The ‘remarqueable’ John Aubrey – Antiquary Son of Wiltshire.

12 03 2021

The 17th Century gentleman antiquarian, John Aubrey, is a fascinating, if elusive figure. Most famous for his proto-biography anthology, Brief Lives, in which he pithily captures in a few well-turned lines the key movers and shakers of his age, he is somewhat eclipsed by the greater lives he wrote about. Of Welsh descent (with family connections in Hereford and South Wales), Aubrey was born in Easton Piercy, Wiltshire 1626, and was to witness some of the most tumultuous events in English history.

Growing up within living memory of the rein of Elizabeth I, and amid the ruinous devastation caused by her murderous father, Henry VIII,  Aubrey was the witness firsthand the chaos of the English Civil War, the execution of Charles I, the merry England of Charles II, the brief rein of James II, and the Glorious Revolution, which saw in William and Mary. Living through such turbulent times, it is perhaps small wonder that Aubrey developed an obsession for the collection and preservation of the fragile, precious icons of the past. As his biographer, Ruth Scurr, pointed out, he was not alone in this predilection: ‘Rescuing or remembering the material remains of lost or shattered worlds became compelling for many who lived through the English Civil War.’ (2015: 4)  Yet Aubrey felt he was not only born in the right time, but the right place: ‘I was inclined by my genius from childhood to the love of antiquities: and my Fate dropt me in a countrey most suitable for such enquiries.’ One could also say ‘county’ as much as ‘countrey’, for in Aubrey’s birthplace and home, Wiltshire, he found an area worthy of a lifetime’s study.

With its hundreds of prehistoric monuments it is an antiquarian’s paradise. It seemed to have his name on it, literally. In 1649, when out hunting, he stumbled upon a remarkable arrangement of stones, half-hidden behind ivy and briar and apparently ignored as the mundane backdrop to the lives of simple farming folk, who grazed their livestock and grew their crops amongst them. This was the village of Avebury, and Aubrey couldn’t help but be tickled at the similarity between the names.

Tourists and gentlemen antiquaries can be seen visiting England’s most famous prehistoric monument, in this engraving by David Loggan  

By the time Aubrey was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1663 news of his discovery of a monument, which ‘…doth exceed Stonehenge as a Cathedral does a Parish Church,’ reached the ears of Charles II, who asked Aubrey to show it to him on a hunting trip in Wiltshire. The monarch asked Aubrey to dig for treasure, but Aubrey discretely deferred this royal command, and instead undertook something for more useful.  He conducted a proto-survey of it, alongside one of Stonehenge in 1666, where he discovered the holes of timbered uprights, which bore cremated Neolithic remains – thousands of individual bone fragments from 56 individuals. These became known as the Aubrey Holes. Aubrey was educated in Dorset, then Trinity College, Oxford, before taking the bar at the Middle Temple, London. Although he moved in exalted circles as a member of the Royal Society, Aubrey often struggled with money. Fortunately, as an erudite and entertaining conversationalist (and, perhaps, more importantly a great listener) he was a favoured guest and enjoyed the rolling hospitality of his wealthy circle. Yet, living amid other lives had its deficits – although it was ideal ‘access’ for a future biographer, it meant his own projects were always deferred and piecemeal (tellingly, Miscellanies was the only monograph published in his lifetime, although he authored several, notably on his beloved Wiltshire, and he laboured upon his magnum opus, Monumenta Britannica, for thirty years).

Aubrey himself, an agnostic with more of a belief in astrology, thought such professional procrastination was written in the stars, as he reflected in later years, writing about himself like a subject of one of his own brief biographies: ‘His life is more remarqueable in an astrologicall respect then for any advancement of learning, having from his birth (till of late years) been labouring under a crowd of ill directions’. But it is precisely that restless interest in all things that resulted in the preservation of so much priceless history, for his precious collection of books, manuscripts, artefacts, art, and antiquities, was eventually bequeathed to Elias Ashmole, who went on to found the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.  

Aubrey died in Oxford in 1697, at the end of a relatively brief (the Biblical ‘three score years and ten’) but certainly ‘remarqueable’ life. Through his tireless efforts he saved for posterity many treasures from the deluge of time, and his own legacy should be celebrated as Wiltshire’s most remarkable son.

Guest Blogger: Dr Kevan Manwaring is an author, lecturer, and specialist tour-guide. His books include The Long Woman (a novel which features Stonehenge and Avebury), Lost Islands, Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels, Desiring Dragons, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, and Herepath: a Wiltshire songline. He is a keen walker and loves exploring the ancient landscape of the Marlborough Downs (where he lives) and beyond.  www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk

Related links and articles:
John Aubrey: chronicler of the 17th century – History Extra
Research on Stonehenge – English Heritage Blog
John Aubrey: The Man who ‘Discovered’ Avebury – National Trust
Stonehenge Private Access Experience – Stonehenge Guided Tours
Stonehenge and the Druids – Stonehenge News Blog
John Aubrey: England’s first archaeologist? – The Heritage Trust
Stonehenge and Avebury Archaelogical Guided Tours – Stonehenge Tour Specialist

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Stonehenge and the Druids

20 10 2016

Back in the mid 1600s one man came to the realisation that Stonehenge was far older than previously thought. Based on his studies, John Aubrey attributed the monument to the British pre-Roman priesthood called the Druids.

This began an association that has persisted for over 350 years despite all attempts by archaeologists to shake it. In the minds of most people, the Druids built Stonehenge.

The popularisation of the idea really took off in the 1700s when William Stukeley wrote a book called “Stonehenge – A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids”. So convinced was Stukeley that he styled himself as the Druid “Chyndonax” in the frontispiece of his book.

Stukeley as Chyndonax.jpg

Inspired, perhaps, by this vision of an ancient British tradition one of the first of a number of modern Druid groups was founded in 1781 by Henry Hurle. Called the “Ancient Order of Druids” (AOD), it was created as a fraternal organisation and quickly established a quasi-Masonic lodge structure that eventually spread to the USA and Australia.

What followed over the next century was the creation of a plethora of groups, orders and groves whose history is intertwined and overlapping. Making sense of this Druidic family tree is an almost impossible task but in broad outline it is as follows.

In 1792, a Welshman named Edward Williams (aka Iolo Morganwg), who claimed that the rites and customs of the ancient Druids had survived the Roman invasion, founded the Gorsedd of Welsh Bards at Primrose Hill in London. His literary works were to have a profound effect on the early neo-Druid movement and his influence persists to this day.

In 1833 the AOD split over a disagreement about lodge independence from the central Grand Lodge and a group of more than 100 lodges set up a new group called the “United Ancient Order of Druids”. Such arguments and secessions have been a hallmark of neo-Druidism ever since.

The Ancient and Archaeological Order of Druids (AAOD) was founded in 1874 by Wentworth Little, a Rosicrucian and Freemason, with the intent of studying the links between freemasonry and ancient Druidic tradition.

By 1905, the AOD were holding ceremonies at Stonehenge to initiate new members into their order, up to 250 at a time. Some of the press ridiculed the use of cardboard sickles and fake beards, but many of their members were respected members of society – lawyers, doctors and clergy – who wanted to remain anonymous.

Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Edmund Antrobus (then owner of Stonehenge) were members of the AOD, although Churchill has also been associated with the AAOD.

ancient-order-of-druids-stonehenge-1905

In 1909 another new group – “The Druid Order” was founded by George MacGregor-Reid. Somewhat confusingly they were also known variously as “The Ancient Druid Order”, “The British Circle of the Universal Bond” and “An Druidh Uileach Braithreachas” (ie “The Universal Druid Brotherhood”). This group claims to have been founded in 1717 by John Toland, though this is disputed.

Ultimately this group also split – in 1964 – to form the “Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids” under its leader Ross Nichols. The group offers correspondence courses to those interested in Druidry.

Of all the Druids that celebrate Summer Solstice at Stonehenge, it’s The Druid Order that arguably has the longest tradition. They begin at midnight at the barrows southwest of Stonehenge, continue with a dawn observance and ultimately hold a noon ceremony within the monument itself.

The Druid Order at Stonehenge.jpg

More recently founded neo-Druid and pagan groups also hold ceremonies at Stonehenge at various times of the year. These include – in no particular order – the Dolmen Grove, the Dorset Grove, the Cotswold Order, the Loyal Arthurian Warband (LAW), the Stonehenge and Amesbury Druids and the Gorsedd of Cor Gawr.

the-dolmen-grove

Although the details of the ceremonies are varied, one theme is the re-enactment of a ritual battle between the Oak King and the Holly King which occurs twice a year, at Summer Solstice (when the Holly King wins) and the Winter Solstice (when the Oak King wins). Usually this is carried out using swords or wooden staves, but it has been seen done with rubber chickens and water pistols!

For the Open Access events at the Solstices and Equinoxes, at which everyone is allowed in to the centre of the monument to witness the sunrise, a pre-Dawn ceremony is usually led by some of the most recognisable of the modern Druids – notably King Arthur Uther Pendragon of the LAW and Rollo Maughling of the Glastonbury Order.

These are inclusive ceremonies that allow the general public an insight into the beliefs and traditions while serving to highlight the continuing modern use of Stonehenge as a Druidic Temple.

loyal-arthurian-warband

Here are links to some of the Druid Orders.

