Book Extract: Stonehenge by Rosemary Hill

Hill's Stonehenge surveys the endless speculations around this mysterious monument

Antiquaries were a relatively new intellectual species, largely a product of the Reformation, and they were interested in what could be discovered of the past by looking beyond the written records. They studied anything that was old – stones, metal, pottery, coins – attracting in the process much derision from contemporaries who thought it an "unnaturall disease" to be so "enamour'd of old age and wrinkles". Yet the antiquaries were the first archaeologists. They were also the first oral historians, costume historians, art historians and folklorists. They opened up vast intellectual horizons and if, as later archaeologists have sometimes been quick to point out, they made mistakes, they were not alone in that and, working in an age before academic specialisation, before science and the arts had parted company, they were also able to make daring and useful connections.

It was James I, who prided himself on being up to date with intellectual fashion, who initiated the archaeological investigation of Stonehenge, although as befits the man known as "the wisest fool in Christendom" his efforts had mixed results. Staying nearby at Wilton House in 1620, he expressed an interest in the stones. Since the Reformation the land on which Stonehenge stood had passed into private hands and it was to remain private property until the 20th century. James's intimate friend the Duke of Buckingham, eager to please, immediately tried to buy it for the King. The owner, however, refused to sell, so Buckingham had to be content with digging an enormous hole in the middle of it, from which he removed various objects now lost and, as John Aubrey later thought, caused one of the stones (stone 56) to tilt over "by being underdigged". After this unpromising start the King approached the Royal Surveyor, Inigo Jones, and asked him to produce a report. Jones's Stone-Heng Restored appeared posthumously in 1655. It was the first book entirely devoted to the subject and it argued that Stonehenge was Roman. The reaction that this theory provoked kick-started the antiquarian investigation of Stonehenge. If there was anything the typical antiquary liked more than proving himself right, it was proving somebody else wrong, and Jones's book prompted two people, Walter Charleton and his friend John Aubrey, to throw their energies into discrediting it.

The archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes famously remarked that every age "has the Stonehenge it deserves – or desires" and the Stonehenge of the Stuart antiquaries was born of the age that saw the foundation of the Royal Society, the wider exploration of the Americas and a new Baconian spirit of critical enquiry, in which nature and mathematics were the ultimate authorities. This critical, analytical cast of mind brought about a change in attitudes to the past and to the study of it. Until then history had been narrated, chiefly, as the story of a Golden Age, with everything since a long-protracted fall. "Till about the yeare 1649," as Aubrey noted, "'twas held a strange presumption for a man to attempt an innovation in learning; and not to be good manners to be more knowing than his neighbours and forefathers." Enquiry now was all the rage, but it was tinged also with melancholy and foreboding. The generation of antiquaries that had lived through the Civil Wars had seen towns and families divided. They had watched Puritans smash stained glass and knock the heads off the statues in churches; they feared for the past and for the future. Charleton, who was the first to respond to Inigo Jones, had been particularly close to these events as physician to Charles I and later to his son in exile. His book, Chorea Gigantum Or, The Most Famous Antiquity of Great Britain, Vulgarly called Stone-heng, was published in 1663. When Charleton looked at the monument he saw the stones "sleeping in deep forgetfulness, and well-nigh disanimated by the Lethargy of Time". But he also saw the spot where Charles II, now restored as king, had paused on his flight after the Battle of Worcester at one of the most desperate moments of his life. Both images haunt Charleton's treatise and inform its surprising conclusion that the circle was the work of the Danes.

The argument was based on some, admittedly rather loose, comparisons with the stone circles of Denmark documented by his Danish friend and fellow antiquary Ole Worm, but the method was new and not naïve. In trying to understand Stonehenge in its own terms, without magic and in relation to the other similar monuments, Charleton was a pioneer. The dedicatory poem that prefaces Chorea Gigantum was written by John Dryden and it associates Charleton firmly with the new spirit of "free-born Reason". From now on the attempt to "make Stones to live" was to be on a par with medicine and exploration as a proper study for the best minds. In the end Charleton's thesis found by analogy with Denmark that Stonehenge was not a temple, or the tomb of Boadicea as Edmund Bolton had suggested in 1624, but a meeting place for the election and coronation of kings. This was an especially happy conclusion given that Charleton's book was dedicated to his employer, Charles II. As Dryden put it:

These Ruins sheltred once His Sacred Head,

Then when from Wor'ster's fatal Field He fled...

His Refuge then was for a Temple shown:

But, He Restor'd, 'tis now become a Throne.

Charleton is usually written off as a sycophant as well as a poor scholar. Yet in so far as his book is a political statement, and there are few antiquarian texts of the 17th century which are not, he is no simple-minded royalist. Chorea Gigantum is not an endorsement of the Divine Right of Kings but of popular leaders, governing "by the general suffrage of the assembly". It dwells, to the point of tactlessness in the circumstances, on the fact that the Danes were republicans. Charleton's Stonehenge is an emblematic reminder to the restored monarch that he reigns only with the people's consent.

The treatise concludes somewhat smugly that "this Opinion of mine, if it be erroneous, is yet highly plausible; having this advantage over the others... that it is not so easily to be refuted". Charleton was wrong about that as well and he was not to rest on his laurels for long.

© Rosemary Hill 2008

'Stonehenge' by Rosemary Hill is published by Profile, £15.99

About the author

Rosemary Hill is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, a trustee of the Victorian Society and a Brother of the Artworkers' Guild. Her biography of AWN Pugin, 'God's Architect', was published in 2007. She was born in London, where she lives with her husband, the poet Christopher Logue.

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album