONB. The whole of the town centre is a Conservation Area.

The hilltop contains several freshwater springs, which helped early settlements. Recent archaeological excavations have revealed stone town wall defences, which have shown history of a Neolithic fort and foundations of a wooden Iron Age fort between 800 and 500 BC, making Malmesbury arguably the oldest continually inhabited town in England. According to William of Malmesbury, writing in the 12th century, Malmesbury was a pre-Roman “ancient city of the Britons” known as Caer Bladon. Wrestled from control of the ancient Britons by the Saxons in around 600 AD, Malmesbury is recorded by Guinness World Records as the oldest borough in England, although Barnstaple has a counter claim: both were given royal borough status by Alfred the Great around 880 AD. In 925 AD, King Athelstan of Wessex the grandson of Alfred made Malmesbury his capital.

The Abbey was founded in 675 by Maildubh, Mailduf or Maelduib, an Irishman. After the death of Maidulph around 700, Aldhelm became the first abbot and built the first church organ in England, which was described as a “mighty instrument with innumerable tones, blown with bellows, and enclosed in a gilded case.” Having founded other churches in the area, including at Bradford on Avon, he died in 709 and was canonised. Part of the River Avon on the Sherston branch to the west of the town centre is called Daniels Well. Named after the monk Daniel who lived at the abbey in the 9th century, he is said to have submerged himself in the cold water every day for decades to quell fiery passions. The Abbey was the site of an early attempt at human flight, when noted by historian William of Malmesbury (1095–1143) in 1010, the monk Eilmer of Malmesbury flew a primitive hang glider from a tower. Eilmer flew over 200 yards (180 m) before landing, breaking both legs. At the time of the Norman invasion in 1066, Malmesbury was one of the most significant towns in England. It is listed first (i.e., most important) in the Wiltshire section of the Domesday Book. King Henry I’s chancellor, Roger of Salisbury, seized the monastery under his bishopric in 1118, and held it for 20 years. Renowned as a great builder, he rebuilt the wooden town walls wholly in stone rather than wood, constructing Malmesbury Castle at the same time. By the Dark Ages, the north of the town was heavily developed as a religious centre, resulting in the construction of the third Abbey on the site, the 12th century Malmesbury Abbey, which had a spire taller 23 feet (7.0 m) taller than the 404 feet (123 m) one of Salisbury Cathedral. In 1220 this resulted in the construction of the Abbey guest house, which is now The Old Bell Hotel which lays claim to be the oldest hotel in England. During the English Civil War Malmesbury is said to have changed hands as many as seven times, resulting on hundreds of pockmarks left by bullets and shot on the south, west and east walls. The spire collapsed in either the late 15th or early 16th century. This was closely followed by the English Reformation of King Henry VIII, who sold the remainder of lands he did not want to a local clothier William Stumpe. The extant part of the Abbey is now the parish church, with the remains containing a parvise which still holds some fine examples of books from the former Abbey library.

Malmesbury natives are known as Jackdaws, originating from the colony of Jackdaws that inhabit the Abbey walls and roof.

The community was the ancient frontier of two kingdoms, with Tetbury 5 miles (8.0 km) to the North in Mercia and Malmesbury was in the West Saxon Kingdom, resulting in centuries of real animosity between the two towns. The location and defensive position of Malmesbury on the latterly important Oxford to Bristol route made it a strategic military point. During the 12th century civil war between Stephen of England and his cousin the Empress Matilda, the succession agreement between Stephen and Henry of Anjou (later Henry II) was reached after their armies faced each other across the impassable River Avon at Malmesbury in the winter of 1153, with Stephen losing by refusing battle. During the English Civil War, the town changed hands seven times, with the south face of Malmesbury Abbey still today bearing pock-marks from cannon and gunshot. In 1646 Parliament ordered that the town walls be destroyed. As peace came to inland England, and the need to defend the developing sea located port towns became more important, without its Abbey, Malmesbury lost its importance. As developing transport and trade routes passed it by, it regressed to a regional market town.

At the Battle of Brunanburh in 937, King Athelstan of Wessex defeated an army of northern English and Scots and made a claim to become the first ‘King of All England’. Helped by many men from Malmesbury, in gratitude he gave the townsfolk their freedom, along with 600 hides of land to the south of the town. The status of freemen of Malmesbury was passed down through the generations and remains to this day. It is likely, however, that the title of freeman, or commoner, was given to tradesmen and craftsmen coming into the town during the early Middle Ages, so the claim of direct lineage from the men who fought with King Athelstan to the present day commoners is unlikely, though possible. Since at least the 17th century, however, the right has been only handed down from father to son or son-in-law. There is a maximum of 280 commoners. The organisation is said to be the ‘most exclusive club’ in the world, as to enter it one has to be born to a freeman or marry the daughter of one.

Since 2000, and with the possibility of falling numbers, women were admitted for the first time – the daughters of freemen. The organisation, The Warden and Freemen of Malmesbury, still owns the land to the south of the town, along with dozens of properties, pubs and shops within the town itself, providing affordable housing to townsfolk.

Malmesbury Town Council, formed as successor to the Municipal borough, is made up of sixteen councillors, who elect annually a town mayor and deputy town mayor from their number.

For elections to Wiltshire Council, Malmesbury forms one electoral division, returning a single unitary councillor. Nationally at UK Government level in the House of Commons, Malmesbury is part of the North Wiltshire constituency, represented by James Gray (Conservative Party).

