Salisbury Plain and Stonehenge

SARUM Plain—the Salisbury Plain of our own day—an elevated platform of chalk, extending as far as the eye can reach in broad downs where man would seem to have no abiding place, presents a series of objects as interesting in their degree as the sands where the pyramids and sphinxes of ancient Egypt have stood for countless generations. This plain would seem to be the cradle of English civilization. The works of man in the earliest ages of the world may be buried beneath the hills or the rivers; but we can trace back the labours of those who have tenanted the same soil as ourselves, to no more remote period than is indicated by the stone circles, the barrows, the earth-works, of Salisbury Plain and its immediate neighbourhood.

This is a test.


The great wonder of Salisbury Plain,—the most remarkable monument of antiquity in our island, if we take into account its comparative preservation as well as its grandeur,—is Stonehenge. It is situated about seven miles north of Salisbury. It may be most conveniently approached from the little town of Amesbury. Passing by a noble Roman earth-work called the Camp of Vespasian, as we ascend out of the valley of the Avon, we gain an uninterrupted view of the undulating downs which surround us on every side. The name of plain conveys an inadequate notion of the character of this singular district. The platform is not flat, as might be imagined; but ridge after ridge leads the eye onwards to the bolder hills of the extreme distance, or the last ridge is lost in the low horizon. The peculiar character of the scene is that of the most complete solitude. It is possible that a shepherd boy may be descried watching his flocks nibbling the short thymy grass with which the downs are everywhere covered; but, with the exception of a shed or a hovel, there is no trace of human dwelling. This peculiarity arises from the physical character of the district. It is not that man is not here, but that his abodes are hidden in the little valleys. On each bank of the Avon to the east of Stonehenge, villages and hamlets are found at every mile; and on the small branch of the Wyly to the west there is a cluster of parishes, each with its church, in whose names, such as Orcheston Maries, and Shrawston Virgo, we hail the tokens of institutions which left Stonehenge a ruin. We must not hastily conclude, therefore, that this great monument of antiquity was set up in an unpeopled region; and that, whatever might be its uses, it was visited only by pilgrims from far off places. But the aspect of Stonehenge, as we have said, is that of entire solitude. The distant view is somewhat disappointing to the raised expectation. The hull of a large ship, motionless on a wide sea, with no object near by which to measure its bulk, appears an insignificant thing: it is a speck in the vastness by which it is surrounded. Approach that ship, and the largeness of its parts leads us to estimate the grandeur of the whole. So is it with Stonehenge. The vast plain occupies so much of the eye that even a large town set down upon it would appear a hamlet. But as we approach the pile, the mind gradually becomes impressed with its real character. It is now the Chorea Gigantum—the Choir of Giants; and the tradition that Merlin the Magician brought the stones from Ireland is felt to be a poetical homage to the greatness of the work.


Figure 1
1.—Ground Plan of Stonehenge in its present state.
Figure 2
2.—Stonehenge. – Restored Plan.
Figure 3
3.—Stonehenge. – Perspective Elevation, restored.
Figure 4
4.—Stonehenge: section 1 to 2 (Restored Plan, Fig. 2), 105 feet.
Figure 5
Figure 6

