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Our town links with Malmesbury

By This is Tamworth  |  Posted: May 06, 2011

  • ABOVE & BELOW: The tomb of King Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey. There is nothing in the tomb beneath the statue, the relics of the king having been lost in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. Perhaps the remains were destroyed by the King's Commissioners or they were hidden before the Commissioners arrived to close down the Abbey.

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FEW people would suspect that our great Saxon King Athelstan has something in common with a couple of runaway pigs named Butch and Sundance.

But there is a connection, and it is Malmesbury, an historic Cotswolds market town in the county of Wiltshire.

Malmesbury and Tamworth have both been described as Saxon capitals and the home of Saxon kings, but that is not all they have in common.

The Wiltshire town is reckoned to be the oldest town in the country, given Royal Borough status by Alfred the Great in 880.

It is high on a hill, overlooking the River Avon, while Tamworth lies in a valley at the confluence of the rivers Tame and Anker.

Unlike Tamworth, Malmesbury has preserved most of its historic buildings – it still retains over 400 listed buildings within its boundaries – and although the population doubled in the last century, it was only a little over 4,500 at the last census, making it similar in size to Fazeley.

Archaeologists have identified neolithic fortifications and many reckon the area is the oldest part of Britain to have been continually populated since 800BC.

One of the greatest figures to emerge from Tamworth's rich Saxon past is King Athelstan, the exceptionally brilliant and gifted grandson of Alfred the Great.

The people of Malmesbury also hold him in enormous esteem.

Born in Winchester in 895, the 'wrong side of the blanket', Athelstan's father was Prince Edward, Alfred's eldest son, later to become King Edward the Elder.

The Wessex King Alfred must have seen some promise in the toddler because, before he died in 899, he gave the young prince all the regalia of office, meaning that he wished one day that the lad should take the throne.

No-one knows for sure who the boy's mother was, although there has been much speculation.

His illegitimate birth probably led Alfred to decree that Athelstan should be brought up by his daughter, Ethelfleda, and her husband, Ethelred, described as the Ealderman of Mercia.

Ethelred was King of Mercia in all but name, but recognised Alfred as his overlord, having fought under his command.

The young Athelstan was educated as a Mercian in the monastic school in Worcester.

His aunt, the legendary 'Lady of the Mercians', and uncle would also have ensured that he was skilled with the sword as well as the quill, knowing only too well that battles and wars were on the horizon.

In 913, after the death of her husband, Ethelfleda led her army from the front, liberated Tamworth from invading Danes, riding into town with the 18-year-old Athelstan at her side.

Athelstan became king of Mercia and Wessex in 924 after a witan (meeting of the wise council) had been held at Tamworth church.

He was the first elected king of Mercia and Wessex and under his reign Tamworth regained some of the importance it had known under Offa.

In 925 a magnificent Royal wedding was held at Tamworth church where he gave his step-sister in marriage to the Viking leader, Syhtric.

Although it was all in vain, this was the first attempt by Athelstan to lay the foundations of a united England, where Danes and Saxons could co-exist peaceably.

At that time Malmesbury was the centre of English learning and it was there that Athelstan conducted much of his administrative work.

After his great victory at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937, where, although greatly outnumbered, he conquered an alliance of Scots, Irish, Welsh and Scandinavians, Athelstan was proclaimed the first King of all England and his name became legendary throughout Europe.

He paid tribute to the fighting men of Malmesbury for their part in the battle by giving them 600 hides of land (one hide was calculated to sustain a peasant's household). This land is still jealously guarded by descendants of those people more than 1,000 years after the event.

The town grew up around Malmesbury Abbey which was founded in the 7th and early part of the 8th century. It was rebuilt in the 12th century and is now the parish church.

Inside is Athelstan's magnificent tomb, although his earthly remains have long since vanished.

As natives of Tamworth are called Sandybacks, after the famous breed of pig, so Malmesbury folk are called Jackdaws, as for many centuries this breed of bird has flocked in and around the abbey.

It is thanks to William of Malmesbury, who was born in 1095 and became the librarian of Malmesbury Abbey, that we know so much about Athelstan.

A Benedictine monk, he took great care in writing much of the history of this country.

It is because of William's detailed works that Athelstan was a household name at the time of Shakespeare.

Today, this wise, warrior king who collected religious relics, built churches, abbeys and cathedrals, was charitable to the poor and paid homage to many saints, has become largely forgotten or ignored.

He is one of the less celebrated kings of England – much to the chagrin of residents of Tamworth and Malmesbury.

But where do Butch and Sundance come into the story?

Many will remember the two little Tamworth Sandyback piggies who hit the national news headlines in 1999 when they decided that the abattoir was not the place for them, and so went on the run.

The 'Tamworth Two', as they were dubbed by the Press, were eventually caught seeking pastures new... in Malmesbury.

Their death sentence was rescinded when kind-hearted people offered to give them a permanent home.

A feature film about the pair was made by the BBC, capturing the hearts of millions, young and old alike.

Perhaps film-makers will one day give Athelstan a shot at movie stardom – he certainly deserves it!

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