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Malmesbury, Wiltshire

Historical Description

Malmesbury, a town, a municipal borough, and a parish. in Wiltshire. The town stands on a fine eminence, peninsulated by two headstreams of the river Avon, 2 miles ESE of Akeman Street and of the boundary with Gloucestershire, with a station on the G.W.R., 95 from London, and 10 N by E of Chippenham. It has a post, money order, and telegraph office. Acreage of parish, 5333; population of the municipal borough, 2964; of the civil parish of Malmesbury Abbey, 119; of St Paul, 2144; of the ecclesiastical parish, 1811. It was anciently called Meadelmesbyrig or Maildulfsbury, and it is supposed to have got that name from a Scottish hermit called Maildulf, who had a cell on its site before 675. Roman coins and triangular bricks have been found in its vicinity, and a road near it has been known from time immemorial as King Athelstan's Way. The charters of Athelstan and Eadwid make mention of it, and the Danes are recorded to have burnt it in 878. A castle was built at it in the time of Henry I. by Bishop Roger; walls were built around it about the same period or later; and the town, in virtue of these fortifications, of the steep descent from them to the streams, and of the-relative course of the streams' channels, possessed great military strength, and seems to have been regarded as almost inaccessible. The forces of King Stephen and those of the-Empress Maud took post in battle array against each other on the opposite banks of the united stream about a mile S, to dispute possession of the town; but those of Stephen eventually withdrew without striking a blow. Prince Henry, afterwards Henry II., stormed the castle in 1152. * Henry VIII. was entertained by Stumpe, a rich clothier, in a building which had been a hospice of St John of Jerusalem, and which is now the corporation almshouse; and Charles I. was feasted by the corporation in the same building. The Royalists held the town at the commencement of the Civil Wars of Charles I.; they were driven from it in March, 1643, by Sir W. Waller; they recovered possession of it, and held it till 1645; and they were finally expelled by Col. Massie. An ancient abbey long gave much more importance to the town than accrued to it from the castle. The abbey was founded in 675 by Eleutherius, Bishop of Winchester; had for its first abbot Aldhelm, the learned Saxon and Latin author, afterwards Bishop of Sherborne; was enlarged by King Athelstan, and made his burial-place; was rebuilt in 974 by King Edgar; had at Domesday the privilege of coining; was mainly restored or rebuilt in 1107-42 by Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, who had a palace in the town; was raised to the status of a mitred abbey by Edward III.; occupied a site of 45 acres; had an income, at the dissolution, estimated at £804; was given then to Stumpe, the rich clothier, who erected his looms within its walls; and passed with the manor to the Whartons and the Rusharts. The White Lion Inn, destroyed some years ago, was a hospitium of the abbey, and retained to the end some pieces of ancient stone and woodwork. Two nunnery or friary chapels were at Burnivale and Burton, and the former still stands, and is Norman. Remains of another ancient ecclesiastical edifice, dedicated to St Helen, are at a house in Milk Street. Aldhelm, the first Abbot of Malmesbury; William of Malmesbury the historian; Oliver of Malmesbury, who made the first attempt to be an aeronaut; Thomas Hobbcs the philosopher; Mrs Chandler the poetess; and Samuel Chandler the theologian, were natives. The family of Harris takes from the town the titles of Baron and Earl.

The town consists chiefly of three streets, two of them, High Street and Silver Street, running parallel to each other from N to S; the third, Oxford Street, crossing these at their northern extremities. Many of the houses are old. Several bridges cross the streams. Considerable remains of the ancient walls exist on the E, and the latest standing one of the gates, that on the N, was taken down in 1778. The corporation almshouse, the building in which Henry VIII. and Charles I. were entertained, stands in the SE, and includes a walled-up Pointed arch. A fine market-cross stands in the market-place; was built in the time of Henry VII.; underwent repair in 1800 at the expense of the Earl of Suffolk; and is an octagonal structure, with central column and eight open arches, surmounted by a pinnacle bearing sculptures. The town-hall occupies the site of an hospital of St John of Jerusalem, originally a preceptory of the Knights Templars, and retains some portions of the ancient building. The parish church is part of the church of the ancient abbey. The original edifice comprised a nave 140 feet long, 68 wide, and 66 high; a transept 70 feet long; a choir 87 feet long; a Lady chapel 60 feet long and 23 wide; a central tower and a W tower; and a cloister 105 feet each way. The W tower and the cloister were destroyed in the civil wars; the central tower was shaken, and a lofty spire which surmounted it fell down at the close of the 15th century; and other portions went into decay and ruin at other periods; but the great S porch, part of the nave and its aisles, a wall of the S transept, and two arches of the central tower still stand, and they show characters of transition from Norman to Early English. The N tower arch is now excluded from the building, and has been injuriously altered to suit the adjacent masonry; and the two arches of the central tower now stand detached. The S porch is very fine Norman work, of eight concentric arches, with knots, foliage, and medallion bas-reliefs in the mouldings; the W front also is very fine Norman work, but mutilated; and the space to the S of the altar contains a tomb with crowned effigies, said to be that of Athelstan, but manifestly of much later date than his age. The living is a vicarage, with½the vicarage of St Mary Westport annexed, in the diocese of Gloucester and Bristol; gross value, e£500 with residence. The abbey was Benedictine, and the church was dedicated to St Mary. St Paul's Church stands on the S side, is dilapidated, and has a tower and lofty spire. There are Baptist, Moravian, Calvinistic Methodist, Roman Catholic, and Wesleyan chapels, three endowed schools, and almshouses.

The town has two banks and two chief inns, and is a seat of petty sessions. A weekly market is held on Saturday, and a cattle market is held on the third Wednesday in every month. A clothing trade was formerly extensive, but has become extinct; brewing and tanning are carried on. The town was chartered by Athelstan; sent two members to Parliament occasionally from the time of Edward I., and always from that of Mary till the Act of 1832; after 1832 it returned one member until its representation was merged in that of the county in 1885. The town is governed by a mayor, 4 aldermen, and 12 councillors. Cole Park is a seat of Viscount Trafalgar. Burton Hill, Milboura, Whit-church, Hyam, Crab Mill, Cowbridge, and Thorn Hill are all hamlets included in Malmesbury.

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5


The following is a list of the administrative units in which this place was either wholly or partly included.

Ancient CountyWiltshire 
Poor Law unionMalmesbury 

Any dates in this table should be used as a guide only.


The Cemetery at Westport, of 2&frac;12; acres, was formed in 1884 at a cost of £2,000, including a mortuary chapel, and a house for the keeper: it is under the control of the Town Council and the Parish Council of St. Paul Malmesbury Without.

Church Records

The Abbey church register, which is in good preservation, dates from 1590.

Findmypast, in association with the Wiltshire Record Office, have the following parish records online for Malmesbury:

1562-1860 1656-18601838-1860


Church of England

Abbey church of St. Peter and St. Paul (parish church)

The abbey church, dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul, occupies a fine site on the crest of a hill or elevated plateau north of the town, and, as now standing, consists only of six bays of the nave and north aisle, south aisle and south porch: the room over the south porch was restored in 1914, and contains a richly illuminated Latin MS. Bible. The central and western towers have been destroyed, but in the churchyard is a detached tower, with spire, originally belonging to the removed church of St. Paul, and containing a clock and 5 bells: of the eastern portion of the church, including the transept, nothing now remains, save three of the piers of the central tower, and a fragment of the west wall of the south transept: the three western bays of the nave had also entirely disappeared, with the exception of a part of the south-west angle, including three stages of an arcaded stair turret, but a recent restoration has completed the south aisle and the south triforium of the nave: the existing portion of the nave has arcades of pointed arches, with bold but plain mouldings, carried on cylindrical piers, 5 feet in diameter, with scalloped capping: the triforium consists in each bay of one large semi-circular arch, on dwarf shafts, and enriched with zigzag moulding, and enclosing an arcade of four small arches: the clerestory is Decorated, and has an elegant traceried window of three lights in each bay: the roof is vaulted, the principal ribs springing from the base of the clerestory, which, as well as the triforium, has a mural passage: projecting from the triforium, at the fourth bay from the present east end, is a square watching loft, of Late Perpendicular date, with plain square windows and a battlemented cresting: the east end of the nave, now built up, includes the western piers and semi-circular arch of the crossing, and across it stands the stone rood screen, also of Late Perpendicular date, and 11 ft. 6 in. in height: it has a central doorway, now blocked, and an embattled cornice, enriched with the royal arms of Henry VII. the pomegranate, rose, and portcullis badges, and the Stafford knot; and above is hung a large painting of "The Raising of Lazarus," presented by a former Earl of Suffolk and Berkshire: the eastern-most bay of the nave now forms a presbytery, with prayer desk on the north and pulpit on the south side, under a sounding board: the corresponding bays of the aisles, enclosed by traceried screens, form chapels or vestries, and that on the south side has, between it and the presbytery, a panelled altar tomb , bearing a robed effigy, crowned, the head resting under an elaborately wrought canopy, and the feet on a lion; this tomb is commonly known as that of King Athelstan, but it is said that the head of the figure, and that of the lion, are later than the rest, and the altar tomb is also of a later period: in the northern chapel is a mural monument to Thomas Stumpe, d. 1098, and some specimens of ancient floor tiles, recovered from the site of the choir: the present western bay of the church is crossed by a gallery, in which the organ now stands, and under it is the font: the oak seats are panelled, and exhibit the well known "linen" pattern; the ends are richly carved with scroll ornaments: the south porch includes the original Norman porch and the later Decorated work enclosing it; the former is deeply recessed, and its various orders are completely covered with carved work of the most elaborate character; three of these illustrate, within a series of vesica-shaped spaces formed by intertwining fillets, all the principal events narrated in the Old and New Testaments, from the "Creation", to the "Pentecost;" and the minor orders are adorned with floriated and interlaced patterns; the inner doorway itself is similarly treated, and has a highly enriched tympanum, with a figure of Our Lord in Majesty, and attendant angels, and on the right is a holy water stoup; the intervening porch, 17 by 12 feet, is arcaded, and has on the sides the figures of the twelve apostles with an archangel above each group; the exterior walls of the aisles retain portions of the interlaced Norman arcading which ran along between the buttresses, and below the windows: most of the Norman windows remain, but one bay in the north aisle and two in the south aisle have been filled with large Decorated windows, containing tracery of singular design; and the bay on the north side is also gabled and vaulted: an elegant pierced parapet surmounts all the walls and is continued round the porch, which has a stair turret on the east side and double buttresses at the angles: the pinnacles and fiying buttresses rising above the aisles were added on the reconstruction of the clerestory and the vaulting of the nave: the present west wall of the nave, built up at the third hay from the original west front, is pierced by a large window of six lights, flanked by strong buttresses: the church was repaired in 1822-3 and in 1903, and subsequently the south aisle and main south wall were carried up to the ruined west front and structural repairs effected to the roofs and buttresses on the north side and at the east end: there are 1,100 sittings.


Baptist Chapel, Abbey Row

The Baptist chapel, Abbey row, erected in 1802, will seat 350.


Congregational Chapel, Silver Street

The Congregational chapel, in Silver street, founded in 1796, and restored in 1885, at a cost of over £300, has 300 sittings.


Primitive Methodist Chapel, the Triangle

The Primitive Methodist chapel, in the Triangle, was erected in 1899, and seats 200 persons.

Wesleyan Chapel, Oxford Street

The Wesleyan Methodist chapel in Oxford street, erected in 1886, seats 400 persons, and has a schoolroom adjoining.

Roman Catholic

St. Aldhelm, Cross Hayes

The Catholic church, dedicated to St. Aldhelm, in Cross Hayes, was built in 1875, and has 120 sittings.

Directories & Gazetteers

We have transcribed the entry for Malmesbury from the following:


Online maps of Malmesbury are available from a number of sites:

Newspapers and Periodicals

The British Newspaper Archive have fully searchable digitised copies of the following Wiltshire papers online:

RegionSouth West
Postal districtSN16
Post TownMalmesbury