Keeping in view the ground plan of Stonehenge in its present state (Fig. 1), we will ask the reader to follow us while we describe the appearance of the structure. Great blocks of stone, some of which are standing and some prostrate, form the somewhat confused circular mass in the centre of the plan. The outermost shadowed circle represents an inner ditch, a vallum or bank, and an exterior ditch, m, n. The height of the bank is 15 feet; the diameter of the space enclosed within the bank is 300 feet. The section l shows their formation. To the north-east the ditch and bank run off into an avenue, a section of which is shown at p. At the distance of about 100 feet from the circular ditch is a large grey stone bent forward, a, which, in the dim light of the evening, looks like a gigantic human being in the attitude of supplication. The direct course of the avenue is impeded by a stone b, which has fallen in the ditch. A similar single stone is found in corresponding monuments. In the line of the avenue at the point marked c is a supposed entrance to the first or outer circle of stones. At the points d near the ditch are two large cavities in the ground. There are two stones e, and two o, also near the ditch. It is conjectured by some, that these formed part of a circle which has been almost totally destroyed. The centre of the enclosed space is usually denominated the temple. It consists of an outer circle of stones, seventeen of which remain in their original position; and thirteen to the north-east, forming an uninterrupted segment of the circle, leave no doubt as to the form of the edifice. The restored plan of Dr. Stukeley (Fig. 2) shows the original number of stones in this outer circle to have been thirty; those shadowed on the plan are still remaining. The upright stones of the outer circle are 14 feet in height, and upon the tops of them has been carried throughout a continuous impost, as it is technically called, of large flat stones of the same width. This has not been a rude work, as we see in the structures called cromlechs, where a flat stone covers two or three uprights, without any nice adjustment: but at Stonehenge sufficient remains to show that the horizontal stones carefully fitted each other, so as to form each an arc of the circle; and that they were held firmly in their places by a deep mortice at each end, fitting upon the tenon of the uprights. This careful employment of the builder’s art constitutes one of the remarkable peculiarities of Stonehenge. The blocks themselves are carefully hewn. It is not necessary to add to our wonder by adopting the common notion that the neighbouring country produces no such material. The same fine-grained sandstone of which the greater number of the masses consists, is found scattered upon the downs in the neighbourhood of Marlborough and Avebury. The stones of the second circle are, however, of a different character; and so is what is called the altar-stone, marked f on the ground plan. Of the inner circle, enclosing a diameter of 83 feet, which appears to have consisted of much smaller stones without imposts, but about the same in number as the outer circle, there are very few stones remaining. There is a single fallen stone with two mortices g, which has led to the belief that there was some variation in the plan of the second circle, such as is indicated by the letter a on the restored plan. Within the second circle were five distinct erections, each consisting of two very large stones with an impost, with three smaller stones in advance of each: these have been called trilithons. That marked h in the ground plan is the largest stone in the edifice, being 21 feet 6 inches in height. The two trilithons marked i are nearly perfect. The stones of the trilithon k are entire; but it fell prostrate as recently as 1797. The external appearance which the whole work would have if restored, is shown in the perspective elevation. (Fig. 3.) The internal arrangement is exhibited in the section. (Fig. 4.) The present appearance of the ruin from different points of view is shown in (Fig. 5) and (Fig. 6). The description which we have thus given, brief as it is, may appear somewhat tedious; but it is necessary to understand the general plan and some of the details of every great work of art, of whatever age, ruinous or entire, before the mind can properly apply itself to the associations which belong to it. In Stonehenge this course is more especially necessary; for, however the imagination may be impressed by the magnitude of those masses of stone which still remain in their places, by the grandeur even of the fragments confused or broken in their fall, by the consideration of the vast labour required to bring such ponderous substances to this desolate spot, and by surmise of the nature of the mechanical skill by which they were lifted up and placed in order and proportion, it is not till the entire plan is fully comprehended that we can properly surrender ourselves to the contemplations which belong to this remarkable scene. It is then, when we can figure to ourselves a perfect structure, composed of such huge materials symmetrically arranged, and possessing, therefore, that beauty which is the result of symmetry, that we can satisfactorily look back through the dim light of history or tradition to the object for which such a structure was destined. The belief now appears tolerably settled that Stonehenge was a temple of the Druids. It differs, however, from all other Druidical remains, in the circumstance that greater mechanical art was employed in its construction, especially in the super-incumbent stones of the outer circle and of the trilithons, from which it is supposed to derive its name: stan being the Saxon for a stone, and heng to hang or support. From this circumstance it is maintained that Stonehenge is of the very latest ages of Druidism; and that the Druids that wholly belonged to the ante-historic period followed the example of those who observed the command of the law: “If thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.” (Exodus, chap. xx.) Regarding Stonehenge as a work of masonry and architectural proportions, Inigo Jones came to the conclusion that it was a Roman Temple of the Tuscan order. This was an architect’s dream. Antiquaries, with less of taste and fancy than Inigo Jones, have had their dreams also about Stonehenge, almost as wild as the legend of Merlin flying away with the stones from the Curragh of Kildare. Some attribute its erection to the Britons after the invasion of the Romans. Some bring it down to as recent a period as that of the usurping Danes. Others again carry it back to the early days of the Phoenicians. The first notice of Stonehenge is found in the writings of Nennius, who lived in the ninth century of the Christian era. He says that at the spot where Stonehenge stands a conference was held between Hengist and Vortigern, at which Hengist treacherously murdered four hundred and sixty British nobles, and that their mourning survivors erected the temple to commemorate the fatal event. Mr. Davies, a modern [1840s] writer upon Celtic antiquities, holds that Stonehenge was the place of this conference between the British and Saxon princes, on account of its venerable antiquity and peculiar sanctity. There is a passage in Diodorus Siculus, quoted from Hecataeus, which describes a round temple in Britain dedicated to Apollo; and this Mr. Davies concludes to have been Stonehenge. By another writer, Dr. Smith, Stonehenge is maintained to have been “the grand orrery of the Druids,” representing, by combinations of its stones, the ancient solar year, the lunar month, the twelve signs of the zodiac, and the seven planets. Lastly, Stonehenge has been pronounced to be a temple of Budha, the Druids being held to be a race of emigrated Indian philosophers.

Diodorus Siculus Book II 47: Ναον αξιολογον, αναθημασι πολλοις κεκος μημενον, σφαιροειδη τωσχηματι... “there is also on the island both a magnificent sacred precinct of Apollo and a notable temple which is adorned with many votive offerings and is spherical in shape”—Liam



Figure 7
7.—Druidical Circle at Darab
Figure 8
8.—Druidical Stone in Persia.
Figure 9
9.—Druidical Circle of Jersey

Startling as this last assertion may appear to be, a variety of facts irresistibly lead to the conclusion that the circles, the stones of memorial, the cromlechs, and other monuments of the highest antiquity in these islands, have a distinct resemblance to other monuments of the same character scattered over Asia and Europe, and even found in the New World, which appear to have had a common origin. In Great Britain and Ireland, in Jersey and Guernsey, in France, in Germany, in Denmark and Sweden, such monuments are found extensively dispersed. They are found also, though more rarely, in the Netherlands, Portugal, and Malta; in Gozo and Phoenicia. But their presence is also unquestionable in Malabar, in India, in Palestine, in Persia. Figures 7 and 8 represent a Druidical circle, and a single upright stone standing alone near the circle, which are described by Sir William Ouseley as seen by him at Darab, in the province of Fars, in Persia. Our engravings are copied from those in Sir William Ouseley’s book. We have placed them upon the same page with the representations of Stonehenge. If we had obliterated the oriental figures, a superficial observation might easily receive them as representations of Stonehenge from another point of view. The circle of stones at Darab is surrounded by a wide and deep ditch and a high bank of earth; there is a central stone, and a single upright stone at some distance from the main group. The resemblance of the circle at Darab to the general arrangement of Stonehenge, and other similar monu ments of Europe, led Sir William Ouseley to the natural conclusion that a “British antiquary might be almost authorized to pronounce it Druidical, according to the general application of the word among us.” At Darab there is a peculiarity which is not found at Stonehenge, at least in its existing state. Under several of the stones there are recesses, or small caverns. In this particular, and in the general rudeness of its construction, the circle of Darab resembles the Druidical circle of Jersey (Fig. 9), although the circle there is very much smaller, and the stones of very inconsiderable dimensions,—a copy in miniature of such vast works as those of Stonehenge and Avebury. This singular monument, which was found buried under the earth, was removed some fifty years ago by General Conway, to his seat near Henley, the stones being placed in his garden according to the original plan.


