The Arch-Druid of His Age

‘William Stukeley’ by John Smith, after Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt. NPG D4074

William Stukeley was born in Holbeach, Lincolnshire on 7th November 1687.
An intelligent child, William excelled at school, and at the age of 13 he joined his father’s Law practice as a clerk.
The young William however was determined to pursue a different path.

At 16 he was admitted to Corpus Christi Cambridge (then known as Bennet’s College) to study medicine, but while a student showed “a strong propensity to drawing and the study of antiquities”[1].  He had interest in many aspects of the sciences including botany and the natural philosophy.

Between 1705 and 1707 Stukeley suffered a number of personal losses, both is parents and his brother, John, died, leaving William the head of a household in debt, with two dependant siblings.

This did not seem to disrupt his studies, and in 1708 Stukeley completed his degree, returning to his Holbeach home to celebrate with his tenants during an evening of entertainments which included ‘hogsheads of ale and tea by the buckets full for the ladies’[2]

By 1717 he was in London, where he helped to establish the Society of Antiquaries, becoming its Secretary.

Shortly after his arrival in London he was elected a member of the Royal Society. This had a significant impact on Stukeley, introducing him to a circle of friends including the astronomer Edmund Halley, the naturalist and collector Sir Hans Sloane (who’s collections would become the foundation of the British Museum) and most notably Sir Isaac Newton.

Newton was 40 years older than Stukeley, an established star of the Society.
His famed ‘Principia’ had been published five months before William was born, but thanks to a shared Lincolnshire heritage and pursuit of scientific knowledge Newton became his mentor, and the two men became friends.

 

The Antiquarian

 

Throughout his adult life Stukeley suffered from Gout which would often confine him to his home over the winter. When the weather began to improve he would travel extensively around the countryside for the sake of his health.  Between 1710 and 1724 he made annual trips around England and Scotland following what he supposed to be the route of the Roman invasion, and making detailed records of many of the ancient ruins and monuments that he came across.

Stukeley: An inward view of Stonehenge from the North, 1722 – Public Domain

He was often shocked at the damage which was being done by land owners and farmers, and the routine pillaging of ancient sites for building materials.
He began making detailed records, and carrying out rudimentary archaeology in order to record them for posterity – he is noted for bringing principles of scientific recording to the study of antiquities.

 

Of particular interest for Stukeley were the great monuments at Stonehenge and Avebury. He bucked the prevailing opinion at the time that the stone circles were Roman in origin, and proposed that they were created by the Druid priests of the Celts.  We now know that the henges at Stonehenge and Avebury are much older still.
His work on Stonehenge has been digitised, and is freely available here.

In 1722 Stukeley established ‘The Society of Roman Knights’ a group dedicated to the study of Roman Britain. Members included the cream of London society.  Each of the members took the name of a Celtic prince or noble associated with the Roman invasion of Britain. Long after the dissolution of the society, members would continue to refer to each other using these names.
The name Stukeley chose was Chyndonax – a nickname which would persist throughout his life.

Eccentric pseudonyms aside, the society was notable for becoming the first British antiquarian society to accept female members, including the provision that the society would be made up of both sexes in its founding constitution, some 200 years before the Society of Antiquaries would admit its first female fellow.

 

A Doctor’s Life in Grantham

 

In 1726 Stukeley returned to Lincolnshire and settled in Grantham.
By now he was well established physician, and fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. The move not only allowed him to develop a successful medical practice, becoming physician to ‘most of the principle families of the county’, it also allowed him to further explore his other interests.

Writing to a friend in 1827 Stukeley praised Grantham and its surroundings:

Tis certain this country, above all I know, is exceedingly delightful for hunting, riding, air, prospects etc… every day I am more & more ravished with it, & with [the] antiquitys [with which] it abounds. …The particular situation of Grantham is most admirable, a very large concavity, hills quite around at the reasonable distance of a mile, & a fine meandrous river running through it[3]

In 1728 he married Frances Williamson of Allington, ‘a lady of good family and fortune’[4] and together they had three daughters. Frances herself would become a member of the Society of Roman Knights, taking the name ‘Cartismandua’

While in Grantham Stukeley assisted in the foundation of a Freemasons Lodge in the town, which attracted support from local nobility.

He began to gather information on, and reminiscences of Newton for a biography.  As well as details of Newton’s childhood, Stukeley’s biography, completed in 1754, contained the first reference to Newton’s inspiration for his studies of Gravity – the famed falling apple.

 

A Clergyman’s Life in Stamford

 

In 1729 on the advice of his friend, and then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Wake, Stukeley pursued ordination.  Friendship with an Archbishop made for a very quick ordination process and within four months he was an ordained minister.
In 1730 he left Grantham having been awarded the living of All Saints in Stamford.

On arriving in the town he was persuaded to try Dr Roger’s ‘Oleum Arthriticum’ as a remedy to his gout, which he would later hail in a presentation to the Royal Society as nothing short of a miracle cure

“Dr. Rogers an eminent apothecary and licensed practitioner in physick at Stamford, has for above two years last past, used a warm oyly composition, which he prepares, to anoint the part affected with the gout… I likewise try’d it upon myself; in three different affections of the same distemper, the latter ends of the year past. … I anointed all these, and the event was, that it cured them all, and there was no ill consequence attending, even to this time.”[5]

 

While a vicar in Stamford, Sukeley continued his interest in medicine (continuing to write on medical matters and attend lectures at the Royal College of Physicians) and his study of religious antiquities.
Much as with his Grantham house, he built replica ‘temples’, many of which were decorated using stained glass which had been removed from the churches of Stamford during ‘restoration’ work.

In 1737 His wife, Francis, died, aged just 40.  In the midst of making plans to take up a house with his old friend Samuel Gale in Hampstead, Stukeley married Elizabeth Gale  – Samuel’s sister, remaining in Stamford for a further decade.

 

Chyndonax the Archdruid

 

Stukeley: A British Druid from ‘Stonehenge, a Temple Restored to the British Druids – Public Domain

In 1748 Stukeley returned to London, having become Rector at St George the Martyr in Bloomsbury.  He became increasingly focused on producing Druidic ‘histories’, building on his original history of Stonehenge published in 1740. At this time his friends began referring to him affectionately as the ‘Archdruid’.

His theories becoming more fantastical than scientific, he would spend years developing the idea that the Celtic Druids were in fact following a ‘pure’ form of the Christian religion, attempting to align the physical evidence he had discovered in his youth with religious doctrine.
While often since ridiculed, His work has created a permanent link in the public imagination between Stonehenge and Druids.

A Latin inscription over the door of his Kentish Town home read:

‘Me dulcis saturet quies; Obscuro positus loco Leni perfruar otio Chyndonax Druida’

O may this rural solitude receive, and contemplation of all its pleasures give The Druid preist  [6]

He would remain in London until his death in 1765.

Blue Plaques celebrating the life of Stukeley can be found in Stamford and Grantham.

 

 

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References

[1]  Royal College of Physicians: Monks Rolls, William Stukeley
as accessed http://munksroll.rcplondon.ac.uk/Biography/Details/4289   25/09/18

[2] Piggot, S (1950) ‘William Stukeley: An 18th Century Antiquarian’, The Clarendon Press.

[3] Lincolnshire Life: ‘Violets and Mistletoe
as accessed https://www.lincolnshirelife.co.uk/posts/view/violets-and-mistletoe 25/09/18

[4]  Rees, A (1819) ‘The Cycolpedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts Sciences and Litereature‘ Vol 34
As accessed https://bit.ly/2CROGBi  25/09/18

[5]  Stukeley, W. (1733) ‘Of the Gout; in two parts
As accessed https://bit.ly/2Q9IM1V

[6] Lincolnshire Life: ‘Violets and Mistletoe’
as accessed https://www.lincolnshirelife.co.uk/posts/view/violets-and-mistletoe 25/09/18

 

Grantham Civic Society, ‘William Stukeley had links to Sir Isaac Newton’ Grantham Journal as published 31/10/15 as viewed on https://www.granthamjournal.co.uk/news/grantham-civic-society-william-stukeley-had-links-to-sir-isaac-newton-1-7040094/ accessed 25/9/18

Haycock, D.B. (2002) ‘William Stukeley: Science, Religion and Archaeology in 18th Century England‘, Boydell Press
as accessed https://bit.ly/2DauoDO

Nichols, J. (1817) ‘Illustrations of the literary history of the 18th Century‘ Vol II
As accessed https://bit.ly/2ABbCmF

Barry, R. ‘The William Stukeley Blue Plaque
https://www.stamfordcivicsociety.org.uk/william-stukeley.html   as accessed 25/9/18

Neale, F. (2015) ‘William Stukeley’s Stonehenge’  University of Glasgow Library
https://universityofglasgowlibrary.wordpress.com/2015/11/07/william-stukeleys-stonehenge/  as accessed 25/9/18

Stukeley, W (1740) ‘Stonehenge, A Temple Restored to the British Druids’