The Flying Monk of Malmesbury

Malmesbury Abbey

James Lloyd recalls the stories of two of Britain’s earliest aeronautical engineers, who took their inspiration from Icarus – unwisely.

If God had not meant Man to fly, He would not have given him the intellectual capacity to invent the aeroplane. This, or at least something like it, was the thought going through the mind of Elmer, a young monk at Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire in the early eleventh century. Elmer had always had an enquiring mind. He was fascinated by plant-life and tides and their relationship with the Moon. He was fascinated by the regularity of the stars and planets and he noted with fascination a comet that hovered above England by night. He was, to use an anachronistic word, a scientist and what fascinated him most of all was birds.

Elmer envied birds their freedom. He would stare at them from his cell window, or from the top of the church tower, or in the cloister, watching them weave and dart and glide, unfettered by the invisible hand that held all other creatures on the ground. As a widely-read and well-educated man, he was aware of the fateful attempt at manned flight made by the Greek engineer Daedalus and his son Icarus.

“I won’t make that mistake,” the young monk thought, as his eyes flitted from a jackdaw to an ash tree and he wondered which of its branches might be strong enough to take his weight.

What Elmer did not realize was that he was not, in fact, the first inhabitant of Britain to entertain this dangerous ambition. That, at least according to Geoffrey of Monmouth and the yarn-spinners who followed him, was Bladud, King of Britain and a contemporary of the Prophet Elijah. His father sent him to the academy at Athens, where he contracted leprosy and he had to be quarantined on his return. He escaped and got a job as a swineherd in Somerset. He noticed that his pigs bathed themselves in warm mud which cleansed them of any skin diseases they might have contracted. He sampled the mud himself and discovered that he too was cured. In celebration, he founded a city on the site and started Britain’s first commercial spa in what would become Bath. (To be fair to Geoffrey, even he did not mention the leprosy story – that was a sixteenth-century addition to the saga.)

The Roman Baths at Bath, Somerset
The Roman Baths at Bath, Somerset

Once he had succeeded to the throne, Bladud’s scientific interests switched from the biochemical to the technological. He constructed a pair of wings and managed to launch himself into the upper air, gliding over the city of New Troy (now more prosaically known as London) and heading towards the Temple of the Sun God, the future site of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, where he had the misfortune to lose control of his contraption and was promptly squished on the roof. The kingdom passed to his son Lear.

Yes – that King Lear.

All that, however, was ancient history (or, rather, myth as yet unwritten) by Elmer’s day. The Wiltshire monk was canny and careful. He snared birds and carefully examined their wings, calculating the ratio of wingspan to weight. He measured his own weight and estimated the size of wings that he would require. He cut down branches from the ash tree and whittled them to the desired length and shape. He went to the scriptorium and put in an order for four large sheets of parchment. He cut these into crescent shapes, two large ones for his arms and two small ones for his calves. He sewed the parchment to the branches and then hauled his accoutrements to the top of the tower of the abbey church. There, with the help of some over-awed novice, he fastened the two larger wings to his arms and the two smaller to his calves.

Physically, Elmer was now ready. Was he ready spiritually? As a monk, he attended eight services a day, not to mention all the hours of private prayer and contemplation that monks were supposed to take in between. Certainly, he had discussed his project with God often enough. He had prayed for safety. He had prayed for success. Had he, wondered some of his brethren watching from the precincts below, prayed for forgiveness? This was a bold endeavour, brave but possibly also sinful. Man was not born with wings. Was Man meant to fly?

“Neither was Man born with fins,” Elmer had always riposted to this criticism, “and yet he swims.”

He banished all remaining doubts, stretched wide his arms and leapt.

No one now can imagine what that descent was like. Even the hang-gliders of today cannot really compare their own emotions to Elmer’s. He felt the same rush as they do, seeing the ground slide away beneath him and feeling the wind whip through his hair (at least, as much as was left after he had been tonsured) but they do not know the sheer sense of adventure. Elmer was a pioneer, one of the first men ever to fly. His brethren below stared up in amazement and then they were gone, as he was gone, sailing over the green and over the treetops and over the village of Malmesbury. He glided for the better part of a furlong.

Then, he shook and wobbled. A current of contrary air had struck him and in a heartbeat Elmer wondered if he had indeed ventured further than Man might dare. He struggled to flap his enormous wings but that only broke his glide and he tumbled, a quivering mass of ash and hide and monk, into the field below.

A hundred years later, another young monk entered Malmesbury Abbey. He was half-Norman and half-English and his name was William. He would grow up to become a famous historian, author of a Latin chronicle of early English history that is still consulted (though not without a certain amount of salt) by his latter-day successors. His main sources were the Venerable Bede (whom he much admired) and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which he considered barbaric, because it was written in English – by translating it into Latin he believed that he would give the information a better chance of surviving) but he bulked it out with other sources and these included the stories he was told by other monks at the abbey.

It was from one such old monk that William heard the story recounted above. This old monk had once been a young monk too and he in turn had known another old monk, one who had lived at the Abbey since before the Norman Conquest, one who, in his old age, had seen the comet from his youth pass over England a second time and had guessed that it spelt the doom of his country.

This old monk had walked on crutches, his legs twisted and useless not through age but through a bizarre accident. This crippled old monk had told the young monk, who, as an old monk, would tell the young William, how he had built himself a set of wings and leapt from the tower to fly among the fowls, only, like Bladud and like Icarus, to be brought literally crashing down to earth.

“Was it a punishment, Brother Elmer?” the young monk had asked. “Was this God’s punishment on thee for thine hubris?”

“No, young brother,” the crippled old monk replied. “It was my own foolishness: I had forgotten that birds have tails!”

Photo credits: Malmesbury Abbey (Gareth James) / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Roman Baths at Bath, Somerset (Alan Pennington) / CC BY-SA 2.0


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