Medieval thoughts of Stonehenge and the solstices….?

Merlin had the help of a giant!

I remember the good old days when a visit to Stonehenge meant actually walking around inside it, instead of having to view it from paths at a distance. You could just park and walk, without all the razzmatazz that applies today. Some people even sat on the lower stones! Shock, horror.

Closing the monument off to the general public, due to fears of it being damaged, led to scenes such as the Battle of the Beanfield in 1985. Now we are able to get close again at the summer solstice, and if you go to this BBC page you’ll find a lot of atmospheric photographs.

But how did our medieval ancestors regard Stonehenge? Did they believe that Merlin and wondrous abilities made the stones fly there from Pembrokeshire? (They certainly wouldn’t have known that Stonehenge is now thought to have been built completely in situ in the far southwest of Wales, and then dismantled and transported to Wiltshire. We’ve only just learned that ourselves.)

Professor Sarah Peverley  has had cause to investigate how and when Stonehenge was first illustrated in the medieval period, see her website, and it seems it first came to notice between 1129 and 1154 with Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum. Henry was also the first to record its name, as Stanenges. How well established the name was back then isn’t known. But, of course, it was there a long time before Henry, it’s just that he appears to have been the first to mention it.

That it was originally built to ascertain the winter and summer solstices is now fairly well agreed, and you can read more here. The solstices aren’t the only events it may indicate, but I won’t attempt to go into this aspect in further detail. Those who want to know can learn all they want with Google or in their local library.

Stonehenge is not alone in being aligned to various points in the heavens, for instance there are a number of ancient monuments that faced precisely toward the rising sun at the solstices, so the beams of morning sunshine illuminate something particular inside. Newgrange, in county Meath, Ireland,  and Maeshowe in Orkney are but two.

Newgrange, County Meath, Ireland
Maeshowe, Orkney

There are theories about Stone Age computers and all sorts of other possibilities, some definitely weird and wonderful, but to this day the fact still remains that Stonehenge fascinates us, and draws thousands, especially at the summer solstice, to watch the sun rise. We gaze, rapt, with shivers of wonder running up and down our spines as we witness something our very distant ancestors watched too.

I know that King James I “investigated” Stonehenge, but I can’t help wondering what our medieval ancestors thought of it. How many of them would actually pass close to it? Did other kings ever ride by? For instance, if Richard III had cause to travel over the plain and saw Stonehenge, what would have run through his mind? Would he have stopped for a closer look? Or just ridden on without a second thought? I think maybe he’d have halted. Richard was a pensive, educated man, and would have wondered…. A closer look would surely have been required.

by John Speed (1552–1629)

Here’s a little titbit that brings a Duke of Buckingham into the story – no, not the infamous traitor-duke of 1483, but the George Villiers of James I fame.  It seems that “….in 1620, [he] dug a large hole in the ground at the center of Stonehenge looking for buried treasure….” Hmm, I can’t imagine elegant, frilled George picking up a shovel himself! He was, of course, a close favourite of James I, so there appears to have been Stuart interest in the site, for whatever reason.

George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, by Peter Paul Rubens

We may never know the whole truth about Stonehenge, and perhaps many of us don’t actually want to. How must more mysterious and exciting to wonder about our forebears’ purpose in creating it.

See also this article and there is a pdf available of Stonehenge World Heritage Site Landscape Project by David Field and Trevor Pearson. Try as I will, when I click on the Google search link, it only opens after it’s taken itself to my personal files, which won’t be helpful to anyone else! But it’s worth a read.

 

2 comments

  1. There is some thought that Buckingham (the later one!) dug that hole near the Great Trilithon, undermining it and causing one half to fall. Charles II also hid out in Wiltshire while on the run and apparently would go to the Stones where he could see anyone approaching from a distance.
    The Stones were on land belonging to Amesbury Priory in the Middle Ages and Amesbury has both Plantagenet and Neville connections. I have often wondered what route Richard took when coming into the west for Buckingham’s execution and the stamping out of the rest of his rebellion.

    Liked by 1 person

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