The History of Great Malvern
The history of the Malverns – the hills of that name and the six settlements of Great Malvern , Little Malvern , North and West Malvern, Malvern Wells and Malvern Link - is largely a tale of war, worship and water.
The war element of that story is concerned with the Iron Age fortification known as British Camp, high in the hills. Once thought to be merely a refuge in times of conflict it is now believed more likely that this many-tiered construction provided a permanent home for several thousand Ancient Britons. Legend has it that the chieftain Caractacus fought and lost to the Romans there, but his last battle is more likely to have been elsewhere.
British Camp is a misnomer: it was also occupied by the Romans, the Saxons , and Vikings , all recognizing its evident strategic situation and defensive advantages. The Normans too used it, constructing a motte there.
The next stage of the history moves us on to worship, in the form of the great religious house planned as Edward the Confessor ’s reign came to an end, its construction started just a few years before William the Conqueror ’s time drew to a close.
St Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester , was the only senior Saxon cleric left in post by William, thus he was able to see through his project from the early days, when a hermit named Aldwyn was persuaded to settle in Malvern Chase as the head of a putative priory, until work began on the great Norman buildings in about 1085 (Wulfstan died in 1095). But the Abbey did not only bring worship – built on land belonging to Westminster Abbey it owed allegiance more to that great foundation than to the Worcester Cathedral of its originator, an anomaly that over centuries caused clerical conflict.
Around such a great religious house it was inevitable that a significant town would develop, supplying the monks and in turn being cared for and taught by them.
Malvern Priory indeed became a centre of learning: in the early 12th century it produced Prior Walcher, a great scholar famed as the first in Western Europe to document his use of the astrolabe; and in the 14th century it is thought to have been where William Langland of Piers Plowman fame was educated.
The Priory was endowed by great figures including the future Richard III and his successor Henry VII , both donating great stained-glass windows. But Henry VIII ’s Reformation meant the closure of the foundation in 1539, though the local people in 1541 purchased the church for £20.
After the worship phase came the impact of Malvern’s water. Queen Elizabeth I popularised it in the 16th century; Queen Victoria travelled with bottled Malvern water (the celebrated Mr Schweppes famously presented her with a bottle at the 1851 Great Exhibition ), as reportedly does Queen Elizabeth II . The town became a noted spa, particularly popular in the 19th century thanks to the writings of Dr James Manby Gully the great Victorian advocate of taking a water-cure. Much of Malvern’s architecture dates from this period and the Edwardian era that followed, when the district became not just a destination for visitors, but a home or second home for the wealthy of Birmingham and Worcester: it is surely not coincidental that one of the great British public schools, Malvern College , was founded at the same period (in 1865 to be precise).
Elgar lived much of his life in the area and is buried there, and one of his best-known works Caractacus was sparked by a visit to the hills; Tolkien in his youth loved those same Malvern Hills , which are credited with being ‘the Misty Mountains’ in his writings. And Malvern’s beauty continues to inspire today as it has for centuries, the great priory church still standing proudly above the main settlement.