Eilmer of Malmesbury

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History 1500 and before (including Roman Britain); Historical figures

Stained glass window showing Eilmer, installed in Malmesbury Abbey in 1920 in memory of Rev. Canon C. D. H. McMillan, Vicar of Malmesbury from 1907 to 1919.
Stained glass window showing Eilmer, installed in Malmesbury Abbey in 1920 in memory of Rev. Canon C. D. H. McMillan, Vicar of Malmesbury from 1907 to 1919.

Eilmer of Malmesbury (also known as Oliver due to a scribal miscopying, or Elmer), an 11th century English Benedictine monk. He is best known for an early attempt at flight using mechanical wings during his youth in the early 11th century.


Eilmer was a monk of Malmesbury Abbey who studied mathematics and astrology. All that we know of him is told by a fellow-monk William of Malmesbury, writing around 1125 in his De Gestis Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings). There is little reason to doubt the accuracy of William's story as it was probably derived directly from Eilmer himself when an old man.

As to Eilmer's age, later historians have guessed at it based on a quotation in William's "Deeds", in regard to Halley's comet which appeared in 1066: You've come, have you? … You've come, you source of tears to many mothers. It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country. From this quotation, later historians wrote that Eilmer may have seen Halley's comet 76 years earlier as a youth, putting his birth date as early as 985, making him about 5 years old the first time (old enough to remember). However the periodicity of comets was likely unknown to Eilmer's age and thus his remark "It is long since I saw you" could have been about a different comet. We know for certain that he was an "old man" in 1066, and made the flight "in his youth", placing it some time in the early 11th century. In any case, William recorded the quote by Eilmer not to establish his age, but to show that his prophecy was fulfilled later that year when William the Conqueror invaded England.

The Flight

William records that, in Eilmer's youth, he had read and believed the Greek fable of Daedalus. Thus, "mistaking fable for truth, he might fly like Daedalus", Eilmer fixed wings to his hands and feet and took to flight from a tower of Malmesbury Abbey:

Eilmer of Malmesbury
"He was a man learned for those times, of ripe old age, and in his early youth had hazarded a deed of remarkable boldness. He had by some means, I scarcely know what, fastened wings to his hands and feet so that, mistaking fable for truth, he might fly like Daedalus, and, collecting the breeze upon the summit of a tower, flew for more than a furlong [201 m]. But agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of air, as well as by the awareness of his rash attempt, he fell, broke both his legs and was lame ever after."
Eilmer of Malmesbury

Crippled for life but undaunted, Eilmer believed that he could make a more controllable landing if his glider were equipped with a tail, and he was preparing for a second flight when the abbot of Malmesbury Abbey forbade him from risking his life in any further experiments.

William of Malmesbury tells that he flew for 'more than a furlong' - 220 yards or 201 metres. Given the geography of the Abbey, his landing site, and the account of his flight, he must have remained airborne for around 15 seconds. We don’t know exactly where he flew over, or how long he was in the air, because today’s abbey isn’t the abbey of the 11th Century. The abbey was probably smaller, but the tower was probably close to the present height. A lane off the present day High Street, which would have existed in the early 10th century, is named 'Oliver's Lane', and is approximately 200m from the site of the abbey. Local stories hold that to be the place he landed. This would have taken him over many buildings. Maxwell Woosnam's study concluded he is more likely to have descended the steep hill off to the south west of the abbey, rather than the town centre to the south.

Flight analysis

To perform the manoeuvre of gliding downward against the breeze, utilizing both gravity and the wind, Eilmer employed an apparatus somewhat resembling a gliding bird. However being unable to balance himself forward and backwards, as does a bird by slight movements of his wings, head and legs, he would have needed a large tail to maintain equilibrium. Eilmer would have failed of true soaring flight in any event, but he might have glided down in safety if he had a tail.

William of Malmesbury says that Eilmer's flight was inspired by the Greek legend of Daedalus and Icarus "..so that, mistaking fable for truth, he might fly like Daedalus". Williams source for this, direct from Eilmer himself or colorful speculation, is unknown, however we know that William probably spoke directly with Eilmer as an old man, and is thus a primary source of which we have no reason to disbelieve.

Another source of Eilmer's inspiration is discussed by American historian Lynn White who speculates that "a successful glider flight was made in the year 875 by a Moorish inventor named Abbas Ibn Firnas living in Cordoba, Spain. It's entirely possible that word of Ibn Firnas' flight was brought to Eilmer of Malmesbury .. by returning Crusaders."

Eilmer typified the inquisitive spirit of medieval enthusiasts who developed small drawstring toy helicopters, windmills, and sophisticated sails for boats. As well, church artists increasingly showed angels with ever-more-accurate depictions of bird-like wings, detailing the wing's camber (curvature) that would prove beneficial to generating the lifting forces enabling a bird -- or an airplane -- to fly. This climate of thought led to general acceptance that air was something that could be "worked." Flying was thus not magical, but could be attained by physical effort and human reasoning.

Historical traditions

Other than William's account of the flight, nothing has survived of Eilmer's lifetime work as a monk.

The story of Eilmer's flight has been retold many times by medieval scholars, later encyclopaedists, and by early modern proponents of man-powered flight. Lynn White , the first modern scholar to research Eilmer's efforts in depth, mentions a few who have written about Eilmer over the years: Helinand of Froidmont, Alberic of Trois-Fontaines, Vincent of Beauvais, Roger Bacon, Ranulf Higden (who was the first to misname him "Oliver") and the English translators of his work, Henry Knighton, John Nauclerus of Tübingen (c.1500), John Wilkins (1648), John Milton (1670), and John Wise (1850). More recently Maxwell Woosnam examined in more detail the technical aspects such as materials and glider angles and wind effects in his book first published in 1986 (see References).

One example of a retelling of the story is that of the French historian Bescherelle who in his 1850s Histoire des Ballons (History of Ballooning) described the experiment based on Williams account:

Eilmer of Malmesbury
"Having manufactured some wings, modeled after the description that Ovid has given of those of Daedalus and having fastened them to his hands, he sprang from the top of a tower against the wind. He succeeded in sailing a distance of 125 paces (185 m); but either through the impetuosity or whirling of the wind, or through nervousness resulting from his audacious enterprise, he fell to the earth and broke his legs. Henceforth he dragged a miserable, languishing existence, attributing his misfortune to his having failed to attach a tail to his feet."
Eilmer of Malmesbury
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