Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England

Malmesbury Abbey is one of many in England which was destroyed during Henry VIII’s revolution, while the church (or in this case part of it) was retained to become the village parish church.

At Malmesbury in Wiltshire the church sits high on a hill above the small market town. The monastery buildings are gone and only about half of the old abbey church is in use. You can still see, however a fine Norman (Romanesque) interior topped by Gothic vaulted ceiling.

malmsebury interior

Before moving back to the USA we lived in Chippenham, Wiltshire, just a short drive from Malmesbury. We would take visiting Americans there for a visit, and it was during one such visit with our children that we learned about the flying monk of Malmesbury.

Eilmer was a monk of Malmesbury Abbey and is known to have written on astrology.[1] All that is known of him is told in the Gesta regum Anglorum(Deeds of the English Kings), written by the eminent medieval historian William of Malmesbury in about 1125.[1][2] Being a fellow monk of the same abbey, William almost certainly obtained his account directly from people who knew Eilmer himself when he was an old man.[1]

William records that Eilmer’s youth, had read and believed the story of Daedulus, so he devised wings and attached them to his hands and feet and jumped from the top of the tower of Malmesbury Abbey.

Eilmer of Malmesbury

Eilmer of Malmesbury

William says,

he flew for more than a furlong [201 metres]. But agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of air, as well as by the awareness of his rash attempt, he fell, broke both his legs and was lame ever after. He used to relate as the cause of his failure, his forgetting to provide himself a tail.[3]

Scholars and engineers have figured out that to travel for “more than a furlong” (220 yards, 201 metres) he would have had to have been airborne for about 15 seconds.

The Benedictines were forever innovating. Their work is the foundation of many modern inventions and developments. Can we put the monk Eilmer in the books for one of the earliest aviation pioneers along with the Wright Brothers?

If that’s too much of a stretch we can just say he’s the patron saint of hang gliders and  wing suit daredevils.