No prehistoric giant step for man, but a huge insult to Cromwell

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The Cerne Abbas Giant - Britain's best-known hill figure - is not prehistoric but a political satire on Oliver Cromwell, carved about 350 years ago, experts believe.

Dorset's 180ft giant has been a source of pride to local people for centuries, but just how many centuries was in dispute. Tourist literature claims it is a prehistoric or Roman figure. Local belief has the Giant as a caricature of the last Abbot of Cerne, cut by aggrieved monks at the dissolution of Cerne Abbey in 1539.

Some say it is Hercules, others suggest it is a 1,000-year-old fertility symbol. Legend has it that childless women who sleep on the 26ft penis will become pregnant. In 1998, a couple who had been childless for five years claimed pregnancy after a midnight "love-in" on the giant's phallus.

The BBC's new History magazine says research indicates the Giant, a national monument owned by the National Trust, dates from just before the Restoration and it was carved by a local landowner and MP, Baron (Denzil) Holles of Ifield (1599-1680), a bitter foe of Cromwell. The hillside on which the Giant stands was part of the dowry of Holles's second wife.

The attempted arrest of Holles and four other MPs by Charles I triggered the Civil War. Baron Holles was impeached for high treason in 1642, purged from Parliament and forced to flee to France. But he quarrelled with Cromwell when the Lord Protector became "too ambitious".

Academics believe Holles had the giant carved while he was in exile or when he returned in the 1650s. Professor Ronald Hutton, of Bristol University, an authority on the Cromwell period and ancient rituals, said: "Emotionally, I would like it to be an ancient monument, but evidence points to a later date."

Dr Hutton can find no mention of the Giant in written records before 1694. The first reference is in the Cerne Abbas churchwarden's accounts for 1694, when three shillings was paid for "repaireing of the Giant". No 17th-century deeds or field names refer to the figure. There is no mention of the Giant in national surveys, nor in notes of local scholars, or in a detailed survey of the manor in 1617.

The little-known History of Dorset, written by the Rev John Hutchens in 1751, credits the Giant to Holles. Cromwell was portrayed as Hercules by his admirers, and the Giant may have been a subversive "take" by Holles on the same theme.

Katherine Barker, conservation lecturer at Bourne- mouth University, says: "This was an allegory, which was common language at the time. The club may be a reference to Cromwell's repressive rule, and the phallus could be a dig at his Puritanism."

Dr Hutton, not content with cutting the Giant down to size, believes the "Long Man of Wil-mington", carved in a hillside near Eastbourne, is of fairly modern origin. "It's certainly not prehistoric," he added.