Arthurian Henges

Granting that Monmouth was a poor copyist and not a deliberate delusory confectioner, he has unfortunately distorted critical segments of  British history.  Not only does he write about a phantasmagoric King Arthur and an untraceable father known by the epithet Utherpendragon, but at the end of Part Four of The History of the Kings of Britain, a magical character is born.  In retelling the tale of Emrys borrowed from the Historia Brittonum, He writes that Vortigern’s magicians are terrified by “Merlin, who was also called Ambrosius,” and in the following paragraph, “Ambrosius Merlin went up to [Vortigern’s] magicians a second time” and called them lying flatterers.  Monmouth then abandons his narrative and inserts a different section titled “The Prophecies of Merlin.”  Stonehenge is also caught in this web of deceit, one of the sites accepted as the burial site for both Utherpendragon and Ambrosius Merlin.  Utherpendragon’s brother Ambrosius wanted to build a lasting monument for all his warriors who had been killed defending their country.

In Monmouth’s own words, “When Merlin was summoned, Merlin replied, ‘Send for the Giants’ Ring which is on Mount Killaraus in Ireland. In that place there is a stone construction which no man of this period could ever erect, unless he combined great skill and artistry. The stones are enormous and there is no one alive strong enough to move them. If they are placed in position round this site, in the way in which they are erected over there, they will stand forever.

“At these words of Merlin’s, Aurelius burst out laughing. ‘How can such large stones be moved from so far-distant a country?’ he asked. ‘It is hardly as if Britain itself is lacking in stones big enough for the job!’  ‘Try not to laugh in a foolish way, your Majesty,’ answered Merlin.  ‘What I am suggesting has nothing ludicrous about it. These stones are connected with certain secret religious rites and they have various properties which are medicinally important. Many years ago the Giants transported them from the remotest confines of Africa and set them up in Ireland at a time when they inhabited that country. Their plan was that, whenever they felt ill, baths should be prepared at the foot of the stones; for they used to  pour water over them and to run this water into baths in which their sick were cured. What is more, they mixed the water with herbal concoctions and so healed their wounds. There is not a single stone which hasn’t some medicinal virtue.

“When the Britons heard all this, they made up their minds to send for the stones and make war on the people of Ireland if they tried to hold them back. In the end, Utherpendragon, and fifteen thousand men, were chosen to carry out the task. Merlin, too, was co-opted, so that all the problems which had to be met could have the benefit of his knowledge and advice.

“When Utherpendragon and Merlin saw that the Irish were spoiling for a fight, Uther hurriedly drew up his own line of battle and charged at them. The Britons were successful almost immediately. The Irish were either mangled or killed outright, and the Irish king was forced to flee. Having won the day, the Britons made their way to Mount Killaraus. When they came to the stone structure, they were filled with joy and wonder. Merlin came up to them as they stood round in a group. ‘Try your strength, young men,’ said he, ‘and see whether skill can do more than brute strength, or strength more than skill, when it comes to dismantling these stones!’

“At his bidding they all set to with every conceivable kind of mechanism and strove their hardest to take the Ring down. They rigged up hawsers and ropes and they propped up scaling ladders, each preparing what he thought most useful, but none of these things advanced them an inch. When he saw what a mess they were making of it, Merlin burst out laughing. He placed in position all the gear which he considered necessary and dismantled the stones more easily than you could ever believe. Once he had pulled them down, he had them carried to the ships and stored on board, and they all set sail once more for Britain with joy in their hearts.”

Interestingly, Monmouth narrative  never links Merlin to King Arthur.  Instead, Merlin is closely associated with Utherpendragon; it is the two of them, with an army of fifteen thousand men, who are selected for the task of moving Stonehenge from Ireland to Britain.  King Gillomanius of Ireland laughs when he hears that Merlin and Utherpendragon are going to take Stonehenge to Britain.  The Briton army subdues the Irish, and Merlin, by his magic, transports the henge from Mount Killaraus across the sea and erects the monument on Mount Ambrius, a locale which, if Monmouth were really a copyist, doesn’t recognize, unable to distinguish whether the henge was erected at Stonehenge or Avebury.

Mount Ambrius itself is a perplexity, seemingly named after Aurelius Ambrosius, who at this point is King of Britain, but he actually only supervises the transfer.

Part Seven, “Arthur of Britain” follows the deaths of Aurelius and Utherpendragon, and Merlin disappears from the narrative.

        Translator Lewis Thorpe makes note that as a copyist, Geoffrey of Monmouth became confused about the location of Mount Ambris where the stones were to be erected. Thorpe writes, “Geoffrey may be thinking of Avebury and muddling it with Amesbury. When Merlin brings the stones of the Giants’ Ring from Mount Killaraus in Ireland, he re-erects them as Stonehenge. Geoffrey repeatedly treats Stonehenge and Avebury/Amesbury as if they were one place.”
At one point, Monmouth writes that Utherpendragon was buried alongside Ambrosius “inside the Giants’ Ring.” In a different segment, Monmouth states that Utherpendragon and Ambrosius were buried “within the Circle of Stones.” All henges were enclosed inside a ditch and a rampart, and the stones themselves formed a concentric circle within the ditch and rampart. Utherpendragon and Ambrosius could therefore have been buried in the center of the stone circle, or they might have been buried in the area between the Circle of Stones and the ditch.

These perspectives of Avebury give some idea of how much larger this henge is than Stonehenge. The rampart and ditch encompass a segment of the town, and two highways intersect within the circumference, splitting the ancient monument into four segments.

In 1649 John Aubrey was the first to recognize Avebury as a prehistoric site. It dates from c.2600 to 2100 B.C., about three centuries before the first phase of Stonehenge. However, it was Alexander Keiller who salvaged Avebury from becoming a permanent town dump; in 1939 he wrote of indescribable squalor three feet deep around the stones, and trash heaps which almost filled the ditch. Abuse of the environment has been with us a long time!