Nine hundred years before the Wright Brothers, manned flight was being attempted in England.

In approximately the year 1010, when England suffered from periodic attacks from the Vikings, a monk called Elmer who lived at Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire fitted wings to his body and jumped from the top of the tower of the abbey.

Needless to say, he then wished he hadn't......

The stained glass window of Elmer - the English monk who attempted to fly - in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire shows him with his makeshift wings
(photo by Shaun Martin)

Elmer the Flying Monk (circa 1010 AD)

Elmer was an enquiring young monk who lived at Malmesbury Abbey, and who loved to gaze up at the stars. During the troubled early decades of the eleventh century, he would look to the heavens for signs and portents of things to come, but while many of his contemporaries were content to draw simple lessons of doom and disaster, Elmer gazed with a scientific eye. He noted that, if you were to live long enough, you could see a comet come round again in the sky.

Elmer applied his experimental mind to classical history, making a particular study of Daedalus, the mythical Athenian architect and engineer who was hired by King Minos to build his sinister labyrinth in Crete. To preserve the secret of his maze, Minos then imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus, who only escaped by building themselves wings of feathers and wax. Their escape plan was working beautifully until Icarus, intoxicated by the joy of flying, flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax in his wings. The boy fell into the Aegean Sea below, where the island of Ikaria perpetuates his legend to this day.

Elmer decided to test the story of Daedalus by making wings for himself, then trying to fly from the tower of the abbey. In an age when Britain was still suffering Viking raids, many Saxon churches had high bell-towers, both to serve as a lookout and to sound the alarm.

Whenever the Vikings captured a church, the bell was always the first thing they tore down. Its valuable metal could be beaten into high-quality swords and helmets – and anyway, to capture the Christians’ unique sound was a triumph in its own right.

Modern aeronautic experts have recreated Elmer’s flight, and they calculate that his launch platform must have been at least 18 metres high, which corresponds to the height of surviving Saxon church towers. They also presume that he built his paragliding equipment from willow or ash, the most lightweight and flexible of the woods available in the copses of the nearby Cotswolds. To complete his birdman outfit, the monk must have stretched parchment or thin cloth over the frame, which, we are told, he attached to both his arms and his feet. Today the ravens and jackdaws that live around Malmesbury Abbey can be seen soaring on the updrafts that blow up the hill between the church and the valley of the River Avon, and Elmer may have tried to copy them as he leapt off the tower and glided down towards the river.

According to William of Malmesbury, the historian who recorded Elmer’s feat in the following century, the monk managed a downward glide of some 200 metres before he landed – or, rather, crash-landed. He did catch a breeze from the top of the tower, but was surprised by the atmospheric turbulence and seems to have lost his nerve.

‘What with the violence of the wind and the eddies and at the same time his consciousness of the temerity of the attempt,’ related William, ‘he faltered and fell, breaking and crippling both his legs.’

William of Malmesbury probably got his story from fellow-monks who had known Elmer in old age. The eleventh-century stargazer was the sort of character dismissed as mad in his lifetime, but later seen as a visionary. In his final years Elmer’s limping figure was a familiar sight around the abbey – and the would-be birdman would explain the failure of his great enterprise with wry humour. It was his own fault, he would say.

As William told it, ‘He forgot to fit a tail on his hinder parts.’

From the book "Great Tales from English History", by Robert Lacey