The Ancient Order of Druids – http://www.aod-uk.org.uk

The Druid Order – http://thedruidorder.org

Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids – http://druidry.org/

The Dolmen Grove – http://www.dolmengrove.co.uk/

The Dorset Grove – http://www.dorsetgrove.co.uk/

The Cotswold Order – http://www.twistedtree.org.uk/

The Loyal Arthurian Warband – http://www.warband.org.uk/

The Stonehenge and Amesbury Druids – http://www.stonehenge-druids.org/

The Gorsedd of Cor Gawr – http://bards.org.uk/

The Glastonbury Order of Druids – http://www.glastonburyorderofdruids.com/

Article written by guest blogger Simon Banton. Local historian and Stonehenge expert.

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Stargazing in June: From the Stonehenge summer solstice to a cosmic embrace

1 06 2015

Two of our solar system’s most sensational planets will get together for a tryst

Two of our solar system’s most sensational planets will get together for a tryst

Let’s start by winnowing out the mythical chaff from the factual wheat. The Druids didn’t build Stonehenge; they came on the scene about 2,000 years later, and – according to the Roman writer Pliny – they didn’t worship in stone temples but in ‘‘forests of oak’’.

It was only in the 7th century that the antiquarian John Aubrey associated the Druids with Stonehenge. In 1740, a fellow neo-Druid called William Stukeley measured Stonehenge, and realised that its central line pointed ‘‘full northeast, being the point where the sun rises at the summer solstice’’. At that point, the link between Stonehenge, the Druids and the midsummer sunrise was set in tablets of stone.

But hang on. Instead of standing in the centre of the great stone circle and looking outwards, you could equally well place yourself at the Heel Stone and look through the centre of Stonehenge, towards the south-east. That’s the direction where the Sun sets, at midwinter.

In fact, Stukeley’s original account describes this bearing, with ‘‘the principal diameter or groundline of Stonehenge, leading from the entrance up to the middle of the temple to the high altar’’. So why did he choose the opposite direction as being critical to the Druids?

Stukeley was a Freemason. For Masons, the western part of the sky is the direction of death. The north-east is spiritually all-important because it is the point where the Sun rises on the feast of St John (the traditional Christian date for midsummer, on 24 June).

That’s why Stukeley picked out midsummer as the key season for Stonehenge. There’s no reason, though, to believe that our distant ancestors felt the same way. In fact, there are two great monuments in the British Isles which are unambiguous markers for the solstice, because they contain deep passageways that are lit up by Sun only once a year. In the case of Newgrange in Ireland and Maeshowe in Orkney, that date is the winter solstice..

Now archaeologists have provided the clinching evidence that Stonehenge, too, was erected to mark midwinter’s day. Mike Parker Pearson has excavated Durrington Walls, a huge settlement near Stonehenge. Here he’s found the remains of orgiastic feasts: bones of cows and pigs that had been brought vast distances – some from Cornwall, and others from the far north. Clearly, people came from all over the country to hold ceremonies at Stonehenge.

And the bones reveal the season that they travelled. The growth of the pigs’ teeth, and the amount they had worn, showed that they had been slaughtered for the table at the age of nine months. Given that piglets are naturally born in the spring, Parker Pearson is adamant that people were ‘‘feasting on pork at midwinter  most likely around the midwinter solstice’’.

So, if you want to truly celebrate as our ancestors did, don’t go to Wiltshire this month. Instead, go to Stonehenge on 22 December, to view the sun setting behind the giant portals of stone.

What’s Up

This month, two of our solar system’s most sensational planets are about to get together for a tryst. For the whole of spring, luminous giant Jupiter has been lighting up our evening skies. But dazzling Venus – Earth’s twin in size – has been sneaking up in the opposite part of the sky. Our neighbour world, cloaked in a dense atmosphere of carbon dioxide, reflects sunlight amazingly: it is the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon.

On 30 June, the two brilliant worlds tangle in a cosmic embrace. Separated by a space less than the diameter of the moon, Jupiter and  Venus will make a stunning sight low in the western sky. Otherwise, the summer constellations are making their appearance. Orange Arcturus, in Boötes, lords it over the night skies. Next to it, the small-but-perfectly-formed Corona Borealis – the Northern Crown – is a beautiful reminder that warmer days are on the way.

What to look out for

1 June: 5.19 pm: full moon

6 June: Venus at greatest eastern elongation

9 June 4.42 pm: moon at last quarter

16 June 3.05 pm: new moon

24 June 12.03 pm: moon at first quarter; Mercury at greatest western elongation

30 June: Venus and Jupiter close conjunction

Read the full story in the Independent. Heather Couper , Nigel Henbest

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