Figure 23
23.—Remains of Old Sarum

When we open the great store-house not only of divine truth but of authentic history, we find the clearest record that circles of stone were set up for sacred and solemn purposes. The stones which were taken by Joshua out of the bed of the Jordan, and set up in Gilgal, supply the most remarkable example. The name Gilgal itself signifies a circle. Gilgal subsequently became a place not only of sacred observances, but for the more solemn acts of secular government. It was long a controversy, idle enough as such controversies generally are, whether Stonehenge was appropriated to religious or to civil purposes. If it is to be regarded as a Druidical monument, the discussion is altogether needless; for the Druids were, at one and the same time, the ministers of religion, the legislators, the judges, amongst the people. The account which Julius Cæsar gives of the Druids of Gaul, marked as it is by his usual clearness and sagacity, may be received without hesitation as a description of the Druids of Britain: for he says, “the system of Druidism is thought to have been formed in Britain, and from thence carried over into Gaul; and now those who wish to be more accurately versed in it for the most part go thither (i. e. to Britain) in order to become acquainted with it.” Nothing can be more explicit than his account of the mixed office of the Druids: “They are the ministers of sacred things; they have the charge of sacrifices, both public and private; they give directions for the ordinances of religious worship (religiones interpretantur). A great number of young men resort to them for the purpose of instruction in their system, and they are held in the highest reverence. For it is they who determine most disputes, whether of the affairs of the state or of individuals: and if any crime has been committed, if a man has been slain, if there is a contest concerning an inheritance or the boundaries of their lands, it is the Druids who settle the matter: they fix rewards and punishments: if any one, whether in an individual or public capacity, refuses to abide by their sentence, they forbid him to come to the sacrifices. This punishment is among them very severe; those on whom this interdict is laid are accounted among the unholy and accursed; all fly from them, and shun their approach and their conversation, lest they should be injured by their very touch; they are placed out of the pale of the law, and excluded from all offices of honour.” After noticing that a chief Druid, whose office is for life, presides over the rest, Cæsar mentions a remarkable circumstance which at once accounts for the selection of such a spot as Sarum Plain for the erection of a great national monument, a temple, and a seat of justice:—“These Druids hold a meeting at a certain time of the year in a consecrated spot in the country of the Carnutes (people in the neighbourhood of Chartres), which country is considered to be in the centre of all Gaul. Hither assemble all, from every part, who have a litigation, and submit themselves to their determination and sentence.” At Stonehenge, then, we may place the seat of such an assize. There were roads leading direct over the plain to the great British towns of Winchester and Silchester. Across the plain, at a distance not exceeding twenty miles, was the great temple and Druidical settlement of Avebury. The town and hill-fort of Sarum was close at hand (Fig. 23). Over the dry chalky downs, intersected by a few streams easily forded, might pilgrims resort from all the surrounding country. The seat of justice, which was also the seat of the highest religious solemnity, would necessarily be rendered as magnificent as a rude art could accomplish. Stonehenge might be of a later period than Avebury, with its mighty circles and long avenues of unhewn pillars; but it might also be of the same period,—the one distinguished by its vastness, the other by its beauty of proportion. The justice executed in that judgment-seat was, according to ancient testimony, bloody and terrible. The religious rites were debased into the fearful sacrifices of a cruel idolatry. But it is impossible not to feel that at the bottom of these superstitions there was a deep reverence for what was high and spiritual: that not only were the Druids the instructors of youth, but the preservers and disseminators of science, the proclaimers of an existence beyond this finite and material world—idolaters, but nevertheless teaching something nobler than what belongs to the mere senses, in the midst of their idolatry. We give entire what Cæsar says of the religious system of this remarkable body of men :—

“It is especially the object of the Druids to inculcate this—that souls do not perish, but after death pass into other bodies; and they consider that by this belief more than any thing else men may be led to cast away the fear of death, and to become courageous. They discuss, moreover, many points concerning the heavenly bodies and their motion, the extent of the universe and the world, the nature of things, the influence and ability of the immortal gods ; and they instruct the youth in these things.

“The whole nation of the Gauls is much addicted to religious observances, and, on that account, those who are attacked by any of the more serious diseases, and those who are involved in the dangers of warfare, either offer human sacrifices or make a vow that they will offer them, and they employ the Druids to officiate at these sacrifices: for they consider that the favour of the immortal gods cannot be conciliated unless the life of one man be offered up for that of another; they have also sacrifices of the same kind appointed on behalf of the state. Some have images of enormous size, the limbs of which they make of wicker-work, and fill with living men, and setting them on fire, the men are destroyed by the flames. They consider that the torture of those who have been taken in the commission of theft or open robbery, or in any crime, is more agreeable to the immortal gods; but when there is not a sufficient number of criminals, they scruple not to inflict this torture on the innocent.

“The chief deity whom they worship is Mercury; of him they have many images, and they consider him to be the inventor of all arts, their guide in all their journeys, and that he has the greatest influence in the pursuit of wealth and the affairs of commerce. Next to him they worship Apollo and Mars, and Jupiter and Minerva; and nearly resemble other nations in their views respecting these, as that Apollo wards off diseases, that Minerva communicates the rudiments of manufactures and manual arts, that Jupiter is the ruler of the celestials, that Mars is the god of war. To Mars, when they have determined to engage in a pitched battle, they commonly devote whatever spoil they may take in the war. After the contest, they slay all living creatures that are found among the spoil; the other things they gather into one spot. In many states, heaps raised of these things in consecrated places may be seen : nor does it often happen that any one is so unscrupulous as to conceal at home any part of the spoil, or to take it away when deposited; a very heavy punishment with torture is denounced against that crime.

“All the Gauls declare that they are descended from Father Dis (or Pluto), and this, they say, has been handed down by the Druids : for this reason, they distinguish all spaces of time not by the number of days, but of nights ; they so regulate their birth-days, and the beginning of the months and years, that the day shall come after the night.”*

* Cæsar de Bell. Gall., lib. vi. Our translation is that of the article “Britannia,” in the Penny Cyclopaedia.


Figure 10
10.—Astronomical Instrument.
Figure 11
11.—Gaulish Deity. Cernunnos.
Figure 12
12.—Gaulish Deity. Hesus.

