Eilmer the flying monk and Greek myth.

Recently I made a visit to Malmesbury Abbey and discovered a bizarre tale involving a monk named Eilmer and a Greek myth. Oh an an attempted flight. To start with a bit about Malmesbury and the Abbey where this took place.

Malmesbury Abbey.

Malmesbury Abbey has a long history. Originally there was St Aldhelm’s church and then further developments resulted in the Abbey which was finished in 1180. Since then there have been changes, the great spire (taller than that at Salisbury) and the spire both fell by the 15th century. There was also Henry VIII’s actions against monastaries as well. To date only the nave remains. Arguably the Abbey’s most famous link is with King Athelstan the first King of England. He died in AD 939 and was buried in Malmesbury but it’s not clear where. In the Abbey there s a tomb for him.

Inside the Abbey
Malmesbury Abbey porch.
The porch dates to the Norman period.
Malmesbury Abbey exterior.
The exterior of the Abbey presents a wealth of detail.

It’s a great place to visit, the cafe is good and it’s beautiful. Around the back there is a lovely area to sit and just pass the time. 

Eilmer, why and how?

I now turn to Eilmer. Not much is known about him apart from an entry about him written by William of Malmesbury, a 12th century historian. In it he recounts how Eilmer was inpsired by the myth of Daedalus and Icarus and their flight. In an attempt to replicate Daedalus he jumped from the tower at the Abbey in AD 1010 with wings fastened to his hands and feet. He was able to glide for 200 metres before crashing to the ground and breaking both legs. However, he did survive so whilst he wasn’t able to replicate the feat of Daedalus he was able to avoid the fate of Icarus. It’s a long held universal truth – Greek myths are best left as stories, rather than as inspiration.

Eilmer in a stained glass window at the Abbey.
Eilmer in a stained glass window at the Abbey.

If you wanted another instance of Greek myth and reality overlapping then have a read about the Golden Fleece.


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