Stonehenge has been the subject of myth, legend and, more recently, of academic research for more than eight centuries. One of the earliest references to Stonehenge dates from the mid-12th century and comes from Henry of Huntingdon, an archdeacon in the Diocese of Lincoln, in his publication on the history of the English, 'Historia Anglorum'. He wrote of 'Stanenges, where stones of wonderful size have been erected after the manner of doorways, so that doorway appears to have been raised upon doorway; and no one can conceive how such great stones have been so raised aloft, or why they were built there'.
The place-name derived from Old English and its meaning has been commonly interpreted as a description of hanging, hinged, or suspended stones, perhaps a reference to the architecture of the monument’s uprights with horizontal lintels.
Geoffrey of Monmouth
Henry based some of his work on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 'Historia Regium Britanniae' ('The History of the Kings of Britain'), written in about 1136. It is the main source for the most famous legend relating to Stonehenge. This relates the defeat of the Saxon king Hengist by the rightful British king, Aurelius Ambrosius. As a celebration and everlasting memorial to his victory, Merlin brought a stone circle, the Giants’ Round, from Ireland to Salisbury Plain. Upon his death Aurelius was buried within the Giants’ Round, as was his successor, Utherpendragon, whose son was the great King Arthur of Britain.
Throughout the following centuries Geoffrey’s history of Stonehenge, though criticised, remained popular and tales of Merlin and Arthurian legend continues to be linked to the monument.
There are three surviving early manuscript images of Stonehenge. One, in the 'Roman de Brut' ('History of Britain'), of 1338–40, shows Merlin placing a lintel at Stonehenge. Another 14th-century depiction appears in the 'Scala Mundi' ('Chronicle of the World') and shows a rather rectangular Stonehenge. Another recent discovery, dating from about 1440, shows a sketch of four of the trilithons. It is not until the 16th century that we have more detailed descriptions, together with depictions of Stonehenge that were actually drawn at the site.
Temples and Druids
In the 17th century, Stonehenge started to receive royal visits. Prompted by a visit made by James I in 1620, the duke of Buckingham undertook the first known excavation in the centre of the monument. John Aubrey described this later as a pit 'about the bignesse of two sawe pitts', although where exactly he dug and what he found is not clear. James I subsequently commissioned the architect Inigo Jones to conduct a survey and study of the monument. Following Jones’s death the work was completed by his assistant, John Webb, and published in 1655. In this first book dedicated to Stonehenge, Jones argued that Stonehenge could only have been built by the Roman civilisation. The result was a plan of Stonehenge that he believed conformed to the Tuscan order of classical architecture; a geometrical design of four triangles within a circle.
As debates continued over who built Stonehenge, a claim for the native British came from a Wiltshire-born man, John Aubrey. By command of Charles II he produced one of the first accurate plans of Stonehenge in 1666, and was the first to record what we now call the Aubrey Holes in his honour. He made comparative studies of other stone circles of the British Isles and was the first person to discover and recognise the importance of Avebury henge and stone circle. He also noted similar stone circles in the more distant parts of the British Isles, which had not seen occupation by the Romans, Saxons or Danes, and logically concluded that they were temples of the native British. He further assumed that 'these ancient Monuments were Temples of the Priests of the most eminent Order, viz, Druids' – the Druids being the only prehistoric British priests mentioned in classical texts.
In the 18th century, Aubrey’s pioneering fieldwork paved the way for more detailed observation and recording by the antiquary William Stukeley. He spent each summer between 1721 and 1724 surveying and drawing at Stonehenge and Avebury. He observed details such as the stones of the outer sarsen circle being smoother on the inside and the principal line of the monument being to the northeast, 'where abouts the sun rises, when the days are longest'. He was the first antiquary to observe and record the monuments in the surrounding landscape, such as the Avenue and the Cursus, and to investigate nearby barrows. Like Aubrey, Stukeley claimed that 'we may very reasonably conclude, the elegant and the magnificent structure of Stonehenge was as the metropolitical church of the chief Druid of Britain'.
From the early nineteenth century onwards the antiquarians Sir Richard Colt Hoare and William Cunnington conducted excavations into over 200 barrows in the landscape surrounding Stonehenge, and Cunnington excavated at Stonehenge three times before his death in 1810. The results of their fieldwork were published in 1812 in the first volume of The Ancient History of Wiltshire, which included wonderful illustrations by Philip Crocker, and many of their finds can be seen today in the Wiltshire Heritage Museum in Devizes.
In 1874 and 1877 Professor Flinders Petrie surveyed Stonehenge in detail, and devised the numbering system for the stones that is still in use today. With the emergence of army training on the Salisbury Plain from the late nineteenth century, Stonehenge was the first archaeological site to be photographed from the air in 1906.
1. Arnold, T (ed) 1879. 'Henrici Archidiaconi Huntendunensis Historia Anglorum', Rolls series, Longman & Trubner, 11–12
2. Gover, J E B, Mawer, A and Stenton, F M 1939. 'The place-names of Wiltshire', Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 360–1
3. Chippindale, C 1994. 'Stonehenge Complete'. London: Thames and Hudson, 24
4. Scala Mundi, Corpus Christi College MS 194, fol 57
5. Heck, C 2007. 'A new medieval view of Stonehenge', British Archaeology, Jan/Feb 2007, 92
6. Chippindale, C 1994. 'Stonehenge Complete', London: Thames and Hudson, 47
7. Jones, I and Webb, J 1655. 'The most notable antiquity of Great Britain, vulgarly called Stone-Heng, on Salisbury Plain, restored', London
8. Richards, J 2007. 'Stonehenge: the Story so far', London: English Heritage, 61
9. Aubrey noted cavities in the ground close to the inner edge of the bank, which he assumed were the holes for missing stones. The 56 pits were named after him some 250 years later.
10. Fowles, J (ed) 1980. 'John Aubrey's "Monumenta Britannica, or, a miscellany of British antiquities", Volume 1', Sherborne: Dorset Publishing Co, 25
11. Stukeley, W 1740. 'Stonehenge, a temple restor’d to the British Druids', London: W Innys and R Manby, 35
12. Ibid, 10
13. Flinders-Petrie, W M 1880. 'Stonehenge: plans, description and theories', London: Stanford