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Malmesbury in 1843

Malmesbury is in the hundred of Malmesbury, 100 miles from the General Post-Office, London, by the Great Western Railway to Shrivenham station, and thence by coach through Highworth. According to an anonymous history of Malmesbury priory, compiled in the middle of the fourteenth century, and quoted by Leland in his ' Collectania ' there was a town here with a castle, reputed to have been built by Dunwallo Malmutius, one of the British kings said to have reigned before the Roman invasion. The town was altogether destroyed by foreign invaders, but the castle remained, and near its walls a Scottish monk, called Maildulph, or Maildelph, who had been so worried in his own country by plunderers and robbers as to be induced to flee into England, established himself as a hermit, and afterwards became the founder of a monastic community which rose to the rank of a Benedictine abbey. The chronicler gives to the castle the British name of Bladon and the Saxon name of Ingelburn. He affirms that the neighbouring village of Brokenborough had been anciently called Cairdurburgh, and had been the residence of kings both pagan and Christian, but without distinguishing whether British or Saxon. This partly fabulous narrative may perhaps indicate that there were at Malmesbury at a very ancient period a castle and a town. Maildelph founded his monastery in the seventh century, and from the modern name Malmesbury, a corruption of Maildelphsbury, appears to have originated. It is probable that the abbey suffered from the Danish invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries, when the town was twice burnt ; but it recovered, and being enriched by lands and rendered venerable by relics, became one of the most important monasteries in the west of England. The abbot was mitred in the reign of Edward III. The yearly revenues of the abbey at the dissolution were £803, 17 shillings and 7 pence.

The borough appears to have had a charter as early as the reign of Athelstan, when the ihabitants are said to have contributed greatly to a victory over the Danes. In the reign of Stephen a castle was built here, and the town was walled by Roger, bishop of Sarum, who was however obliged to surrender the castle to the king. In the civil war of Stephen and Maud, the town and castle were taken (A.D. 1152) by Prince Henry, son of Maud, afterwards Henry II. In the civil war of Charles I the royalists had a garrison here, which was driven out by Sir William Waller, at the head of a parliamentarian army, March 1643. The royalists recovered the place, but it was againtaken by the parliamentarians under Colonel Massey, or Massie, who stormed it, A.D. 1645. The cloth-trade flourished in the middle ages, according to the testimony of Leland, who says that 3,000 'clothes' (pieces of cloth) were made yearly. The abbey buildings were converted into a cloth-factory by one Stumpe, a clothier, to whom the king had granted them.

The town stands on an eminence in the point of land formed by the junction of the Avon and the stream (Leland calls it the Newton-water) from Tetbury and Brokenborough, and consists of some streets irregularly laid out, but paved and lighted. The town does not extend much beyond the limits of the municipal and old parliamentary borough, which comprehends the abbey parish or district, and parts of the parishes of St. Paul and St. Mary Westport; the chief part of these parishes is without the borough limits, but the population returns do not discriminate between the in-parts and out-parts. The statistics of the three parishes in 1831, were as follows:


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Of the population 2,834 persons were comprehended in the old borough. By the Boundary Act several adjacent parishes were added to the borough for parliamentary purposes, enlarging the population to 6,185. There are two churches - the Abbey church and St. Mary's, and the remains of a third - old St. Paul's. The Abbey church was, at the dissolution, purchased by the inhabitants of St. Paul's parish, and made parochial.. It is well described by Leland as ' a right magnificent thing.' It was originally a cross-church ; the central tower had fallen before Leland's time, and now but a small part of the church remains, that is to say, part of the nave and aisles, the grand southern porch, and a wall belonging to the south transept. The upper part of the western tower, which was standing in Leland's time, has since fallen, and the part of the nave immediately adjacent to it is dilapidated, so that the part now used stands in the midst of ruins.The architecture of what remains of the west front and the adjacent part of the nave, as well as of the south porch, which is beautifully enriched, is Norman ; the rest of the nave appears to be chiefly of decorated English character. The interior is a mixture of the Norman and the English or pointed style. In the interior, near the altar, is a screen, apparently composed of architectural fragments, inclosing a space in which stands an altar-tomb, with an effigy in royal robes, said to represent King Athelstan, who was buried in the church of Malmesbury Abbey ; the tomb is however of much later date than that prince, and is now far from the place of his interment, which was in the choir, under the high altar. There were formerly three churches in the churchyard of the Abbey : namely, the Abbey church just noticed ; the old parish church of St. Paul, of which the lofty tower is still standing and is used as a belfry, while the eastern end, now quite detached from the tower, is occupied as a dwelling-house ; and a little church, which Leland describes as ' a very old pece of work, ' used in his time as a cloth-factory, and now altogether destroyed. The church of St. Mary Westport is a mean-looking building, erected nearly two centuries ago on the site of the old church, which was destroyed by Sir William Waller. There is near the Abbey church a house, the lower part of which was probably part of the abbot's residence ; the upper part is more modern. There is an ancient cross in the market-place, which Leland records as having been built within the memory of man ; and west of the Abbey is a building called Chapel-house, supposed to have been originally the chapel of a nunnery which tradition fixes on the spot. Leland has preserved notices or traditions of two other nunneries in or near the town. The White Lion Inn is thought to have incorporated in it some remains of an hospitium or house of entertainment belonging to the abbey ; and the corporation alms-house, near one of the bridges over the Avon, is supposed to comprehend some remains of an establishment of the Knights Hospitallers. There are some fragments of the town walls.

There are several dissenting places of worship, and four bridges - two over the Avon and two over the Newton-water.

Malmesbury has little trade or manufactures : the clothing trade gives employment to a few persons, and tanning, brewing, and lace-making are carried on. The market is on Saturday, and there are several large cattle-markets or fairs for horses, cattle, and sheep.

The borough has returned members to Parliament with little interruption since the time of Edward I. By the Reform Act it was reduced from returning two members to return only one; and by the Boundary Act the limits and population of the borough were much enlarged. It is not noticed in the Municipal Corporations Reform Act.

The living of St. Paul's is a vicarage, united with the perpetual curacies of Redborne and Corston chapels, which are in the parish, of the joint clear yearly value of £265, in the rural deanery of Malmesbury, in the archdeaconry of Bristol, in the diocese of Gloucester and Bristol. The living of St. Mary Westport is a vicarage, united with the adjacent parochial chapelries of Brokenborough and Charlton, jointly of the clear year value of £310, in the same ecclesiastical divisions as St. Paul's.

The parish of St. Paul and the abbey district comprehended, in 1833 eight day-schools of all kinds, with 205 scholars, namely, 138 boys and 67 girls ; giving rather less than one in eleven of the population under daily instruction. One of these day-schools was an endowed school, with 15 boys ; two were national schools, with 60 boys and 45 girls. The national schools were attended on Sundays by 70 boys and 45 girls ; and there were five other Sunday-schools, with 405 scholars : giving 520 scholars, or above two in nine of the population, under instruction on Sunday. There was no return made from the parish of St. Mary Westport.

Three writers of eminence in their respective ages were connected with Malmesbury :- St. Aldhelm, a Saxon writer of note in the seventh and eighth centuries, was for a time abbot of Malmesbury, where he,was interred ; William of Malmesbury, one of the best English historians of the middle ages, was a monk of the abbey ; .and Thomas Hobbes, sometimes designated the Philosopher of Malmesbury, was a native of the parish of St. Mary Westport.