Across many years, I have enjoyed a (modestly) successful writing career, with the publication of eight books on a variety of subjects – history, politics, football, a fantasy novel, and mental health.
I always feel excitement as I complete writing a book, prepare it for publication, and receive the first printed copy. I have admitted in previous Blog posts, that the actual promotion of a book – that has been launched towards a potential readership – is not something I do with confidence. I am not sure why, as I have managed to build something of a public profile, through consistent activity, and have appeared on television a few times.
So here I go again!
My new book offers a new approach to British history, stretching from the origin of Stonehenge, five thousand years ago, to current controversy surrounding Brexit and the future of the nation. First published in 2008, this panoramic survey of themes in our history, along with their contemporary relevance, has been expanded and revised. The development of the states of England, Scotland, and Wales, along with their unification as Britain, is explained. Among a varied cast of people, there are detailed profiles of Boudicca, Saint Swithin, Ethelred the Unready, King Canute, Richard the Lionheart, Samuel Pepys, and George III. Combining profound events with amusing trivia, this kaleidoscope of stories is a thoroughly entertaining popular history.
I believe British History provides new insights into familiar episodes. It develops several previously-published essays, plus material adapted from other books I have written. The recording of history by participants, chroniclers, diarists, and historians is viewed, along with the way in which the relevant events have been reflected in books, films, and television programmes. Our history is a constantly evolving process, rather than something that is fixed, and stuck in the past. Hopefully I have been able to reflect the way in which individuals interact with events, and understand their place in history.
The book is available as both a paperback and a Kindle download.
I have announced its presence in the world via Twitter, and contacted the local newspaper (we still have one where I live!) asking if they are interested in featuring the book.
I have also made a short You Tube video about the book:
The book opens with a chapter that takes a rapid trip through the prehistoric era, centring on Stonehenge, as follows:
Near the end of Thomas Hardy’s amazing novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles (published in 1891), there is a dramatic scene at Stonehenge. Angel Clare, the husband of Tess, remarks that Stonehenge is “Older than the centuries; older than the D’Urbervilles”. Besides being far older than any Briton we are able to trace by name, Stonehenge is probably the most unmistakable building – or ruin of a long-lost structure – in Britain. It is also a tangible connection to the people who lived on our island in the prehistoric period.
The recorded history of Britain begins with the arrival of Roman invaders, a little over two thousand years ago. Prior to this, there is prehistory, stretching back many thousands of years. For most of that time, Britain was attached to the European landmass. Around 9000 BCE, following the Ice Age, rising sea levels created the water which divides western Britain from Ireland. The sea level also rose to the east, and Britain was fully separated from continental Europe in about 6000 BCE. The hunter-gatherer method of survival was gradually replaced by farming, with the latter approach reaching Britain, from elsewhere in Europe, probably between 5000 BCE and 4500 BCE.
Work on the site that became known as Stonehenge commenced in around 3100 BCE, when an earthwork, comprised of banks and ditches, was built with the use of primitive tools. A construction of this type is known to archaeologists as a henge. The first set of stones arrived around a thousand years later, with the installation in about 2150 BCE of the Bluestones. These were transported from the Preseli Mountains, in the south west of Wales. It is amazing to think that approximately 80 of these stones, weighing up to four tons each, were moved across a distance of 240 miles as far back in time as four thousand years ago. Current thinking suggests that the stones were transported using a combination of rollers, sledges, and rafts. The likely route appears to have taken the stones from the Preseli Mountains to the coast at Milford Haven, along the southern coast of Wales to England, where they were floated along the western River Avon and then the River Frome. An overland trip from Frome (Somerset) to Warminster (Wiltshire) was followed by spells on the River Wylye, and the Wiltshire Avon, before offloading at Amesbury, from where the stones were dragged to Stonehenge. Most of this is an educated guess, but aerial photos of the two mile stretch from Amesbury to Stonehenge provide lasting evidence of the final part of the journey.
The Outer Ring was constructed circa 2000 BCE, using Sarsen stones, which were brought from the Marlborough Downs, about twenty miles north of Stonehenge. The journey was shorter than that taken by the Bluestones, but the transportation across land of the Sarsen stones, which weighed up to 50 tons each, must have required a monumental effort. At Stonehenge stone lintels were placed on top of the Sarsen stones, with these constructs being held in place by powerful joints. Modern theory suggests that a system of levers and ropes was used to manoeuvre the stones into their final positions. Further building at Stonehenge continued until around 1500 BCE, at which point the Bluestones were re-arranged into what is now the Inner Circle. Britain had by now moved into the Bronze Age, which stretched from about 2200 BCE to 750 BC. As people learned how to produce bronze, by mixing copper with tin, tools became more sophisticated than in the past. This in turn was followed by the Iron Age, and further improvements, with iron being stronger than bronze.
