9th October 1783 - Samuel Johnson gives his opinion on Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge

Samuel Johnson by Richard Cockle Lucas

On this day in 1783, Samuel Johnson wrote that Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral were, respectively, ‘the first essay and the last perfection in architecture’

Johnson wrote this in a letter to his regular correspondant Mrs Thrale:[4]

LII To Mrs THRALE London October 9 1783 Two nights ago Mr Burke sat with me a long time he seems much pleased with his journey. We had both seen Stonehenge this summer for the first time. I told him that the view had enabled me to confute two opinions which have been advanced about it. One that the materials are not natural stones but an artificial composition hardened by time.

This notion is as old as Camden's time and has this strong argument to support it - that stone of that species is nowhere to be found. The other opinion advanced by Dr Charlton is that it was erected by the Danes.

Mr Bowles made me observe that the transverse stones were fixed on the perpendicular supporters by a knob formed on the top of the upright stone which entered into a hollow cut in the crossing stone. This is a proof that the enormous edifice was raised by a people who had not yet the knowledge of mortar which cannot be supposed of the Danes who came hither in ships and were not ignorant certainly of the arts of life. This proves likewise the stones not to be factitious for they that could mould such durable masses could do much more than make mortar and could have continued the transverse from the upright part with the same paste.

You have doubtless seen Stonehenge and if you have not I should think it a hard task to make an adequate description.

It is in my opinion to be referred to the earliest habitation of the island as a druidical monument of at least two thousand years probably the most ancient work of man upon the island.

Salisbury Cathedral and its neighbour Stonehenge are two eminent monuments of art and rudeness and may show the first essay and the last perfection in architecture

I have not yet settled my thoughts about the generation of light air which I indeed once saw produced but I was at the height of my great complaint. I have made inquiry and shall soon be able to tell you how to fill a balloon I am madam your & c [1]

Incidentally, I read elsewhere that:

In 1783 the journey from London to Salisbury 82 miles took him nearly fifteen hours[2]


Statue of Samuel Johnson, by Richard Cockle Lucas. The statue is in Johnson’s birthplace Lichfied, but the sculptor coincidentally was from Salisbury[3]. Photo By Elliot Brown [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


[1] Letter 42. To Mrs. Thrale [Samuel Johnson’s Writings: Letters], URL: http://readbookonline.net/read/27973/64273/

[2] Full text of “Letters of Samuel Johnson”, URL: http://www.archive.org/stream/lettersjohnson01hilluoft/lettersjohnson01hilluoft_djvu.txt

[3] 24th October 1800 – Birth of Richard Cockle Lucas « Salisbury, Wiltshire and Stonehenge, URL: /on-this-day/october/24th-october-richard-cockle-lewis

[4] Mrs Thrale wrote and received many letters from Samuel Johnson. Her family name was ‘Salusbury’