Tigers & Flying Monks at Malmesbury Abbey
We're cheating just a tiny bit today, as this place of mystery wasn't technically in Mercia, rather it lay just a mile or two over the border in Wessex. Malmesbury is a market town lying between Cirencester and Chippenham and is known for the absolutely stunning semi-ruined abbey that dominates the town skyline.
The abbey was originally the centre of a Benedictine monastery first founded during the late 600s when the newly converted king of Wessex Centwine took the area, and as the Anglo Saxon era went on the three figures most associated with the abbey today made their marks. Aelfric, the most prolific writer in Old English and a Christian scholar of great sensitivity, wrote hundreds of essays, homilies and treatises here. Athelstan, the very first king to be crowned as ruler of a fully united England, after victory against the combined forces of Scotland and a massive Viking army from Ireland at the Battle of Brunanburh. He has a lavish medieval tomb inside the abbey but there is something not quite right about it. There is nobody in it! It is thought that his body was moved from it's original tomb to the grounds outside the building to protect it from desecration by the Normans but now we have no idea where he is. Then last but most definitely not least – Eilmer.
Eilmer, or Aethelmaer as he would have been called back then, was a young monk at Malmesbury abbey with a keen interest in both astronomy and astrology. He is recorded as cowering in fear when first seeing Halley's Comet in 1066, not out of fear of the comet itself but because he had prophesied the Norman invasion and the fall of England if it arrived. After reading of the ancient Greek characters of Daedalus and Icarus and their flight into the sky, Eilmer decided to build a set of wings and fly himself. “He had, by some means unknown to me, fastened wings to his arms and hands” wrote William of Malmesbury and after strapping himself into this primitive hang glider he took off from the highest tower of the abbey. He flew through the air “for more than a furlong” before panic set in and on hitting a sudden gust of wind he fell, breaking both legs and rendering himself permanently lame. He blamed his failure on not using a tail piece so once he was up and about Eilmer started work on a new and improved flying apparatus which he planned to use once the winds were right for him. It was at this point the abbot stepped in, banning the monk from any more flying experiments for his own safety.
Today a stained glass window in the abbey commemorates the remarkable flying monk, he is holding a miniature version of his marvellous contraption, but now we move outside the building and into the graveyard at it's front. Among the many resting places stands a lichen encrusted tombstone that bears a very odd inscription. This is the three centuries old grave of Hannah Twynnoy, victim of one of the most bizarre events since Eilmer flew from the tower. Hannah bears the unfortunate title of the first person to be killed by a tiger in Britain. Yes, killed by a tiger! In 1703 a “travelling menagerie” was touring the area and stopped for some time in Malmesbury near the White Lion (!) inn. Hannah Twynnoy worked there as a barmaid and apparently singled the tiger out “which she imprudently took pleasure in teasing” despite the “repeated remonstrance of it's keeper”. We have no idea what form this teasing took but you'd think it a bad idea under any circumstances, and unfortunately for Hannah the tiger escaped one night, somehow moving the bolt out of it's cage door, and lay in wait in the dark. When she left work that night and made her way home the enraged big cat pounced, mauling her to death. She was buried in the abbey grounds with a large headstone which altogether would have cost a fortune so it's probable that local bigwigs chipped in to pay for it. A poem is inscribed on the stone telling the unfortunate tale of her demise.
The abbey building itself is semi-ruined but all around are hundreds of holes caused by musket shot and cannon fire. During the English Civil War the town and abbey were fiercely fought over, changing sides an incredible seven times, and with the building itself becoming a last ditch stronghold it is claimed captured men were executed by firing squad against the abbey walls. If you'd like to look inside the abbey when things open up a little be aware it is only open on saturdays and wednesdays for quiet contemplation so please do respect the peace and quiet. You should be safe from tigers and monks falling out of the sky though!
Some of the amazing carvings on the Romanesque main door arch
The ruins of Malmesbury Abbey
Stained glass window in memory of Eilmer the flying monk
Holes in the walls from musket and cannon shot during the Civil War
"In bloom of Life
She's snatchd from hence,
She had not room
To make defence;
For Tyger fierce
Took Life away.
And here she lies
In a bed of Clay,
Until the Resurrection Day"
The marvelous architecture of Malmesbury abbey