The Enigma of Stonehenge 
by John Fowles and Barry Brukoff.
Cape, 126 pp., £6.95, September 1980, 0 224 01618 0
Show More
British Cathedrals 
by Paul Johnson.
Weidenfeld, 275 pp., £12.50, September 1980, 0 297 77828 5
Show More
Show More

A Mr Jay, of Nettlecombe, near Watchet, Somerset, wrote c. 1670 an essay modestly entitled ‘A Fool’s Bolt soon shott at Stonage’ (i.e. Stonehenge). It begins:

A Wander Wilt of Wiltshire, rambling to Rome to gaze at Antiquities, and there skrewing himself into the company of Antiquaries, they entreated him to illustrate unto them, that famous monument in his Country called Stonage. His Answer was that he had never seen, scarce heard of it. Whereupon, they kicked him out of doors, and bad him goe home and see Stonage; and I wish all such Aesopicall Cocks, as slight these admired Stones, and other domestick Monuments ... and scrape for barley Cornes of vanity out of forreigne dunghills, might be handled, or rather footed, as he was.

On the whole, Mr Jay’s point has been well taken. Since the 18th century, the English, or at least their intelligentsia, have developed a fierce, almost incestuous pride in their national monuments, to which there is no real parallel among their neighbours – not that this has prevented some ‘Wander Witts’ from indulging an equally fervent passion for the Italian Renaissance. Both the books under review, different as they are in subject-matter, scale, format, ambition and price, have this tradition in common. Both are labours of love in English fields well-trodden by Englishmen. Both books, though copiously illustrated, deserve a place on shelves as well as coffee-tables: they have something to say, as well as something to display. Both are by ‘amateurs’, with a professional knowledge that commands respect, and both have original and unorthodox cases to put. Both, in short, are the offspring of the educated English eccentric’s ongoing affair with the English heritage.

Mr Johnson’s volume on British Cathedrals may be in a well-established tradition, but it has unusual features. His criterion of selection is simply that a building must have been, or become, the seat of a bishop. Thus St Albans and Peterborough, Norman abbeys ‘episcopalised’ respectively in 1877 and 1541, get in, but Fountains and even Hexham do not; Manchester, Derby and Blackburn are admitted, but St Mary Redcliffe or Lavenham are not. Such a criterion may smack of arbitrary inconsistency, but it does have the virtue of enabling him to discuss nearly all the substantial British churches that survive intact, and several that do not.

Moreover, Mr Johnson adopts neither the building-by-building, county-by-county structure of Professor Pevsner’s Buildings of England (his guide, and not infrequently his target), nor the style-by-style approach of most other architectural historians. In fact, he combines the two. He has a different chapter for each style, in the normal way. But each style is illustrated by an exhaustive discussion of all features in the cathedrals where it is dominant. All elements of Norwich, including the later medieval, are analysed in ‘Cathedrals of the Norman Age’; heterogeneous Canterbury is treated in full under ‘The Coming of Gothic’; Ely, with its admittedly continuous medieval architectural history, is accommodated in ‘Splendours of the Decorated Style’; Winchester, for all that one is encouraged to begin with its Norman transepts, is used as an example of Perpendicular, and so on. The results are occasionally bizarre. Hereford is an architectural Vicar of Bray, as Mr Johnson shows, but is discussed in the Norman section, because of its fundamental structure; whereas Southwell, whose abiding impact on any visitor is surely one of majestic Romanesque, features in the Decorated chapter, because of the gorgeous late 13th-century carving in its chapter-house. Yet there is a certain logic in Mr Johnson’s chosen path. Cathedral visitors need comprehensive guides to all they see, but may well also feel the want of more information about the major styles involved than Professor Pevsner’s peremptory abbreviations: E.E., Dec., Perp. etc. The Babel of architectural traditions in most medieval cathedrals makes rigid consistency well-nigh impossible, and alternative allocations would be open to the same objections as Mr Johnson’s, for the same reasons.