The precise description which Cæsar has thus left us of the religion of the Druids—a religion which, whatever doubts may have been thrown upon the subject, would appear to have been the prevailing religion of ancient Britain, from the material monuments which are spread through the country, and from the more durable records of popular superstitions—is different in some particulars which have been supplied to us by other writers. According to Cæsar, the Druids taught that the soul of man did not perish with his perishable body, but passed into other bodies. But the language of other writers, Mela, Diodorus Siculus, and Ammianus Marcel-linus, would seem to imply that the Druids held the doctrine of the immortality of the soul as resting upon a nobler principle than that described by Cæsar. They believed, according to the express statement of Ammianus Marcellinus, that the future existence of the spirit was in another world. The substance of their religious system, according to Diogenes Laertius, was comprised in their three precepts—to worship the Gods, to do no evil, and to act with courage. It is held by some that they had a secret doctrine for the initiated, whilst their ritual observances were addressed to the grosser senses of the multitude; and that this doctrine was the belief in one God. Their veneration for groves of oak, and for sacred fountains, was an expression of that natural worship which sees the source of all good in the beautiful forms with which the earth is clothed. The sanctity of the mistletoe, the watch-fires of spring and summer and autumn, traces of which observances still remain amongst us, were tributes to the bounty of the All-giver, who alone could make the growth, the ripening, and the gathering of the fruits of the earth propitious. The sun and the moon regulated their festivals, and there is little doubt formed part of their outward worship. An astronomical instrument found in Ireland (Fig. 10) is held to represent the moon’s orbit, and the phases of the planets. They worshipped too, according to Cæsar, the divinities of Greece and Rome, such as Mars and Apollo : but Cæsar does not give us their native names. He probably found ascribed to these British gods like attributes of wisdom and of power as those of Rome, and so gave them Roman names. Under the church of Notre Dame, at Paris, were found in the last century two bas-reliefs of Celtic deities, the one Cernunnos (Fig. 11), the other Hesus (Fig. 12), corresponding to the Roman Mars. Other writers confirm Cæsar’s account of their human sacrifices. This is the most revolting part of the Druidical superstition. The shuddering with which those who live under a pure revelation must regard such fearful corruptions of the principle of devotion, which in some form or other seems an essential part of the constitution of the human faculties, produced this description of Stonehenge from the pen of a laborious and pious antiquary, Mr. King :—“Although my mind was previously filled with determined aversion, and a degree of horror, on reflecting upon the abominations of which this spot must have been the scene, and to which it even gave occasion, in the later periods of Druidism, yet it was impossible not to be struck, in the still of the evening, whilst the moon’s pale light illumined all, with a reverential awe, at the solemn appearance produced by the different shades of this immense group of astonishing masses of rock, artificially placed, impending over head with threatening aspect, bewildering the mind with the almost inextricable confusion of their relative situations with respect to each other, and from their rudeness as well as from their prodigious bulk, conveying at one glance all the ideas of stupendous greatness that could well be assembled together.” And yet the “determined aversion and degree of horror” thus justly felt, and strongly expressed, might be mitigated by the consideration that in nations wholly barbarous the slaughter of prisoners of war is indiscriminate, but that the victim of the sacrifice is the preserver of the mass. If the victims thus slain on the Druidical altars were culprits sacrificed to offended justice, the blood-stained stone of the sacred circle might find a barbarous parallel in the scaffold and the gibbet of modern times. Even such fearful rites, if connected with something nobler than the mere vengeance of man upon his fellows, are an advance in civilization, and they are not wholly inconsistent with that rude cultivation of our spiritual being which existed under the glimmerings of natural impulses, before the clear light of heaven descended upon the earth.


Figure 13
13.—Two Druids. Bas-relief found at Autun.
Figure 14
14.—Druidial Ornaments
Figure 16
16.—Ancient British Weapons of bone and flint.
Figure 18
18.—Various Barrows
Figure 19
19.—Various Barrows
Figure 20
20.—Varieties of Druid Barrow
Figure 21
21.—Four Tumuli at Barlow Hills, Essex
Figure 22
22.—Galleries at New Grange, Plan and Section
Figure 24
24.—Contents of Ancient British Barrows

We stand without the bank of Stonehenge, and we look upon the surrounding plains, a prospect wide as the sea. We walk along the avenue previously noticed, which extends for the third of a mile on the north-east. It then divides into two branches, the northward of which leads to what is called the cursus. This is a flat tract of land, bounded on each side by banks and ditches. It is more than a mile and five furlongs in length. Antiquaries have not settled whether it was a more recent Roman work or an appendage to the Druidical Stonehenge. At either extremity of the cursus are found what are called barrows. The southern branch of the avenue runs between two rows of barrows. On every side of Stonehenge we are surrounded with barrows. Wherever we cast our eyes we see these grassy mounds lifting up their heads in various forms (Fig. 18). Some are of the shape of bowls, and some of bells; some are oval, others nearly triangular; some present a broad but slight elevation of a circular form, surrounded by a bank and a ditch (Figs. 19, 20, 21, and 22.) The form of others is so feebly marked that they can be scarcely traced, except by the shadows which they cast in the morning and evening sun. This is the great burial-place of generations long passed away. Spenser tells us, according to the old legends, that a long line of British kings here lie entombed. Milton, in his History, relates their story, “Be it for nothing else but in favour of our English poets and rhetoricians.” The poets had used these legends before Milton collected them. If the old kings were here buried, though their very existence be now treated as a fable, they have wondrous monuments which have literally survived those of brass and stone. Unquestionably there were distinctions of rank and of sex amongst those who were here entombed. Their graves have been unmolested by the various spoilers who have ravaged the land; and, what is more important to their preservation, the plough has spared them, in these chalky downs which rarely repay the labours of cultivation. But the antiquary has broken into them with his spade and his mattock, and he has established their sepulchral character, and the peculiarities of their sepulture. Sir Richard Colt Hoare, who devoted a life to the examination of the antiquities of Wiltshire, justly says: “We must not consider every barrow as a mere tumulus, or mound, loosely or fortuitously thrown up; but must rather view them as works of evident design, and executed with the greatest symmetry and precision.” These remarkable monuments contain not only the bones and the ashes of the dead, but various articles of utility and ornament, domestic utensils, weapons of war, decorations of the person, perhaps insignia of honour (Figs. 13 and 14), the things which contributed to comfort, to security, and to the graces of life (Fig. 24). Mela says that the Druidical belief in a future state led the people to bury with the dead things useful to the living. The contents of these barrows indicate different stages of the arts. In some there are spear-heads and arrow-heads of flint and bone (Fig. 16); in others brass and iron are employed for the same weapons. In some the earthen vessels are rudely fashioned, and appear to have been dried in the sun; in others they are of regular form, as if produced by the lathe, are baked, and ornamented. But, whatever be the difference in the comparative antiquity of these burrows, it is a remarkable fact that in those of South Wiltshire, which have nearly all been explored, nothing whatever has been discovered which could indicate that this mode of sepulture was practised after the Roman dominion had commenced in Britain. The coins of the conquerors of the world are not here to be looked for.

