“It’s just a stone circle.” “It’s too crowded.” “I don’t see what the big deal is.” These were the things people told me before I went to Stonehenge. And… yes, it’s a stone circle. Yes, it’s crowded, even in the pouring rain. But Stonehenge is absolutely a big deal. For that matter, so is Salisbury, just a short drive away, and the two can and should be seen together, perhaps as the ultimate English history lesson.
The land upon which Stonehenge sits is the Salisbury Plain, and it has been inhabited for millennia, much longer than the 5,000 or so years of the stone monument itself. Prior construction has been uncovered, with burial dating back to 4,000 BC. Approximately 3100 BC, what is now Stonehenge began to take shape. At first, it consisted of a circular ditch with chalk banks. It is thought that the monument may have been used for burial of chieftains, but it isn’t certain. What is known is that the flint tools found in the remnants of the ditch date it accurately.
One of the most easily identifiable places in the world.
The current monument consists of two different types of stone. Smaller bluestones seem to have arrived approximately 2600 BC from Wales, 150 miles away. This tells us a couple of important things. One: people of that era had the ability to transport 80 of these stones (only 43 remain), each of which weighs two to four tons, that distance. That alone is incredibly impressive. Two: this site was already well known, with people making this pilgrimage – probably one way – to add their precious religious stones.
Over the next 200 years, the main sarsen stones that we have come to view as Stonehenge were quarried, shaped, moved from approximately 25 miles away (which is amazing given that each weighs approximately 25 tons), polished, and moved into a very specific place based on the movement of the sun on the equinoxes. (This is to say nothing of the five inner trilithon stones weighing double that.)
You can see some of the smaller bluestones in front of the larger sarsen stones.
So what do we know so far? We know that as far back as 2600 BC, Stonehenge was important enough for a people from 150 miles away to drag heavy stones there. We know that the combined peoples at this point had the stability and fortitude to commit to a centuries long project of building the monument, and that they were able to move stones weighing 25-50 tons each. We know that they were technologically sophisticated enough to be able to align stones with the exact positioning of the sun on the equinoxes (which also means they were able to determine the equinoxes themselves). We know that the site remained central to this Neolithic people’s lives for centuries beyond that.
This is not just a circle of stones.
To be fair, there is also still a lot we don’t know. We don’t know exactly how the stones were moved or put into place (although there is plenty of conjecture). More importantly, we don’t know what the site was used for, only that it would have played a central role in religious life of the time. (We do know that it was not a burial ground, although there was at least one burial done there, but not of any sort of royalty, leading people to believe it may have been a human sacrifice.)
This is the most accepted hypothesis for moving the sarsen stones, though nobody knows for sure.
Without a car, the easiest way to get to Stonehenge is to book a bus tour from Salisbury. It will pick you up in town, take you to Stonehenge with an audio tour on the way there and back, and can even include your ticket in so you won’t have to wait in line at the site. Once there, a second bus will take you to the stones themselves, where you’ll be able to get relatively close. (Due to defacing of the stones, you aren’t allowed to actually be among them and touch them, unless booked separately through the site.) Again, an audio guide is included.
For lovers of history, this is a site that really shouldn’t be missed. While there are other stone circles all over this part of England, Stonehenge’s importance and sophistication make it stand out.
Salisbury, too, is a worthy destination for history buffs, but for that, we must fast forward nearly 4,000 years, to the year 1215. The English king, John, is incredibly unpopular. (This is the same Prince John from the Robin Hood stories, who ascended to the throne following the death of his brother, Richard I.) Facing the increasing possibility of revolt by his barons after waging – and ultimately losing – a series of costly wars in France, he decides to stall for time by doing something unheard of in European monarchies of the time: he signs a “great charter” stating basic rights of all Englishmen and holding that even the monarch is not above the law. This document is known by the Latin translation of great charter: the Magna Carta.
Disseminated out to the realm, four copies from 1215 still exist. The best preserved is on display here, at the Salisbury Cathedral, itself a stunning building with some fascinating details, like the world’s oldest working clock from the 14th century, before there were even clock faces. (It just has a bell.) But the highlight is the Magna Carta.
The interior of the Salisbury Cathedral
Photos aren’t allowed of the document in order to preserve it for future generations to see, and even if they were it is written in such small script as to be basically illegible to my eye, but its impact on modern Western society is undeniable, especially on the basis for our legal systems. Enshrined on this parchment are such seemingly basic principles as the right to due process (innocence until proof of guilt), impartial and trained judges, and stating that nobody – even the king – was above the law.
This beautiful room holds the Magna Carta!
King John never intended to abide by the Magna Carta, and appealed to the Pope to nullify it, which he did. However, following John’s death in 1216, the principles of Magna Carta became largely enshrined into English law, both during the reigns of Henry III and Edward I.
The cathedral is free to enter, although there is a recommended donation of £7, which is a relative bargain considering the immense expense of keeping the place open and kept up, as well as the incredible chance to see the Magna Carta in person, more than 800 years after its signing.
What a stunning building, with the highest spire in the UK!
It can be argued that here on the Salisbury Plain, within a short drive of each other, one can be witness to two of the most important historic sites in all of England: Stonehenge and the Magna Carta in Salisbury Cathedral. It makes for an absolutely perfect day!
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