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The Medieval History of Stonehenge

Stonehenge today is known as a prehistoric site and often associated with the druids, and the ancient Celts. It was used for religious rituals and believed to be a place of worship for the cult of the dead. How was it perceived in the Middle Ages? Was it simply abandoned to the passage of time?

Lucas de Heere’ drawing of Stonehenge from the 1570s.

Much like today, medieval people were fascinated by the monument and wondered what it signified. Stories cropped up in the Middle Ages about the origins of this strange site, and several medieval artists left behind depictions of it so that we have a first hand view of how they viewed the monument.

The recent discovery of chapels, shrines and burial mounds demonstrate the monument was used for much more long after it was thought to have stopped being used for religious purposes. It was suggested that the bluestones which make up some of Stonehenge may have had healing properties. Geoffrey Wainwright believed that the monument was used by ancient pilgrims for healing. This view, however, may have been transposed from early medieval stories about healing stones and healing water that were popular at the time.

The famous Arthurian author Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100-1155) wrote his account of Stonehenge in 1136. He claimed that it was commissioned by a mythical Briton king, Aurelius Ambrosias, while he was in exile in Brittany. It was built as a memorial to the 460 slain British lords who were betrayed by Vortigern and the Saxons. The men were tricked into believing they were meeting at the site to broker a peace treaty, but were slaughtered instead. When Aurelius returned, he gave Merlin the task of creating a memorial to his men. Merlin is said to have brought the stones from Ireland using his magic. Eventually, Aurelius and King Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, were supposedly buried there. This is one of the most popular medieval foundation stories surrounding the monument and firmly cemented Stonehenge’s association with a mythical Arthurian past.

A giant helps Merlin build Stonehenge. From a manuscript of the Roman de Brut by Wace in the British Library – MS Egerton 3028.

Henry of Huntingdon (1088-1157) also wrote about Stonehenge in his Historia Anglorum, an account of the history of England up to 1154. In a section about the marvels of Britain he writes:

The second marvel is Stonehenge, where stones of amazing bigness are raised in manner of gateways; nor can any one find out by what contrivance stones so great have been raised to such a height, or for what reason they have been erected in that place.

Stonehenge was also depicted by another twelfth century author, the Norman poet, Wace (1110-1174) in his work, the Roman de Brut. Wace penned his literary history based of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannia. There is a picture of Stonehenge and Merlin; one of the earliest illustrations of the monument in the Middle Ages.

For one the earliest known accurate depictions of Stonehenge, we turn to Flemish portrait painter, Lucas de Heere (1534-1584). De Heere fled to England after Philip of Spain II (1527-1598) tried to suppress Protestantism. De Heere lived in England as a religious exile and became popular in the Tudor court. He trained other Flemish painters, and while he was in exile, also compiled a book about his time in England which contained everything from history, to fashion to English customs. In this guidebook, his painting of Stonehenge is important because it of its detail. It was painted around 1570 and is currently at the British Library in London.

In 2006, a third medieval depiction of Stonehenge was discovered, one drawn in the 1440s. Historian Christian Heck made the discovery while in Lille spending a year at the Douai library looking at the medieval illuminated manuscripts. The manuscripts were part of a cataloguing programme of Institut de Recherché et d’Histoire des Textes. He discovered the drawing in Folio 55R in the Scala Mundi text, which appears to have been last copied after 1441. Written above the drawing is Latin text that reads: “That year Merlin, not by force but by art, brought and erected the giants’ round from Ireland, at Stonehenge near Amesbury”.

Folio 55R in the Scala Mundi text

Stonehenge fascinated medieval writers who used it in their pseudo histories of England and saw it as a link to a national, Arthurian past. The ancient site will continue to fascinate modern scholars who debate about its meaning and how it arrived to its current location.

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