Stonehenge and the Imagination

Geoffrey Grigson explores how a variety of views of Stonehenge has surfaced, and re-surfaced, in popular literature over time.

Why, almost alone of the megalithic structures of pre-history, was Stonehenge noticed and celebrated through the Middle Ages, from early at least in the twelfth century? That is the fair question to begin with. Why, for instance, did no one notice the huge megalithic complex at Avebury, only a few miles to the north? Stonehenge has an English name which must vividly have conveyed its nature at one time, though the interpretation is uncertain. It may mean that the stones appear to be hinged, or that they look like gallows for hanging, or (the most likely solution) that the lintels were hanging stones, or stones poised in the air. The name at least meant the stone structure and nothing else, no settlement, no village, no parish in the green of Salisbury Plain. In the word “Avebury” the burh no doubt referred to the earthworks, but the Avebury complex does not seem to have struck the imagination, as though the name called to mind only the Saxon settlement, the later village which sprawled indifferently among the stones, and the parish. No mention of the Avebury complex is known before the seventeenth century. No one remarked upon it until John Aubrey went hunting on the morrow of Twelfth Night in 1648 and the chase led him into the closes of Avebury village, where he was “wonderfully surprised” by the stones and the bank and the ditch.

Taking these two alone, Avebury and Stonehenge, the answer to the neglect of the one and the notice of the other might be first that Stonehenge stood so eminent by its isolation on the Plain, and second, that some degree of veneration may—that critical word in the recent literature of Stonehenge which implies “or may not”—may have clung to it through the Celtic period and the Romano-Celtic period until the Saxon invasions; whereas Avebury, involved with cottages, was half-hidden in a shallow wooded valley, while the veneration of what is certainly the more ancient structure had died away much earlier. I believe, though, there is one other reason, most important in the story, and Avebury unknown. The architect Inigo Jones in the seventeenth century and Dr. Kendrick in our century have made much of the regularity of Stonehenge—its “order”, “symmetry” and its “stately” element (Inigo Jones), its “severe precision”, its “balanced stateliness” (Kendrick); distinctions which have given the two of them particular notions of its date and its builders. Avebury and the many other megalithic structures were not so precise. They were rough and less ordered in their decay. The moment Stonehenge was seen from any direction across the green turf the order was obvious, hitting the eye and the imagination. It was a notable mystery of form, a wonder of artifice, even for Henry of Huntingdon in the Middle Ages.

In Henry’s Historia Anglorum, written about 1130, Stonehenge is the second of the four wonders of England. The first is the great cave of Wookey Hole in the Mendips, the third winds issuing from caverns in the Peak, the fourth a not very clearly explained phenomenon of the atmosphere. Henry is the first to mention its not altogether soluble name, in the form of “Stanenges”. In fact, his is the earliest record of Stonehenge. Antiquaries have fancied a reference to it in Diodorus Siculus. Drawing from lost accounts by Hecataeus of Abdera and others, he had written that the fabled Hyperboreans in their island in the north, next to Gaul, were supposed to have worshipped Apollo to the music of the cythera in what the antiquaries translated as a “circular” temple. Supposing that temple were Stonehenge, here at least would be a terminus a quo, since Hecataeus wrote in the fourth century B.C. Diodorus, though, did not say that the temple was circular. It was spherical, a temple in the shape of a ball. Legend may have solidified circle into sphere, but still it is with Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon, in 1130, that Stonehenge enters into history indisputably; and in a dangerous way. He was straightforward in his mention of it. This second of the wonders is made of stones like doorways. No one can imagine, he says, how the stones were raised or why. This was leaving a vacuum. Seemingly in answer to Henry it was quickly filled, the Welsh Geoffrey of Monmouth at once knowing how, why, when and by whom. In his splendidly fabulous Historia Regum Britanniae Geoffrey had at heart the Britain of the British, rather than of the English or the Normans. His book has rightly been called one of the most influential ever written. Back goes the history of us all to Brutus the Trojan, the grandson of Aeneas. He collected King Arthur out of the shadows, and Merlin. His gatherings and fabrications begat the corpus of medieval romance, Malory, not a little of Spenser, Shakespeare’s Lear, Milton’s Comus and poems by Tennyson; and his explanation of Stonehenge started that mystification of a mystery in which crankier minds engage still.

