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A small decayed market town in Wiltshire, England, ninety-five miles west of London, formerly the seat of a mitred parliamentary abbey of Benedictine monks. It owed its origin to Maildubh or Maildulf, an Irish monk and teacher who settled in the place about the middle of the seventh century, Bladon as the British, Inglebourn as the English called it, was then a border settlement between the Welsh and English, and on the confines of the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia. It was strongly placed on a high bluff almost surrounded by two small rivers, and an ancient stronghold or castle still further defended it. The school which Maildubh opened attracted many pupils, and chief amongst them Ældhelm or Aldhelm (q. v.), son of Kenten, and a near relation of King Ina of Wessex. Aldhelm was sent twice to Canterbury to study under St. Adrian the African, then abbot of the monastery of SS. Peter and Paul (afterwards St. Augustine's). Returning to Malmesbury between 671 and 675, he was placed in charge of the school, and appointed abbot of a monastery founded there by Lothair (Leutherius), Bishop of Dorchester. Under his rule the monastery greatly prospered. On the division of the Wessex Diocese, Aldhelm was made first Bishop of Sherborne, in Dorset, while Daniel, monk of Malmesbury, became Bishop of Winchester. The former retained the management of Malmesbury and the monasteries of Frome and Bradford-on-Avon, which he had founded. The house suffered under Edwy, who in 958 expelled the monks; sixteen years later they were restored by King Edgar (974). Edward the Confessor sanctioned a proposal of Bishop Herman of Wilton to transfer his see to Malmesbury; the monks and Earl Godwin opposed this, and Old Sarum was chosen instead. Like King Athelstan and other Saxon monarchs, so did William the Conqueror, John, Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V befriend the house in later times.
Under John the place was attacked by Robert, a marauding soldier who had gained possession of Devizes Castle; he slew all the monks who failed to escape (1140). John bestowed on the abbey the site of Malmesbury Castle, which he pulled down to enlarge their enclosure, which covered forty-five acres. The town of Malmesbury was walled and had four gates, all now vanished. A preceptory of Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, three churches, and one or two nunneries, a mint, an important merchant's guild, and a large population marked the prosperity of the place. The abbey church was a vast and noble building with a western tower, and a central tower and spire seven yards higher than that of Salisbury Cathedral. Besides the above-named, the abbey was connected with other celebrated men: Pecthelm, first Bishop of Whithorn (Galloway); Ethelhard, Bishop of Winchester and Archbishop of Canterbury; Ælfric, Bishop of Crediton; John Scotus Erigena; Faricius of Arezzo, physician and monk, later Abbot of Abingdon; Oliver or Elmer, mechanician, astronomer, and aeronaut; an anonymous Greek monk who planted vineyards here; Godfrey, and one or two anonymous writers; and most famous of all, William Somerset, known as William of Malmesbury (died about 1143), who ranks after Bede as the greatest of the English medieval historians. Of the abbots who ruled the house and its dependency, Pilton Priory, Devonshire, in the last four hundred years of its existence, few attained any special celebrity. On the whole they seem to have been good administrators and great builders. One or two came under censure from the English Benedictine general chapters for their negligence in sending the due proportion of their junior monks to the universities. The monastery, which had an annual revenue of £803, was surrendered in 1539 by its last abbot, Robert Selwyn, or Frampton, and twenty-one of the monks, who received pensions. Of the whole abbey only five bays of the nave are standing; the cloisters, etc., which were to the north of the church, have entirely disappeared.
DUGDALE, Monasticon Anglicanum (London, 1846); STEVENS, History of the Ancient Abbeys (London, 1722); REYNER, Apostolatus Benedictinorum in Anglia (Douai, 1626); MOFFAT, History of the town of Malmesbury (Tetbury, 1805); LEE in Dict. Nat. Biog. (London, 1900); BROWNE, St. Aldhelm; His life and Times (London, 1903); WILDMAN, Life of St. Ældhelm (Sherborne, 1905).