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The Duke of Clarence was drowned in a butt of Malmsey, a strong wine having absolutely no connection with this small market town in the south of the Cotswold area. You can order a glass of Malmesbury with the total assurance that no member of the Royal Family has been pickled in it. If your local hostelry claims not to have Malmesbury and offers you Malmsey instead, sneer knowingly. You don't know what you might find in it.
According to the 16th. century writer Leland "The toun of Malmesbyri stondith on the very toppe of a greate slaty rok, and ys wonderfully defended by nature". It most certainlie ys. The River Avon and a tributary almost completely surround the town and form a natural defense against anything smaller than 40 ton trucks en-route to Swindon. The beautiful, 15th. century octagonal market cross (above right) forms another obstacle, but the trucks are gradually wearing it away and you are advised to view early to avoid disappointment.
Because it was a natural strongpoint the Saxons occupied the hill at an early date and an Irish monk Maildulph formed a hermitage close to the castle in 642. King Ina of Wessex sent his son Aldhelm to be educated by Maildulph, and after continuing his education in Canterbury and Rome, Aldhelm founded a monastery according to to the Rule of St. Benedict at Malmesbury in 676. It is interesting to realise that only 250 years after the Roman legions left Britain the son of a Saxon king was being educated in Rome - I don't suppose the Dark Ages were so dark if you were alive at the time. According to the historian William of Malmesbury, Aldulph and his abbey at Malmesbury were known throughout Europe and Aldulph's reputation was comparable with the Venerable Bede at Lindisfarne (Bede mentions Aldhelm in his Ecclesiastical History and praises his writings and learning, but the short paragraph he devotes to Adhelm suggests that Bede was more interested in ecclesiastical miracles than scholars).
William of Malmesbury also tells of an 11th.C monk called Elmer who made himself wings and launched himself from the tower of the abbey, flying about 200 metres before crashing and seriously injuring himself. Elmer is remembered, along with Aldhelm, William and Maildulph, in some very attractive stained glass hidden away inside the Abbey in a room now used largely for storage.
The Abbey church as it remains has had a remarkable history. Much of what remains dates back to the 12th.C, and by the 14th.C the church was as large as a cathedral with two towers and a massive spire. Both towers collapsed, badly damaging the building. The abbey was sold by Henry VIII's commissioners in 1539 for the (then) massive sum of £1517 15s 2p to William Stumpe, a clothier, who used the building briefly for business purposes and then presented it to the people of Malmesbury as their church. The church that survives is only a two thirds of the nave of the orginal, surrounded by the ruins of the abbey, and even so reduced it is impressive in size.
The massive Norman south porch has a heavily carved arch depicting scenes from the Bible. Sadly and predictably, the limestone is weathering, but inside the porch the carvings are considered to be among the finest examples of their type in England. Inside the church is the tomb of the Saxon King Althelstan who died in 939 A.D.
The important English philosopher Thomas Hobbes was born in Malmesbury in 1588. He lived through one of the most turbulent times in British history, following the execution of King Charles I by Parliament, and Hobbes' political and philosophical views won him few friends.