In brief, Geoffrey’s Stonehenge is a glorious monument of British history. At Amesbury the Saxon Hengist traitorously murdered an assembly of British notables. Later, when he had defeated the Saxons, the British king Aurelius Ambrosius (all of this is in the fifth century a.d.) determined to surround these noble dead with a monument. Merlin advised him to fetch from Mount Killaraus in Ireland a marvellous mystic and healing structure of stones which set, up again around the dead would stand for ever. The stones were fetched, Merlin using his magic in dismantling them and re-erecting them. Within this Stanheng, this chorea gigantum or Giants’ Dance (giants had originally transported the stones from Africa to Ireland), Aurelius was buried, as well as Uther and Constantine.

Geoffrey had made out of Stonehenge a national shrine of British kings and British sentiment. He had decided what Stonehenge was to be, in popular belief, to the end of Tudor times and till enquiry, speculative and sceptical yet not altogether disinterested, nor always free of the Historia Regum Britanniae, suggested other explanations in the seventeenth century. The Welshman began the long story of confident guesswork—often contradictory and at times lunatic—by which Stonehenge was enveloped. His fancy was still feebly alive in 1932, when in the News Chronicle of 19th November three bold headlines such as might do for the detonation of the first hydrogen bomb announced



The modern journalists were being more credulous than Elizabethan poets and antiquaries. Within four hundred years of his death (in 1194) the Elizabethans found Geoffrey of Monmouth delightful rather than believable altogether. The Elizabethan age was not free of medievalism, and if you compare three Elizabethans on Stonehenge, Camden the topographer and the poets Spenser and Michael Drayton, you discover how new attitudes of inquisition mix with inherited medievalisms, and you see also how within the “spirit of an age” differing temperaments may favour one set of elements, old or new, more than another, although the elements thus favoured by an individual may be tinged or modified by the opposite elements which are current but not congenial to him. Camden was a leader among those new topographers who for the first time added to hearsay by travelling the country for its antiquities. In his Britannia he does not altogether discard legendary stuff from the Middle Ages. But he says about Stonehenge that he is “not curious to argue and dispute” where the stones came from. He would rather lament “with much grief, that the authors of so notable a monument are buried, in oblivion”. Then he adds, parenthetically and as if to satisfy convention, that according to the common story Ambrosius or Uther set them up by the art of Merlin. Britannia appeared in 1586, the first books of The Faerie Queene in 1590. Spenser, an intelligent man with much antiquarian knowledge, was nevertheless something of a medieval pasticheur, a poet of the marvellous, whereas Drayton inclined to the matter-of-fact. Geoffrey’s wonders are too good to be discarded so a canto of the second book, aimed at the glorification of Elizabeth, becomes

A chronicle of Briton kings

From Brute to Uther’s rayne

And rolls of Elfin Emperours

Till time of Gloriane.

His mention of Stonehenge is brief. It is still the doleful monument of the Lords slain by Hengist; but it is a fair statement that Ireland, Africa and giants and Merlin and magic out of Geoffrey of Monmouth were in Spenser’s thought, absent in that setting only because they were not required or as a concession to his critical side or more likely to the critical view of such as Camden. Drayton follows Camden. Legendary history again is not absent from the long delight of his topographical poem Poly Olbion (1612), but for its burial in oblivion Stonehenge—“Conspirator with Time, now grown so mean and poor”—is reproved. It has betrayed its builders :

Ill did those mighty men to trust thee with their story,

Thou hast forgot their names, who rear’d thee for their glory:

For all their wondrous cost, thou that hast serv’d them so,

What ’tis to trust to tombs, by thee we eas’ly know.

So much for Geoffrey of Monmouth. Camden does not believe him. Drayton does not. Each of them says “I don’t know” . Ahead in the next hundred and twenty years comes a library of speculation. “I don’t know” prepares for it, leaving as Henry of Huntingdon had left, a vacuum. And some of those who fill it are unlike Geoffrey of Monmouth and the chroniclers in visiting this wonder, scrutinizing it, measuring it even.

