HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Believe it or not this is my 100th post – and coincides nicely with the end of my second year writing this blog. Suitably for the time of year its the second one about mistletoe, following on from last week’s discussion about sacred groves, and this time exploring the Druid connection.
Despite images like this, or pagan festivals celebrating summer solstices at Stonehenge, or bards reciting at eisteddfods, the place of Druids in our national history is surprisingly recent.
The link between mistletoe, sacred groves and the Druids actually begins in the 1stc AD with writings of Pliny the Elder, and Tacitus but it doesn’t really begin to affect our national consciousness until the 16thc. After that the boundary between fact, conjecture and invention is blurred. Myth begins to pile upon myth and legend upon legend until eventually in the 18thc the story of the Druids develops a life of its own with the ‘discovery’ of archaeology. From then on the story takes a romantic faux historical twist and becomes even more difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. But read on and I’ll try….
In his Natural History Pliny the Elder wrote: “We should not omit to mention the great admiration that the Gauls have for [mistletoe] as well. The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak. Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the 6th day of the moon…
Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion.
A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons.” You can read Pliny’s full text at:
Pliny’s description inspired many of early Renaissance historians and antiquarians all over northern and western Europe to include the Druids when they began to write their own national histories. It also helped inspire others – notably the famous fraud Annius of Viterbo – to invent more ‘imaginative’ stories to suit their geo-political circumstances. In Britain this led to a trail of manuscripts and books as convoluted and confusing as in France and Germany so while I’m going to attempt to trace this through…do feel free to skip the next few paragraphs [in italics] if this is becoming dull, or jump straight to the link at the end of the section!
It started in Scotland in 1527, when Hector Boece was the first to associate Druids with standing stones with the prehistoric stone circles that survived in many regions, and to declare that they had been temples of the national pagan religion. However Boece too was prone to flights of fancy and invention!
The works of Annius and Boece [and others] were then adapted and reworked by Holinshed in his Chronicles, which is better known as being the source of Shakespeare’s history plays, and so the stories were perpetuated. Its interesting that Shakespeare didn’t put Druids onto the stage, even in his History of Cymbeline which was set in ancient Britain, although they do appear in other plays notably Jasper Fisher’s True Trojans. Performed in 1633 it has an entire cast of them “in long robes, hats like Pyramids, [with] branches of Mistletoe.” who cast spells and swear “By the dreadfull Mistletoe,Which doth on holy Oake grow.”
The plot thickens in ways which we don’t have time to go into here but if you are interested in knowing more then follow the link at the end of this section. What is clear is that this interest in the Druids and Druidism developed gradually during the 17thc.
Michael Drayton in Polyolbion of 1612, for example, cites Pliny verbatim in his discussion about the importance of Druids in Britain’s early history, although he also wrote described them as evil magicians. There are many other references during this period, until….
…finally in 1649, we have the great antiquarian and John Aubrey “discovering” Avebury. Aubrey was to become a founder member of the Royal Society and argue in Monumenta Britannica [c1665-93] that the Druids were the priests of Pre-Roman Britain, and probably organised the construction of Avebury and Stonehenge. His theories were then picked up and developed in a new version of William Camden’s Britannia .
The other important milestone in the creation of the Druid myth was the publication of the first printed image of a Druid in Aylett Sammes Britannia Antiqua Illustrata (1675). Of course it wasn’t a historically accurate depiction – how could it be? – and instead was probably based on a mediaeval German statue of a pilgrim! But no matter – the engraving makes the Druids appear both ‘wild’ and ‘holy’ and set the scene for the way they were represented until the 19thc.
For more detail on all this read the article by Prof. Ronald Hutton of Bristol University at:
By the early 18thc the myth boomed and turned a few isolated local customs into a national fashion. This movement was led notably by William Stukeley,a doctor and later clergyman who in 1717 relaunched the Society of Antiquaries. Having read a copy of Aubrey’s unpublished manuscript Monumenta Britannica Stukeley was enthused to discover more, and together with Thomas Wright, the architect (see post on Stumperies, 2nd May 2015) he surveyed prehistoric monuments such as Stonehenge, Avebury and many standing stones which they thought had Druidic associations.
Indeed Stukeley became the first modern person to identify himself completely with Druids and even called himself one in print, and adopting a Druidical name. As Alison Kelly wittily put it, he and Wright “embodied a Georgian interest in the Druids and their religion in which ignorance was joined with enthusiasm.” (Garden History, vol.16,(2), 1988, p.125)
So what’s all this got to with gardens?
Quite simply that, apart from being a pioneer archaeologist, Stukeley was a very keen gardener and mixed his two passions with interesting results. I have abstracted the following few paragraphs from a fascinating recent article about his Lincolnshire gardens by John Smith FSA in The Antiquaries Journal, Vol.93, September 2013, pp 353-400. The illustrations of Stukeley’s gardens are also taken from there.