Towards the northern extremity of that extensive range of chalky downs which, whether called Salisbury Plain or Marlborough Downs, present the same geological character, we find the seat of one of the most remarkable monuments of the ancient inhabitants of this island. About a mile to the north of the great road from Bath to London is the village of Abury, or Avebury. A traveller unacquainted with the history of this little village, lying in its peaceful obscurity on the banks of the Kennet, out of the common way of traffic, might walk through it almost without noticing the vast blocks of stone which lie scattered at very irregular distances amongst its ploughed fields, or stand, as if defying time and man, close by the farmer’s homestead. Year after year has their number been diminished; so that if we had only now begun to judge of the whole from its remaining parts, the great temple of Abury might have appeared to the incredulous eye little more than the imaginative creation of confiding antiquarianism. Upon the neighbouring downs there are large blocks of stone lying here and there, and seeming perhaps as symmetrically arranged as the remains of Abury. The shepherds call them the Grey Wethers, a name which implies that they have an affinity to natural objects. Man, indeed, has not disturbed their rest since they were thrown on these downs like pebbles cast by the Titans. The land upon which the Grey Wethers lie is too barren for culture; but the soil of Abury rendered the great Druidical temple an incumbrance upon its fertility. For two centuries we can trace the course of its destruction. Gibson describes it as “a monument more considerable in itself than known to the world. For a village of the same name being built within the circumference of it, and, by the way, out of its stones too, what by gardens, orchards, enclosures, and the like, the prospect is so interrupted that it is very hard to discover the form of it.” The good old gossip Aubrey saw the place in 1648, and Charles the Second desired him to write an account of it in 1663. The king himself went to see it in that year; and perhaps we can have no better evidence than this of the remarkable character of the structure; for Charles, we imagine, would be as sceptical as Edie Ochiltree* about the existence of circles, and avenues, and altar-stones, and cromlechs, whose plan could be indicated only by a few crumbling sandstones. Gibson, continuing his very brief notice of Abury, says, “It is environed by an extraordinary vallum, or rampire, as great and as high as that at Winchester; and within it is a graff (ditch or moat) of a depth and breadth proportionable. .... The graff hath been surrounded all along the edge of it with large stones pitched on end, most of which are now taken away; but some marks remaining give liberty for a conjecture that they stood quite round.” In Aubrey’s time sixty-three stones, which he describes, were standing within the entrenched enclosure. Dr. Stukeley made a minute examination of Abury from 1720 to 1724. His work, ‘Abury, a Temple of the British Druids,’ was published in 1743. King says, “In Dr. Stukeley’s time, when the destruction of the whole for the purposes of building was going on so rapidly, still forty-four of the stones of the great outward circle were left, and many of the pillars of the great avenue: and a great cromlech was in being, the upper stone of which he himself saw broken and carried away, the fragments of it alone making no less than twenty good cartloads.” In 1812, according to Sir Richard Hoare, only seventeen of the stones remained within the great enclosure. Their number has been since still further reduced. The barbarism of the Turks, who burned the marble monuments of Greece for lime, may find a parallel in the stone-breakers of Abury, and in many other stone-breakers and stone defacers,—the beautifiers as bad as the destroyers,—in our own country, and almost in our own day.

* “Prætorian here, Prætorian there, I mind the bigging on’t.”—Scott’s Antiquary.


Figure 25
25.—General View of Abury Restored.
Figure 26
26.—Abury Plan and Section
Figure 27
27.—Abury. Extended Plan.
Figure 28
28.—Abury. Bird's eye view, from the South.

Dr. Stukeley, who brought to the study of these early antiquities something similar to the genius by which a naturalist can discover the structure of a fossil animal by the formation of a tooth or a claw, has given us some very complete plans for the restoration of Abury; and although he has been sometimes held to be enthusiastic and credulous, there is such sound foundation for his conjectures in this particular case, that antiquarians are pretty well agreed to speak of Abury, as it was, upon his authority. His admiration of this monument is, as we might expect, somewhat exaggerated. Aubrey said, “These antiquities are so exceedingly old that no books do reach them; I can affirm that I have brought this temple from utter darkness into a thin mist.” But Stukeley endeavours to bring the original structure of the building into the clear light of day; and to describe it as perspicuously as if the ground-plans of the Arch-Druid architect were lying before him. We may smile at this; but we must not forget that the elements of such an erection are very simple. No one doubts about the great circular vallum and ditch which surround the principal work. It was there when Aubrey wrote; it remains to this day, however broken and obscured. The plan (Fig. 26) exhibits this bank e, with the ditch f: immediately within the ditch was a circle of stones, dotted on the plan. This circle is stated to have been composed of a hundred stones, many from fifteen to seventeen feet in height, but some much smaller, and others considerably higher, of vast breadth, in some cases equal to the height. The distance between each stone was about twenty-seven feet. The circle of stones was about thirteen hundred feet in diameter. The inner slope of the bank measured eighty feet. Its circumference at the top is stated by Sir Richard Hoare to be four thousand four hundred and forty-two feet. The area thus enclosed exceeds twenty-eight acres. Half-way up the bank was a sort of terrace walk of great breadth. Dimensions such as these at once impress us with notions of vastness and magnificence. But they approach to sublimity when we imagine a mighty population standing upon this immense circular terrace, and looking with awe and reverence upon the religious and judicial rites that were performed within the area. The Roman amphitheatres are petty things compared with the enormous circle of Abury. Looking over the hundred columns, the spectators would see, within, two other circular temples, marked c and d: of the more northerly of these double circles some stories of immense size are still standing. The great central stone of c, more than twenty feet high, was standing in 1713. In 1720 enough remained decidedly to show their original formation. The general view (Fig. 25) is a restoration formed upon the plan (Fig. 26). Upon that plan there are two openings through the bank and ditch, a and b. These are connected with a peculiarity of Abury, such as is found in no other monument of those called Celtic, although near Penrith a long avenue of granite stones formerly existed. At these entrances two lines of upright stones branched off, each extending for more than a mile. These avenues are exhibited in the plan (Fig. 27). That running to the south, and south-east d, from the great temple a, terminated at e, in an elliptical range of upright stones. It consisted, according to Stukeley, of two hundred stones. The oval thus terminating this avenue was placed on a hill called the Hakpen, or Overtoil Hill. Crossing this is an old British track-way h. Barrows, dotted on the plan, are scattered all around. The western avenue c, extending nearly a mile and a half towards Beckhampton, consisted also of about two hundred stones, terminating in a single stone. It has been held that these avenues, running in curved lines, are emblematic of the serpent-worship, one of the most primitive and widely extended superstitions of the human race. Conjoined with this worship was the worship of the sun, according to those who hold that the whole construction of Abury was emblematic of the idolatry of primitive Druidism. The high ground to the south of Abury within the avenues is indicated upon the plan (Fig. 27). Upon that plan is also marked f, a most remarkable monument of the British period, Silbury Hill; of which Sir R. Hoare says, “There can be no doubt it was one of the component parts of the grand temple at Abury, not a sepulchral mound raised over the bones and ashes of a king or arch-druid. Its situation, opposite to the temple, and nearly in the centre between the two avenues, seems in some degree to warrant this supposition.” The Roman road k from Bath to London passes close under Silbury Hill, diverging from the usual straight line, instead of being cut through this colossal mound. The bird’s-eye view (Fig. 28), exhibits the restoration of Abury and its neighbourhood somewhat more clearly. 1 is the circumvallated bank, 2 and 3 the inner temples, 4 the river Kennet, 5 and 6 the avenues, 7 Silbury Hill, 8 a large barrow, 9 a cromlech.


Figure 32
32.—Silbury Hill, in Wiltshire

Silbury Hill (Fig. 32) is the largest artificial mound in Europe. It is not so large as the mound of Alyattes in Asia Minor, which Herodotus has described and a modern traveller has ridden round. It is of greater dimensions than the second pyramid of Egypt. Stukeley is too ardent in the contemplation of this wonder of his own land when he says, “I have no scruple to affirm it is the most magnificent mausoleum in the world, without excepting the Egyptian pyramids.” But an artificial hill which covers five acres and thirty-four perches; which at the circumference of the base measures two thousand and twenty-seven feet; whose diameter at top is one hundred and twenty feet, its sloping height three hundred and sixteen feet, and its perpendicular height one hundred and seven feet, is indeed a stupendous monument of human labour, of which the world can show very few such examples. There can be no doubt whatever that the hill is entirely artificial. The great earth works of a modern railway are the results of labour, assisted by science and stimulated by capital, employing itself for profit: but Silbury Hill in all likelihood was a gigantic effort of what has been called hero-worship, a labour for no direct or immediate utility, but to preserve the memory of some ruler, or lawgiver, or warrior, or priest. Multitudes lent their aid in the formation; and shouted or wept around it, when it had settled down into solidity under the dews and winds, and its slopes were covered with ever-springing grass. If it were a component part of the temple at Abury, it is still to be regarded, even more than the gathering together of the stone circles and avenues of that temple, as the work of great masses of the people labouring for some elevating and heart-stirring purpose. Their worship might be blind, cruel, guided by crafty men who governed them by terror or by delusion. But these enduring monuments show the existence of some great and powerful impulses which led the people to achieve mighty things. There was a higher principle at work amongst them, however abused and perverted, than that of individual selfishness. The social principle was built upon some sort of reverence, whether of man, or of beings held to preside over the destinies of man.


Figure 33
33.—Carnbré Castle
Figure 35
35.—Round Tower of Donoughmore.

