The abbey, visible from afar, is unmistakable, even though it is much diminished in stature (in all senses). It was founded as a Benedictine monastery around 675 either by an Irish monk named Maildubh (from whom, some say, the town gets its name) or the scholar-poet Aldhelm, the first abbot and possibly a nephew of King Ine of Wessex, who is said to have built the first church organ in England and possibly to have been influential in the foundation of several other churches in the area, including that of Bradford-on-Avon. He was canonised on his death in 709. By the 11th century, the abbey contained the second largest library in Europe and was considered one of the leading European seats of learning. One of the few English houses with a continual history from the 7th century through to the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1539), it is dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
The present church goes back to about 1170. Originally the church had an aisled nave, transepts and a crossing tower, but after the Dissolution, the eastern arm was demolished, together with part of the west end. The nave is of typical late 12th-century form with substantial piers of circular cross-section with many-scalloped capitals and slightly pointed arches.
Of particular interest at Malmesbury is the south porch. The outer doorway has an arch with simple continuous mouldings around it – there are no capitals between the arch and door jambs. The inner doorway also has continuous arches which are beautifully carved with almond-shaped medallions bearing Old and New Testament scenes. The doorway to the church itself is also richly carved with Christ in Glory on the tympanum.
On the east and west walls of the porch are tympana, once painted and gilded, each carved with six apostles and an angel flying above them. The style of carving is possibly of Western French influence, but the figures’ vivacity and their facial expressions can be compared with the best Romanesque sculpture in Europe. There is also a fine parvise (a room over the porch of a church) which holds some examples of books from the Abbey library. The Anglo-Saxon charters of Malmesbury provide source material today for the history of Wessex and of the West Saxon church from the seventh century.
At one time the abbey had a spire 431 feet (131 m) high, taller by 23 feet than the spire of Salisbury Cathedral. The spire, and the tower it was built upon, collapsed in a storm around 1500 destroying much of the church, including two-thirds of the nave and the transept. The west tower fell around 1550, demolishing the three westernmost bays of the nave. As a result of these two collapses, less than half of the original building stands today.
Following the Dissolution the abbey, with much of its twenty-three thousand acres, was sold to a wealthy merchant, William Stumpe. He returned the abbey church to the town for continuing use as a parish church and filled the abbey buildings with twenty looms for his cloth-weaving enterprise. Today Malmesbury Abbey is in full use as the parish church of Malmesbury, in the Diocese of Bristol.
During the English Civil War, the town changed hands seven times, with the south face of Malmesbury Abbey still today bearing pock-marks from cannon and gunshot.
Supposedly the first person to be killed by a tiger in England, Hannah Twynnoy, is buried in the churchyard. A barmaid working in a local public house, she was killed on October 23, 1703. Her gravestone reads: “In bloom of life / She’s snatched from hence / She had no room / To make defence / For Tyger fierce / Took life away / And here she lies in a bed of clay / Until the Resurrection Day.” The tiger, it seems, belonged to a travelling circus. Most surprising is that a poor barmaid would have left sufficient funds for a burial and gravestone in the precincts of the parish church.