The Fascination of History
Hello all – back again
I have decided to tell my story in a series of posts.
History has always been important to me, ever since I first visited Stonehenge as a child.
Sometimes stories develop, and expand, over a long period of time. Thirty five years after my first visit to Stonehenge, a piece about the place formed the opening of my book Legends of British History, published in 2008.
When and where does British history begin? For me it started at Stonehenge, which I visited back in 1973, aged eight. I remember being captivated by the aura of Stonehenge, with the ancient stones sat in quiet isolation, holding thousands of years of memory. This was a wonderful survival into the modern era of our earliest past. I felt the power of history, something which still holds my imagination.
Work on the site that became known as Stonehenge commenced in around 3100 BC, when an earthwork, comprised of banks and ditches, was built with the use of primitive tools. The first set of stones arrived around a thousand years later, with the erection in about 2150 BC of the Bluestones. These stones were transported from the Prescelly 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. The Outer Ring was constructed circa 2000 BC, 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. Further building at Stonehenge continued until around 1500 BC, at which point the Bluestones were re-arranged into what is now the Inner Circle.
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, and owner of estates in Wiltshire, who is most famous for his authorship 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.
One of the books I grew up with was Wiltshire, a volume in Arthur Mee’s The King’s England series. Mee’s Wiltshire was first published in 1939, and my maternal grandfather, Ernest Collings, owned a copy of the 1965 update by C L S Linnell – Mee having died during the intervening years. Mee provides descriptions of the history, traditions, topography, and architecture of Wiltshire’s towns and villages. In a piece on the monument, 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”.
During the course of research for this narrative, I have found theorists seriously advancing alternative cases for the French, Bronze Age Greeks, or aliens from another planet as the builders of Stonehenge. The supposed scholarship on Stonehenge has become entwined with the fantastical. The most famous of the legendary explanations of Stonehenge revolves around traditions associated with King Arthur. The tale first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, written in the 1130s. During the fifth century, Hengest, an invading Saxon leader, massacred 300 British nobles, and Aurelius Ambrosius, the British high king, decided to raise a memorial to his fallen supporters. Uther Pendragon, the father of Arthur, led an expedition to Ireland, during which Merlin used magic to relocate the Giant’s Ring stone circle to Britain, whereupon it formed Stonehenge.
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. Visiting Stonehenge in 1973, I was saddened by the way in which recent generations had vandalised the site, with many people having carved their names in the stones. 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, and I seek to make a contribution.