Malmesbury Abbey and the Story of a Monk Guilty of Multiple Murders

Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire was an important medieval institution over many centuries. The first-ever full-length study of the history of the Abbey, written by Malmesbury specialist Tony McAleavy, has just been published, and it reveals many intriguing details about the colorful story of a community that existed continuously from the seventh to the sixteenth century. The book is the result of four decades of research.

Malmesbury came to national prominence in around 700 because it was the home of Saint Aldhelm, an Anglo-Saxon prince who renounced the life of a warrior and dedicated himself to an extraordinary life of scholarship and spirituality. With Aldhelm as abbot, Malmesbury was able to acquire one of the finest libraries in contemporary Europe. The institution survived the Viking depredations and in the tenth century, Athelstan, first king of all England, chose to be buried in the church. 


After the Conquest, the Abbey was successful in winning patronage from the new Norman elite. The church that can be seen today dates to the 1120s and was almost certainly commissioned by Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, chief minister to Henry I. The twelfth-century building contains some of the finest early Romanesque sculptures in England. During the period of the re-building, the Abbey was home to William of Malmesbury, the greatest English historian of the high Middle Ages.

Tony McAleavy’s new research has shed light on some strange episodes in the Abbey’s history. The precious bones of Aldhelm - the Abbey’s most sacred relic - were dismembered in around 1110 and large chunks were given to Abingdon Abbey as a present from Queen Matilda, wife of Henry I. 

In 1153, Henry Plantagenet, later to be King Henry II, was present when a massacre of monks and townsfolk took place during the final phase of the civil war between King Stephen and Henry’s mother, Empress Matilda. 

In the 1320s, the Abbey became entangled in the bitter dispute between Edward II and his baronial opponents. 

The new book reveals for the first time how the Abbey sided with the beleaguered king and his adviser, Hugh Despenser the Elder. The monks agreed to look after Despenser’s huge treasure and failed to declare that they had the money after the execution of Despenser and the fall of Edward II in 1326.

The fourteenth-century roof of Malmesbury Abbey was being built during the lifetime of John of Tintern, the abbot who was accused of multiple murders. 
Malmesbury Abbey contains some of the finest Romanesque sculpture in England.
The tomb of Athelstan, first king of all England, can still be see at Malmesbury Abbey.

Perhaps the most astonishing discovery in the book concerns a monk called John of Tintern, who was the abbot in the 1340s. McAleavy has discovered in the National Archive in London an extensive criminal file documenting allegations made against John by local people in 1343. John was accused of operating as a gangster and ordering the murder of at least four local men linked to disputes about land and money. The abbot had a ‘hit man’ called Henry of Badminton who carried out the killings. John was also accused of living openly with his lover, Margaret, and burning down the house of her husband in order to intimidate him. Following the allegations, an arrest warrant was issued for the abbot who proceeded to go on the run with his lover. John of Tintern was ultimately captured but, despite his obvious guilt, was pardoned following the payment of a large fine. His story exemplifies the lawlessness of rural England in the mid-fourteenth century.


Tony McAleavy, Malmesbury Abbey 670-1539: Patronage, Scholarship and Scandal (Boydell Press, 2023).

Read more about this book on the publisher's site:


About the author: Tony McAleavy studied history at Oxford and is the research director of Education Development Trust. He has been researching the history of Malmesbury Abbey for several decades. In writing this book, he collaborated with Professor Michael Winterbottom of Oxford University who is an expert on medieval Latin and on the work of the historian, William of Malmesbury.



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