Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire, England, was attacked by arsonists on Friday evening. The 12th century center of learning would have been entirely lost, if it were not for the brave actions of “heroic locals” who joined forces to put the fire out.
Malmesbury Abbey Was One of Europe’s Most Important Centers of Learning
The site of Malmesbury Abbey was originally chosen by Máel Dub (Máel Duin), a mid-7th century Irish monk. The scholar established a hermitage for teaching local children on the site of a former Saxon monastery in Wiltshire. The Abbey itself was founded as a Benedictine monastery around 676 AD. In 939 AD King Athelstan , England’s first monarch, was buried somewhere in the grounds of Malmesbury Abbey.
By the early 12th century, Malmesbury Abbey possessed the second largest library in Europe which was frequented by the 12th century historian William of Malmesbury, the foremost English historian of the era who was regarded as one of the most talented English historians since Bede. However, as flames licked the Abbey’s ancient ashlars, the emergency telephone at Malmesbury fire station, located only 400 meters away, was ringing in an empty room.
Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire. John Baker/ Swindon Advertiser
Fire! Sorry, Nobody’s Home
A report in Metro says the Malmesbury fire station had a “lack of on-call firefighters” and that firefighters from the nearby town of Chippenham were called into action. While it only took the Chippenham firemen 12 minutes to arrive at the scene, this was way too long for some Malmesbury residents and business owners.
It is reported that staff from The Bird Cage Restaurant, The Old Bell Hotel and Co-op Food Store “all helped to save the burning abbey.” Toby Lavan, owner of the Bird Cage, told Metro that the restaurant window looks directly onto the abbey and having noticed the fire his staff “grabbed extinguishers and buckets of water from the restaurant and ran out.”
View of Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, in 1779 by Thomas Hearne. ( Public domain )
Fires That Try to Destroy History Often Forge Modern Heroes
Pablo Valente, general manager at the Old Bell Hotel, was also among the first responders at the fire. Valente said Malmesbury Abbey is “a fragile structure” and that when we saw there was a fire “we knew we had to do something.” So, they got out their own fire extinguishers and ran over to the Abbey while neighbors arrived with big buckets of water, added Valente.
During the firefight about 40 local people helped to quell the flames. Thanks to this team of local heroes, the fire was brought under control within minutes. However, Lavan said “it was a strange night” and that people were quite shaken up. The abbey is the only reason a lot of tourists visit the town, stated Lavan, and the structure forms the pulsing “heart of the town.”
Social Media Celebrations Got Underway
The two teams of hotel and restaurant staff were later commended by local resident, Charli Cumberpatch, who according to the Metro report posted the following message on Facebook: “A massive well done and thank you to staff at The Birdcage and Old Bell and local folks who reacted so fast tonight with fire extinguishers and buckets of water to put out the fire at the abbey.” Other social media users called the first responders “absolute heroes” for having saved the building.
A spokesperson for the local fire service, who didn’t show up, posted on Facebook that “unfortunately your local fire station was unavailable.” It was explained that the fire service has been working on recruitment for Malmesbury fire station for some time, but as of yet nobody is interested in the role and the medieval town remains unprotected.
Stained glass window of William of Malmesbury installed in 1928. ( Public domain )
Hunting for the Arsonists Who Torched the Abbey
Gavin Grant, Wiltshire Councilor for Malmesbury, said that after this “disgraceful arson attempt ” on Malmesbury Abbey, Cllr Kim Power, the Mayor of Malmesbury, and himself, were planning to meet Wiltshire Police to ensure “effective action” is taken to deal with the arsonists. Power is urging anyone with dashcam footage or photos to pass them onto local police.
“We understand the upset this incident has caused… and we are carrying out enquiries to identify those responsible,” Police Inspector James Brain told the BBC. This is not the first time, however, that Malmesbury Abbey has been saved from fire. After surviving several fires during and after the English Civil War , the entire building was upgraded in the 1940s and it was awarded Grade I listing in 1949.
Top image: An arson attempt at Malmesbury Abbey was stopped by heroic locals. Source: Lukas Gojda / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie