Wiltshire is home to many stories and tales of local hauntings, and many local history sections in libraries hold books on ghosts and folklore. Malmesbury is no exception. The abbey is possibly the first site that one would turn to for ghostly encounters, as it towers over the town as one of the few survivors of Henry VIII’s dissolution of monasteries due to its purchase by William Stumpe, who turned it into a parish church (Scanlan, 48). It is said that a former monk has been seen walking through the cemetery, and that monastic singing has been heard in the abbey itself.
Another famous haunted site in the town is the Kings Arms hotel and restaurant, where a deceased landlord seems to have never left his workplace.
(*or what was held to be The Truth in the Middle Ages)
At the summer solstice, Stonehenge falls under the spotlight: in the solar sense and in the cultural sense. People all over the world find it fascinating and are reminded to ponder it when the sun is at its highest. Much of the appeal of Stonehenge may be attributed to its encompassing aura of mystery, its air of mind-bending antiquity. There is much about it we don’t understand, despite the advances made by ingenious researchers, but we are not the first generations to try to account for Stonehenge. So what did our forebears believe?
According to a twelfth-century author called Geoffrey of Monmouth, the ancient stone circle now known as Stonehenge was originally brought to mount Killarus in Ireland from Africa by a group of giants. It was known then as the Giants’ Dance and had healing properties. The stones came to Wiltshire with the help of a very young Merlin, at the behest of King Arthur’s uncle, Aurelius Ambrosius, to be reconstructed as a memorial to a group of Britons massacred during the reign of the malicious usurper, Vortigern. Some decades later the structure renamed Stonehenge becomes the final resting place of Uther Pendragon.
I studied this story while writing my PhD about an illustrated medieval manuscript containing an abridged version of Wace’s Anglo-Norman French translation of Geoffrey’s history: La Roman de Brut. Even in its shortened form, the episode in which the child Merlin guides the reconstruction of Stonehenge celebrates brains over brawn, great power despite littleness of stature:
“They grasped the stones behind, in front and sideways: they pushed and thrust them hard and shook them hard, but however much force they used, they could not find a solution. ‘Rise’ said Merlin, ‘you will so no more by force. Now you shall see how knowledge and skill are better than bodily strength.’ Then he stepped forward and stopped. He looked around, his lips moving like a man saying his prayers. I do not know if he said a prayer or not. Then he called the Britons back. ‘Come here,’ he said, ‘come! Now you can handle the stones and carry them into your ships.’ As Merlin instructed, as he devised and told them, the Britons took the stones, carried them to the ships and placed them inside. They brought them to England and carried them to Amesbury, into the fields nearby.” – Based on Judith Weiss’ 2002 translation of Wace’s Roman de Brut
To the medieval mind, the stone circle was a monument to human mastery of nature, as well as to the fallen Britons. Still today we measure ourselves by the power of our prehistoric ancestors to have created it. I recently created a linocut of the child Merlin guiding the reconstruction of Stonehenge. Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace focus on the dismantling of the stones in Ireland, which is also the moment illustrated in the manuscript I worked on for my PhD. Instead, I depicted the moment when that iconic plain was undergoing its momentous transformation.
I’ve just finished reading the fascinating book ‘My Own Life’ by Ruth Scurr about the life of the 17th century Wiltshire antiquarian John Aubrey. It has left me with such a great impression of both his life and the times he lived in, that I thought I’d share them with you.
Aubrey was born on St. Gregory’s Day, 12th March 1626, the eldest son of Richard, a gentleman, and Deborah. His cousin and patron was Sir John Aubrey, 2nd Baronet, who had homes in Buckinghamshire and the Vale of Glamorgan.
His love of Wiltshire was derived from growing up at Broad Chalke and Easton Piercy, and through his years spent at school at Leigh Delamare, but also from association with some of the county’s major landowners such as the Pembrokes of Wilton House, spending time at their estates. His father’s death caused financial difficulties. Over time Aubrey had to sell off his property, spending the majority of his time moving between friends, patrons and lodging houses.
Aubrey had many, many friends, some of whom appear to have taken advantage of his good nature and his genuine wish to help further their work. Aubrey loved science and learning, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1662, only two years after it had been founded, but he also loved nature and the world around him, especially the Wiltshire landscape, and folklore. He had a belief and interest in astrology, and had correspondence with Edmund Halley.
John was particularly interested in springs, and noted many in Wiltshire, testing their composition and presenting them to the Royal Society. He also had a surprising ability for the age; the ability to talk to anyone and show interest in their views, from Kings to lowly peasants.
Aubrey lived in turbulent times and worried about the lack of care given to historic material, seeing stonework looted, ruins uncared for, old manuscripts used in kitchens and to cover school books. His sense of caring for the past for the future was evident in his relationships with men such as Mr Ashmole who was instrumental in the founding of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He also paid for the etching of the Osney Abbey ruins by Hollar; concerned to document them before they were lost forever.