I found this poem about Stonehenge on the Avalon Revisited website. If you scroll down you’ll find my attempt at explaining what ‘Written at Stonehenge‘ means.

Written at Stonehenge

Thou noblest monument of Albion’s isle!
Whether by Merlin’s aid, from Scythia’s shore,
To Amber’s fatal plain Pendragon bore,
Huge frame of giant-hands, the mighty pile
T’ entomb his Britons slain by Hengist’s guile:
Or Druid priests, sprinkled with human gore,
Taught ‘mid thy massy maze their mystic lore:
Or Danish chiefs, enrich’d with savage spoil,
To Victory’s idol vast, an unhewn shrine,
Rear’d the rude heap: or, in thy hallow’d round,
Repose the kings of Brutus’ genuine line;
Or here those kings in solemn state were crown’d:
Studious to trace thy wondrous origine,
We muse on many an ancient tale renown’d.

Thomas Warton – scruff, tavern-goer and Poet Laureate

Thomas warton writer of 'Written at Stonehenge

Image from Wikimedia[1]

Thomas Warton was, according to the Dictionary of National Biography, ‘a poet and historian’. He was born in 1728. He grew up in Basingstoke, where his father was a vicar. He went up to Trinity College, Oxford in 1744, and remained in Oxford studying and writing poetry for the rest of his life.

In 1754, he became friends with Samuel Johnson, the author of the first great dictionary of English. Coincidentally, I’m currently reading a book about Johnson, and the author says this about Warton:

A fellow of Trinity College, he was a notoriously negligent tutor, a scruff and a tavern goer who belonged to the waggish Jelly-Bag Club[2].

Despite being a ‘scruff and a tavern-goer’ Warton was an impressive scholar. At the time that he befriended Samuel Johnson, he was working on his magnum opus ‘The History of English Poetry’.

In 1785, Warton was made Poet Laureate. I’m not sure when ‘Written at Stonehenge’ was composed, or first published, but it was collected in a book of, I think, 1791[3].

Written at Stonehenge‘ annotated

I had to look up a lot of the references in the poem – I’ve typed up what I found here.

Thou noblest monument of Albion’s isle!
Whether by Merlin’s aid, from Scythia’s shore,

Geoffrey of Monmouth

Image from Amazon

Merlin‘ is the famous magician. His appearance here is inspired by the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey’s story of the creation of Stonehenge informs the first few lines of ‘Written at Stonehenge’.

Geoffrey of Monmouth was a 12th century writer. His Historia regum Britanniae (‘The history of the kings of Britain’) told the stories of, among others, King Arthur, Merlin, Brutus of Troy and King Leir (Lear).

From a historian’s point of view, Geoffrey is unreliable. William of Newburgh called it a tissue of ‘impudent and shameless lies’[4]. Wikipedia says that ‘Historia Regum Britanniae is now acknowledged as a literary work of national myth containing little reliable history’[5].

The reference to Merlin reflects Geoffrey’s story that Merlin brought Stonehenge from Ireland.

[Merlin] placed in order the engines that were necessary, he took down the stones with an incredible facility, and gave directions for carrying them to the ships, and placing them therein. This done, they with joy set sail again, to return to Britain;[6]

Why Merlin should do such a thing is related in the next lines of the poem.

Albion

Albion‘ is an old, romantic name for England.

Scythia

Scythia‘ is more puzzling. According to Geoffrey, Merlin brought the stones from Killaraus in Ireland[7] whereas ‘Scythia’ is ‘a region in Eurasia in the classical era, encompassing parts of Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the northern Caucasus’[8]. I think the stones were originally supposed to have come from Africa to Ireland, not from any part of ‘Scythia’.

To Amber’s fatal plain Pendragon bore,

Pendragon

Pendragon is ‘Uther Pendragon’ the father of King Arthur, who commissioned Merlin to build (or transport and rebuild) the Henge.

Amber

I’m not entirely sure who ‘Amber‘ is in this context. It could be Ambrosius the king, after whom Amesbury is perhaps named. Or it could be an old name for Stonehenge itself.

I found this passage in William Stukeley’s ‘Stonehenge, A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids‘:

They [previous 'monkish' historians] confound the names of Ambrosius the king, Ambrius the abbot, the town, abby and mountain of Ambry, and perhaps of Merlin too, for one of them was call’d Ambrosius. But their affirming, the edifice came out of Africa into Spain, thence into Ireland, thence into Britain, and of its being erected here in the same form, by art magic; and that the stones are of a medicinal virtue: these notions lead us to the original truth, of the Druid founders, and that Stonehenge had originally, the name of Ambres, and from it the adjacent town of Ambresbury had its name.[9]

I hadn’t come across Ambres as a name for Stonehenge before now. In Chapter 11 of the same book Stukeley says that the name ‘ signifies the stones anointed with holy oil, consecrated; or in a general sense a temple, altar, or place of worship.’. He says that ‘Ambres’ has the same linguistic root as ‘ambrosia’.

