Way back in April 2021 I wrote a piece about the Elizabethan painting below, which as you can see from the detail, has a maze in the background. It struck me as an unusual things to put into a portrait, although I soon discovered that it was almost certainly an allegory about finding the right path in life, rather than anything in the sitter’s own garden.
What I hadn’t fully realised then was that the idea of walking round a low-level maze wasn’t actually that strange because the English countryside was once dotted with earthwork labyrinths or turf-mazes of a similar kind, although not many survive today.
Nor did I realise quite how popular mazes and labyrinths were, with many intriguing stories around them, although usually with very little hard evidence to back them up. Indeed there is an entire sub-culture debating their origins and purposes, and as a result the boundary between fact and fiction, or evidence and conjecture, is “flexible” to put it mildly. There is sound academic research but also a lot of “new age” fantasy where in the end you can almost believe what you want. Today’s post is just going to wend its way through the labyrinth looking at just a small part of this world: the turf maze.
At the risk of confusing you before we start properly, is there a difference between a labyrinth and a maze? The answer is yes, with most authorities probably accepting that while the terms are often used interchangeably, a maze is designed as a puzzle, designed to confuse with plenty of choices, some of which lead to dead ends and only one leading to the centre. A Labyrinth on the other hand has just one path, albeit convoluted, to the centre. To use the right technical jargon, a maze is multicursal and a labyrinth unicursal. To make matters more confused in England both have always been called mazes, from the same Old English root as ‘amaze’ – meaning to astonish or bewilder, which is exactly what they do, so perhaps in real life it doesn’t matter that much.
So what is a turf maze? Unlike later hedge mazes they are not planted features. Instead they are made by cutting a shallow trench into and through an area of short grass. Usually it’s the the turf that’s left raised up after the trenches have been excavated that’s designed to be the path, but occasionally, perhaps by error, it’s the trench itself. Since the trenches are shallow their very construction technique makes them potentially ephemeral.
No-one knows why they were made although of course there are all sorts of conjectures. Since several are known near churches or ancient sites it has been suggested that they have religious significance and certainly maze patterns were adopted by the early church as a symbol of the Christian path to salvation, so perhaps these were paths for penitents to walk or crawl round. However there are no known contemporary descriptions of any religious use or connection.
Another possibility is that they were for games or races. There’s a reference from as early as 1353, for example, for the “treading” of a “Shepherd Ring” near Boughton Green, Northamptonshire, during the annual June Fair, while there was another “Shepherd’s Race” just outside Nottingham. These were both turf mazes that local legend suggests were cut by shepherds as a sort of exercise ground, but sadly both are now gone.
Shakespeare’s Midsummers Nights dream also talks of treading the maze – or rather the opposite because “quaint mazes on the wanton green for lack of tread are undistinguishable.” Later John Aubrey the 17thc antiquarian noted “there were many [mazes] in England before the Civil wars; and that the young people used on festivals to dance, or, as the term was, to tread them…” so this was probably an established folk custom, and there are other inferences in some other descriptions which we’ll see shortly that mazes were used for communal events and activities which has spectators.
So while both those ideas sound plausible the short answer no-one actually knows. It doesn’t help that there’s little documentation and no real archaeology which, unsurprisingly makes such mazes very difficult to date. Often it’s just local word of mouth which offers any explanation of their stories, uses, or even names.
In fact names such as Shepherd’s Ring are one of the most intriguing features of turf-mazes. For example Historic England have one listed at Alkborough in Lincolnshire called Julian’s Bower. It has a single convoluted path which threads its way through 11 concentric rings to reach the centre. The whole maze is just over 12m in diameter and is a similar design to one on the floor of Chartres Cathedral.
Although the earliest known documentary reference isn’t until the late 17thc the cut paths, which have obviously been cleaned and redug over the centuries, are now up to to half a metre deep perhaps suggesting it is much older. Since the church and its land were acquired by Spalding Priory in 1146 its quite possible it was cut by the monks as one of those penitential circuits. Later residents of Alkborough were obviously proud of their maze and there is a late 19thc copy of the maze in the church porch, another in one of the stained glass windows, yet another on the tombstone of the man who saved it, and even one on the village name board.
