Merlin makes his first appearance in the Stonehenge story in Book 8, Chapter 10, of Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s epic work “Historia Regum Britanniae” (The History of the Kings of Britain, c. 1136AD) when Aurelius Ambrosius – recently annointed King of Britain and the brother of Uther Pendragon – seeks his advice for a lasting memorial to the British princes treacherously slain by the Saxons during a truce.
“If you are desirous to honour the burying-place of these man with an everlasting monument, send for the Giant’s Dance, which is in Killaraus, a mountain in Ireland. For there is a structure of stones there, which none of this age could raise without a profound knowledge of the mechanical arts. They are stones of a vast magnitude and wonderful quality; and if they can be placed here, as they are there, round this spot of ground, they will stand for ever.”
When Aurelius laughs at the idea of going such a long way when there are ample stones in Britain, Merlin continues:
“I entreat your majesty to forbear vain laughter; for what I say is without vanity. They are mystical stones, and of a medicinal virtue. The giants of old brought them from the farthest coasts of Africa, and placed them in Ireland, while they inhabited that country. Their design in this was to make baths in them, when they should be taken with any illness. For their method was to wash the stones, and put their sick into the water, which infallibly cured them. With the like success they cured wounds also, adding only the application of some herbs. There is no a stone there which has not some healing virtue.”
And so off to Ireland goes Uther along with Merlin and 15,000 men to fetch the Giant’s Dance.
Robert Wace’s Roman de Brut from about 1155AD retells this story for a Norman French audience. A 14th Century manuscript version of the Brut accompanies the tale with an illustration of Merlin carrying out the work of re-erecting the monument, employing a giant to help him (a detail that Wace added that wasn’t in Geoffrey’s original text).
Aurelius subsequently dies – poisoned by a Saxon at Winchester – and is buried near the Giant’s Dance, reputedly in the largest barrow on Coneybury Hill (Amesbury G23 “King Barrow”) according to local tradition written down by Stukeley in the 18th Century.
Uther succeeds Aurelius and then Uther’s son Arthur receives the crown after Uther also succumbs to Saxon poison whereupon “the bishops and clergy of the kingdom assembled, and carried his body to the convent of Ambrius, where they buried it with regal solemnity, close by Aurelius Ambrosius, within the Giant’s Dance.”
Arthur’s famous exploits are well documented in the romances, but ultimately Geoffrey reports him mortally wounded and departed to the Isle of Avalon, to be replaced by Constantine, son of Cador of Cornwall.
Constantine was eventually killed by Conan and “buried close by Uther Pendragon within the structure of stones, which was set up with wonderful art not far from Salisbury, and called in the English tongue Stanheng”.
There is only one documented burial of a body actually within the centre of the stone circle of Stonehenge itself, known as WA2724, which was discovered by Col. William Hawley in 1926. Whether this is either Uther or Constantine (or neither) is unknowable and the dating is difficult since the burial was badly disturbed and found with pottery from medieval to Bronze Age in date plus a Roman coin and some Victorian and Georgian artifacts as well.
The next nearest inhumation is from fractionally outside the circle on the east side, known as WA1676 and discovered by Hawley in 1923. This person was decapitated from behind, probably with a sword, and then unceremoniously stuffed into a grave not big enough for the body. It does date from Anglo-Saxon times, around 650AD. Interestingly, the very first radiocarbon date for this burial was commissioned by a Welsh dentist called Wystan Peach in 1975 – he was convinced the bones were those of King Arthur himself and published a booklet describing his theory in 1961.
More recently two novels have sought to place Arthur and Merlin back in the Bronze Age at the time of the construction of Stonehenge rather than in the post-Roman Dark Ages – “Stone Lord” and “Moon Lord”, by J.P. Reedman. Drawing on the latest archaeological discoveries from the Stonehenge landscape these novels are a fascinating addition to the mythology of these legendary characters that are so iconic to the British sense of self.
Article by guest blogger and local Stonehenge historian Simon Banton
English Heritage: The King Arthur Story and links to Arthurian locations
BBC History: King Arthur, ‘Once and Future King’
Stonehenge Guided Tours offer King Arthur Tours including Stonehenge and associated sites in the South West of England.