Giants

Huge frame of giant-hands, the mighty pile

The ‘giant-hands’ refers again to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story. Geoffrey says that the Killaraus Stonehenge was originally built by giants[10].

Stonehenge, Hengist and the Night of the Long Knives

T’ entomb his Britons slain by Hengist’s guile:

Hengist, of the Night of the Long Knives

Image from Wikimedia[11]

Here we get to the start point of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Stonehenge myth. He relates that Uther Pendragon had Stonehenge built as a monument to the Saxon chiefs killed by Hengist.

Hengist is a better-documented figure than either King Arthur, Merlin or Uther Pendragon. It could be said that Hengist is a historical figure whereas Uther Pendragon is a legendary one.

Hengist is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, in Bede’s ‘Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum‘, in Nennius’ ‘Historia Brittonum‘ and in Geoffrey of Monmouth[12]. King Arthur is only mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth and Nennius, who are seen as less reliable[13].

According to Geoffrey, Hengist invited the British chiefs to a feast in Wiltshire to celebrate peace between the Saxons and the Britons. All the servants at the feast were armed with concealed daggers. At a given signal, they drew their weapons and butchered the British guests. This seems to have been the original[14] ‘Night of the Long Knives’[15].

It is worth bearing in mind that Geoffrey of Monmouth was writing in the twelfth century. Although this was many years after the Norman invasion, it might have been in the interests of the Norman ruling class to resurrect a myth about Saxon treachery – especially one tightly linked with Stonehenge as a symbol of Britain.

Stonehenge, Druids and human sacrifice

Or Druid priests, sprinkled with human gore,

In these couple of lines, Warton moves away from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story. As far as I recall, Geoffrey didn’t mention druids in this context.

The first significant mention of Druids at Stonehenge seems to have been made by the antiquarian John Aubrey. As Rosemary Hill puts it in my very favorite book about Stonehenge:

If modern archaeologists have any quarrel with Aubrey it is with this almost passing reference to the Druids, which unwittingly ushered in more than three centuries of, from their point of view, nonsense[16]

The idea that Stonehenge was Druidic gained strength from then onwards[17].

That the Druids would have been ‘sprinkled with human gore’ seems to be extensively documented. It’s mentioned by Lucan, Julius Caesar, Suetonius and Cicero. Diodorus Siculus wrote that:

In very important matters they [the Druids] prepare a human victim, plunging a dagger into his chest; by observing the way his limbs convulse as he falls and the gushing of his blood, they are able to read the future[18].

The human sacrifice may have happened, but it should be noted that it was in the interests of the Romans to stress the barbarism of the ‘native’ population. They could therefore point to the civilizing influence of the Roman Empire.

Mazzy maze

Taught ‘mid thy massy maze their mystic lore:

I wonder whether the poet actually meant ‘mossy’ rather than ‘massy’. This would be appropriate given that many of the Stones sport thick growths of lichen, but perhaps ‘massy’ meant ‘massive’.

Either way, ‘massy maze’ carries a nice echo of ‘Mizmaze’. Warton might have been aware of Mizmazes in the area – at Breamore or on Mizmaze Hill, to the north of Salisbury[19] – you can see this at the top of the map below, on the right.

1810 map of Salisbury, showing Mizmaze Hill
1810 map of Salisbury, showing Mizmaze Hill”[21]

Stonehenge and the Danes

Or Danish chiefs, enrich’d with savage spoil,
To Victory’s idol vast, an unhewn shrine,
Rear’d the rude heap:

Image from Amazon


The next lines allude to the work of Walter Charleton.

Charleton was a high-profile doctor of medicine – the ‘physician-in-ordinary’ to King Charles I. He wrote on many subjects.

In his 1663 book ‘Chorea Gigantum, Or The Most Famous Antiquity of Great Britain, Vulgarly Called Stone-Heng‘ he pointed out the similarities between Stonehenge and the stone circles of Denmark, and concluded that Stonehenge was therefore probably Danish.

He suggested that Stonehenge was used as a place of coronation. His friend the poet Dryden wrote ‘Stone-Heng, once thought a temple, You have found A Throne, where Kings, our Earthly Gods, were crown’d.’.

The Dictionary of National biography suggests that the linking of Stonehenge with Danish royalty may have been ‘a more subtle attempt to curry royal favour’[22][23]

There’s a nice panoramic view of a Danish stone circle here

Brutus of Troy and Stonehenge

or, in thy hallow’d round,
Repose the kings of Brutus’ genuine line;
Or here those kings in solemn state were crown’d:

Brutus of Troy

Image from Wikimedia[24]

The next lines refer not to Brutus the assassin of Caesar, but to ‘Brutus of Troy’.

This Brutus was, in legend, the first King of Britain and the man after whom Britain is named. Brutus was the great grandson of Aeneas, the hero of Virgil’s Aeneid. Aeneas himself was a descendant of Zeus and son of Aphrodite.

