Dryden on Stonehenge
|John Dryden in 1693, portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller|
[In the National Portrait Gallery. Image source: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portraitLarge/mw01952/John-Dryden?LinkID=mp01369&role=sit&rNo=1 . I've slightly lightened the image.]
Dryden's interesting poem prefixing Walter Charleton's Chorea Gigantum (1663), ends thus:
"To my Honour’d Friend Dr. Charleton, on his learned and useful Works: and more particularly this of Stone-heng, by him Restored to the true Founders."
Complete poem: http://www.bartleby.com/204/19.html]
The story of the future Charles II being at Stonehenge was perfectly true.
"On 6 October (1651) the King, Julia Coningsby and Henry Peters, Colonel Wyndham's servant, left Trent for the home of Mrs Amphillis Hyde at Heale House between Salisbury and Amesbury. Though sleeping at Heale, Charles spent his days at Stonehenge, returning to the house each evening after dark." [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Escape_of_Charles_II]
Charles was 21. He was icognito, fleeing across England following final defeat at the Battle of Worcester. His black hair was close-cropped and he wore countryman's clothes. His unusual height (to which Dryden's poem alludes) was apt to draw unwanted attention: Charles was 6' 2".
Charles left Heele House on 12th October; he boarded the Surprise at Shoreham on 15th October.
Whether he really spent five full days at Stonehenge I am not sure. Aubrey Burl says only that he was there on 7th October with Colonel Philips, "reckoning and re-reckoning the stones".
Walter Charleton's book disputed Inigo Jones' claim that Stonehenge was a Roman temple (Jones' claim was made back in 1620, following his survey, but not published until 1655, three years after his death) .
In fact, Charleton alleged, Stonehenge was clearly Danish. And it was not a temple but a place of royal ceremonial, where kings sat publically in state. (Charleton was the first of many to claim that the Altar Stone was originally upright: it was a throne, he thought.)
Charleton's claims were assailed in their turn by John Webb, Jones' nephew. Stuart Piggott called it "a forgotten controversy conducted on forgotten lines of argument . . . It is is a microcosm of the battle of the ancients and Moderns, with Jones, Webb and Charleton on the far side of the intellectual gulf, Aubrey and Stukeley on the near side..." (quoted in Aubrey Burl, A Brief History of Stonehenge, p. 37).
Charleton made no independent survey of Stonehenge and the main value of his book, maybe, was that it made him aware of John Aubrey's discovery of Avebury, which he mentioned to the king. Charles, as we've seen, had become interested in the mysteries of Stonehenge. Charles summoned Aubrey for an audience, and shortly afterwards met him at Avebury to explore the site.
The clear-minded Aubrey made short work of the Jones/Charleton theories. He knew about stone circles in parts of the UK that neither the Romans nor the Danes ever occupied. It was clear to him that they were the work of pre-Roman people. For him that simply meant Druids. No earlier phases of British prehistory were known at the time.
Charleton was a royal physician and a Fellow of the Royal Society. But in 1663 it was easier to talk the talk of science than to walk the walk. (Something that's not unknown even today..!)
Still, Dryden's poem shares the excitement of science, the feeling of liberation. Here's how it begins: