MALMESBURY, a borough and market-town, having separate jurisdiction, and the head of a union, locally in the hundred of Malmesbury, Malmesbury and Kingswood, and N. divisions of Wilts, 42 miles (N.) from Salisbury, and 94 (W.) from London; containing, with the chapelries of Corstone and Rodborne, and the tythings of Burton-Hill, Cole with West Park, and Milbourn, 2367 inhabitants. This place is stated by Leland to have been a British town, called Caer Bladon; but its origin may; with more probability, be ascribed to the period of the Saxon heptarchy. A castle, named Ingelburne, existed before the middle of the seventh century; about 642, Maildulph, an Irish monk, founded a hermitage, and being joined by Aldhelm, nephew of Ina, King of Wessex, they, with the assistance of Lutherius, Bishop of Winchester, erected a monastery, styled, from the name of its founders, Mealdelmesbyrig, which term was gradually altered to the modern appellation of Malmesbury. The monastery belonged to the Benedictines: it was one of the most considerable in Wiltshire, and was splendidly endowed by several princes and noblemen; its abbot was made a mitred parliamentary baron by Edward III., and the revenue, at the Dissolution, amounted to £803. 17. 7. Buildings gradually arose round the abbey; and notwithstanding that the town suffered from the incursions of the Danes, who burned it in the reign of Alfred the Great, it became a place of so much importance as to obtain a charter from Edward the Elder, which was confirmed by Athelstan, who was a munificent benefactor both to the town and the monastery: he bestowed an extensive tract of land, called the Common of King's Heath, on the men of Malmesbury, who had assisted him in gaining a victory over the Danes. In the reign of Henry I., or Stephen, a strong castle was built here by Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, who was obliged to surrender it to the king; and on the invasion of England by Prince Henry, afterwards Henry II., he laid siege to this fortress, and took it after an obstinate defence. During the civil war in the reign of Charles I., Malmesbury was a royal garrison, and that prince lodged in the town one night, in 1643. Shortly after, the place was captured by Sir William Waller; but it was retaken by the royalists, who did not, however, long retain possession, for the parliament having recovered it, their troops were stationed here till June, 1646.
The town is situated on a pleasant and commanding eminence, and is nearly surrounded by two streams, which unite at its southern extremity, and form the Lower Avon. The principal thoroughfare extends southward from the market-place, near which it is crossed by another street, leading to that part of the town called Westport. These streets are paved and lighted, under the authority of an act of parliament obtained in 1798, and the inhabitants are abundantly supplied with water from wells. In the centre of the marketplace is a fine market-cross, built in the reign of Henry VII., and ornamented with flying buttresses, pinnacles, and an octangular central turret. The manufacture of woollen-cloth was anciently carried on very extensively; and after it had entirely decayed, it was again introduced, in the latter part of the last century: it now constitutes the chief employment of the lower class. Some trade is carried on in tanning and brewing, and bone-lace is made by the women and children. The market, principally for butcher's meat, is on Saturday; and large cattle-markets are held on the last Tuesday in every month, except March, April, and May: fairs for horses, cattle, and sheep, take place on March 28th, April 28th, and June 5th.
The first charter of incorporation was granted by Charles I.; the charter now in force was obtained from William III., in 1696, and under it the corporation consists of an alderman, deputy-alderman, eleven capital burgesses, and 24 assistants, with a high steward, and deputy-steward. Besides these, are 52 landholders, and an indefinite number of commoners, or free burgesses. The alderman and steward, with their deputies, are justices of the peace; and the alderman is coroner, and clerk of the market. The borough has possessed the elective franchise ever since the reign of Edward I.: by the act of the 2nd of William IV., cap. 45, it was determined that it should thenceforward return only one member instead of two, as previously; and the right of election was extended to the £10 householders of an enlarged district, comprising 22,606 acres: the alderman is returning officer. The petty-sessions for the hundred of Malmesbury are held here once a month. The powers of the county debt-court of Malmesbury, established in 1847, extend over the registration-district of Malmesbury, and part of that of Tetbury. King's Heath, or Malmesbury Common, which has been inclosed, is subdivided into allotments averaging about one acre and a half each, assigned to the commoners as tillage or garden ground. To the east of King's Heath are the "Acres," one acre belonging to each of the assistant burgesses and landholders; and near them are other lands called "Burgess Parts," varying in extent from six to fifteen acres each, and belonging to the capital burgesses.
The old borough, which contains 130 acres, comprises part of the parishes of St. Paul and St. Mary Westport. The entire parishes consist of 5056a. 3r. 25p.; the lands are in meadow and pasture, with a portion of rich arable land, and 74 acres of common or waste. The living of St. Paul's is a discharged vicarage, valued in the king's books at £8. 2. 1½., and in the patronage of the Crown; net income, £265; impropriators, the family of Gaby. The original church is dilapidated; but the tower, surmounted by a lofty spire, is still standing, and contains the bells rung on public festivals, &c. The nave of the conventual church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was purchased at the dissolution of monasteries, by William Stumpe, a clothier of Malmesbury, and presented to the townspeople for a parochial church. This edifice is chiefly in the Norman style, and has a noble south porch, consisting of receding arches, with sculptured mouldings and other ornaments; the western porch was of a similar character, but only a small portion of it remains. In the interior, at the west end, is a sepulchral chapel, in which is a tomb with a recumbent crowned figure said to represent King Athelstan, who was interred near the high altar of the church. A few years since, the whole fabric was substantially repaired, and the vaulted roof and other parts of the interior restored: over the altar has been placed a painting of the Resurrection of Lazarus, presented by the Earl of Suffolk. There are chapels of ease at Corstone and Rodborne. The living of the parish of Westport is a vicarage, with the perpetual curacies of Brokenborough and Charlton united, valued in the king's books at £16. 17. 8½., and in the patronage of the Crown; net income, £310; impropriator, the Earl of Suffolk. There are places of worship for Baptists, Independents, Moravians, and Wesleyans. A free school, under the patronage of the corporation, is endowed with £20 per annum; and the town has another school, endowed with £30 per annum by Mrs. Elizabeth Hodges, in 1725: both are conducted on the national system. Here is also an almshouse, endowed with £20 a year. The union comprises 25 parishes or places, 24 of which are in the county of Wilts, and one in that of Gloucester, the whole containing a population of 14,716. Besides the monastery, Malmesbury contained a convent of the Knights Hospitallers, some small portions of which are still standing. Among the distinguished persons connected with the monastery were, St. Aldhelm, the second abbot, who died Bishop of Sherborne in 709; Ælfric, a learned abbot in the tenth century, who was made Bishop of Crediton; and William of Malmesbury, precentor to the monastery, the celebrated English historian in the reign of Stephen. Thomas Hobbes, author of the Leviathan and other philosophical works, was born here in 1588; Mrs. Mary Chandler, an ingenious poetess, was also a native of the town. It confers the title of Earl and Baron on the family of Harris.