British Cathedrals has several obvious merits. One is its author’s patent enthusiasm, and a second, his considerable knowledge: Mr Johnson knows his Ogees from his Soffits, and kindly supplies a copious glossary of esoteric architectural terminology for the benefit of readers less expert than himself. He is perceptive and persuasive on the historical, geological and climatic circumstances that gave English cathedrals their distinctive character, as compared with French. His photographs are generally good, if understandably conventional. Perhaps most interestingly, he makes a good and still largely unfashionable case for Victorian ‘restorers’, notably Sir George Gilbert Scott. It emerges that the villains were often the relevant Dean and Chapter, who then told some shocking lies in order to transfer responsibility from themselves to their architects. He very reasonably asks why we should think late medieval restoration ‘a good thing’, when it was often inspired by trendiness and clerical ambition, and Victorian reconstruction ‘a bad thing’, when it was often the only alternative to outright ruin. For himself – an arresting and improbable vision – he would not be averse to the ‘completion’ of Ely and Beverley by modern hands in the traditional style. Underlying these convictions is the awareness that cathedrals are still (if only just) living and functional buildings, not architectural museums. The modern tourist, hypocritically scandalised by having to pay for admission to a building where he probably has no intention whatever of saying his prayers, will no doubt be edified to discover here that medieval pilgrims were also charged for admission to shrines, where prayer was the sole purpose of their visit.

But it does also have some demerits. The least important, perhaps, are its occasional errors. Some dates are obviously wrong, though this should probably be put down, in charity, to misprinting. Mr Johnson is not, generally, at his best on the pre-Norman period. Ripon was briefly an episcopal see, but in Wilfrid’s despite, rather than under his auspices. There were no Benedictine monks as such in eighth-century Northumbria, and certainly none in seventh-century Iona. In general, and this, unlike other points, is important, Mr Johnson does less than justice to the pre-Conquest Church and its architecture (which is odd in the light of his emphasis on the Englishness of English cathedrals). It is no surprise to find our old friend, the feudal system of mounted knights, among the Conqueror’s many far-reaching innovations, but recent work affords less excuse for making such an ecclesiastical watershed of 1066. The pre-Conquest Church in England was largely unreformed, c.1040, but so was the Church in most of the rest of Europe, including Rome and Normandy, and, like its Continental counterparts, it began to be lapped by the tide of reform in the middle of the century. Three of Edward the Confessor’s bishops came from the Lotharingian heartland of reform, and Edward’s interest in such people is generally more evident than his attachment to Normans. The Norman Conquest seems to have marked a new beginning in the English Church because its admittedly drastic consequences for senior ecclesiastical personnel coincided with a general European process, and because 12th-century historians understandably explained the catastrophe of 1066 as God’s judgment on an unreformed Church.

So it is with architecture. It was only really in the second half of the 11th century that large-scale ecclesiastical building got under way anywhere in northern Europe. Norman architecture looks more revolutionary than it may well have been in fact, because, again, Norman ambitions coincided with new architectural capacities in Europe as a whole, and because the only Anglo-Saxon churches which were not remodelled were, almost by definition, the least important. Even so, archeologists have established that tenth-century Winchester was over three hundred feet long, and that, in their adoption of west-works and equal-armed crossings, the Anglo-Saxons followed Carolingian and Ottonian trends. Just because the Bayeux Tapestry shows us what Westminster Abbey, unlike any other Anglo-Saxon cathedral, looked like, it does not follow that it was unique or a new beginning, and there is really no reason to suppose that, had things gone the other way at Hastings, the Anglo-Saxons would not have continued to follow Continental fashions.

