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{Stonehenge}

The megalithic ruin known as Stonehenge stands on the open downland of Salisbury Plain two miles (three kilometres) west of the town of Amesbury, Wiltshire, in Southern England. It is not a single structure but consists of a series of earth, timber, and stone structures that were revised and re-modelled over a period of more than 1400 years.


Already in the 18th century the British antiquarian William Stukeley had noticed that the horseshoe of great trilithons and the horseshoe of 19 bluestones at Stonehenge opened up in the direction of the midsummer sunrise. It was quickly surmised that the monument must have been deliberately oriented and planned so that on midsummer's morning the sun rose directly over the Heel Stone and the first rays shone into the centre of the monument between the open arms of the horseshoe arrangement.



View from the center of Stonehenge towards the Heel Stone, and a photograph of the sun rising over the Heel Stone

This discovery has had tremendous impact on how Stonehenge has been interpreted. For Stukeley in the 18th century and Sir Norman Lockyer in the first years of the 20th century, this alignment implied a ritualistic connection with sun worship and it was generally concluded that Stonehenge was constructed as a temple to the sun. More recently, though, the astronomer Gerald Hawkins has argued that Stonehenge is not merely aligned with solar and lunar astronomical events, but can be used to predict other events such as eclipses. In other words, Stonehenge was more than a temple, it was an astronomical calculator.

It was argued that the summer solstice alignment cannot be accidental. The sun rises in different directions in different geographical latitudes. For the alignment to be correct, it must have been calculated precisely for Stonehenge's latitude of 51° 11'. The alignment, therefore, must have been fundamental to the design and placement of Stonehenge. As if corroborating the claims made by Hawkins for Stonehenge, Alexander Thom, a professor of engineering and a mathematician, has shown that many other megalithic sites throughout Britain are also oriented towards the sun and the moon.

The alignment also made it clear that whoever built Stonehenge had precise astronomical knowledge of the path of the sun and, moreover, must have known before construction began precisely where the sun rose at dawn on midsummer's morning while standing on the future site of the monument. This point needs to be made because, as I suspect, with Stonehenge and many other such monuments, it was the site, a particular place within the landscape, that was important; only later were these sites marked in some more permanent manner by the digging of ditches and banks and (or instead) the erection of wood or stone structures.

For reasons we shall never know, this particular spot in the landscape was so important that not only were ditches and banks dug and, later, stone circles and horseshoe arrangements constructed to mark it, but that some of the stones were deliberately transported there with considerable effort from a great distance away.

Contrary to expectations, the great stone circles and horseshoe arrangements for which Stonehenge is famous are later additions to the monument (mostly Stonehenge III) and are not essential to the lunar and solar calculations.

After centuries of neglect in the wake of first Roman and then Christian suppression, the Druids were rediscovered during the Renaissance when the revival of interest in ancient Greek and Latin writers brought attention to the works of Pliny, Tacitus, and Julius Caesar and their descriptions of the Celtic world. First in France in the sixteenth century, and then in England, the ancient Celts (or Gauls as they were known in France) and Druids were claimed as historical ancestors. By the seventeenth century, a new romantic image of Druids began to emerge in French and English literature.

In England as early as 1624 the Celtic warrior queen Boudicca is credited by Edmond Bolton with building Stonehenge as her monument. Although other English writers at this time refused to acknowledge anything worthwhile in Celtic culture, and the architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652), in his The Most Remarkable Antiquity of Great Britain, vulgarly called Stone-Henge, Restored, compiled from his notes by his son-in-law John Webb and published in 1655, would conclude that "Stonehenge was no work of the Druids" (he claimed instead that it had been built by the Romans, see "Stonehenge Restorations"), the link between the Druids and Stonehenge had nonetheless been forged in the popular imagination.



Druids celebrating the summer solstice at Stonehenge


Already by 1649, John Aubrey had suggested that the Druids were probably responsible for building Stonehenge, a theme he developed into a book originally to be titled 'Templa Druidum' but which ultimately formed a chapter in his Monumenta Britannica. In the early 18th century, Aubrey's views became known to William Stukeley who not only declared Stonehenge (and Avebury) to be a temple of the Druids, but, according to some, was instrumental in initiating in 1717 the first Order of Druids on Primrose Hill, London. Some scholars, however, have found no evidence for this, and recognize instead the earliest revived Druidic order as being the Ancient Order of Druids founded in 1781 by Henry Hurle who organized it on the lines of Freemasonry. By 1839, however, conflicts between members led to the formation of a breakaway movement named the United Order of Druids, lodges for which were also established in the United States and Australia. The United Order of Druids still flourishes today as an international charitable organization.

The more mystical Ancient Order of Druids also continued through the 19th century and into the 20th, claiming among its many members Winston Churchill (1874-1965), who was initiated into the Albion Lodge at Oxford.



Winston Churchill (center) hosts the Ancient Order of Druids
at Blenheim Palace on 15 August, 1908


Exactly when the Ancient Order of Druids began their annual summer soltice celebrations at Stonehenge is unclear. Meanwhile, though, the monument drew a variety of other visitors and was popular among royalty and public alike. In the photograph on the left, Prince Leopold (4th from the right), the youngest son of Queen Victoria, enjoys a picnic with friends, while the photograph on the right records a village outing in the late 19th century.



By 1900 visitors were causing a lot of damage to the monument (two stones fell in this year) so its owner, Sir Edward Antrobus fenced in the site and began charging an entry fee. Not surprisingly, this greatly annoyed the Druids who refused to pay and were forcibly ejected by the police. A High Court case in 1905 upheld Antrobus's right to charge admission. A photograph from 1905 shows that despite the entry fee the ceremonies that year were nonetheless well attended.



Initiation of novices into the Ancient Order of Druids at Stonehenge, August, 1905


In 1915, Stonehenge was sold and in 1918 the new owner presented it to the nation. By this time the number of Druidic sects had multiplied to five with each one vying to perform 'sacred rites' at the monument. A photograph from 1923 shows one of these sects performing the summer solstice celebration of that year.



Druidic Ceremony at Stonehenge, 1923
(Photograph from the library of Roger Viollet, Paris)

By 1949 only two of these sects survived, and by 1955 only one, the British Circle of the Universal Bond, which claimed to be not only the true descendants of Henry Hurle's original Ancient Order of Druids but also of William Stukeley's Order of Druids purportedly founded in 1717. In 1963, an internal dispute produced the breakaway Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. The Bards celebrated their rites at Tower Hill. The Bond, however, continued to welcome the midsummer dawn at Stonehenge.



A herald trumpets a welcoming fanfare to the four winds at summer solstice ceremonies in 1966
(Photograph by Austin Underwood)

From the beginning, it would appear, the Druidic ceremonies at Stonehenge drew crowds of spectators and the occasion early acquired a celebratory, festival-like character. A mass induction of novices into the Ancient Order in August, 1905 (the novices can be seen marching in procession between ranks of Druids in the photograph of that occasion), included a grand lunch at which, according to local newspaper reports, a large quantity of drink was consumed.



A photograph from 1966 shows the Druids almost lost among the crowds of people a number of whom watch the ceremonies perched on top of the stones. In 1975, the new 'New Age'-oriented, alternative, neo-pagan Secular Order of Druids was initiated and the annual Stonehenge festival began to attract huge crowds. After 65 years or so of being managed by departments of the government, in 1984 Stonehenge was placed under the control of English Heritage, a quasi-independent agency established by Parliament with responsibility for looking after ancient sites in England.




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