The work of archaeologists and scientists has provided us with good estimates of the period when Stonehenge was built, and the method of construction. It appears, however, that the purpose behind the building of Stonehenge will always remain a mystery. Many theories have been advanced as to who built Stonehenge, and why. The most credible suggestions focus on the possibility that it had an astronomical, or other scientific, purpose. These are suggested by the alignment of the stones with the sun as dawn breaks on June 21 – the longest day of the year. Other serious contenders advance the idea of Stonehenge as a religious temple, in view of the importance that worship has always held in human society. Running alongside this is the possibility that Stonehenge was a burial ground for the leaders of the people that built this enormous edifice. There are many apparent burial mounds in the vicinity of Stonehenge. One of the most commonly-known suggestions is that Stonehenge was built by the Druids. This idea appears to have originated with John Aubrey (1626-1697), an antiquarian, folklorist, owner of estates in Wiltshire, and author of the book Brief Lives. The theory is probably incorrect, as most evidence suggests that the Druids used forest temples as places of worship, rather than stone buildings. Nevertheless the modern-day Druids have regularly gathered at Stonehenge for the Summer solstice festival. The earliest surviving written reference to Stonehenge appears in History of the English by Henry of Huntingdon, which dates from about 1130. Henry wrote about “Stanenges, where stones of wonderful size have been erected after the manner of doorways” and added that “no one can conceive how such great stones have been so raised aloft, or why they were built there”.
Wiltshire by Arthur Mee, a book published in 1939 as part of Mee’s The King’s England series, provides descriptions of the history, traditions, topography, and architecture of Wiltshire’s towns and villages. Mee opens a piece on Stonehenge with the statement:
About ten miles northward of Salisbury, it is the most finished work of a mysterious race of men who scattered circles and avenues of stone, stone places of burial, and stone monuments over many parts of the world. Most of these memorials are primitive, but Stonehenge is elaborate and massive, with signs of design and a fixed purpose.
Later in a delightful account, Mee writes:
It has been said of Stonehenge that it is an Ancient British work, a Druidical work, a Saxon work, even a Danish work, and a scholar has in our time suggested that it was erected by immigrants from Egypt.
Other theorists have seriously advanced alternative cases for the French, Bronze Age Greeks, or aliens from another planet as builders of Stonehenge. At times the supposed scholarship on Stonehenge has become entwined with the fantastical. The most famous of the legendary explanations of Stonehenge revolves around the traditions associated with King Arthur. The tale first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which was written in the 1130s. According to Geoffrey, during the fifth century Hengest, an invading Saxon leader, massacred 300 British nobles. Aurelius Ambrosius, the British high king, decided to raise a memorial to his fallen supporters, and Merlin, the mentor of Arthur, had the idea of transporting the Giant’s Ring stone circle from Ireland to Britain. An earlier legend suggested that the stones had been moved by giants from Africa to Ireland, and placed on Mount Killaraus, as a stage for the performance of rituals. Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur, led an expedition to Ireland, during which Merlin used magic to relocate the stones to Britain, whereupon they formed the rings of Stonehenge. Following their deaths, the bodies of Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon were reputed to have been buried at Stonehenge. Most of this is obviously fiction, but Aurelius Ambrosius gave his name to Amesbury, the town near Stonehenge. Meanwhile there are other Arthurian links to the area. Salisbury has been seriously suggested as the site of the Battle of Camlann, and Guenevere ended her days in a convent at Amesbury.
The reason for Stonehenge is lost in mystery, but there can be no doubting the continued affection for the building among the British people. During 2002, a poll of the general public declared Stonehenge to be one of the seven wonders of Britain, alongside Big Ben, the Eden Project, Hadrian’s Wall, the London Eye, Windsor Castle, and York Minster. The enduring importance of Stonehenge contrasts with the transitory nature of the Millennium Dome, built in London to mark the year 2000.
Very little of the original Stonehenge has survived into our current age. Over the centuries most of the stones have been lost – probably being plundered for use in other construction. It was not until 1918 that ownership of Stonehenge was transferred to the British government, and conservation became a priority. In 1978 public access to the actual stones, as opposed to the surrounding area, was curtailed. The restrictions have been continued by English Heritage, which has managed the site since 1984, balancing the need to conserve Stonehenge with a wish to make it accessible to the British public, and the many foreign tourists for whom it is a magnet. The work of English Heritage, and similar organisations, such as the National Trust, plays a vital role in preserving the physical presence of British history. In parallel, historians maintain and develop our history in written form. It is a wonderful ongoing process.