Mr Johnson also has his prejudices. One, clearly, is in favour of Gothic. This permits him to see a Gothic bone-structure even in St Paul’s, and induces a much higher level of tolerance for modern buildings in the Gothic style (Liverpool Anglican, Guildford) than for those in an unashamedly modern idiom (Liverpool Catholic, Coventry). Historically more damaging (and not for the first time) is Mr Johnson’s intense nationalism. Granted that the case is made for the general distinctiveness of English cathedrals, this is no reason why we should accept their superiority. We are told that the Norman period saw ‘the technical and artistic lead’ held (somewhat incongruously) by the British; that Early English is ‘the first distinctive style of national architecture to establish itself in Britain’; that Perpendicular is also ‘the true native style’ (and by implication a great improvement on all that foreign crap). The latter’s emergence, in the 1330s, is even explained by ‘the historic bifurcation of English and French culture’, and the rising nationalism of the first phase of the Hundred Years War, and Mr Johnson is certainly in error here: it was not until the early 15th century that English displaced French as the language of court, parliament and the law, and it is strange to have such cultural nationalism ascribed to a king whose ostensible war-aim was to be king of France.

Mr Johnson’s nationalism has other unfortunate results. As befits a historian who began his account of English national identity with the heresy of a Welsh monk, Mr Johnson may say ‘British’, but he usually means ‘English’. He does his best for the cathedrals of the Celtic fringe, especially when, as at Glasgow, they are close to English models: but he does no justice to St Andrews, whose French and Flemish period is unmentioned, and which was not, incidentally, destroyed by Knox’s ‘fanatic following’, but died rather, like the kings of 1066 and All That, of a surfeit of good things which its physical constitution could not stand. More generally, such emphasis on national characteristics and ambitions is, in this context, anachronistic. Mr Johnson could have helped his case, had he been able to cite one single piece of contemporary evidence that Perpendicular or its predecessors were seen in such terms by patrons and architects of the time. All the evidence suggests that their pride was vested in their local community, urban or religious, and its patron saint, the latter by definition a member of an international fellowship.

In the end, however, the most serious drawback of Mr Johnson’s book is its monotonous pursuit of a single intellectual track. Except at the outset, he does not say much about the liturgical or social functions of cathedrals in their community, not even in his chapters on the construction, clergy and treasures of cathedrals; the medieval congregation is no where pictured at pontifical High Mass, nor is this congregation’s probable social content anywhere discussed. The result is that the cathedrals are left almost without a historical context; they are as incomprehensible as Stonehenge. The author’s concern is exclusively with aesthetics, and for each and every building (the most modern excepted) he says the best things possible. One is almost tempted to wonder whether it can all really have been so damn good, as paean follows paean throughout the book. The mind tires, as, one suspects, will the hand of the tourist as he carries this 3 lb book about with him. Mr Johnson’s industry and enthusiasm evoke admiration, but perhaps a general reader needs something a little lighter, more sceptical, more historically-orientated.

No such problems arise with Mr Fowles’s short and elegant essay on Stonehenge, which is part history and archaeology, part literary exercise and part moral philosophy. Mr Fowles seems to have been moved to enter an arena, liberally bespattered with scholarly blood and brains, by two key experiences. One was the contrast between his own childhood memories of the monument and its modern appearance, protected from the public for the greater public good by barbed wire and bored guards. The other was a lecture on Stonehenge by Professor Richard Atkinson, where the greatest living expert on the subject sternly rebuked a member of his packed audience who had the temerity to ask whether we could know anything of the culture or religion of those who had built it. What Mr Fowles has come up with is a plea, not for lunatic fringes, but for the right of the layman to deploy his imagination on Stonehenge: ‘No society can live by scientific bread alone, for the very simple reason that no individual can or does exist on such a diet.’

For the first half of the book, he largely follows the archaeological experts on the prehistoric background and architectural history of Stonehenge, and this is, on the whole, a sound and interesting guide for his fellow laymen, even if I would guess that Professor Atkinson might be more cautious about the role of a single megalomaniac genius, and his contacts with the Minoan Mediterranean, in the emergence of the monument. He then expounds his own theory of the monument’s purposes, relating it not to the astronomical observation, but to the worship, of the heavenly bodies. These vital and capricious entities, more especially the Moon, are invited by Stonehenge, with its solstitial alignment and lunar number system, to ‘come to Britain’; and the argument is supported by other evidence, historical and modern, of the Moon’s awesome reputation. To another layman, this all seems plausible enough, even though one can think of other reasons than abiding moon-fetishes why laundry was traditionally done on a Monday!

