A new Medieval view of Stonehenge
For centuries we have known only two medieval depictions of Stonehenge. Now a third has been found, taking its place with Adam and Eve and other Christian stories in a history of the world. Christian Heck describes his discovery.
Today our knowledge of Stonehenge is backed by a vast bibliography. This extraordinary monument figures prominently in the development of antiquarianism and archaeology, especially between the 16th and 18th centuries, as Stuart Piggott showed. It has been depicted by famous antiquarians and artists, from John Aubrey and William Stukeley, through Constable and Turner to Henry Moore and many others. The earliest drawings, however, predate this movement with origins in the Renaissance, and instead accompany a legendary history of the site.
Medieval representations of Stonehenge are extremely rare. For generations we have known of only two, dateable to the earlier 14th century. Further views do not appear until the second half of the 16th century, after a complete break in both the spirit and form of imagery. I can now describe, for the first time to the English-speaking world, a newlydiscovered medieval drawing of Stonehenge created in the 1440s. This drawing has a literary association that is identical to one of the 14th century illustrations, and extends the medieval iconography of the site while remaining firmly attached to mythical history. It is also the first known design to represent Stonehenge not just as a symbolic image, but with precise observations on its form and construction techniques. It bridges perfectly the worlds of medieval myth and Renaissance observation. The discovery provides an opportunity to reconsider the two previously known drawings. First, however, we will look at the new manuscript.
The Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes (funded by the CNRS, France’s national centre for scientific research) has a long-term programme of great interest for the history of art: the cataloguing of medieval illuminated manuscripts in France’s municipal libraries. The departments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais were entrusted to the Centre de Recherches en Histoire de l’Art pour Europe du Nord – artes, at the University of Lille 3. My students and I spent the academic year 2000–2001 at the Douai library, south of Lille, and it was during this time I came across the new drawing of Stonehenge.
The manuscript had been listed in catalogues published in 1843, 1846 and 1878, but none of those noted the Stonehenge drawing. It is on folio 55R, that is the front side of sheet 55. The complete work falls into three parts, found in almost identical fashion in a small group of manuscripts recently identified by W-V Ikas. Amongst them is the one containing one of the two previously known Stonehenge representations, now at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. The Scala Mundi, a universal chronicle (“the world ladder”), is followed by the Chronicum Pontificum et Imperatorum by Martin de Troppau (the chronicle of popes and emperors), which in turn is followed by the Compilatio de Gestis Britonum et Anglorum (a compilation of the acts of the British and English).
As with the Cambridge manuscript, the cycle of illustrations is in the Scala Mundi, but much reduced compared to the former, with only four, Stonehenge being preceded by the fall of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark and a small pharaoh’s castle.
One of the closing texts of the Compilatio de Gestis was copied in London in 1466. The first hand in the Scala Mundi last wrote in 1441, with other hands responsible for further text. The Stonehenge drawing, with its accompanying text, must then have been created between 1441 and 1467, probably around or slightly after 1441.
In the chronicle, the drawing lies between the years 480 and 486, consistent with the earlier records. Stonehenge is written immediately above. Below, the Latin text reads:
Hoc anno chorea gigantum de hibernia non vi sed arte merlin est derecta apud stonehenge juxta amsbery
Translated, “That year Merlin, not by force but by art, brought and erected the giants’ round from Ireland, at Stonehenge near Amesbury”.
Limiting itself to the depiction of four symmetrically arranged trilithons, the Douai sketch is far from later 16th century drawings that purport to show all the stones, their irregular shapes, their relative positions and their landscape setting. On the other hand, it is also quite different from the previously known Scala Mundi design.
That shows a continuously lintelled structure. Piggott suggested the rectangular layout in the Cambridge drawing could be explained as the result of fitting it into the lines and columns of the page. However, other drawings in the manuscript are not so limited, and I suggest the real explanation for the strange plan is that the artist wished only to present a symbolic image, not a true record as we would understand it.
