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Britannia's Magical History Tour
Stop 3: Malmesbury, Wiltshire
South aspect of Malmesbury Abbey
A few miles north of exit 17 on the M4, at the very edge of the region known as the Cotswolds, lies the town of Malmesbury. It is the oldest borough in England, with a charter, given by Alfred the Great, dating back to around 880. It is an ancient hilltop market town whose chief attraction is its fine, old, partially-ruined abbey. In the middle ages, the abbey building, of which only a third part now remains, had a tall central spire, reaching 23 feet higher than Salisbury Cathedral's 404 ft. high spire.

The town's origins date back to the period of time after the Saxons had wrested final control over this part of the country from the Britons in the middle of the sixth century. Malmesbury's first important personage is one Aldhelm, a Saxon by birth and related to King Ine of Wessex. He took over the leadership of Malmesbury Abbey in 675, at the death of Maidulph, the abbey's founder, and grew it in size and importance. Around the year 700, Aldhelm built the first organ in England, described as a "mighty instrument with innumerable tones, blown with bellows, and enclosed in a gilded case." Aldhelm built many churches in the vicinity of Malmesbury, including the one at Bradford-on-Avon, which is well-preserved and still standing today. After his death in 709, he was canonized and became known ever after as St. Aldhelm.

Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great and one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon kings, was Malmesbury's most famous benefactor and royal patron. In local histories, he is accorded the honor of being the first King of All England, but that contention is open to dispute. Some say that Egbert (802-39) was the first king over a more or less unified country and others say it was Alfred (871-900). In any case, Athelstan was known as a great warrior, politician and endower of Malmesbury Abbey. He is said to have given many religious "relics" and books to the Abbey, making it a better attraction for pilgrims and scholars. Athelstan died in 940, and his tomb can be seen inside the Abbey at Malmesbury (see photo at right).

William of Malmesbury (1095-1143), the town's connection to King Arthur, was the greatest historian of his time and was educated at the Abbey school. Of the medieval historians, his approach to writing history is most like that of modern scholars: concern for accuracy and detail, supported, as much as is possible, by eyewitness accounts or solid documentary evidence. Of his own work, he said,
I vouch nothing for the truth of long past transactions, but the consonance of the time; the veracity of the relation must rest with its authors. Whatever I have recorded of later times, I have either myself seen, or heard from credible authority. However, in either part, I pay but little respect to the judgment of my contemporaries: trusting that I shall gain with posterity, when love and hatred shall be no more, if not a reputation for eloquence, at least credit for diligence.
He was invited by the monks of Glastonbury Abbey to write a history of their monastic community and, in the course of his research, spent a great deal of time there. He was exposed to much material that was new to him, much of it beyond his credulity. Of King Arthur, William said,
It is of this Arthur that the Britons fondly tell so many fables, even to the present day; a man worthy to be celebrated, not by idle fictions, but by authentic history. He long upheld the sinking state, and roused the broken spirit of his countrymen to war.
Even though the town of Malmesbury is not well known to Americans, it is a part of American history, nonetheless. Malmesbury was the ancestral home of the Hanks family, and one charming tradition has it that the Wiltshire town was the birthplace of Nancy Hanks, the mother of Abraham Lincoln. Other sources dispute this, though, locating her birth in Virginia in 1784. What other sources, you ask? None other than Nancy Hanks' son, Honest Abe, himself. And you know he cannot tell a lie.

Next stop: Bath, Somerset

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