By Hannah Silverman
This is a post about a flying monk and a man-eating tiger who once walked a small country town and independently made history. Did I mention it was in South-West England?
Although this reads like a brochure for Ripleys Believe it or Not, believe it or not, these are the hallmarks of Malmesbury’s quirky heritage.
So here we are in beautiful Wiltshire county, about two-and-a-half hours drive from London. Or in my case, an hour train ride, an hour bus journey and a silly o’clock wake up call en-route to one of England’s oldest boroughs. But even though Malmesbury feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s worth the journey because, well, flying monks and man-eating tigers.
I was in Malmesbury to attend the BBC History Weekend where I listened to the fabulous Dan Jones and Suzannah Lipscomb teach me about the complexities of the War of the Roses and the spectacle of the Tudor court (those posts coming soon to a computer near you).
Malmesbury is a small township will all the signatures of the English countryside from the lush open spaces on its fringe, its Costwald-esque cottages and, of course, more bakeries and patisseries than you can poke a silver spoon at.
My history sessions themselves were set up in Malmesbury Abbey, which is a magnifiecently imposing gothic structure neighbouring exquisite ruins. The Abbey dates back to the 12th century and has a colourful history which I’ll get to in a moment. Visually stunning, it’s guarded by archways and greenery like this.
So that’s all well and good but you want to know about the flying monks and the man-eating tigers, right? I did.
Now that you have the visual context, I can tell you about the first of Malmesbury’s claims to fame. Legend has it that it was atop this very abbey that Eilmer, a Benedictine Monk, launched himself off the building in an attempt at what the history books will tell you is the world’s first attempt at aviation.
The year was 1010 and Eilmer had his kit sorted with some kind of winged ‘glider’ that he was convinced would make him a hero. But he wasn’t so lucky and his technology became his kryptonite. Instead of soaring through Wiltshire and beyond, Eilmer ‘flew’ some 200m before tumbling to the ground and breaking both legs. Although he wanted to try again, he was banned by the abbot who when you think about it was actually paving the way for Leonardo da Vinci to have a crack and years later The Wright Brothers, Richard Branson and Co. to master. Eilmer was nicknamed the flying monk for obvious reasons.
Kids, don’t try this at home. It’s been done now, ok?
Then, among the tombstones that are scattered around the Abbey lawns below, is the grave of Hannah Twynnoy who was famously eaten by a tiger in in 1703. Yes. A tiger. In England.
Apparently the tiger was part of a travelling menagerie, which makes a little more sense. Hannah’s tombstone is unremarkable alongside the other weathered headstones and the engraving is illegible, but it’s a fact that further paints a picture of the almost unbelievable shenanigans that have taken place in this historic town.
Following my sessions, no day out would be complete without a glass of wine to digest the information. What better place than The Old Bell, which claims to be England’s oldest hotel with origins around 1220. Inside the charm of its leafy exterior is lost somewhat with modern upgrades, but it’s a stunning, spacious pub nonetheless.
Other quirky facts about Malmesbury include the stories within the Abbey House Gardens which feature behind the Abbey. I’ve read that the first King of England is said to be buried somewhere within the garden while two saints have been thrown down its well. Today it also features naked days and throughout the year encourages weddings. But those are stories for another time.
What’s the quirkiest historical fact you’ve discovered in England?