It requires no antiquarian knowledge to satisfy the observer of the great remains of Stonehenge and Abury, that they are works of art, in the strict sense of the word—originating in design, having proportion of parts, adapted to the institutions of the period to which they belonged, calculated to affect with awe and wonder the imagination of the people that assembled around them. But there are many remarkable groups of immense stones, and single stones, in various parts of England, which, however artificial they may appear, are probably wholly or in part natural productions. Some of these objects have involved great differences of opinion. For instance, the Bock of Carnbré, or Karn-bré, near Truro, is held by Borlase, in his ‘Antiquities of Cornwall,’ to be strewed all over with Druidical remains. He says, “In this hill of Karn-bré, we find rock-basins, circles, stones erect, remains of cromlechs, cairns, a grove of oaks, a cave, and an inclosure, not of military, but religious, structure: and these are evidences sufficient of its having been a place of Druid worship; of which it may be some confirmation, that the town, about half a mile across the brook, which runs at the bottom of this hill, was anciently called Red-drew, or, more rightly, Ryd-drew, i. e., the Druids’ Ford, or crossing of the brook.” The little castle at the top of the hill is called by Borlase a British fortress (Fig. 33); and in this point some antiquaries are inclined to agree with him. But they for the most part hold that his notions of circles, and stones erect, and cromlechs, are altogether visionary; and that the remarkable appearances of these rocks are produced by the unassisted operations of nature. It is certain, however, that about a century ago an immense number of gold coins were discovered on this hill, which bear no traces of Roman art; and which, having the forms of something like a horse and a wheel impressed upon them, Borlase thinks allude to the chariot-fighting of the British, being coined before the invasion of Cæsar. Davies, in his ‘Mythology and Rites of the British Druids,’ considers them to be Druidical coins; the supposed horse being a mystical combination of a bird, a mare, and a ship,—“a symbol of Kêd or Ceridwen, the Arkite goddess, or Ceres of the Britons.” It is unnecessary for us to pursue these dark and unsatisfactory inquiries. We mention them to point out how full of doubt and difficulty is the whole subject of the superstitions of our British ancestors. But wherever we can find distinct traces of their work, we discover something far above the conceptions of mere barbarians—great monuments, originating in the direction of some master minds, and adapted by them to the habits and the feelings of the body of the people. The Druidical circles, as we have shown, are not confined to England or Scotland. On the opposite shores of Brittany the great remains of Carnac exhibit a structure of far greater extent even than Abury. “Carnac is infinitely more extensive than Stonehenge, but of ruder formation; the stones are much broken, fallen down, and displaced; they consist of eleven rows of unwrought pieces of rock or stone, merely set up on end in the earth, without any pieces crossing them at top. These stones are if great thickness, but not exceeding nine or twelve feet in height; here may be some few fifteen feet. The rows are placed from fifteen to eighteen paces from each other, extending in length (taking rather a semicircular direction) above half a mile, on unequal ground, and towards one end upon a hilly site. When the length of these rows is considered, there must have been nearly three hundred stones in each, and there are eleven rows; this will give you some idea of the immensity of the work, and the labour such a contraction required. It is said that there are above four thousand stones now remaining.” (Mrs. Stothard’s ‘Tour in Normandy and Brittany.’) It is easy to understand how the same religion prevailing in neighbouring countries might produce monuments of a similar character; but we find the same in the far east, in lands separated from ours by pathless deserts and wide seas. So it is with those remarkable structures, the Round Towers of Ireland; which were considered ancient even in the twelfth century. Many of these towers are still perfect. They are varied in their construction, and their height is very different; but they all agree in their general external appearance, tapering from the base to a conical cap or roof, which forms the summit. They are almost invarariably found close to an ancient Christian church; which is accounted for by the fact, that the sites of pagan worship were usually chosen by the early missionaries for rearing a holier structure, which should reclaim the people from their superstitious reverence, to found that reverence upon the truths which were purifying the lands of classic paganism. The Round Tower of Donoughmore (Fig. 35) is one of these singular monuments. “The only structures that have been anywhere found similar to the Irish Round Towers are in certain countries of the remote east, and especially in India and Persia. This would seem to indicate a connexion between these countries and Ireland, the probability of which, it has been attempted to show, is corroborated by many other coincidences of language, of religion, and of customs, as well as by the voice of tradition, and the light, though faint and scattered, which is thrown upon the subject by the records of history. The period of the first civilization of Ireland then would, under this view, be placed in the same early age of the world which appears to have witnessed, in those oriental countries, a highly advanced condition of the arts and sciences, as well as flourishing institutions of religious and civil polity, which have also, in a similar manner, decayed and passed away.” (‘Pictorial History of England.’) The same reasoning may be applied to the Druidical circles, of which the resemblances are as striking, in countries far removed from any knowledge of the customs of aboriginal Britons.


Figure 34
34.—Stones at Stanton Drew

About seven miles south of Bristol is a small parish called Stanton Drew. The name is held to mean the Stone Town of the Druids. Stukeley was of opinion that the Druidical monument at this place was more ancient than Abury. The temple is held to have consisted of three circles, a large central circle, and two smaller ones. Of the larger circle five stones are still remaining; and of the smaller ones still more. Stanton Drew was described in 1718, by Dr. Musgrave, and afterwards by Stukeley. The stones had suffered great dilapidation in their time; and the process of breaking them up for roads has since gone forward with uninterrupted diligence. They are very rude in their forms, as will be seen by reference to the engraving (Fig. 34.) That marked a is singular in its rugged-ness. The stone b inclines towards the north, and its present position is supposed to be its original one: in its general appearance of bending forward, it is not unlike the single stone in the avenue at Stonehenge. The stone c differs greatly from the others, in being square and massive. The largest stone, d, is prostrate; it is fifteen feet and a half in length. The engraving represents not the circular arrangement, but remarkable separate stones, of which e is at a considerable distance from either of the circles. The largest stones are much inferior in their dimensions to those at Stonehenge and Abury. The smaller ones lie scattered about at very irregular distances; and it certainly requires a great deal of antiquarian faith to find the circles which are traced with such infallible certainty by early and recent writers. It is very different with Abury and Stonehenge. The country people have their own traditions about these remains. They call them “the wedding;” holding that, as a bride and bridegroom were proceeding to their espousals, surrounded by pipers and dancers, the whole party, for what crime we are not informed, were suddenly turned into stone. The theories of the learned are in some matters almost as difficult to be received as the traditions of the vulgar. King says of the remains of Stanton Drew, “There are stones cautiously placed nearly on each side of the meridian, two at the one end for a sort of observer’s index, and two at the other as if designed for leading sites to direct the eye to certain points in the heavens, equally distant, a little to the east and west of the south: and so in like manner, two to the east, and one on the west side for an index, as if to observe the rising of certain stars and planets.” Superstition, we apprehend, settles these matters much more easily than science. There were formerly three huge upright stones near Kennet, not far from Abury, which Dr. Plot held to be British deities. The country people had a readier explanation of their use; for they called them, from time immemorial, “the Devil’s Coits.” They could be playthings, it might be readily imagined, for no other busy idler. But the good folks of Somersetshire, by a sort of refinement of such hackneyed traditions, hold that a great stone near Stanton Drew, now called ‘Hackell’s Coit,’ and which formerly weighed thirty tons, was thrown from a hill about a mile off by a mortal champion, Sir John Hautville. It is remarkable, though perhaps natural, that there is generally some superstitious notion associated with these monuments of a dim antiquity. We shall have presently to speak of the singular erection near Maidstone, called Kit’s Coty House. Near this supposed cromlech are some large stones, scattered about a ploughed field. A coachman, who was duly impressed with the claims of Kit’s Coty House to notice, told us, as the climax of the extraordinary things connected with it, that no one had ever been able to count the stones in that field, so that it was impossible to say what was their exact number. In the neighbourhood of Stanton Drew, they have a variation of this belief which does not go quite so far. They simply hold that it is wicked to attempt to count the stones.

