In a blog about the journeys of the Medievalists through the medieval landscape of England, it might seem that there is a great deal of substance of a non-medieval nature. Lydia is largely to blame for this, being somewhat of an archaeologist, but we hope you will forgive our indulgence in including pieces on the sites we visit from other time periods. We couldn’t really not write about Stonehenge, could we? A trip to that great Neolithic site had been on the cards for a while, long before any ideas of the inception of this blog, before its writers had met even. Lydia had promised to go with a friend and, as he graciously allowed Ian to come too, it was as a party of three that we set off on this adventure. Having caught the train from Hereford to Salisbury, we had just enough time to make a whistle-stop tour of the cathedral, so the title of this blog is justified to an extent!
The great Stonehenge!
After narrowly making it onto the connection at Newport after our first train of the morning was late (literally we only had seconds left!), we made it into Salisbury with plenty of time to spare… Enough time to hunt down the cathedral there before our friend John arrived. Sure enough, upon exiting the station our attention was drawn to a glistening white spire puncturing the sky in the distance. This shining beacon was surely from the cathedral and like moths to a flame (or really, medievalists to a cathedral) we journeyed onwards!
The beacon, drawing us like medievalists to a cathedral.
After about 15 minutes we hurried onto the vast open grounds in which Salisbury Cathedral is situated, a space perfectly adapted to exhibit the cathedral’s shining brilliance. My mouth fell agape at the magnificence my eyes were beholding. This cathedral was one of the ones I wanted to visit most on our list and the outside alone did not disappoint; one can see why Ken Follett chose Salisbury and its architecture for the basis of Kingsbridge Cathedral in The Pillars of the Earth. The buttresses, the architecture, the tower and its spire and the size of the cathedral, everything around just gave Salisbury an awe-inspiring aura; it is a sight that intends to elicit a reaction.
The magnificence that is Salisbury Cathedral
The original cathedral was built just two miles north of the city of Salisbury at Old Sarum, an Iron Age hillfort which had found use by the Romans and then occupation by the Normans due to it being the meeting point of many Roman roads, holding an impressive hilltop settlement enclosed within its earthen walls. Old Sarum came to particular prominence after 1066 when William the Conqueror erected his scriptorium there, and it is believed to be where he was presented with Domesday Book in 1086. The building of the cathedral at Old Sarum had originally started in the 1070s and was finished in 1091 by Bishop Osmund. Yet, just five days after it was consecrated in 1092, the cathedral was struck by lightning. Undeterred Osmund repaired the cathedral and it remained in use for the next 100 years; however, life was not always easy with the cathedral being enclosed within the grounds of the castle, and soon the clergy were looking elsewhere.
In 1217 Bishop Richard Poore was granted permission by the pope to resituate the cathedral in a more favourable position; and so in 1220 preparations were finished and work commenced on the cathedral at New Sarum. By 1258 much of the work was done; the quire, transepts and nave were all finished in the Gothic architectural style, and in fact Salisbury is able to display all three stages from Early English to Decorated to Perpendicular. In size too, Salisbury is ambitious. Evidentially built on such a scale as to rival Canterbury, Winchester and Lincoln; in height it was only challenged 30 years later by Westminster Abbey. The Cathedral measures 135 metres (449 feet) long and was originally only 25.2m high (84 feet), but in the thirteenth century the tower was boosted massively to 123m (404 feet) from floor to tip of the gargantuan spire. Along with this came mammoth quantities of materials which the guidebook lists as 60,000 tons of stone, 420 tons of lead and 2,800 tons of oak – the oak was donated by Henry III from his estates in Wiltshire and Ireland.
The west end of Salisbury Cathedral with its 130 niches, 73 of which contain figures. Apparently based on the screen façades of Wells and Lincoln.
After picking my jaw back up off the floor Lydia and I journeyed inside. The ladies behind the entrance desk were kind enough to sneak me through as a student since I was so excited and only graduated last year and thus we were truly unleashed on the cathedral. As we entered the cavernous nave, all memories or thoughts that Salisbury Cathedral actually contained a 1215 Magna Carta were dissolved until an excited Lydia grabbed me and hurried me back out of there, into the cloisters and through to the Chapter House where we came face-to-face with the third of the four remaining 1215 Magna’s. With one more left to see… Lincoln – we’re coming for you, SOON! Salisbury Cathedral boasts that they hold the finest example of a 1215 Magna Carta and certainly that boast is not without reason. The guides standing outside of the small tent within the Chapter House kept shooting us glances as I uttered clauses in Latin under my breath as my eyes drank in the document. The realisation of the painstaking work Professors David Carpenter and Nicholas Vincent, and Dr Sophie Ambler have put in to discovering that the Magna Carta was the product of a monk of Salisbury dawned slowly on me (http://magnacartaresearch.org/read/feature_of_the_month/Jun_2015_3). Unfortunately though, we had built up quite a substantial queue… So we hotfooted it back into the cathedral with even more renewed vigour.
The gorgeous thirteenth-century Chapter House, housing the Magna Carta exhibition, and King John sculpture when you enter.
The nave in Salisbury Cathedral now measures some 60m (200 feet) long and 25m (84 feet) high, and it is within this cavernous space that Salisbury holds host to the world’s oldest clock, as well as the tomb of William Longespée (King John’s bastard half-brother). For me, it was hard to not look upwards towards the ceiling and just marvel at the cathedral’s construction, whilst Lydia made comments about the cathedral’s nifty font.
The nave, its ceiling, and the font (designed in 2008).
We made it to the quire which contains the largest complete set of carvings on the stalls; apparently all 106 date back to 1236, being part of the earliest gifts of Henry III to the cathedral, displayed alongside a magnificent kathedra. Eventually we came around to the Trinity Chapel and the resting place of St Osmond, second bishop of Salisbury, who was subject to the longest canonisation process in history – he died in 1099 and was not canonised until 1457. However, there was a service on which meant that I could not get close to yet another saint who had featured (albeit in footnotes) in my MA dissertation.
Top Left, the ceiling in the quire and crossing; Top Right, the kathedra. Bottom Left, left side of the quire stalls and organ; Bottom Right, the right side.
Picking up our pace as we explored the cathedral, we discovered the Audley Chapel with its stunning ceiling; the chapel was built originally for Edmund Audley, bishop from 1502-1524, and it still has traces of its original colour.
Audley Chapel ceiling
Finally, noticing the time, we began to hunt for a place to hug the cathedral before we were to go on to our next destination. Lydia chose a spot in the north transept, whilst I ended up in the Nave.
Dutifully hugging Salisbury!
Being half dragged out of the cathedral by Lydia to meet John, we stopped at the tomb of William Longespée who had the honour of being the first person to be buried in the new cathedral at Salisbury. He had stayed loyal to his half-brother throughout the First Barons War and was consequently heralded with many rewards by John. Once John died and the French Prince, Louis, had left the country, William joined Henry III, holding an influential place in his council. His ship was almost lost in a storm whilst returning to England in 1225, and he spent some months being tended to by French nuns. Dying shortly after his return to England, Roger of Wendover alleged that William had been poisoned by Hubert de Burgh; curiously enough, when his tomb was opened in 1791 the examiners found the well preserved corpse of a rat in his skull, containing traces of arsenic…
William Longespée’s tomb and shield with three lions heraldry.
And finally we were out of the building into a gloriously sunny day with the rest of what Salisbury had to offer us still very much within our grasp; and, finding John we marched ever onwards towards the bus stop for our next destination for which I’ll hand over to Lydia…
“Don’t go towards the cathedral Ian…” “But it’s so beautiful!”
We caught the bus from Salisbury to Stonehenge; a thirty minute trip through beautiful countryside on a wonderfully sunny day. Once there, the visitor centre provides quite an introduction to the site to prepare and titillate the eager visitor before they are ferried on buses to see the wonder itself. The exhibition at the Centre is a smooth affair with models of what Stonehenge probably looked like in each of its various stages along with displays of Neolithic and Bronze Age artefacts found at nearby pre-historic occupation sites. There is also information to fit the site into the context of the wider prehistoric landscape and immersive digital displays showing Stonehenge from every angle. Outside the centre are some reconstructed huts from the nearby Neolithic occupation site at Durrington Wells. This site is believed to have housed the workers who laboured in Stonehenge’s construction, probably on a seasonal basis. Each house, made of woven hazel covered with daub and covered by a thatched roof, contains a large central hearth, surrounded by low beds on wooden platforms on which the inhabitants would have slept.
Behold! Neolithic man!
Reconstructed huts from Durrington Wells
A picture that definitely needs no caption!
I found it a great shame that the public are no longer allowed to walk among the stones of the site, unless one is willing to endure the heaving throngs of neo-druids and other curiosities at the times of the solstices. This is ostensibly to protect any archaeology under the stones (although, one would think that the hundreds of years of gatherings and excavation, botched and otherwise, would have done its best to destroy anything that does remain). Knowing this, I was a little apprehensive about what the experience of coming face to face with such an iconic site would actually be like. I was very pleasantly surprised. While it is still painful to be tantalisingly close to the stones and yet not be able to touch them or get near enough to view them in any detail, visitors are free to wander on a path around them at their own leisure, attaining a view of the stones from every angle. It really is a majestic sight. Much of the appeal of the site is the enigma of its identity. It is a monument to a period that has been made mute through the lack of a written history. Yet, one senses a great connection to the past at Stonehenge, even through the busy bustle of other excited tourists happily snapping selfies. At this site perhaps more than others words and pictures cannot give an adequate sense of the profundity of the site. The best one can do (as currently demonstrated) is to sound wistfully hyperbolic… We sat and picnic-ed on the grass with this impressive monument providing a glorious back-drop, soaking it all in.
