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Also known as Eilmer of Malmesbury,
Eilmerus or erroneously as 'Elmer' or even 'Oliver'
Born 981 Died 1069

The Flying Monk

One of the more curious stories featured in William of Malmesbury's work the Gesta Regum Anglorum, or the 'Deeds of the Kings of England', is that of Eilmer the flying monk. Eilmer it appears, was a monk at Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire, who in the year 1010 decided to attempt to fly from the tower of the abbey.

Eilmer it appear was both an astronomer and something of a mechanic who, by observing the flight of the jackdaws that nested in the abbey walls formed the idea that it was perfectly possible for him to join them in the air.

William describes how Eilmer fixed wings to both his arms and feet, launched himself from the top of the tower and flew, or rather glided, a distance of some 200 yards, before landing near the High Street in Malmesbury itself. Unfortunately his landing was less than perfect, as he managed to break both his legs, an accident that left him partially lame for the rest of his life.

This didn't however, dampen his enthusiasm for aviation and he was busy making plans for a second flight before his abbot decided that such activities were not compatible with monastic discipline and forbade any further experiments.

And did he actually fly?

Malmesbury Abbey itself stands on a hill and at the time most likely featured a typical Saxon high tower, which was probably around 80 feet tall. The prevailing wind in the area is from the south-west and it would have generated a considerable uplift as it meet the hill and the abbey walls. Given that Eilmer was a small man, it appears that it would have been technically feasible (with early eleventh century technology) for him to have constructed some artificial wings, most likely made of ash or willow covered in either fine cloth or parchment, that would have given the necessary wing area adequate to support him. The description given by William of Malmesbury, of the flight, the distance covered, the landing area and the injuries received are entirely consistent with what one would expect to have happened.

It seems quite possible therefore, given that the wind was blowing in the right direction, that Eilmer did indeed "fly."

In any event, Eilmer's exploits are now commemorated in a stained glass window at Malmesbury Abbey, where of course he now serves to generate much needed tourist revenue for the local economy.


William only relates the story as an irrelevant digression when referring to the appearance of Halley's Comet, as Eilmer had the distinction of seeing the comet twice in his lifetime. He saw it for the first time in 989, when he was only a boy of eight or so, and again for the second time in 1066, when naturally the appearance of the comet was seen as an omen foretelling the end of the old order and the victory of William, Duke of Normandy at the battle of Hastings.


SOURCES

Sourced from the following;

Eilmer the Flying Monk at http://homepages.nildram.co.uk/~janewill/farisles/cartnav/eilmer.htm
Eilmer of Malmesbury at http://www.eilmer.co.uk/eilmer-biog.htm

Further reading;

Lynn White Eilmer of Malmesbury, an Eleventh Century Aviator (UCLA Press 1978)
Maxwell Woosnam Eilmer - 11th Century Monk of Malmesbury - The Flight and the Comet (The Friends of Malmesbury Abbey, 1986)

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