The remains of Druidical circles are so similar in their character, that a minute description of any other than the most remarkable would be tedious and uninteresting to the general reader. We shall content ourselves, therefore, with pointing out those of chief importance, which may either recompense the visit of the traveller, or lead the student of British antiquities to more careful inquiries.

Camden, who made an exact survey of Cumberland in 1599, thus describes a celebrated British monument near Penrith: “At Little Salkeld there is a circle of stones, seventy-seven in number, each ten foot high; and before these, at the entrance, is a single one by itself, fifteen foot high. This the common people call Long Meg, and the rest her daughters; and within the circle are two heaps of stones, under which they say there are dead bodies buried. And indeed it is probable enough that this has been a monument erected in memory of some victory.” It is held by later antiquaries that Camden was in error in considering this to have been a monument of some victory, and that it is an undoubted Druidical circle. It is not of the grandeur of Stonehenge and Abury, for none of the stones exceed ten feet in height. There is another circle of stones within a mile and a half of Keswick. Near that bleak and dreary region, between Penrith and Kendal, called Shapfells, was, some thirty years ago, another remarkable Druidical monument; but upon the inclosure of the parish of Shap the stones were blown up by gunpowder, and were converted into rude fences. At Arbelows, about five miles from Bakewell, in Derbyshire, is a Druidical circle, which, according to King, “there is great reason to think, notwithstanding its mutilated appearance in its present ruined state, was once a regular structure very nearly of the same kind with that of Stonehenge.” In Oxfordshire, about three miles north-west of Chipping Norton, are the remains of a circle of small rude stones, the highest of which is not more than five feet above the ground. There appears to be little doubt of this circle belonging to the early British period; though Camden and others hold it to be the monument of a Danish victory. The description which Camden gives of these Rollrich or Rowldrich stones is very curious: “A great monument of antiquity; a number of vastly large stones placed in a circular figure, which the country people call Rolle-rich-stones, and have a common tradition that they were once men and were turned into stones. They are irregular, and of unequal height, and by the decays of time are grown ragged and very much impaired. The highest of them which lies out of the ring towards the east, they call The King, because they fancy he should have been king of England if he could have seen Long Compton, a village which is within view at a very few steps farther. Five larger stones, which on one side of the circle are contiguous to one another, they pretend were knights or horsemen, and the other common soldiers.” About five miles from Aberdeen in Scotland are the remains of a circle of large stones and smaller stones. At Stennis in the Orkney Islands a circle is described where some of the stones are twenty feet high.

The Druidical circles in their uniformity of character present the indubitable evidence that they were symbolical of the mysteries of the prevailing religion of the country. They were essentially religious edifices. They were probably, at the same time, what the Icelandic writers call Doom rings, or Circles of Judgment. That these monuments, in association with religious rites and solemn decisions, had a deep influence upon the character of our rude forefathers, we cannot reasonably doubt. They were a bold and warlike race, an imaginative race, not placing the sole end of existence in the consumption of the fruits of the earth, but believing in spiritual relations and future existences. Degrading as their superstitions might be, and blind their notions of the future, their belief was not a mere formal and conventional pretence; it was a principle operating upon their actions. We have the express testimony of an ancient poet to this effect of the old worship of this land. Lucan, in a noble passage in the first book of the Pharsalia, addresses the Druids in the well known lines beginning “Et vos barbaricos.” The translation of Rowe is generally quoted; but it appears to us that the lines are rendered with more strength and freedom by Kennet, who translated the poetical quotations in Gibson’s edition of Camden’s ’Britannia.’

“And you, O Druids, free from noise and arms,

Renew’d your barbarous rites and horrid charms.

What Gods, what powers in happy mansions dwell,

Or only you, or all but you can tell.

To secret shades, and unfrequented groves,

From world and cares your peaceful tribe removes.

You teach that souls, eas’d of their mortal load,

Nor with grim Pluto make their dark abode,

Nor wander in pale troops along the silent flood,

But on new regions cast resume their reign,

Content to govern earthy frames again.

Thus death is nothing but the middle line

Betwixt what lives will come, and what have been.

Happy the people by your charms possess’d!

Nor fate, nor fears, disturb their peaceful breast.

On certain dangers unconcern’d they run,

And meet with pleasure what they would not shun;

Defy death’s slighted power, and bravely scorn

To spare a life that will so soon return.”

In reading this remarkable tribute to the national courage of our remote ancestors, let us not forget that this virtue, like all other great characteristic virtues of a community, was based upon a principle; and that the principle, whatever might be its errors, rested upon the disposition of man to believe and to reverence. Those who would build the superstructure of national virtue upon what they hold to be the more solid foundation of self-interest, may, we conceive, create a restless, turmoiling turbulent democracy, astute in all worldly business, eager for all sensual gratifications, exhibiting the glitter of wealth plating over vice and misery; confident in their superiority; ignorant of the past, careless of the future: but they will raise up no high-minded, generous, self-devoting people; no people that will distinguish between liberty and anarchy; no thoughtful, and therefore firm and just, people; no people that will produce any great intellectual work, whether in art or in literature; no people that will even leave such monuments behind them, as the Stonehenge and Abury of the blind and benighted Druids.