Er, guilty as charged!
A view from another angle
While the stones themselves are awe-inspiring to see in their physical magnitude and solidity, much of the wonder of Stonehenge for me lies in the bits that are hidden from sight. While we can theorise on the various arrangements of the stones with some accuracy, how they were actually brought to the site, or what processes were used to raise the heavy monoliths to rest on the supporting stones can only be hypothesized. Perhaps the biggest mystery remains the question of for what purpose the site was created in the first place. Why expend such effort and resource in erecting it? Most theories centre on the idea of religion, the accurate alignment with the summer and winter solstices proving highly suggestive to most authorities. It certainly must have been a vast community effort. Unfortunately though, we have to admit that we simply do not know enough about the religion and society of Neolithic man to be able to sufficiently answer the question of ‘why?’ Perhaps, indeed, the best answer to what Stonehenge ‘means’ is simply to link it to what it has come to mean in the present day, or as Siegfried Sassoon eloquently put it: ‘what is Stonehenge? It is the roofless past’. So, what do we think we know about the site? The site developed from c.3000 BC. The first manmade structure on the site was more like a causewayed enclosure than a henge, a circular ditch and bank still visible at the site today. In this, the very earliest phase of the site, the two entrances were aligned to the solstices. Inside this enclosure were 56 pits known as ‘Aubrey holes’ after the individual who first excavated them. These may have originally held wooden post or small upright stones, but cremated remains were deposited in many of them at a later date. In around 2500 BC the first of the huge sarsen stones were transported to the site and erected. In all, 75 sarsens were set in a circle, with an inner horseshoe shape of other trilithons. Then, Blue Stones from the Preseli Hills in Wales were transported to the site and arranged within the circle, although somewhat differently to their positions today. The site was last modified in c.2200 BC, although at some point between 1750-1500 BC various anonymous individuals carved axe heads into some of the stones. Finally, in the 20th century the site was restored to an extent when some of the fallen sarsen stones were re-erected and set in concrete.
The monumental trilithons
Stonehenge has provoked curiosity throughout the historical period. Recent excavations have uncovered evidence of Roman activity at the site and it has even been theorised that the site may have functioned as a Roman shrine. Geoffrey of Monmouth felt certain that he knew the origins of the site, stating confidently that the stones came from an Irish stone circle and were transported to their current location and magically re-erected by Merlin. A convincing theory, I think. The erroneous but pervasive theory that Stonehenge was built by Druids was suggested by the 18th century antiquarian William Stukeley, the first individual to document the cursus monument.
14th century illumination of Merlin building Stonehenge (from British Library, Egerton 3028)
I wrote that the stones were calling out to me to touch them, and I make the confession that I yielded to the temptation after we had traversed the full course of the stones. A good archaeologist even when transgressing, I planned my steps to not take me over any of the archaeology, but hopped the fence to walk around and then behind a stone that is positioned separately from the main stone circle, the so-called Heel Stone. As I walked by I put out my hand and touched the stone. Call me a sentimental archaeologist but it really was thrilling to be able to touch the work of man 5,000 years ago and sense the connection to that past. This thrill had a price however; an eagle-eyed sentinel spotted me and I was swiftly escorted off the site. For the nerdy archaeologist in me it was definitely worth it and I accepted the consequences gracefully. Still, at sites such as these rules are there for a (usually) good reason and I certainly do not advocate that readers of this blog do the same! Heh.
A rather incriminating photo… The Heel Stone looks very disapproving.
Stonehenge sits in a heavily manipulated prehistoric landscape. On the bus journey in we passed dozens of burial mounds, of all types and sizes. On our walk back to the visitor’s centre we were able to pass by some of these impressive Bronze Age barrows. This time, mindful of my telling-off, I kept to the designated paths. Our path back took us through the Stonehenge cursus. This is monument that predates Stonehenge, a long rectangular enclosure consisting of a bank and ditch. It really was a pleasant walk on a beautiful late summer’s day, and we definitely advise anyone visiting the site to walk at least one of the ways; the approximately two mile walk took less than thirty minutes and takes you past some beautiful monuments which remind you that Stonehenge, like all of the impressive prehistoric structures, were just one aspect in a much wider landscape, albeit in the case of Stonehenge, a particularly extraordinary aspect.
Siegfried Sassoon so beautifully encapsulates the timelessness of Stonehenge in his poem about the site, I couldn’t resist quoting the whole thing here. The poem is far too good to remain obscure:
What is Stonehenge? It is the roofless past;
Man’s ruinous myth; his uninterred adoring
Of the unknown in sunrise cold and red;
His quest of stars that arch his doomed exploring.
And what is Time but shadows that were cast
By these storm-sculptured stones while countries fled?
The stones remain; their stillness can outlast
The skies of history hurrying overhead.