(*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.
Here at the History Centre, we’re no stranger to Morris Dancers. We’ve had dancers on the staff, while each May Bank Holiday Chippenham hosts its popular Folk Festival. It’s great fun watching the street theatrics, but there was once a darker side to Morris Dancing that led to the following stories being recorded by the Wiltshire Magistrates (and now appear in Records of Wiltshire).
What happened at Woodborough in May 1652 caused official concern, but how was it that Morris Dancing threatened the pillars of the state?
Capers against the Commonwealth On the evening of Sunday, May 16th 1652, Edward Smyth and Edward Hawking left their homes in Woodborough and went to All Cannings, where they met and conspired with about a dozen people. That same Sunday, Robert Golfe went from Woodborough into Marlborough “to get a drummer”, while Thomas Beasant went to Ram Alley in Easton and “there invited and procured a fiddler”.
The following day, their plans were revealed when a crowd gathered from the surrounding countryside; according to the records, “three hundred persons, or thereabouts … gathered together in a Riotous, Routous, Warlike and very disorderly manner’.” If anyone thought about stopping them, they were armed “with muskets, pistols, bills, swords drawn and other unlawful weapons”.
The musicians led the crowd from Woodborough to Pewsey where they “very disorderly, danced the Morris Dance”, and committed other misdemeanours, including “drinking and tippling in the inn and Alehouse”. While the prevalence of weapons may, happily, be less, it’s reassuring to see that the drinking still continues in and around Morris circles to this day (and sometimes, people still disapprove).
Public nuisance, party, or Sedition? In 1652, England was a republic, following the execution of Charles I. The Commonwealth kept a close eye on signs of dissent, looking for evidence of Royalist insurgency: traditional sports and pastimes were suspect. Ales, Morris and other customs had been the target of religious reformers since before the Civil War. The opposition from these authorities meant that Morris and other customs now symbolised the old order prior to the Civil War, when license and liberty were, supposedly, more freely allowed; as such, Morris dancing and the open drinking of ale was as much an open challenge to the authorities as the bearing of arms. Although the weapons offered a challenge to the authorities, the Morris spoke of tradition, culture, custom and a perceived stability before the upheavals of the 1640s. The new rulers of England were right to view the emotional power of such demonstrations with suspicion.
While the Morris at Pewsey may not be as famous as folksinger Pete Seeger, who was blacklisted by McCarthy in Cold War America, or Victor Jara, the Chilean musician executed during the 1973 coup, the Wiltshire boys used their folk art and their rootedness in the traditions of their place to show dissent toward the Authorities. Were the ringleaders seeking to incite rebellion, or just standing up for traditional fun? No doubt motives were mixed and shifting, including a mass of local and national grievances, as well as people being there for the fun, the beer and the free entertainment. What also seems remarkably modern was the casting of The Commonwealth as an alien, faceless Authority that stopped fun and meddled in the lives of “ordinary folk” (“Bonkers Conkers” anyone?).
However, as our next story shows, the dancers in Pewsey were evoking an idealised past in an “imagined village” …1
“But here, on the downs, you are not compassed about with trees and boughs, and locked fast in rich meadows… Instead there are bareness, simplicity, and spaciousness, coupled with a feeling of great strength and uncontrolled freedom, an infinity of range, and an immortality of purpose.”
Alfred Williams is better known for his poetry, having gained the title ‘Hammerman Poet’ whilst working for the Great Western Railway in Swindon.
Williams wanted to sketch a view of the people and landscape covering a whole locality rather than just one village or parish. The site was well known to him; along the ridgeway overlooking the Vale of the White Horse which extends into Oxfordshire, now part of the North Wessex Downs AONB.
Alfred’s attempt was successful and what remains are a collection of stories and imagery that takes you from community to community over a 20 mile area. Alfred notes that the characters he writes about are exactly as he found them, and he paints a good picture, describing their clothes, their speech, their backgrounds and trades, but the picture appears to have always been so rosy… perhaps possible artistic licence makes for a more nostalgic read?
The downs are described in detail including how they were cultivated and the flora and fauna that could be found. There were also the buildings; where they were located, what they looked like and their uses. The journey is fondly itinerated, from village to village, up slopes, through thickets and coombs, beside springs. Information on the history of the locations as Alfred knew it is recorded, along with tales of poaching, thieves, smugglers and ghosts. Time was spent talking about local sports such as cockfighting and backswarding and their importance in the community, the relationship between locals and their bees, and the customs that bound these traditions together. Williams presents a unified picture of old village life with ballad sheets in every house and many songs sung in pubs; fairs and revels; village ales. He also vividly notes the changes in the area from the first threshing machine, the first train, the arrival of telegraph poles, the decline of village trades.
Alfred encapsulated the lives of a number of local craftspeople such as the carter, the sawyer, the weaver, the tailor and the basket maker to name a few, describing who they were and how they worked. He also went into great depth regarding how to make certain products, from soap and candlemaking to watercress and elderflower products. Elderflower wine stood high in the estimation of the villagers. The famous north Wiltshire bacon could not be excluded.