The ‘kings of Brutus genuine line’ were therefore not just descendants of the first King of Britain, but of the Greek Gods Zeus and Aphrodite (or the Roman Gods Jupiter and Venus)[25].

The poet leaves it for us to decide whether Stonehenge is the burial place of the Old Kings of Britain or their place of coronation.

The diagram below shows how Brutus and therefore all the Kings and Queens of Britain are descended from Zeus.

Zeus/Jupiter-------Electra
               |
            Dardanus
               |
           Ericthonus
               |
              Tros
               |
              Ilus
               |
            Themiste
               |
            Anchises-------Aphrodite
                       |
                    Aeneas
                       |
                   Ascanius
                       |
                    Silvius
                       |
                    Brutus

Stonehenge – many ancient tales renown’d

Studious to trace thy wondrous origine,
We muse on many an ancient tale renown’d.

Warton reflects on ancient tales wrapped up in the old stones. If I had the talent it might be fun to update the poem to incorporate modern theories:

Didst the mighty boulders from Welsh hills come,
Carried hither by glaciers as believed by some?
Or wheeled on ball-bearings to Salisbury Plain?
Or wrapped in wicker? Or hauled by chains?
Were they brought to Amesbury in a UFO?
The answer is, we’ll never know

I won’t give up the day job!

Footnotes

  1. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons []
  2. The Jelly-Bag Club got its name from the head-gear the members wore: “Warton was an enthusiastic member of a Jelly-Bag Club – so called after the striped floppy caps worn by members during revels – that delighted in drunken buffooneries in the streets of Oxford”[] and knew a thing or two about Oxford’s seedier entertainmentsDr.Johnson’s Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book That Defined the World by Henry Hitchings (10 Apr 2006) []
  3. The Roman numeral on the Google scan [http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=UgoUAAAAQAAJ&lpg=PA108&ots=EcZU_mjf8M&dq=written%20at%20stonehenge%20thomas%20warton&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false] is MDCCXCI []
  4. §9. Geoffrey of Monmouth. IX. Latin Chroniclers from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries. Vol. 1. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature: An Encyclopedia in Eighteen Volumes. 1907–21 []
  5. Geoffrey of Monmouth – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia []
  6. Theories about Stonehenge | Salisbury and Stonehenge []
  7. Theories about Stonehenge – Salisbury and Stonehenge []
  8. Scythia – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia []
  9. William Stukeley, ‘Stonehenge, A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids’, Chapter XI []
  10. Stonehenge – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia []
  11. By John Speed [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons []
  12. Hengist and Horsa – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia []
  13. King Arthur – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia []
  14. The phrase was used again to describe a series of political murders by Hitler’s faction of the Nazi Party in 1934 and then to describe a radical cabinet re-shuffle by Harold Macmillan in 1962 []
  15. Night of the Long Knives (Arthurian) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia []
  16. ‘Stonehenge’, Rosemary Hill, Profile Books, 2009 (Amazon Link), Page 33 []
  17. Personally, I’m not sure that the link between Stonehenge and the Druids is entirely ‘nonsense’. It seems to me that it depends how you define Druidism. Whereas Christianity, Islam and most other religions have a history and a start date, Druidism doesn’t. If you define Druidism as being an Iron Age phenomena then certainly the Druids had nothing to do with Stonehenge. If you define it more loosely as perhaps ‘pre-Christian British pagans’ then perhaps they do. []
  18. Druid – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia []
  19. Mizmaze Hill, Salisbury []
  20. Map showing Mizmaze Hill reproduced with the kind permission of Wiltshire Council Libraries, Heritage & Arts []
  21. Map showing Mizmaze Hill reproduced with the kind permission of Wiltshire Council Libraries, Heritage & Arts []
  22. ‘More subtle’ than his previous publication, a biography entitled ‘A Character of His Most Sacred Majesty Charles the Second []
  23. John Henry, ‘Charleton, Walter (1620–1707)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2010 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/5157, accessed 5 July 2012] Link:Oxford DNB article: Charleton, Walter []
  24. By Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) (“Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons []
  25. Aeneas – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia []

1 Comment for this entry

  • J.P. REEDMAN says:

    Hi…I believe ‘massy’ is indeed the poetic word for ‘massive.’
    Wordsworth also mentioned Stonehenge in a poem.
    I have personally utilised the Arthurian themes in a novel of Stonehenge called ‘STONE LORD.’ I have the familiar characters of legend, but I’ve given them a twist…they are not from the Dark Ages but from the ‘golden’ time of Wessex, the age of Bush Barrow, approx 1900 BC. I’ve studied anthropology, folklore and archaeology for many years, and have helped out on the recent digs at Vespasians Camp/Blick Meads which has recently had worldwide press attention.Some of what I saw at the dig site features in the book as the site of the sacred lake where the swords of heroes are acquired and then returned, ritually broken to kill the spirit within.

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