Stonehenge and the Druids
After centuries of neglect in the wake of first Roman and then Christian suppression, the Druids were rediscovered during the Renaissance when the revival of interest in ancient Greek and Latin writers brought attention to the works of Pliny, Tacitus, and Julius Caesar and their descriptions of the Celtic world. First in France in the sixteenth century, and then in England, the ancient Celts (or Gauls as they were known in France) and Druids were claimed as historical ancestors. By the seventeenth century, a new romantic image of Druids began to emerge in French and English literature. In England as early as 1624 the Celtic warrior queen Boudicca is credited by Edmond Bolton with building Stonehenge as her monument. Although other English writers at this time refused to acknowledge anything worthwhile in Celtic culture, and the architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652), in his “The Most Remarkable Antiquity of Great Britain”, vulgarly called “Stone-Henge, Restored”, compiled from his notes by his son-in-law John Webb and published in 1655, would conclude that “Stonehenge was no work of the Druids” (he claimed instead that it had been built by the Romans, see “Stonehenge Restorations“), the link between the Druids and Stonehenge had nonetheless been forged in the popular imagination.
Druids celebrating the summer solstice at Stonehenge
Already by 1649, John Aubrey had suggested that the Druids were probably responsible for building Stonehenge, a theme he developed into a book originally to be titled ‘Templa Druidum’ but which ultimately formed a chapter in his “Monumenta Britannica”. In the early 18th century, Aubrey’s views became known to William Stukeley who not only declared Stonehenge (and Avebury) to be a temple of the Druids, but, according to some, was instrumental in initiating in 1717 the first Order of Druids on Primrose Hill, London. Some scholars, however, have found no evidence for this, and recognize instead the earliest revived Druidic order as being the Ancient Order of Druids founded in 1781 by Henry Hurle who organized it on the lines of Freemasonry. By 1839, however, conflicts between members led to the formation of a break-away movement named the United Order of Druids, lodges for which were also established in the United States and Australia. The United Order of Druids still flourishes today as an international charitable organization. The more mystical Ancient Order of Druids also continued through the 19th century and into the 20th, claiming among its many members Winston Churchill (1874-1965), who was initiated into the Albion Lodge at Oxford.
Winston Churchill (center) hosts the Ancient Order of Druids at Blenheim Palace on 15 August, 1908
Exactly when the Ancient Order of Druids began their annual summer solstice celebrations at Stonehenge is unclear. Meanwhile, though, the monument drew a variety of other visitors and was popular among royalty and public alike. In the photograph below on the left, Prince Leopold (4th from the right), the youngest son of Queen Victoria, enjoys a picnic with friends, while the photograph on the right records a village outing in the late 19th century.
By 1900 visitors were causing a lot of damage to the monument (two stones fell in this year) so its owner, Sir Edward Antrobus fenced in the site and began charging an entry fee. Not surprisingly, this greatly annoyed the Druids who refused to pay and were forcibly ejected by the police. A High Court case in 1905 upheld Antrobus’s right to charge admission. A photograph from 1905 shows that despite the entry fee the ceremonies that year were nonetheless well attended.
Initiation of novices into the Ancient Order of Druids at Stonehenge, August, 1905
In 1915, Stonehenge was sold and in 1918 the new owner presented it to the nation. By this time the number of Druidic sects had multiplied to five with each one vying to perform ‘sacred rites’ at the monument. A photograph from 1923 shows one of these sects performing the summer solstice celebration of that year.
Druidic Ceremony at Stonehenge, 1923 (Photo: library of Roger Viollet, Paris)
By 1949 only two of these sects survived, and by 1955 only one, the British Circle of the Universal Bond, which claimed to be not only the true descendants of Henry Hurle’s original Ancient Order of Druids but also of William Stukeley’s Order of Druids purportedly founded in 1717. In 1963, an internal dispute produced the break-away Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. The Bards celebrated their rites at Tower Hill. The Bond, however, continued to welcome the midsummer dawn at Stonehenge. A herald trumpets a welcoming fanfare to the four winds at summer solstice ceremonies in 1966 (Photograph by Austin Underwood)
From the beginning, it would appear, the Druidic ceremonies at Stonehenge drew crowds of spectators and the occasion early acquired a celebratory, festival-like character. A mass induction of novices into the Ancient Order in August, 1905 (the novices can be seen marching in procession between ranks of Druids in the photograph above), included a grand lunch at which, according to local newspaper reports, a large quantity of drink was consumed. A photograph from 1966 shows the Druids almost lost among the crowds of people a number of whom watch the ceremonies perched on top of the stones. In 1975, the new ‘New Age’-oriented, alternative, neo-pagan Secular Order of Druids was initiated and the annual Stonehenge festival began to attract huge crowds. After 65 years or so of being managed by departments of the government, in 1984 Stonehenge was placed under the control of English Heritage, a quasi-independent agency established by Parliament with responsibility for looking after ancient sites in England. Its first act was to ban the Druids from the site and to suppress the Stonehenge festival. Recent attempts by the Druids to regain access to Stonehenge have not been successful.