In the main, Stonehenge continues to be British, but instead of a monument around those murdered Lords, it becomes the preeminent temple of those antiquarian priests of all burden, the Druids. The Druids chant around the Slaughter Stone. The chants are only to be faded out, the robed priests only to' be expelled, mistletoe in hand, from the horseshoes and the circles, by the rise of a more scientific archaeology. Even then the Druids will recover the fag-end of a claim.

It was the gentle Aubrey who connected Stonehenge with the Druids. Both Avebury and Stonehenge were Druid temples probably, he maintained with a decent caution in the first part of his still unpublished Monumenta Britannica (1665). He claimed he had brought the enquiry “from utter darkness to a thin mist” . Geoffrey had made Stonehenge a British monument. Druids, with the authority of the classical writers, though they do not link them with stone circles, were British priests.. But another advance had been required before this simple two and two could be added together. This had been made by Inigo Jones. When James I was in Wiltshire in 1620 he commanded Jones to produce out of his “own practice in architecture and experience in antiquities abroad” all he could discover of Stonehenge. His conclusions were at last printed in 1655 in The most notable Antiquity of Great Britain, vulgarly called Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, Restored by Inigo Jones Esquire, the first book exclusively about Stonehenge. Jones’s valuable innovation was to call Stonehenge a temple. Self-interest helped him. Inigo Jones was the classical champion, the English forerunner of Palladian architecture, the “Vitruvius of England”. The admirable in architecture was Roman, Stonehenge from its order and symmetry was admirable, therefore Stonehenge was Roman. If it was Roman—only a little earlier, that is to say, than the fifth century date given it by Geoffrey of Monmouth—then what could it have been? Obviously a temple of the god Coelus, the sky-god, “from whom the Ancients imagined all things took their beginnings”. Appropriately it stood in the open air, it was never roofed, it was circular. Its severity of the Tuscan Order was agreeable to this most ancient of Roman deities; and in Jones’s eye all the uprights were “pyramidal, like flames, in imitation of those aetherial fires wherewith Heaven is adorned”.

With a knowledge of other stone circles Aubrey adopted this new. temple theory but restored the making of Stonehenge to the British. Between Camden and Aubrey there had been other suggestions—notably the theory of Walter Charleton, Charles II’s physician and a friend of Dryden, that Stonehenge was Danish. Rebutting Inigo Jones, he announced this in Chorea Gigantum, or ... Stonehenge ... Restored to the Danes (1663). The Danes had designed Stonehenge “to be a Court Royal or place for the Election and Inauguration of their Kings”. His clue came from Ole Worm’s account of ancient stone monuments in Denmark, but the clue was reinforced as a compliment to the newly restored Charles II, who had visited Stonehenge after his defeat at Worcester and to whom Charleton dedicated his book. To preface it Dryden composed a fine poem which is worth reading for its excellent statement of the spirit of enquiry abroad in the sixteen-sixties—

Among th’ assertors of free Reason’s claim,

Th’ English are not the least in worth or fame.

The world to Bacon does not only owe

Its present knowledge, but its future too.

Charleton’s name he disingenuously adds to those of the great deliverers and discoverers—

Through you the Danes (their short dominion lost)

A longer conquest than the Saxons boast.

Stone-henge, once thought a temple, you have found

A throne where kings, our earthly Gods, were crown’d,

Where by their wondring subjects they were seen,

Joy’d with their stature and their princely mien.

Our sovereign here above the rest might stand;

And here be chose again to rule the land.

Inigo Jones’s son-in-law, John Webb, published a violent rejoinder two years later, reaffirming that Stonehenge was both a temple and a Roman temple; but it was Aubrey’s Druidism which rapidly prevailed, as his Monumenia Britannica went around in manuscript. It was adopted by one man after another, Edmund Gibson in his greatly influential edition of Camden’s Britannia in 1695, William Stukeley in 1740, and John Wood in 1747. The one remarkable dissentient among the antiquaries was Aylett Sammes, who declared in 1676, adapting the speculations of a French scholar about Gaul, that Stonehenge was raised by the Phoenicians when they repeopled Britain after the Flood. No one was much disturbed by this eccentricity, although it was tartly observed by Defoe in 1724 that as we find the origin of Stonehenge uncertain, “we must leave it so”. The rival theorists seemed to him ridiculous—

“The making so many conjectures at the reality, when they know they can but guess at it, and above all the insisting so long is but amusing themselves and us with a doubt, which perhaps lies the deeper for their search into it.”

