Monday, 24 May 2010

The Phantom Flying Monk of Malmesbury

The charming town of Malmesbury stands on a steep, rocky hill which is hugged by the River Avon on two sides and by a tributary on a third. In his wars against the Vikings King Alfred the Great (see Castle Combe) made this a fortified town which served as a refuge to surrounding farmers and their goods in time of trouble. It was also home to an abbey, built within the walls of the fortress town for safety from marauding Vikings.

As with all English monasteries, Malmesbury was broken up by Henry VIII and its lands and assets sold off. In part the Abbey is still roofed and is used for religious worship to this day, but it is the ruined portion that is the centre of the hauntings. As might be expected, the ghost is that of a monk. Dressed in the usual long, grey cloak this figure moves quietly among the broken arches and shattered stone walls of his old home. He is never seen for long. As soon as a witness gets a glimpse, he moves behind a wall or a tree and is gone.

The vast majority of monkly ghosts are anonymous. They may be any of hundreds of holy men who have occupied a particular site. But at Malmesbury there is talk that the phantom monk might be the ghost of one holy man who has earned himself both a place in history and a stained glass window to himself in the church.

This was Eilmer who quite literally leapt into history one summers day in 1010. Born around 980, Eilmer used his spare time between holy offices in studying God’s creatures. He was particularly fascinated by birds and their power of flight. By the summer of 1010, Eilmer believed that he had fathomed the secrets of God’s gift of flight. He decided to put his ideas to the test. Working alone he constructed a contraption made of wood and fabric which he carried up to the top of the Abbey tower and strapped to his arms and legs. Putting his faith in God and his own ideas, Eilmer jumped.

Whether it was faith or skill, Eilmer did not plummet  to his death. Instead he glided quite gently away from the tower, watched by his amazed brethren. After covering around 200 yards, Eilmer approached the ground and realised that, while he had thought long and hard about flight, he had paid no attention to landing. He hit the ground with a solid thump that not only smashed his wings, but also broke his leg.

As the wounded Eilmer lay in the Abbey hospital he thought about his flight at some length. He decided that what had gone wrong was that he had not put a tail on his glider. With this, he thought, he would be able to make a soft landing. Sadly Eilmer was never able to put this very sensible idea into practice as his Abbot sternly forbade any future attempts to defy God’s order and take to the air. Otherwise, Eilmer may have developed a viable glider nine centuries before the Wright Brothers achieved powered flight.

The stained glass window of Eilmer in Malmesbury Abbey shows him in flight, but also depicts his other claim to fame. He saw a comet as a boy in 989 and saw another in 1066, which he declared was identical to the one he had seen as a boy. We now know Eilmer was right once again. This was the comet now known as Halley’s Comet which visited Earth in those years.

Eilmer was clearly a remarkable man. If the ghostly monk of Malmesbury is not him, then by rights it should be.

This is an extract from Haunted Places of Wiltshire by Rupert Matthews

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