In the last part of his book, Mr Fowles describes the history of Stonehenge in the English imagination, since its first recorded mention in the 12th century, and more especially since the origins of English antiquarianism in the 17th. The point of this is not simply entertainment, though entertaining it is. This section is also an object-lesson in the importance of Stonehenge to the human imagination. With conscious irony, Mr Fowles concludes with Blake’s stinging attack on the Druids of Stonehenge as the embodiment of the tyranny of a priestly caste. There is no doubt whom Mr Fowles envisages as the modern priestly caste of Stonehenge. The whole book is richly enjoyable, if occasionally inconsequential (I can still see no connection between Stonehenge, the Druids and the classic Celtic love-triangle represented by Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot). It is beautifully illustrated by Barry Brukoff’s photographs, although, since they lack captions, their effect is aesthetic rather than informative. But it is really on this final section that it must be judged. Does the author make his case for the role of the imaginative, if informed layman? To this, the only possible answer is, unfortunately, yes and no.

Mr Fowles is by no means the only responsible person to be irritated by modern archaeological pyrrhonism. Archaeology seems to be going through the same phase as History at the turn of this century, in its pursuit of pure scientific knowledge, unadulterated by imaginative impulses. Precisely because archaeologists cannot (or will not) explain Stonehenge, they are powerless to inhibit speculation. On the other hand, how can we take Mr Fowles’s campaign further, other than by writing more books like his? Mr Fowles rightly disavows the authentic loonies in this field (with their mysterious contacts in the DOE). There is no real alternative to the faintly obscene exclusion of the public from the centre-circle of Stonehenge, other than an unquestionably obscene tarmac surface over the whole area. As the Colosseum and the Acropolis show, this is, alas, an age when each man must be prevented from killing the thing he loves. Professor Atkinson may have gone too far that evening in Devizes, but he can hardly be expected to discard his professional judgment when people insist on putting forward theories on a subject where he unquestionably knows more than they. Perhaps Mr Fowles exaggerates the threat to his own imagination and those of others that the professionals pose. They cannot stop him writing as he does. They cannot even stop him receiving a well-deserved honorarium for his efforts. For myself, I should be rather surprised if, in their inmost hearts, they really wanted to.

The strongest impression made by these two books in combination is that their subjects have more in common than would appear at first sight, and than can be explained in terms of their membership of a well-established tradition. In places, the books actually overlap. Both stress the role of stone as the medium of immortality. Both draw attention to the part played by sunrise in the orientation of their monuments. One could go further. Like Stonehenge, medieval cathedrals dwarf almost everything that is known about their environment. Like medieval cathedrals, Stonehenge may have been built for a priestly caste by technicians whose esoteric lore was a combination of pure mathematics and number symbolism. In the light of what can be known about medieval cathedrals, thanks to their quantity, and membership of a marginally literate culture, is Stonehenge really such an enigma after all? If it remains one, this is at least partly because of two of the most deeply ingrained modern prejudices: the belief in progress, and the cult of literacy. We cannot quite accept that a society so primitive (because so long ago) could have built something like Stonehenge, least of all without the help of accountants. (Similar prejudices underlie the conviction that the Norman Conquest must have been good for England.)

This sort of attitude has already been dealt a rude shock by recent revisions of the theory of cultural diffusion. We do actually now know enough about oral cultures to have learnt that they can exceed our expectations. Yet if Mr Johnson’s cathedrals had all been blitzed by Baroque, like most Roman churches, or levelled and remodelled like the eccelesiastical architecture of the Anglo-Saxons, would we really believe even medieval man capable of such things? Conversely, if medieval man could produce Durham or Lincoln without more than the rudest awareness of the principles of sanitation, need we be so amazed that Beaker Folk could build Stonehenge without the aid of iron? If civilisation has advanced by geometrical progression, one consequence has been the foreshortening of its perspective on its ancestors. If one message of both Stonehenge and medieval cathedrals is that we may have forgotten things that their builders knew (as Messrs Fowles and Johnson both insinuate), another message is that we may not have learned so much more either.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences