Druids and Stonehenge
It was John Aubrey, writing in the 17th century, who first thought it a
"probability" that stone circles, such as Stonehenge,
"were Temples of the Druids" and called his text on stone circles
This idea was picked up
by William Stukeley, in the early 18th century, who subtitled his first book,
Stonehenge, published in 1740, "a Temple Restored to the British Druids, and his second, on Avebury,
published in 1743, "a Temple of the British Druids."
Later, in the 19th century, Sir John
Lubbock (1834-1913) dated Stonehenge to a period much earlier than the time of the Druids (that is, to
about 2000 B.C., whereas the Druids don't appear in the historical record until 1800 years later). Never
the less the view was maintained by a minority that Druids were the original pre-Celtic inhabitants of
Britain. The religious beliefs and practices for which Stonehenge was first built are ancestral to those
of the later Celtic Druids who moved to groves of Oak to practice and away from the "stone circles" of
After centuries of neglect in the wake of first Roman
and later Christian suppression, the Druids were rediscovered during the Renaissance. A revival of interest in ancient Greek
and Latin writers had 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 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. 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". Instead
he claimed that it had been built by the Romans. 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
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
solstice celebrations at Stonehenge is unclear. Meanwhile,
though, the monument drew a variety of other visitors and was popular among royalty and public
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
Druidic Ceremony at Stonehenge,
(Photo: library of Roger
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
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.
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
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 been
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