Further supporting the idea that the Douai sketch is, for this age, uniquely based on actual observation, is the nature of the four lintels. Each has a pair of tenons protruding through its upper face. In reality the tenons on the supporting uprights are not that long, but they also struck the first modern artists. They are shown on the oldest of the 16th century illustrations, by Lucas de Heere (1574), and occur repeatedly in subsequent pictures. The Douai artist could not have climbed a ladder to examine the tops of the lintels to find that the tenons did not pass through. But in its circular arrangement and construction details, his drawing moves beyond 14th century abstraction and anticipates the archaeological approach of 16th century artists.
Several elements in the text confirm the English provenance of the manuscript. It doubtless reached Douai through one of the English convents established there in the Renaissance. The history of English Catholic refugees from the mid 16th century, and their active role in colleges attached to the University of Douai (founded in 1559), are well known. On the other hand, the 1878 Douai manuscript catalogue, which followed others in attributing authorship to an English professor of history at Eton College born in 1466, named Nicolas Montacute, is a confusion not supported by study of the manuscripts – and that at Cambridge is over a century older.
So what of the previously known medieval depictions of Stonehenge?
The foundation myth appears in the 12th century. Stonehenge, or Stanenges, is first briefly mentioned c1130 in Historia Anglorum, written by the archdeacon of Lincoln, Henry of Huntingdon, at the command of his bishop Alexander of Blois. “Noone can work out”, says Henry, “how the stones were so skilfully lifted up to such a height or why they were erected”.
Shortly after, around 1136, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his Historia Regum Britanniae, drawing on a vast range of material, from the Venerable Bede to British and continental legends, to build a history of the British kings from the Trojan Brutus up to the 7th century. The immense success of his much copied text shows the deep interest it rapidly inspired.
The passage concerning Stonehenge has often been described, and is well elaborated in Chippindale’s Stonehenge Complete (Thames & Hudson, 3rd ed 2004). The legitimate British king, Aurelius Ambrosius, is in exile in Brittany while his usurper Vortigern allies himself with the invading Saxon king Hengist. Vortigern and Hengist arrange a peace meeting at the “cloister of Ambrius” (Amesbury), but the Saxons treacherously slay 460 British lords. Aurelius returns, defeats both Vortigern and Hengist, and seeks a memorial to the dead. Merlin recommends the chorea gigantum, a stone monument on the Irish Mount Killaraus. Only his magic, however, can bring the stones to Amesbury, and he reconstructs them exactly as they were in Ireland. The text shows Aurelius’s coronation in c480 and the erection of Stonehenge c485. Later Aurelius and his brother Uther Pendragon (father of Arthur) are buried at Stonehenge.
The Roman de Brut, written in French by Wace in the middle of the 12th century, is based on a translation of Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae, and includes the legendary story of Stonehenge. A manuscript of the Roman de Brut, copied in England between July 1338 and June 1340, and now in the British Library, furnishes an important drawing of the monument. The manuscript has a considerable ensemble of 118 miniatures, one at the centre of each right hand page. If some 60 of these are dedicated to Arthur, those illustrating the story of Aurelius, Hengist and Vortigern themselves form a true cycle of about 20, in which the so-called erection of Stonehenge takes its place.
Yet what does this image really show? Merlin, distinguished by his large size, lifts a stone with ease. On the left a kneeling man strains to lift another stone, his open hands expressing his powerlessness. A third man, who might be Uther (he wears gloves, like many important people in the manuscript), acts as witness, astonished and admiring, his right index finger pointing at the wizard. All the text around this drawing relates the dismantling in Ireland. The kneeling man represents the vain efforts of the 15,000 soldiers taken by Uther to fetch the stones. Only on the following page (folio 30V) do we read of the stones’ arrival at Amesbury, Merlin’s reconstruction and the name of the site, in three languages: carole as gaianz (Breton), Stanhenges (English) and pierres pendues (French). This is not, as has universally been believed, the erection of Stonehenge, but the deconstruction of its progenitor on Mount Killaraus.
The other Stonehenge drawing is a contemporary of the Roman de Brut, but in a quite different context, as noted above: the Scala Mundi, bound with two other chronicles. Martin de Troppau’s list of popes and emperors was a huge success. Over 400 copies survive, an exceptional number in the canon of medieval historiography. Preceding it in the Cambridge manuscript, the Scala Mundi details events since the Creation. The text fills many columns spread across two facing pages, allowing the lives of popes, emperors and other rulers to be compared to the kings of Britain. Many small drawings decorate this austere layout, punctuated only by the names of major figures in medallions.
