Eilmer was born in about 980 AD, and is best remembered for making a flight from the tower of Malmesbury Abbey in 1010 when he was a young monk there. The account of this exploit can be found in William of Malmesbury's book Gesta Regum Anglorum.
William, the author of the account this version was extrapolated from, was born towards the end of the 11th century, so no doubt as a young man he heard the story from older monks. He describes how Eilmer fastened wings to his arms and his feet, and launched himself from the top of the tower. The present Abbey was not built until nearly two centuries later, but it is likely that though the main building was smaller, the tower would have been around the same height as the present structure.(see)
Although there exists any number of depictions of Eilmer in flight using a variety of wing configurations, in reality, no substantial or verified record has surfaced over the years other than conjecture from written accounts as to the look, design, structure, material or how and what the wings were made of, how they were attached or how they were used. It has however, been reported that prior to any actual physical attempt at flying he spent a great deal of time observing carefully the flight of jackdaws, an extremely intelligent member of the crow family. During his observations he worked diligently on how he could make use of the air currents similar to how jackdaws and other birds so he could stay aloft as long as possible over great distances, rather than immediately plunge to earth.
Below are four examples of Eilmer's attempt at flying that clearly show four different interpretations of wing configurations, each of the four selected from any number of other interpretations available. Please note, although each of the four configurations have their differences, they do have one thing in common, all are shown as not having a tail (see below).
Eilmer managed to cover a distance of around 650 feet, over twice the length of an American football field. But, as the story goes, it suddenly dawned on him what a risk he had taken, whereupon he panicked and came down with a bump, breaking both his legs. The strength of the wind also might have caused the sudden end to his adventure, but interestingly he also believed that he would have had more stability if he had provided himself with a tail.
He set about rectifying this shortcoming, and was making plans for a second flight when his abbot placed an embargo on any further attempts, and that was that. For more than half a century after these events, the limping Eilmer was a familiar sight around the community of Malmesbury, where he became a distinguished scholar.
William tells this story as an aside to a description of the appearance of the comet that was later known as Halley's. Eilmer had the distinction of seeing it twice in his lifetime. He first saw it as a boy in 989, and the belief that it heralded doom was soon fulfilled when a wave of Danish attacks led to the destruction of many settlements, including the monastic establishment at Malmesbury. The second time was in 1066, and the event was swiftly followed by the Norman invasion of William the Conqueror.
There are several variations of his name, and he is frequently referred to as "Elmer". However the spelling taken on this occasion is that used by William of Malmesbury.
This information has been taken from a very informative booklet Eilmer, The Flight and The Comet, by Maxwell Woosnam. It is published by The Friends of Malmesbury Abbey, and is available from the Abbey Bookshop.
William of Malmesbury, also known as William Somerset, who provided the historical aspects above on Eilmer, died about 1143 and ranks only after the scholar-monk, the Venerable Bede, as the greatest of the English medieval historians. It is thought the name given famous British author and playwright William Somerset Maugham was inspired by William Somerset.
FLYERS: BEFORE LEONARDO DA VINCI
ABBAS IBN FIRNAS: 875 A.D.
DID LEONARDO DA VINCI FLY?
LEONARDO DA VINCI: 500 YEARS TO SOON
DID THE WANDERLING'S AND EILMER'S FLIGHTS END ALIKE?
(please click image)
FLYING MACHINE OF DIEGO MARIN AGUILERA, FLOWN IN 1793
THE BLACK CONDOR: THE MAN WHO COULD FLY LIKE A BIRD
(please click image)
BEFORE THE OTHERS: FLYING MACHINE, CHINA CIRCA 400 AD
(please click image)
FLYING CAPTAIN MARVEL
ZEN AND THE ART OF FLYING MEN
DO YOU THINK FLYING IN
THE SKY IS MAGICAL? (click image)
William of Malmesbury:
Gesta Regum Anglorum: The History of the English Kings
William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum Anglorum (The Deeds of the English Kings) is one of the great histories of England. Apart from its formidable learning, it is characterized by narrative skill and entertainment value. The link below is about as close as you will get to a half-way decent free online version:
THE BEST OF THE MAUGHAM BIOGRAPHIES: Spiritual guides, gurus, and teachers used by Maugham in The Razor's Edge other than the Maharshi: In the graphic below what is left of the original Abby as it appears today is presented using black lines. The original configuration, back in the days of Eilmer, is done in red. The tall tower on the right with the cone shape steeple is believed to be the tower Eilmer made his flight from. Although William's account states Eilmer launched himself from the top of the tower, it is not thought he did so from the top of the steeple, but from the ramparts of the tower wall.
Good biography. Lots of Maugham graphics, from early childhood to late adult. Link to Maugham's private art collection.
Everybody knows Hemingway drove an ambulance during WWI, nobody knows Maugham did.
THE BEST OF THE MAUGHAM BIOGRAPHIES:
Spiritual guides, gurus, and teachers used by Maugham in The Razor's Edge other than the Maharshi:
In the graphic below what is left of the original Abby as it appears today is presented using black lines. The original configuration, back in the days of Eilmer, is done in red. The tall tower on the right with the cone shape steeple is believed to be the tower Eilmer made his flight from. Although William's account states Eilmer launched himself from the top of the tower, it is not thought he did so from the top of the steeple, but from the ramparts of the tower wall.