Nevertheless, Stonehenge was now British and Druid almost immovably. Romance was about to, dispel scepticism and reason once more.

William Stukeley (1687-1765) became for his own century a new Geoffrey of Monmouth. Again it was a matter of both Zeitgeist and temperament. He was a doctor, scientifically trained, a Fellow of the Royal Society and the first secretary of the Society of Antiquaries. His eye was sharp, his curiosity strong, but he was credulous. Fascinated by the past, he was too easily moved to concoct schematizations which explained it. By his beginnings he might well have been a “Romanist” in his relation to Stonehenge, but in his antiquarian travels the was in a state of everlasting wonder. Druids attracted him, and Gothic architecture. He made accurate plans of Stonehenge and was the first to detect some of its unnoticed subsidiaries. But the true Stukeley emerged, devoted to gardening, planting a Druid temple—a Stonehenge—of nut trees around a gnarled and mistletoed apple tree, discovering that the Druids were fond of mistletoe because it was “a type of the expected Messiah” and that Avebury was a symbol of the Trinity. He was ordained. From a variety of sources (including Aylett Sammes) he made the Druids, not a barbarous priesthood sacrificing victims in wicker cages, but a patriarchal hierarchy of Phoenician origin who were quasi-Christians before Christianity; and in his two books, Stonehenge, A Temple restored to the British Druids of 1740 (observe how his title echoes both Jones and Charleton) and Abury, A Temple of the British Druids (1743) he advanced this theory of Druidism to combat that rational free-thinking in eighteenth century England by which as a cleric he was now so distressed and which was in fact the religious counterpart of classical and rational notions in art. Stukeley indeed was what we too loosely call a “romantic”. All that his feelings prompted, and selected and combined out of the speculative writing of the previous fifty years on Druids, British history and Stonehenge became with him fact beyond question. Inigo Jones had twisted his plans of Stonehenge to fit his Roman attribution. Stukeley in a plan of Avebury altered circles into ovals to fit his dogma that Avebury was a “serpent temple” in the form of a snake proceeding from the greater circle, which imaged “the eternal procession of the Son from the first cause”.

Making all allowances for the eighteenth century’s confused conception of the past, Stukeley’s eccentricities are not those of an intelligent man. John Wood, on the other hand, who published in his Choir Gaure (1747) an account in some details just as lunatic, was one of the great architects of the age, so even more drastically he shows how Reason could be betrayed by her votaries. Here was the neoclassic, the rebuilder of Bath which he planned as a Roman city around the hot springs, rejecting Inigo Jones’s Romanism for the Druids— “our antient Priests of the Oak”, So regular was Stonehenge that it would have appeared to him, he confessed, a “wonderful production of Roman art and power” if only he had not been convinced (no doubt from Milton and from Poly-Olbion) of Britain’s ability to perform great things even before the rise of Greece. His Druidism was thorough. The circles at Stanton Drew, Avebury and Stonehenge, and Okey Hole (i.e., Wokey Hole) had been Druid colleges—Okey Hole because it was Oakey Hole and because the Axe flowed from it and water and axes were religiously used by the Druids. Stonehenge was also a Druid temple dedicated chiefly to the moon but also to the sun and some of the elements. Mount Killaraus was not in Ireland but on the Marlborough Downs above Avebury, which are so speckled with sarsens. Stukeley, following Sammes, had made Hercules from Tyre the leader of the first landing party of Phoenician Druids. Wood, borrowing also from Sammes that Hercules was worshipped as Ogmius, connected this Ogmius with the Wiltshire village of Ogboume near the sarsen stones.

It was, though, Stukeley’s two books which immensely popularized the connection of Stonehenge (and every other megalithic monument) with the Druids. Only in Victorian times when geological science and discoveries in caverns at Brixham and elsewhere pushed back the antiquity of man beyond the old date of 4004 B.C. for the creation of the world, could the Druid tenants begin to be dispossessed. Meanwhile, in imaginative literature Stonehenge found its greatest poet. William Blake read Stukeley’s books and, one may be sure, everything else in English either about the circle or the Druids; but instead of making the Druids champions against deistical religion, Blake made them the symbols of deism itself which to him was vengeance for sins, inhuman sacrifices and everything which fought against his own interpretation cf Christianity as the forgiveness of sins. “Stony Druid Temples overspread the island white”, and huge trilithons were drawn by Blake in his designs.