Stonehenge appears beside the name of Aurelius Ambrosius, with six lintels on each long side and one on each short. The words are very similar to those already described in the Douai manuscript, with the spelling “Stonhenges near Ambesbury”. This part of the Cambridge manuscript is traditionally set in the first third of the 14th century, but the drawing can be more precisely dated. It was copied in a hand that differs from extensions after 1342. The last entry of the first hand is in 1338, so the fully integrated Stonehenge sketch must date from 1338–42. It is an almost exact contemporary of the drawing that shows Merlin.
The Douai Scala Mundi remains for now an anonymous work. The new Stonehenge drawing reminds us that medieval chronicles are important sources of iconography yet to be exploited. Mixing history and myth at a key moment in the story of the British, and the designs of antiquarians and Renaissance archaeologists, this image reflects the change that occurred in the 15th century in perceptions of the past.
Christian Heck is professor in the history of art at the University of Lille 3, and former director of the Centre de Recherches en Histoire de l’Art pour l’Europe du Nord – artes. The Douai drawing was first published by the author in 2006, in “Histoire mythique et archéologie au quinzième siècle: une représentation inédite de Stonehenge”, with detailed references, in JF Hamburger & AS Korteweg (eds) Tributes in Honor of Jim Marrow: Studies in Painting & Manuscript Illumination of the Late Middle Ages & Northern Renaissance (Harvey Miller/Brepols), 253–60. This feature, translated by M Pitts, is based on the article.
Was Geoffrey right?
Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed his Historia Regum Britanniae was a translation of a true ancient British text, but even some contemporaries were sceptical. At least the earlier part of the work was a fictional compilation designed to bolster 12th century political ambitions. However, there may be elements of folk memory embedded in the story of the construction of Stonehenge.
People knew the smaller megaliths were not made from local stone, but their origin in south-west Wales was identified only in 1921 by petrologist Herbert Thomas, who later suggested their human portage might have been memorialised in the medieval legend. In 1941 Stuart Piggott proposed that Merlin’s transport of a stone ring from Ireland was an echo of the actual movement and adaptation of a Welsh stone circle to Stonehenge.
Geoffrey’s inspiration, Piggott argued, might have been a Welsh tradition of Bran the Blessed, who led an avenging expedition to Ireland. There he was wounded in battle, and gave instructions for his head to be cut off and taken to London for burial, via Anglesey, Harlech and (where it stayed for 80 years) Pembrokeshire. It has been pointed out that he could equally have picked up the story from a different stone monument (David Hinton British Archaeology May 1998).
When Piggott wrote, it was thought Stonehenge was built between 2000 and 1500BC, requiring the memory of the stones’ transport to have been passed down for at least 2,600 years. We still do not have a precise idea when, and in how many episodes, the bluestones reached Wiltshire, but current dating suggests that occurred around 24–2100BC. If Geoffrey drew on ancient memory, it would have had to have survived some 3,400 years.
There is another Stonehenge event that perhaps found its way into Geoffrey’s tale. In 1999 I located a human skeleton, dug up at Stonehenge in 1923 and then believed destroyed in the London blitz in 1941, in the Natural History Museum, London. It proved to be a beheaded man; we radiocarbon dated it to 660–890AD (a revision of the first published date).
This may be, as Andrew Reynolds has argued, a victim of judicial execution. However, though Anglo-Saxon killing sites are often at remote ancient monuments, they usually reveal many bodies, not just one or two; and as Hinton noted in 1998, Stonehenge is not at the typical boundary or cross roads. Could the man instead be an unknown, murdered local leader?
It was said Amesbury Abbey owned the bones of the decapitated Saint Melor, who died in 6th century Brittany. In Geoffrey’s story, Aurelius returns from exile in Brittany to have Hengist beheaded; Aurelius and Uther are buried at Stonehenge, as later is king Constantine. Geoffrey does not explain the beheaded Stonehenge skeleton, but perhaps the execution and burial at the site, and a beheaded saint’s remains travelling from Brittany, fed his narrative.