But why Julian’s Bower, especially when there were according to the 18th-century antiquary William Stukeley two other mazes of the same/similar name in Lincolnshire, one at Horncastle, and another in nearby Louth known at “Gelyan Bower”.
He also claims he had “frequently found” sites called Julian’s Bower “at Roman towns and others, but especially common in Lincolnshire… generally upon open green places.” [from Stukeley’s Itinerarium curiosum ]
It’s likely that the Bower is derived from Burgh a place name element meaning fortified but its also been suggested that these are linked to St Julian the unliklely patron saint of inn-keepers and hospitality. Having killed his parents in a case of mistaken identity he tried to atone by providing hospitals and hostels for pilgrims and other travellers. One of his bowers would have been a welcome sight for the tired and weary. But quite why these mazes were seen in that way no-one seems to know! It also doesn’t help that although St Julian is supposed to have lived in the 4thc he only makes an appearance in the late 12thc and the story of the atonement in the 13thc – probably after some of these mazes were cut.
There is, however, another possibility which sounds even less likely to the modern eye but in a much earlier context actually makes sense. In this theory the Julian referred to is actually Julius Ascanius. I can hear you going …What? Who? Why?
This Julius was the son of Aeneas of Troy and as a child, according to Virgil’s Aeneid, was famed for his skill at riding in the Trojan games. He fled with his father on the fall of the city, and founded a city in Italy. A group of Trojans led by his grandson Brutus eventually reached Britain and founded London.
This association of Britain and Troy was widely believed right through until the early 17thc, although the story had been largely invented by great mediaeval chronicler and myth-maker, Geoffrey of Monmouth, who is also the source of the story of King Lear and the populariser of the story of King Arthur.
Now we might laugh at this weird link with Troy but the first documentary evidence I mentioned earlier comes from the diary of a young clergyman and antiquary, Abraham de la Pryme. In 1697 He noted that “They have at [this] town, as also at Appleby, two Roman games, the one called Gillian’s bore, and the other Troy’s walls. They are both nothing but great labarinths cut upon the ground with a hill cast up round about them for the spectators to sitt round about on to behold the sport. The two labarinths are somewhat different in their turnings one from another.”
William Stukeley makes similar comments: “Entring then into Appleby lane, the street leads through the end of the town, at which town is two old Roman games yet practized, the one called Julian’s Bower,” and the other Troy’s Walls.” But Stukeley then goes on to add: “ boys often divert themselves by running, in their various windings and turnings, through and back again.” He links it back to games played first in Troy and bought over with Brutus…I conceive this game was of two sorts; that performed on foot ; that on horseback or in chariots: the intent of both was to exercise youth in warlike activity, for it was a sort of mock fight” and after a long digression into Roman precedents and sources he concludes that ” its is likely these works of ours in turf were cast up, in order to teach the children the method of it.”
Stukeley’s comments are backed up by a correspondent, “J. F.,” in Notes and Queries in 1866, says that he has lively impressions of the oft-repeated pleasure derived from the feat of “running it in and out,” of Julian’s Bower in company with others, sixty years previously, and of seeing the villagers playing May-eve games about it, “under an indefinite persuasion of something unseen and unknown co-operating with them.”
That makes more evidence for their use as some kind of arena for sports or games. It would be interesting to know if any archaeology, especially LIDAR has been carried out to try and trace the no longer extant Troys Walls.
This connection of turf-mazes with Troy is reinforced because it is fairly unambiguous elsewhere. There are several other sites with names such as “Troy Town,” or “Walls of Troy,” – indeed one 12-sided “Walls of Troy” was on the other side of the Humber to Alkborough at Marfleet. which survived up until the mid-19th century. There’s more information about that one on the Historic England website
However it’s worth pointing out that in Scandinavia there are also stone mazes named “Trojaburg” as well as other ruined Biblical cities names such as ”Jerusalem,” “Babylon,” “Nineveh,” and “Jericho.” According to Penny Doob who wrote widely about mediaeval mazes and labyrinths most of these place names also occur in connection with mazes in medieval manuscript illuminations or literature. Indeed sometimes the word Troy is actually used as an alternative to maze.
Why Troy in the first place? Again no-one knows for certain but in popular legend, the walls of the city of Troy were supposed to be constructed in such a confusing and complex way that any enemy who entered them would be unable to find his way out. However Jericho whose walls fell to the blast of Joshua’s trumpet also features widely a a name for maze designs.
There are 3 other turf mazes with similar designs to Chartres, apart from Julian’s Bower. There are the earthwork remains of another circular medieval turf maze near the parish church at Wing in Rutland. This one has 11 circuits cut into the turf in a cross-shaped pattern, and probably once surrounded by a low bank.
A second Chartres style site is at Breamore near Fordingbridge in Hampshire. Although not recorded until 1783, the origins of the Breamore Mizmaze as it is known may well be connected with the priory founded by Augustinian Canons in the 12th century. It is about 84 ft across and sits at the top of a hill some 2 miles from the site of the abbey which has been replaced by Breamore House.
There’s another mizmaze on a low hill overlooking the village of Leigh in Dorset, although not much remains apart from some hexagonal earthwork banks and a slight central mound. The design has long disappeared but can be at least guessed for depictions on a series of early maps. The earliest of these is to be found on an Elizabethan map of the manors of north Dorset (BL Add MS 52522] dating from 1569-74. Although the drawing is tiny it is clearly realistic and shows it as two concentric ovals linked by a central cross.
It’s there too on a couple of 18thc maps and the local county history Hutchins in 1774 reports that it had been the custom for the young men of the village to clean out and repair the maze, scouring out the trenches and trimming the banks every six or seven years but by the time he was writing the site had begun to be neglected. By the 19thc only the surrounding banks survived. There’s a lot more about it at Labyrinthos.
So are these turf mazes a memory of mythical Troy? A reminder of the minotaurs labyrinth? sites of monastic penitence? Or early sports stadia? Or perhaps some combination of them? Your guess is probably as good as mine!
Although I’d intended to cover all the surviving turf mazes and as you’ve probably realised I’ve only just managed to look at those which are thought to have medieval origins and haven’t looked at anything later. I’m afraid they’ll have to wait for another post soon….
BUT in the meantime if you want to know more here are some good places to start – but don’t get lost!
Labyrinthos, is a website with a wide range of resources and links, including an extensive archive of articles from its journal CAERDROIA and a photographic & illustration library, as well as links to other useful places. Labyrinths in Britain is the website for an informal group of UK labyrinth enthusiasts which has pretty comprehensive coverage of all kinds of mazes. Its US equivalent is The Labyrinth Society, a U.S. nonprofit organisation.
The standard historical text is Willaim Matthew’s Mazes and labyrinths; a general account of their history and developments which is now 100 years old being published in 1922. It’s available on archive.org.
Nowadays the most comprehensive book is probably Hermann Kern’s Through the Labyrinth:Designs and Meanings Over 5000 Years,  which is unfortuantely out of print and extremely expensive second hand, but should be easily available via a library. The Idea of the Labyrinth from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages is an open access book by Penelope Reed Doob which takes a detailed look at the early history of mazes.
The British maze guide by Adrian Fisher and Jeff Saward  and other books by both Fisher and Saward who are the leading experts in the field.
Thank you so much for this post!! I am head gardener at a private estate in Scotland. Two years ago I installed our own turf maze, loosely based on the Jerusalem Labyrinth. Its 15m wide and instead of bare earth I have planted between the paths. It actually houses our National Collections of Siberian Iris. It was just so great to read more info on these mazes. thank you!!
Thank you Pam. Delighted to hear that there are new turf mazes being created, and yours sounds particularly interesting. There will be more on mazes later in the year David