Jerusalem is the poem to read. The “wicker idol is woven around Jerusalem’s children”, Stonehenge is filled with the cries of the dying, and the hated Voltaire and Rousseau are two of its frowning sarsens. Built by one of Blake’s most complicated symbolic characters, Urizen, who is akin to cold, measured reason, Stonehenge is

—a wondrous rocky World of cruel destiny,

Rocks piled on rocks reaching the stars, stretching from pole to pole.

The building is Natural Religion, and its altars Natural Morality,

A building of eternal death, whose proportions are eternal despair.

No other writer so profoundly transforms Druidic Stonehenge. It suggested seldom more than mystery and sacrifice, as to the young Wordsworth in Guilt and Sorrow or to the winner of the Newdigate Prize, a Thomas Salmon, when at Oxford in 1823 Stonehenge was set as the year’s subject—

O’er the bleak scene of death each conscious star

In lurid glory rolls its silent car.

Druids were no doubt in the mind of the many landscape painters who trudged to draw Stonehenge, certainly in Turner’s mind as he made a watercolour of the trilithons against the sunset or warmed up paintings of Stonehenge with lightning; and even in the soberer mind of Constable. Emerson and Carlyle went to Stonehenge in 1847, Carlyle lighting a cigar among the stones, both of them thinking of mortality and change. It was more by the mystery than by any of the explanations (which he reviewed) that Emerson was absorbed. From now on, as the concept of prehistory enlarged and clarified, Stonehenge pulled less and less at the imaginative writer. One may find Coventry Patmore in the eighteen-fifties writing of the “Druid rocks” scowling “their chill gloom” on to the lovers in The Angel in the House, and with intimations of sacrifice Hardy over-dramatically causes Tess to be apprehended for murder with the sarsens and the blue stones around her. Later Henry James feels beneath him at Stonhenge no more than “the pathless vaults beneath the house of history”. Some of the older specialists fought a romantic rearguard action, but by that time Lord Avebury had long expelled the Druids. The ages of iron, bronze and stone had been devised as helpful if inexact divisions; and in 1865, in his Prehistoric Times, Lord Avebury had pushed Stonehenge back from the Celtic Druids into the bosom of the Bronze Age, where by majority vote it remains, on the basis of excavation and analogy.

This is an account of Stonehenge and the extra-scientific imagination, not of archaeology and Stonehenge. Yet how much more certainty have we in 1951 than Henry of Huntingdon possessed in 1130? Some facts are established. In 1923 the blue stones of one circle and one horse-shoe were proved to have been transported from Pembrokeshire—if not from Mount Killarans. Its builders certainly orientated Stonehenge towards sunrise at the summer solstice. Half of Stonehenge has been excavated, and the inference now is one of “a composite, structure, the building and rebuilding of which were spread over a number of centuries of prehistoric time”. Evidence for a rickety reconstitution of the decayed temple round about the first century a.d. allows the Druids to regain a slight footing; and the magnificent structure of stones we go to examine is assigned to the Early Bronze Age of Great Britain, about 1500 B.C. There are, or have been, dissentients, for how can so early a building be without parallel in the dressing of the stones, which are morticed and tenoned, and in the allowance which is made for perspective distortion by cutting the lintels wider on the upper surface than the lower? How is it that the precise style—and style seldom lies in the matter of date—contradicts the normal roughness of all other megalithic structures? So Dr. Kendrick in 1927 still read into Stonehenge the influence of the temple-masonry of Greece and Rome, requiring for it, after all, a date in the Cel ic Iron Age—and the Druids. “May” and “probably” qualify even now the most confident summaries of the who, the when and the why. So it is well to remember the recent caveat of one of the most distinguished of modern archaeologists that scientific as some of the mechanisms of archaeology may be, archaeology itself stays “an inexact science, subjectively selective”. Stonehenge is still mysterious. As in 1130 or 1586 the most honest statement remains that we do not know.