Malmesbury is twinned with Niebüll in Germany, and Gien in France.

Malmesbury sits on a flat Cotswolds hilltop at the convergence of two rivers. From the west, the infant Bristol Avon flows from Sherston, and from the north west, a tributary either known as the Tetbury Avon or, locally, as The Ingleburn. They flow within 100 yards (91 m) of each other but are separated by a narrow and high isthmus, just a few yards across, which forces the Bristol Avon south and the Tetbury Avon east. This creates a rocky outcrop as a south-facing, gently sloping hilltop, until the two rivers meet on the southern edge of the town. With steep, and in places cliff-like sides, the town was described by Sir William Waller, as the best naturally-defended inland location he had seen.

Traditionally a market town serving the rural area of north west Wiltshire, farming has been the main industry. Even today, the High Street has numerous independent shops and a regular weekly market. Malmesbury had a nine-day wonder media event in January 1998, when two Tamworth pigs known as the Tamworth Two escaped from the town’s abattoir. They swam the Tetbury branch of the River Avon, across a few fields and lived in an orchard for a week. The story made international headlines with tabloid newspapers and TV news stations fighting each other to sight and then capture the pigs. They now live a comfortable life at the South of England Rare Breeds Centre, near Ashford, Kent where they can be visited. The Reformation of 1539 brought about a change in the economy of Malmesbury, having no income from the Abbey the town turned to the woollen industry, having access to large quantities of wool and water. It then became a centre of the lace-making industry. But, what had made it successful and important as a religious and strategic defensive centre – water on three sides and steep cliffs – precluded easy access for the modern bulk transport methods of canals and railways. Hence both the Kennet and Avon Canal and the later Great Western Railway passed well to the south of the town, leading it to be greatly untouched by the industrial revolution.

The towns main employer today is Dyson, which has its headquarters on the edge of the town, and employs around 1,600 people. The HQ is now mainly a design organisation, with manufacturing carried out in Malaysia. The town’s economy is now also a centre for tourism, driven in part by its history and recently by the interest in former poet laureate, John Betjeman.

At the beginning of the World War II, the electronics company EKCO moved part of its operations from Southend-on-Sea to Cowbridge House, to avoid the danger of bombing. The company established a shadow factory, to produce the essential new technology radar equipment. The factory continued production after the war, renamed TMC and part of Philips it eventually became part of AT&T. The site was in use as offices until 2004 when the owners, Lucent Technologies, moved their operations to Swindon.

Malmesbury has a thriving carnival, which takes place in the last two weeks of August, with the finale procession through the town held on the first Saturday in September. It has grown in recent years to now include more than 30 events, ranging from music events to an attempt on the world record for the largest pillow fight.

The world music festival Womad Charlton Park has been held in Charlton Park near Malmesbury since 2007.

What made Malmesbury successful as a town – water and excellent defences – led to both its current layout and the reason that it still retains over 400 listed buildings within its boundaries. Although Roger of Salisbury reconstructed the town after his accession to Bishop of Salisbury in 1102, the Saxon layout he rebuilt is still retained in the centre today. However, the geography also precluded easy development for mass transport and hence hindered industrial development, leaving the architecture and ancient buildings largely untouched. The result is a higher proportion of Grade I and Grade II buildings than in many other English towns.

In the centre of the town stands the Market Cross, built in c1490, possibly using stone salvaged from the recently-ruined part of the abbey. It was described by John Leland writing in the 1540s as a ‘right costly piece of work’, which was built to shelter the ‘poore market folke’ when ‘rain cometh’. An elaborately carved octagonal structure, it is recognised as one of the best preserved of its kind in England. It still serves its purpose today, nicknamed ‘The Birdcage’, because of its appearance, it shelters market traders by day and as a meeting point at night.

A large building of medieval origins, now a private home, Tower House stands at the end of Oxford Street. It contains a high-roofed main hall where it is said Henry VIII dined after hunting in nearby Bradon Forest. In the 1840s, a doctor living in the house, with a passion for astronomy, built a narrow tower protruding high from the roof. It dominates the skyline of the east of the town.

Near the town lies Bremilham Church, located on Cowage Farm, Foxley-cum-Bremilham, which measures just 4 m by 3.6 m. Its single pew has space for four people and there is standing room for six more. The church, which is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest church in use in Britain, holds one service to mark Rogationtide. The church can be found by heading west from Malmesbury along Foxley Road.

Malmesbury railway station opened on 17 December 1877. The Malmesbury branch was built largely by the Malmesbury Railway Company, and was completed by the Great Western Railway who absorbed the Malmesbury Railway Company in May 1877 when the latter could not raise sufficient funds to complete the line. The branch split from the main London-Bristol line at Dauntsey, although a later connection with the northern GWR ‘mainline’ to the Severn Tunnel and South Wales was made at Little Somerford. Just short of its terminus, the line ran through a short tunnel: the only tunnel on the line between Malmesbury and Paddington. The station closed to passengers in 1951 (the last day was 8 September), and freight in 1962. The tracks were used for a period to test new diesel locomotives built by Swindon railway works, but lifted in the 1970s, and the site of the station is now an industrial estate.

Malmesbury is twinned with Gien, France; and Niebüll, Germany.

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