Eilmer of Malmesbury (c. 981 – c. 1069), sometimes incorrectly known as Oliver of Malmesbury owing to a scribe’s error, became the first European aviator when between 1000 and 1010 AD he jumped from the summit of a tower with wings fastened to his hands and feet. He succeeded in gliding a distance of more than 600 feet (183 m)[a]William of Malmesbury says “spatio stadii et plus“. before crash landing and breaking both his legs.
Eilmer was a Benedictine monk from Malmesbury Abbey, and the account of his flight comes from a fellow Benedictine, William of Malmesbury, in his De gestis regum Anglorum (Chronicle of the Kings of England) written in about 1125. Eilmer was said to have been an old man in 1066, and as William was born in about 1080, and entered the abbey as a boy, he was almost certainly acquainted with other monks who had known the aged Eilmer in their own youths.
Eilmer witnessed Halley’s Comet twice in his lifetime,[b]Halley’s Comet reappears every 76 years the first as a young boy in 989 AD, and the second in 1066, both of which sightings seemed to be omens of national disaster for Anglo-Saxon England.
Eilmer’s first sight of Halley’s Comet occurred in 989 AD, when he may have been about eight-years-old, just before the second wave of Danish invaders and the resulting destruction of many monasteries. His second sighting in 1066 presaged an even more momentous event, the Norman Conquest, which changed Anglo-Saxon England for ever.
William’s account tells us that whatever contraption Eilmer devised had wings, which must have been quite large, as they were attached to his arms and his legs. It is likely that they were hinged to allow them to be flapped like the wings of a bird, but in such a way that they would not fold upwards, allowing him to glide. Eilmer’s flight ended with a crash landing that broke both his legs, leaving him lame for the rest of his life. He attributed the untidy end to his failure to include a tail in his apparatus, not to better steer with but to land on.
The present-day Malmesbury Abbey had not been built at the time of Eilmer’s flight, so he must have launched himself off the tower of an earlier Anglo-Saxon church on the same site, which would probably have been about 80 ft (24 m) tall. Local legend has it that Eilmer landed about half way down the present-day High Street where there is a modern road named Oliver’s Lane, which is consistent with him flying in a south-westerly direction from the hill on which the abbey church stood.
Eilmer was not alone among his contemporaries in his interest in flight; in either 1003 or 1008 the Iranian philologist al-Jauharī was killed after launching himself from the roof of the old mosque of Nishapur in Khorasan wearing some kind of flying apparatus, although it is unlikely that Eilmer would have been aware of that effort.
The honour of being the first man to fly may go not to Eilmer but to the physician and inventor Ibn Firnās, who lived in Cordoba towards the end of the 9th century, although the first account of his flight was written about 750 years after the event.
Although modern histories of aviation tend to gloss over Eilmer’s flight, if they mention it all, his achievement was well known throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance period. His experiment with heavier-than-air flight using a bird-like wing proved to be a dead end however, as demonstrated by Gian Alfonso Borelli in his De motu animalium published in 1680. Borelli proved that the human musculature makes it impossible for a man to fly by flapping artificial wings like a bird, so the emphasis eventually switched to the gliding properties of kites.
In 1962 the RAF Royal Tournament Display Team staged a re-enactment of Elmer’s flight in the Malmesbury Abbey churchyard, but with the flying monk sliding down a cable from the abbey roof to the ground. The show was repeated in 1976 in celebration of the abbey’s 1,300 years of history.