Stukeley’s medical practice was at Grantham in Lincolnshire and in his garden there he had a 100 ft diameter circular shaped orchard. There, he wrote to a friend, he was ‘making a temple of the druids’ with ‘pyramidal greens’ representing the stones and surrounding “an ancient apple tree overgrown with sacred mistletoe.” It had an irregular winding approach around the perimeter through the orchard. Elsewhere he had a Hermitage Vineyard which incorporated included ‘a chapel’ and a Roman altar.
In 1730 Stukeley moved to nearby Stamford after being ordained and appointed rector there. The rectory garden was small and in 1734 he acquired The Hermitage, a nearby house and grounds, and in 1736 a further adjacent plot of land so that he could create a much bigger garden. These sloped and so offered views out into the surrounding landscape.
In the new spirit of the evolving English landscape garden it was to be a place for contemplation but also of surprise, with, as in so many landed seats a circuit superimposed upon it which would allow the visitor to discover its secrets, although it was still not really large enough to allow much to be hidden as a surprise. Nevertheless in 1737 he created a rustic Merlin’s Cave, presumably inspired by the Gothic one built for Queen Caroline at Kew begun just a couple of years earlier, and with the same Whig overtones. [More on this in another post shortly!]
Stukeley was a prolific and competent sketcher – luckily for posterity – and his work has cropped up several times in other posts. He was also a prolific collector, especially of any antiquities or mediaeval bits and pieces that he could lay his hand on. This included parts of the demolished Eleanor Cross in the town, and fragments from the ruins of nearby Crowland Abbey – which were put into his garden. It also in turn to his creating a Rosamund’s Bower – named after Henry II’s mistress and which became a fairly common feature of 19th mediaeval garden recreations.
Like most gardeners Stukeley was always keen to expand his growing space, and the Hermitage at about half an acre became too small for his ambitions. In 1741 he bought another house on Barn Hill in Stamford [now No.9] which had two acres of grounds. He began work immediately extending and altering the house. The garden which he started work on in 1744 proved slightly more difficult because much of the land close to the house was covered with buildings. There was “a very great barn adjoining the house, a double dovecote built like a church, and a very large malting office…All these I pull’d down & carried off the premisses, laying the whole yard open to the orchard.” In the process of clearing he “dug away a yard deep into the rock, where I found” what he claimed to be ” a Roman urn.”
The garden immediately behind the house became a bowling green, and “all the rest of the ground I threw into a wild forestiere form, full of walks,trees, fruit, flowers, shrubs of all kinds, annual & evergreen, the whole blended together & intermixed without regularity.”
He constructed a new hermitage and a new Rosamunds Bower, but also built a summer-house, glazed with rescued mediaeval stained glass and a Temple of Flora. More intriguingly there was a ‘Babylonian garden’ although nothing much is known about it. The most obvious things about the garden are, however, the concentric circles which surely must be another reference to his fascination with Druidical antiquity.
He did not enjoy his new garden for very long because in 1747 he was offered the living of the fashionable church of St George the Martyr, Queen’s Square in Bloomsbury. He moved to London and died there in 1765.
At the same time he was creating the Stamford garden, the early 1740s, he finally began to publish his research into ancient monuments. In his two books he argued, like Aubrey, that Stonehenge and Avebury and the other great standing stones were the work of the Ancient Britons, whose priests were the Druids. But as these proposed title pages show, he had not always held this view, but had once considered the ‘Antient Celts’ as the builders.
Stukeley made the Druids sound just the sort of people who, had they lived, would have been patriotic parsons and doctors like himself. In the process he made studying them respectable and created the language we still use to describe their various landscape and architectural features such as cursus, avenue, and trilithon.
Whether Stukeley was responsible in any way for the rehabilitation of mistletoe into ecclesiastical customs is hard to tell, but he reports it being taken to the high altar in York minster on Christmas Eve. He also certainly experimented with growing it from seed and noted in his diary in 1747 that he “put some mistletoe on several kinds of trees in my garden.”
Some have argued that it was Stukeley who ‘revived’ the Order of Druids in 1717, but there is no hard evidence of this. Instead that honour goes to Henry Hurle who set up the the Ancient Order of Druids in 1781, and ran it on masonic lines. By that time Stukely had been dead for 16 years, but he would no doubt have been amused that “having been the only Druid on the planet in 1722, and probably the first ‘serious’ one for fifteen centuries, he had ensured that they were reappearing all over London sixty years later” [Hutton]
If you would like to know more about the history of this romantic revival of Druidism then, apart from the online article by Ronald Hutton mentioned above, two good places to start are his book Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain (2009), and an article in History Today by Geoffrey Grigson which is available at:
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
You must be logged in to post a comment.