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Eilmer of Malmesbury

Background Information

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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 scribe's miscopying, or Elmer) was an 11th-century English Benedictine monk best known for his early attempt at flight using mechanical wings.


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

Later historians have attempted to estimate Eilmer's date of birth 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.

Making the assumption that Eilmer may have seen Halley's comet 76 years earlier as a youth, historians have suggested that he might have been born in 985, which would have made him about 5 years old when he first saw the comet, and old enough to remember it. However the periodicity of comets was likely unknown Eilmer's time, and so his remark "It is long since I saw you" could have been made in reference to a different comet. It is known that he was an "old man" in 1066, and had made the flight "in his youth", placing it some time during the early eleventh 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 launched himself from the top of a tower at Malmesbury Abbey:

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 metres]. 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.

Crippled for life but undaunted, Eilmer believed that he could make a more controlled landing if his glider was 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.

Given the geography of the abbey, his landing site, and the account of his flight, to travel for "more than a furlong" (220 yards, 201 metres) he would have had to have been airborne for about 15 seconds. His exact flightpath is not known, nor how long he was in the air, because today’s abbey is not the abbey of the eleventh century, when it was probably smaller, although the tower was probably close to the present height. "Olivers Lane", off the present-day High Street and about 200 metres (660 ft) from the abbey, is reputed locally to be the site where Eilmer landed. That would have taken him over many buildings. Maxwell Woosnam's study concluded that he is more likely to have descended the steep hill off to the southwest of the abbey, rather than the town centre to the south.

Flight analysis

To perform the maneuver 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 its wings, head and legs, he would have needed a large tail to maintain equilibrium. Eilmer could not have achieved true soaring flight in any event, but he might have glided down in safety if he had had a tail. Afterwards, Eilmer remarked that the cause of his crash was that "he had forgotten to provide himself with 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". William's source for this is unknown. It is highly unlikely that William would have spoken with Eilmer, since Eilmer was an old man in 1066 and William is not thought to have been born before 1085. However, as an old and well-known monk in the same abbey, William would undoubtedly have heard second- or third-hand stories about the old man who had died before he was born. William would have spoken with people who knew Eilmer, and possibly in his youth would have heard from people who had witnessed the attempt.

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 a 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 in 1986 examined in more detail the technical aspects such as materials, glider angles, and wind effects.

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:

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 metres]; 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.
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