Last summer I visited the Natural History Museum in London. While looking at the displays one item on display caught my eye, a mummified cat! This was of interest to me because kept in a strong room at the History Centre is a mummified cat, who, we’ve affectionately named Bing Clawsby!
In 1989, the then County Archivist Ken Rogers and Archivist Margaret Moles collected the archives of solicitors Mann, Rodway and Green from their offices at 57 Union Street, Trowbridge. While clearing their strong room a dead cat was found amongst the documents. A feeling of sadness was felt for the cat and they decided to bring it back to the Record Office in Trowbridge. “Bing Clawsby” now resides in Strong Room 2 here at the History Centre in Chippenham. Bing’s hearing and eye sight is not what it used to be and now spends most of the day asleep in its box.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, predominately during the witch-trials (first half of the 17th century), people believed that Satan was very active and that witches made pacts with him, they would hand over their soul in exchange for supernatural powers. Witches had the ability to take the form of animals to help them perform their evil deeds. Witches also had the help of familiars. These were believed to be supernatural entities that would assist the witch. Familiars would often appear as animals and could even take the form of humans. It was vitally important to take steps to protect oneself and the family and to destroy witches and their familiars. The house had to be protected by day and night from these evil forms that would enter the home and cause harm to the family.
One important way to protect the home would be to conceal items within the wall, roof space, under the floor but quite often near points of entry, the door, window and chimney area. Concealed items included shoes, horse skulls, witch-bottles, dried animals such as birds, rats, mice and cats. These objects would have been hidden in secrecy because this itself was considered an act of magic and such beliefs were regarded as unlawful.
Mummified cats or “Dried Cats” as they are officially known were used across Europe. It is not known if these cats had died before or after concealment, but some had been placed in a position that looks like they are about to pounce, which must have occurred after death. Cats were regarded as possessing a sixth sense and would carry on hunting in the afterlife. Some cats have been found with a dried rat or mouse next to them, one cat even had a rat in its jaws. Cats have been found from the period when London was rebuilt after the Great Fire. Some of these cats were in building designed by Sir Christopher Wren and could have been put there by Wren’s masons.
As with cats, horses are believed to be able to see things on a spiritual plane and would be able to watch over the family and guide them from witches and spirits.
Wiltshire is well known for its southern chalk and northern rich pasture dairy land, and cheese production was once a well established part of Wiltshire life, from cottage industry to factory production. Chippenham’s cheese market opened in 1850, reported in the London Illustrated News and the market soon became famous. Wiltshire Cheese was renowned from the 18th century and became highly sought after. The Wiltshire Loaf is a semi-hard cheese, smooth and creamy on the outside and crumbly in the centre. The North Wiltshire (or Wiltshire) Loaf reached the peak of its popularity in the 18th & early 19th centuries.
William Nichols was a Chippenham Chemist who developed the use of the substance annatto as a food additive. Annatto comes from the achiote shrub seed and is produced in South America. You can still see it as the orange skin on some cheeses today, and it is used to give colour to dairy products.
The annual tradition of ‘Beating the Bounds’ or ‘perambulations’ has been carried out for many centuries in our parishes in England, Scotland and Wales. In Scotland, the tradition was known as ‘Riding the Marshes’; a method of reaffirming the parish boundaries from way before the introduction of maps. In some parishes, this annual ritual is still very much part of village or town life. It is believed that this religious practice was first introduced in Vienne, France, around AD 470 by the Holy bishop Mamertus. There were many reasons for the ceremony but the parishioners believed that it would ‘avert great calamaties’. It would affirm their devotion to God; ask him for forgiveness from sins and for protection from evil and to bless the congregation and the fruits of their labour.
Other phrases were used for this ancient custom; ‘Rogation Week’ (from the Latin word ‘rogare’ meaning to ask or to pray), the ‘Common Walk’, ‘Gangdays’ and ‘going a- ganging’. Rogation Week is also known as Rogantide, the week in which Ascension Day falls in May, beginning with Rogation Sunday, the Sunday before Ascension Day. Religious ceremonies would take place over a period of three days of this week; Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, involving the parish priest, churchwardens and other officiates of the church. Old parishioners mixed with the young to pass on the knowledge of the boundaries. The youngsters of the parish, usually boys, would be armed with long birch or willow twigs to beat the specific landmarks such as an old tree or stones. In some cases, the boys themselves were beaten with the sticks, so they should never forget the crucial information passed on to them by their elders. Usually, the boys would have their heads bumped against the boundary marker whilst prayers were read from the Litany of Saints. The girls and women would wear and carry garlands of flowers and foliage. The Milkwort flower (Polygala vulgaris) is also dubbed the Rogation flower and was often used in the garlands.
This printed account inside a parish register held in our archives at the History Centre, give details of the 12-14 mile route taken during the ceremony along the parish boundary of Leigh Delamere. The start of the route begins with; ‘from the old ditch on the Streta Fosseway. Here there is a cottage and a junction of a road to Littleton drew. The cottagers came out and joined in the short service, the sign of the Cross was made on the ancient roadway and the long walk began along the old Roman road...’