Malmesbury is a hilltop town, shaped by the geography carved by two rivers. From the west, the infant Bristol Avon flows from Sherston, and from the north west, a tributary either known as the Tetbury Avon or, locally, as The Ingleburn. They flow within of each other but are separated by a narrow and high isthmus, just a few yards across, which forces the Bristol Avon south and the Tetbury Avon east. This creates a rocky outcrop as a south-facing, gently sloping hilltop, until the two rivers meet on the southern edge of the town.
With very steep, and in places cliff-like sides, the town was described by Sir William Waller, as the best naturally-defended inland location he had seen. The hilltop contains several freshwater springs, which were regarded as holy wells from the 7th century. The clean water, almost island-like geography, hilltop position and south-facing land, would have made Malmesbury an ideal location for safe, defensive habitation for millennia.
At the most local level is Malmesbury Town Council, formed as successor to the municipal borough. The town council is made up of sixteen councillors, who elect annually a town mayor and deputy town mayor from their number.
Malmesbury forms part of North Wiltshire District, administered by an elected district council. The parish of Malmesbury forms one of thirty-five wards for district council elections, and returns two councillors.
For elections to Wiltshire County Council, Malmesbury forms an electoral division, returning a single county councillor. From May 2009, Wiltshire will become a unitary authority.
Malmesbury was the oldest borough in England (although Barnstaple has a counter claim: both were given royal borough status around 880AD). Recent archaeological excavations have revealed stone town wall defences, which have been dated to the Iron Age between 800 and 500BC, making Malmesbury arguably the oldest continually inhabited town in England.
The town is famous for its 12th century Abbey which once had a spire taller than that of Salisbury Cathedral. From early Saxon times through to the 14th century AD, the Benedictine abbey was a centre of learning and a place of pilgrimage.
The present day abbey is the third built on or near the same spot at the north end of the hilltop. A third of this building remains, as much was destroyed, reputedly by a storm in the late 15th century. Henry VIII sold the remainder to a local clothier called William Stumpe. The extant part of the Abbey is now the parish church. The remains contain a parvise which still holds some fine examples of books from the Abbey library.
The town was of strategic importance during the English Civil War, being a strong defensive position on the road between Oxford and Bristol. It was fiercely fought over and is said to have changed hands seven times. The south face of Malmesbury Abbey still bears pock-marks from cannon and gunshot. Although once the centre of the lace-making industry, the industrial revolution had little effect on the town. The railway station, built in 1877, was closed down in 1960. The Malmesbury Branch, built by the Great Western Railway split from the main London-Bristol line at Dauntsey, although a later connection with the northern GWR 'mainline' to the Severn Tunnel and Wales was made at Somerford. Just short of its terminus, the line ran through a short tunnel: the only tunnel on the line between Malmesbury and Paddington. The tunnel has one portal in the grounds of The Retreat.
At the Battle of Brunanburh in 937, King Athelstan of Wessex defeated an army of northern English and Scots and made a claim to become the first 'King of All England'. He was helped by many men from Malmesbury, and in gratitude is said to have given the townsfolk their freedom, along with 600 hides of land to the south of the town.
The status of freemen of Malmesbury was passed down through the generations and remains to this day. It is likely, however, that the title of freeman, or commoner, was given to tradesmen and craftsmen coming into the town during the early Middle Ages, so the claim of direct lineage from the men who fought with King Athelstan to the present day commoners is unlikely, though possible. Since at least the 17th century, however, the right has been only handed down from father to son or son-in-law. There is a maximum of 280 commoners. The organisation is said to be the 'most exclusive club' in the world, as to enter it one has to be born to a freeman or marry the daughter of one.
However, it is now impossible to marry into it. Since 2000, and with the possibility of falling numbers, women were admitted for the first time - the daughters of freemen. The organisation, The Warden and Freemen of Malmesbury, still owns the land to the south of the town, along with dozens of properties, pubs and shops within the town itself, providing affordable housing to townsfolk.
On the other side of Abbey from Abbey House Gardens is the Old Bell Hotel, which dates back to the 12th century, when it housed the VIP guests making pilgrimages to the Abbey.
In the centre of the town stands the Market Cross, built in c1490, possibly using stone salvaged from the recently-ruined part of the abbey. It was described by John Leland writing in the 1540s as a 'right costly piece of work', which was built to shelter the 'poore market folke' when 'rain cometh'. An elaborately carved octagonal structure, it is recognised as one of the best preserved of its kind in England. It still serves its purpose today, nicknamed 'The Birdcage', because of its appearance, it shelters market traders by day and as a meeting point at night.
A large building of medieval origins, now a private home, Tower House stands at the end of Oxford Street. It contains a high-roofed main hall where it is said Henry VIII dined after hunting in nearby Bradon Forest. In the 1840s, a doctor living in the house, with a passion for astronomy, built a narrow tower protruding high from the roof. It dominates the skyline of the east of the town.
A part of the River Avon (Sherston branch) to the west of the town centre, named after the monk Daniel, who lived at the abbey in the 9th century. He is said to have submerged himself in the cold water every day for decades to quell fiery passions.
Near the town lies Bremilham Church, on a farm at Foxley-cum-Bremilham, which measures just 4 m by 3.6 m. Its single pew has space for four people and there is standing room for six more. The church, which is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest church in use in Britain, holds one service to mark Rogationtide.
At the beginning of the World War II, the electronics company EKCO moved part of its operations from Southend-on-Sea to Cowbridge House, Malmesbury to avoid the danger of bombing and established a shadow factory to produce radar equipment. The factory continued production after the war and eventually became part of AT&T. The site existed until 2004 when the owners, Lucent Technologies moved their operations to Swindon.