Original investigation into “The Ruin” as being the earliest description in English of Stonehenge: June 29th 2008.

 Wayback "The Ruin"

As I made clear in my previous post, I am thrilled beyond measure that the BBC have featured an investigation by Dr Graeme Davis into the idea that the mediaeval poem The Ruin contains the earliest known reference in English to Stonehenge; millions of people the world over are hungry to learn as much as possible about the mysterious prehistoric monument on Salisbury Plain, so it’s good to see that archaeologists by no means possess the monopoly on insight into this wonderful thing that our ancestors created around four and a half thousand years ago.

So, for those of you who might wish for more food for thought on this aspect of Stonehenge, what follows is an essay from my temporarily offline Eternal Idol site that Aynslie’s kindly retrieved for me from the void of  the internet. First published over six years ago on June 29, 2008, I called this essay “The Ruin” – the earliest description in English of Stonehenge? Some of the illustrations haven’t survived, nor have any of the links, but despite this and despite what I now see as some of the lamentable shortcomings in my prose, I’ve reproduced it here “warts and all” for the benefit of those of you who might like to ponder the matter yourselves.

“The Ruin” – the earliest description in English of Stonehenge?

We know the imposing monument of uprights and curved lintels on Salisbury Plain as Stonehenge, but it was certainly known by other names in ages past. Geoffrey of Monmouth described it as the Giants’ Dance and elsewhere on this site, I’ve suggested that it may once have been known as Grim’s Gates, but the earliest written account we have of it, according to Rosemary Hill on page 21 of her recent book Stonehenge, was in a deed of 937 when “Stanheyeg” features as a boundary marker. However, there may exist a much earlier and far more detailed description of Stonehenge written in Anglo-Saxon.

The Ruin is a famous poem written by an unknown author that appears in the Exeter Book, a tenth century collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry that’s now housed in the library of Exeter Cathedral. The book itself was damaged by fire, resulting in the poem The Ruin being incomplete, but before we examine the finer details, let’s have a look at one translation that comes from A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse by R.Hamer, London, 1970.

The city buildings fell apart, the works
Of giants crumble. Tumbled are the towers
Ruined the roofs, and broken the barred gate,
Frost in the plaster, all the ceilings gape,
Torn and collapsed and eaten up by age.
And grit holds in its grip, the hard embrace
Of earth, the dead-departed master-builders,
Until a hundred generations now
Of people have passed by. Often this wall
Stained red and grey with lichen has stood by
Surviving storms while kingdoms rose and fell.
And now the high curved wall itself has fallen
The heart inspired, incited to swift action.
Resolute masons, skilled in rounded building
Wondrously linked the framework with iron bonds.
The public halls were bright, with lofty gables,
Bath-houses many; great the cheerful noise,
And many mead-halls filled with human pleasures.
Till mighty fate brought change upon it all,
Slaughter was widespread, pestilence was rife,
And death took all those valiant men away.
The martial halls became deserted places,
The cities crumbled, its repairers fell,
Its armies to the earth. And so these halls
Are empty, and this red curved roof now sheds
Its tiles, decay has brought it to the ground,
Smashed it to piles of rubble, where long since
A host of heroes, glorious, gold-adorned,
Gleaming in splendour, proud and flushed with wine,
Shone in their armour, gazed on gems and treasure,
On silver, riches, wealth and jewelry,
On this bright city with its wide domains.
Stone buildings stood, and the hot streams cast forth
Wide sprays of water, which a wall enclosed
In its bright compass, where convenient
Stood hot baths ready for them at the centre.
Hot streams poured forth over the clear grey stone,
To the round pool and down into the baths.

The poem certainly has an evocative air of mystery that brings Stonehenge to mind, but while certain parts of The Ruin sound very much like the stunning ruins on Salisbury Plain, many other details seem to completely contradict this idea. Of course, I’ve read of comparisons between Stonehenge and The Ruin before, all of which have been dismissed virtually instantly and there’s a comment to this effect somewhere on this site. Otherwise, the subject doesn’t merit a mention in any of the books by Rosemary Hill, Anthony Johnson, Mike Pitts, Julian Richards, Aubrey Burl, Professor John North or even that famed chronicler of Stonehenge, Christopher Chippindale, but it never does any harm to be thorough, so I’m not remotely concerned about going over what others might think of as old ground or totally irrelevant material.

I’m not an expert on Anglo-Saxon poetry, so I contacted Michael D.C. Drout, Wm. C.H. and Elsie D. Prentice Assoc. Prof. of English and Millicent C. McIntosh Fellow at Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts, while you can examine his website for yourselves, if you wish. I gave this learned gentleman no intimation of why I was interested in The Ruin, but I’ll reproduce my questions and his answers so that you can make up your own minds on the matter.

At first glance, it appears to be absolutely unthinkable that The Ruin could have been written with Stonehenge in mind, because it contains so many specific references to physical things such as a broken barred gate, frost in the plaster, public halls, mead halls, martial halls, a red roof shedding tiles and so forth, which is probably why no one’s ever seriously entertained the notion of a connection with Stonehenge. So, it made sense to ask Professor Drout if the author of the poem had ever actually seen the structure he was describing; my actual words were “Is there any evidence that the author of this poem actually saw “The Ruin” with their own eyes? If so, what is this evidence?”

His reply was “Not really any specific evidence. The lines about the wall being marked with lichen, stained with red, have sometimes been seen as specific description of an actual place rather than an imaginative or literary-based description, but no one knows a specific site.”

So, while the mention of lichen and red stains may possibly be based on the poet having seen “the ruin” with his own eyes, it seems that many other aspects of the site in question are often seen as an “imaginative or literary-based description”. This is an interesting if tentative start, because we know that there’s plenty of lichen on the stones at Stonehenge and we also know that at least one stone, the Slaughter Stone, acquired its name in Victorian times from its reddish colour. Could other stones, including ones no longer at the site, have been stained with red, for one reason or another? This may seem to be an obvious if weak link to Stonehenge – indeed, it might seem to be the only link, but it’s worth noting nonetheless.

The next logical question to ask was “Is it possible that the author of this poem heard some description of a place or ruin, then composed their work afterwards, embellishing what they’d heard?” to which Professor Drout replied:

“Yes. See above. The topos of the ruined building was popular in the early tenth century, when the Exeter Book was at least compiled, if not written. Various pre-Benedictine Reform Latin texts from the continent talk about ruined monasteries being rebuilt, and it’s possible that the poet of the Old English poem got the first bit (the ruined building) from some source but left off the “and now it’s rebuilt thanks to the glorious wisdom of X”.

So, there’s no definitive evidence that whoever wrote The Ruin ever actually saw the structure they were describing, while it seems perfectly possible that the author had heard or read of a ruin that was noteworthy or remarkable enough to write about. One of the major obstacles to identifying Stonehenge with The Ruin occurs in the opening line, where the author writes “the city buildings fell apart…” so I asked Professor Drout the following question:

“Does the mention of a city in the poem mean just that? In ancient Greek, for example, the word “polis” is invariably translated as a city, but it can mean anything from a small settlement upwards to a major city.” His reply was:

“The words used, “burgstede” and “burg”, could mean anything from “settlement” to “fortified place,” to “city.” The distinction isn’t really made in poetry, when there are lots of synonyms for dwelling places.”

I was particularly interested by this ambiguity or lack of precision in describing the size of the ruin in the poem, because William Blake later described Stonehenge in his poem Milton as “…a stupendous Building on the Plain of Salisbury…Labour unparalleled!” Whatever else William Blake had to say about the place, he was clearly at pains to convey the size of Stonehenge in poetic terms, so if he described it thus after having seen it, then it seems reasonable to suppose that if the author of The Ruin heard a description of Stonehenge, then decided to use it as the basis for his poem, then he too may have exaggerated its size.


When I read that one possible meaning of burgstede or burg was a fortified place, it immediately brought to mind what John Evelyn had to say in his diary entry of 22 July, 1654:

“Now we were arrived at Stonehenge, indeed a stupendous monument, appearing at a distance like a castle…” If a seventeenth century observer could mistake Stonehenge for a castle, then it seems reasonable to suppose that a traveller who saw the monument at the time that The Ruin was written could have formed a very similar impression. Of course, there were no castles in Britain before the Norman invasion, but Evelyn described the monument as “stupendous”, while William Blake used the same word and Samuel Pepys, another famous diarist, wrote of the stones on 11 June 1668 that they were “as prodigious as any tales I ever heard tell of them…”

One of the many problems in identifying Stonehenge with The Ruin is the author’s mention of towers that were presumably high on account of the size of the rest of the structure. However, William Blake poetically described Stonehenge as “Rocks piled on rocks reaching the stars: stretching from pole to pole…” which is obviously an exaggeration, while Christopher Marlowe did something almost identical when he wrote of “the topless towers of Ilium” in describing Homer’s Troy.

With all this in mind, it’s not difficult to picture a traveller in the tenth century, or even earlier, coming across the remains of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain and reaching the conclusion that it had once been a fortified place of sorts, while we’ve just seen Professor Drout’s opinion on the vocabulary of dwelling places in The Ruin and in other poetry. If Evelyn, Pepys, Blake and others could be stunned by the size of Stonehenge, then it’s very easy to imagine that a traveller in the era in question would have spoken of the ruins as being something like a fortified place or even a settlement or city, and as we’ve seen, the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary is pretty flexible on this aspect. Nevertheless, I believe it’s possible to be far more specific as far as the matter of Stonehenge being described as a large, fortified place is concerned.

Stonehenge is unquestionably unique, so we would assume that any description of the place passed on from one person to another would leave no room for doubt about precisely what structure was being spoken or indeed written about. However, we’re fortunate in having an extensive collection of depictions of Stonehenge in art to study, and when we do, we see illustrations such as this, from a Scala Mundi:


When we look elsewhere, we see that it’s depicted as a square or rectangle, something that’s completely at odds with the invariable descriptions of the monument as a round place.

If we lived in a world in which we did not know of Stonehenge and the possible meanings of this name, then the description of hinged stones wouldn’t bring a crystal clear picture to mind, nor would gallows stones help us a great deal more. If we go with the hanging stones, then this also fails to give us an unmistakably clear impression of the architecture, so it’s apparent that there are many ways that the monument can reasonably be described, but short of an architectural survey, none of them are likely supply us with the full picture. To appreciate it, we must see it for ourselves, so we’d naturally think that an artist, of all people, would be able to supply a faithful rendition of the scene. This is unquestionably the case in many paintings and drawings, but it’s still a surprise when we see outsize trilithons that bring to mind a castle’s ramparts.


Then there’s this picture, in a similar vein, which exaggerates the size of the stones.


But it’s even more of a surprise when we see the picture below, that shows a castle in the background,


while there’s still another that shows a non-existent castle in the proximity of Stonehenge.


What are we to make of this? The many illustrations in Christopher Chippindale’s Stonehenge Complete show us that Stonehenge has been depicted in many different settings over the centuries, but some earlier pictures show us that the artists felt, for some reason, that a castle should be in the picture also. This doesn’t mean that they viewed Stonehenge as such a place, but there are echoes here of John Evelyn’s observation about Stonehenge, if only because two artists chose to place a castle in the Stonehenge landscape. We might think that artistic licence or the powers of the imagination were restricted to non-scientific studies of Stonehenge, but as the frame below from a forthcoming Timewatch special on Stonehenge shows,


even the BBC’s specialist factual department in 2008 can produce what they describe as the earliest bluestone structure on the site, a circle, where no one has seen such a thing before.


We’ve already discovered that there’s no categorical evidence that the author of The Ruin ever saw the subject of the poem with their own eyes, while we’ve also learned that it’s possible that he (or she) heard a description of a memorable place or ruin, then composed their work afterwards, embellishing what they’d been told. If this was the case, then the most notable aspects of Stonehenge were its resemblance to some kind of fortified place/castle/city and its sheer size, so it would be perfectly natural for a poet to use his imagination to fill in the gaps by describing barred gates, tiled roofs, plaster and all the other attributes of a ruined city that we know Stonehenge doesn’t possess and didn’t possess, but which the readership of such a poem would naturally expect to encounter.

On this specific subject of poetic licence, in response to my question “Is there anything in this poem to suggest that if the author did not see the place for themselves, they acquired their source material from a book?” Professor Drout had this to say:

“The opening lines of the poem seem more literary than specific: where in England would he see tumbled roofs, towers in ruin, high towers in ruin, etc.? However, the tropes he uses–high-gabled halls, etc, are similar to those used in Beowulf, for example (although a very few scholars would say that Beowulf describes Leire in Denmark in the sixth or seventh century). The line about the earth holding the lordly builders also feels more like a poetic trope (also similar to Beowulf) than a description.”

There seems no doubt that the author of The Ruin was using literary devices and poetic license in their description, but if we’re to make a valid comparison between the subject of this poem and Stonehenge, we’ve got to somehow account for the references to the “ruined city” being filled with drinking halls and stone buildings, and the implied sprawling fullness of the site.

To begin with, Stonehenge’s capacity to bewilder an observer is well-documented, because the aforementioned John Evelyn also wrote of the place “how so many and huge pillars of stone should have been brought together, some erect, some transverse on the tops of them, in a circular area as rudely representing a cloister or heathen and more natural temple, is wonderful. To number them exactly is very difficult, they lie in such variety of positions and confusion…”

There are many other references to the stones at Stonehenge being uncountable, while one concerns the visit that King Charles II made there after fleeing from the defeat at Worcester in 1651. More specifically, when we look for any references to Stonehenge being somehow crowded with buildings, we find that in 1130, Henry of Huntingdon referred to Stonehenge, “where stones of wonderful size have been erected after the manner of doorways, so that doorway appears to have been raised upon doorway…”

I’ve read numerous translations of The Ruin and one of them contained the term “courts of stone”, hence another question I had for Professor Drout: “What precisely does “courts of stone” mean? (I’m going on Tinker’s translation). Does it have a legal sense? A royal sense? Or does it simply refer to something like flagstones in a courtyard?”

His reply was as follows: “Stanhofum literally means “stone houses”. It only appears in The Ruin, so we’re not on strong ground taking it to mean anything specific, like courts. It does seem that there are tiles being shed by the roof as it falls in (tilgelum sceade)”. Well, it’s hard to know what to make of this, but the simplest and most basic idea is that the poet’s describing a ruin of stone containing other structures of stone.

Perhaps the best word to describe these “stone houses” would be “edifices”, as our English word derives from the Latin aedes (house) and facio (I make or build); as our word ‘edifice’ brings to mind a variety of structures, it echoes what Professor Drout has to say about not being on strong ground taking “stanhofu” to mean anything specific. We know that it’s unlikely that the author of the poem actually saw the ruin with his own eyes, so the falling tiles seem to me to be a necessary and gloomy requirement to make his description sound authentic. However, there’s another possible explanation for the word “stanhofu.”

The word “stan” means stone, but “hof” has a variety of meanings, such as enclosure, court, sanctuary and temple. We know that this “ruin” had a “high, curved wall” and that it was built by “resolute masons, skilled in rounded building”, aspects that immediately bring Stonehenge to mind, while we also know that Stonehenge contained what’s universally described as an inner sanctum formed by the five huge trilithons, as well as other possible “sanctuaries” formed by the crescents and later circles of bluestones. It’s possible to regard these inner structures as the temple proper, surrounded in turn by the high wall of the uprights with lintels, so this seems to fit the description supplied in The Ruin to perfection. Again, Stonehenge is like nothing else on Earth and it appears that the word stanhofu only appears in The Ruin, so it’s reasonable to ask if a unique word was coined to describe a unique structure or set of structures.

As for the idea that Stonehenge could have once held wooden buildings, gables and the like, then it’s something that’s occurred to a modern archaeologist and Stonehenge expert such as Julian Richards, who writes on page 126 of his 1991 book Stonehenge “It may simply have been a temple of austere stone, the sheer scale and novelty of its construction enough to render any ornamentation unnecessary. Alternatively, the stones may have formed the framework for additional wooden structures, a platform for elaborate totems, or may themselves have been brightly decorated. These days we are used to seeing the timber buildings of the Middle Ages framed in dark oak, a sober image that fits well with our conceptions of what “old” should look like.”

It’s hard to think of a better description for one of the concepts the author of The Ruin was trying to convey than the idea of “what ‘old’ should look like”, especially when we consider that the original building was supposed to have been built a hundred generations before the poem was composed. It seems to me that when writing about a ruin or a ruined city/fortified place, then the author of The Ruin was compelled to include standard and expected aspects such as halls, gates and other wooden elements, but there are many strong suggestions in his verse that he was describing some unique place that he’d been told about.

In his book The Earliest English Poems, Michael Alexander writes of The Ruin “It is probable that the city of the poem is Aquae Sulis, the roman Bath, and we may imagine the author walking about the overgrown streets.” Well, it’s possible, but if it is indeed the case, then our imaginations will have to positively run riot, because despite the fact that the poet is allegedly describing something on the scale of a city, there are no mentions whatsoever of streets, features that seem absolutely fundamental to a fortified place, along with a wall and internal buildings. The logical inference is that the rounded building and curved wall, described by the poet, surround a clutter of stone buildings, or stone temples or stone sanctuaries, because nowhere in The Ruin do we read of tracks, paths, roads, streets, alleys, lanes, trails or any other kind of paved passageway leading between or around the stone structures inside.


Is there a reasonable way in which we can account for this apparent oversight? We must not forget that The Ruin is first and foremost a poem designed to evoke a sense of wonderment and melancholy, and that it was not intended as a tourist guide containing accurate directions. There’s something about this verse that is at best ambiguous as far as a description of city such as Bath is concerned, while there are other elements that clearly seem to point towards Stonehenge as being the subject the poet’s chosen to write about.

On the subject of ambiguity, it’s well worth going on a search engine to look up different translations of The Ruin, because there’s a wide range in the tone and detail, suggesting that the various translators are pretty much in the dark as to precisely what’s being described.

For instance, in this translation, you’ll see that the word “burgsteall” is translated as an acropolis, literally meaning a high city, or a city on a summit, which is a bizarre coincidence when we bear in mind the square-shaped depiction of Stonehenge and its remarkable similarity to the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Greece.

Be that as it may, “burgsteall”, one of the words used in The Ruin, is translated as a city or else as a citadel. Has Stonehenge ever been described as a citadel? Yes, in the 1965 book Citadels of Mystery, it was broadly classified as such along with other sites such as Troy, Zimbabwe, Tintagel and Machu Picchu, but if we think that Citadels of Mystery isn’t a scholarly work, then it’s worth pointing out that on page 61, it mentions the discovery of bluestone chips at the western end of the Cursus, something that didn’t make it into the supposedly comprehensive Stonehenge in its Landscape, a history of twentieth century excavations by English Heritage.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a citadel as “a fortress, usually on high ground, protecting or dominating a city”. Bearing in mind always that in The Ruin, we’re dealing with an evocative poem, not a professional surveyor’s assessment, then Stonehenge fits the bill of a fortress, given Evelyn’s initial impression of the place. Another translation of “burgsteall” tells us of an acropolis, or a fortified place near the summit of a hill, while there are also the curious castles that were inserted into the Stonehenge landscape in the illustrations we’ve just seen. Vespasian’s Camp naturally qualifies as a city or polis or burg or fortified place in its own right, and while Stonehenge can’t be seen from inside its walls, then we wouldn’t be completely wide of the mark if we described Stonehenge as a citadel (of sorts) overlooking a city (of sorts). As an archaeological assessment, it’s certainly very much open to question, but as a poetic description of a citadel, it’s near perfect; and The Ruin is a poem.

Another apparently insuperable obstacle to identifying the subject of The Ruin with Stonehenge is the notion that the poem is widely thought to have been written with the city of Bath in mind on account of the references to warm springs and baths. Naturally, this was one of the questions I asked Professor Drout:

“Is it reasonable to say that the repeated mention of baths in the poem is the principle reason that “The Ruin” in question has been identified with the city of Bath?” but I was very surprised by his response:

“There may be reasons to think it might not be a description specifically of Bath. They “let pour” the hot waters over the gray stone: this description could be any kind of artificial bath house as well, and in fact there was one of these in Exeter in the Roman period. Also, Einhardt’s Life of Charlemagne has the emperor relaxing with counsellors in his bath, and that’s obviously not a hot spring but a bath on the Roman model.”

Professor Drout added further details about the baths and springs, the essence of which is that one translation speaks of “the hot streams cast forth wide sprays of water”, something that sounds less like the natural springs at Bath than the “artificial” action of a human “letting pour” the waters over gray stone. I don’t doubt that it’s something that could be argued either way, but what amazed me was that there was any serious doubt at all that this poem referred to the City of Bath.

The poem also refers to the framework of the structure being “wondrously linked with iron bonds” while other translations refer to wire or perhaps chain, but it seems to me that whatever precise form the iron takes, whether it be pins or wire, it’s scarcely visible because it’s somehow woven into the fabric of the building. Either way, this detail appears to be something that contributes to the power of the ruin to inspire awe, and we’ve already encountered several other observers who speak in terms of how stupendous Stonehenge is, how they can’t conceive how it was built, how it seems that doorway’s built upon doorway and so forth. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the structure being “wondrously linked with iron bonds” falls into the category of imagined details that are inserted to evoke a sense of grandeur.

So, as we’ve gone over what appeared to be the principal objections to The Ruin being a poem that describes Stonehenge, what, if anything, is there in favour of this notion? To begin with, there’s the sheer scale and uniqueness of Stonehenge – we know that it was attracting visitors from as far away as continental Europe and what’s now south Wales as far back as 2,300 BC, while it continues to attract visitors in vast quantities even today. It’s impossible to imagine that it wasn’t a prominent feature of Britain in Anglo-Saxon times and we know that at least one person was ceremonially beheaded there in the seventh century AD, an event that may possibly have been commemorated by Geoffrey of Monmouth when he wrote about the Saxon warlord Hengist being decapitated by Eldod, the Bishop of Gloucester’s brother. As you can see in the link above, Mike Pitts says of this beheading “So there was something exceptional about this event, that could have been quite powerfully frightening and mythologically very important…”

The events surrounding the construction of Stonehenge played a major part in what Geoffrey of Monmouth later had to say about the war waged by Aurelius and Uther against the invading Saxons, so it’s no great leap of faith to suppose that the monument was occasionally of more than passing interest to certain people in Anglo-Saxon times. As Professor Drout wrote “The topos of the ruined building was popular in the early tenth century, when the Exeter Book was at least compiled, if not written”, so it seems to me that the most impressive, most singular and most melancholy of all ruins was sitting there in clear view in the middle of Salisbury Plain just begging to be written about.

Secondly, there are the repeated references to the precise shape of this stone ruin, because we’re told that it possessed “a high curved wall” and that the men who built it were “skilled in rounded building”. Now, we’re told that Britain at the time that The Ruin was composed was littered with the remains of Roman buildings, but whatever this structure was, it was impressive enough to have been built by “resolute masons” and “master-builders”, terms that seem extravagant praise unless the rounded building in question was something truly out of the ordinary, like Stonehenge.

Thirdly, the opening lines tell us that “the works of giants crumble” which brings to mind Geoffrey of Monmouth’s later account of the “Giants’ Dance”, so I have to wonder how many noteworthy stone ruins there were in Anglo-Saxon England that had high curved walls and which were rounded buildings made by resolute masons and master builders who were also presumably giants? Another Anglo-Saxon poem from the Exeter Book entitled The Wanderer also describes a ruined city with storm-swept buildings and decayed halls where nobles once dwelt, while this city was also described as “the ancient work of giants” now standing empty, but whether or not it’s the same place described in The Ruin, I cannot say.

However, we also read in The Ruin of a “host of heroes” who once gazed around this place before “slaughter was widespread, pestilence was rife, and death took all those valiant men away”, which sounds suspiciously like the treacherous slaying of 460 British nobles that Geoffrey of Monmouth later described as being the reason that Stonehenge was eventually built. There’s also the line that speaks of “its armies to the earth”, which doesn’t specifically state that the dead men were buried in that spot, but it does bring to mind what Geoffrey of Monmouth had to say about Stonehenge being a memorial in stone to dead nobles.

I’d initially assumed that it was beyond question that The Ruin specifically referred to Bath, but as there’s any doubt at all about this, it seems to be a fantastic coincidence that Stonehenge, a rounded ruin built of stone by master builders who may also have been giants (according to Geoffrey of Monmouth) should be somehow linked with the death of heroes or nobles, and that this same monument should be the only monument of its kind that was specifically linked with baths and water being poured over stone; as Geoffrey of Monmouth told us through the words of Merlin:

“For in these stones is a mystery, and a healing virtue against many ailments. Giants of old did carry them from the furthest ends of Africa and did set them up in Ireland what time they did inhabit therein. And unto this end they did it, that they might make them baths therein whensoever they ailed of any malady, for they did wash the stones and pour forth the water into the baths…” Or, to quote from The Ruin once again, “They let pour hot streams over grey stone.”

Finally, we don’t know the exact state of decay that Stonehenge was in when The Ruin was composed, but we know that some stones fell in prehistoric times and there’s a chance the Romans slighted it or altered it in some way after the Claudian invasion of 43 AD, so it’s certain that at least some of the uprights and lintels in the outer circle had fallen. We’ve already noted what later observers had to say about the jumble of high stones and how they were virtually uncountable on account of the confusion at the site, so when we read “the works of giants crumble. Tumbled are the towers, ruined the roofs…” along with “torn and collapsed and eaten up by age”, “the high curved wall itself has fallen” and “decay has brought it to the ground, smashed it to piles of rubble”, then it’s difficult not to bring the ruins of Stonehenge to mind.

I asked Professor Drout if anyone has any notion at all of who the unknown author of “The Ruin” may have been, to which he replied “No one even has any plausible candidates, and it is not clear when the poem was written, even if we know that the Exeter Book was compiled /copied between 950 and 975, it’s obviously possible for the poems in it to be much older.” If I’m right, then The Ruin is the oldest known description of Stonehenge in English, so this is how I think the poem came to be written:

We know that Stonehenge has captivated and drawn people to it from at least 2,300 BC to the present day, while archaeological evidence that the Romans had some kind of interest in the place has recently come to light.

We know that it was the site of at least one ceremonial execution in Anglo-Saxon times, while the memory of this beheading may have been preserved in the later story of the Saxon warlord Hengist being decapitated. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that it had been the site of a conflict between the Saxons and Britons, so it wouldn’t be remotely surprising if this unique, baleful monument had been of interest to at least one traveller in the region in Anglo-Saxon times.

I think that such a traveller arrived at the stones and was astonished by them, as many more recent observers have been. Geoffrey of Monmouth said that he’d acquired his information from a book lent to him by his friend the Bishop of Oxford, so I suspect that the awe-struck traveller heard confusing stories at Stonehenge of dead warriors, giants, burial places and water being poured over stones into baths, while these stories would later find their way into Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.

It seems to me that this traveller was impressed by what he’d seen and heard, so he later relayed it to others, one of whom would become the author of The Ruin. We know that two other poems in the Exeter book, namely the Seafarer and the Wanderer, also dealt with melancholy subject matter, so the author of The Ruin doubtless thought that it was an absolute Godsend to hear so many entrancing details about such a unique and mysterious place. The details of Stonehenge were an inspiration to him, but his principle aim was to compose a memorable, atmospheric poem, something he clearly succeeded in doing.

He heard the traveller struggling to describe Stonehenge, as many still do today, and he was struck by its size, its shape and the fact that it was made of stone by giants, so the poet used his fertile imagination to realistically depict what he understood to be an outsize “fortified place” that had fallen into ruin, hence the details of frost, mortar, smashed tiles, drinking halls and the like.

However, he faithfully retained the other elements that had made the traveller’s tale so captivating and memorable, elements of curved stone walls, fallen towers, dead warriors, master builders, giants and water poured over stones into baths, all of which combine to make Stonehenge unique and to tell us that The Ruin was written with what we now know as Stonehenge in mind.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Shelley’s Ozymandias was written in 1818, something in the region of a thousand years after the author of The Ruin had conjured up his gloomy image of some desolate, decaying place abandoned to the elements, but I can’t help seeing some striking similarities between the two works.

The opening lines of Ozymandias spell out that the author of the poem hasn’t seen the “two vast and trunkless legs of stone” or the half-sunk “shattered visage” with his own eyes, while it’s also spelt out for us that this is a traveller’s tale. It’s not immediately obvious that the same applies to The Ruin, but as there’s nothing specific in the poem to indicate that the author saw “The Ruin” with their own eyes, there has to be a distinct possibility that his composition is also the result of hearing a traveller’s tale, with all that this implies.

Both Ozymandias and The Ruin speak of a ruined antiquity of stone, both poems have a haunting quality to them and both bring to mind a similar moral tale, namely that human fame and power are transient things. In Ozymandias, the only apparent clues to the location of the wreck are that a traveller from an antique land said it stands in the desert and that around the wreck, “boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away”. When we look for geographical clues in The Ruin, we’re only told that it has or had “wide” or “broad domains”, so on the face of it, this seems even less helpful than the directions in Ozymandias.

However, the Anglo-Saxon words are “bradan rices” – bradan means broad, but it also means flat, open, extended, spacious or wide, while rice (the singular of rices) means a kingdom or a realm. Now, I suppose this doesn’t completely rule out Bath, but if I had to chose between the two, I’d go for the rolling downs of Salisbury Plain and more specifically, the immediate Stonehenge landscape every time as a broad, flat, open or extended domain. The Ruin spells out that the master builders, valiant men and armies lie in the earth, so the landscape surrounding Stonehenge has the further advantage of very obviously being home to the graves of heroes, masons, builders, nobles and the like in the form of the hundreds of barrows that once stood there, far more than exist today.

Something that might help form a decision one way or the other as to whether or not the area immediately surrounding Stonehenge would have constituted a broad domain where heroes are buried is this short film or simulation of the Stonehenge landscape, which was put together by my former colleague Tom Goskar at Wessex Archaeology.

It’s perfectly reasonable to connect these burial mounds with Stonehenge and to people them with the builders of Stonehenge or else with warriors and nobility; when we read the lines referring to slaughter and death taking brave men away, it brings to mind once again the first impression of the place formed by the diarist John Evelyn, when he wrote “About the same hills, are diverse mounds raised, conceived to be ancient entrenchments, or places of burial, after bloody fights.”

The Ruin was badly burned in an accident in Exeter, meaning that some words are missing, while at the end of the poem is the enigmatic statement “That is a kingly thing…house…castle…” With this in mind, it’s worth reproducing another of the questions I asked Professor Drout:

“Does anyone have any notion at all of who the unknown author of “The Ruin” may have been?” to which he replied:

“No one even has any plausible candidates, and it is not clear when the poem was written, even if we know that the Exeter Book was compiled/copied between 950 and 975, it’s obviously possible for the poems in it to be much older. Interestingly enough, King Edgar had his second “imperial” coronation at Bath, and no one really knows why. But that was after 971, and it is most likely that the Exeter Book was completed by 968.”

So, if The Ruin had been written after the imperial coronation of King Edgar, then the balance might have tipped slightly in favour of Bath as being the setting of this poem. As it is, I’m inclined to favour the idea that some variant on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of kings Aurelius and Uther being involved in the building of Stonehenge was around when The Ruin was written, because Geoffrey said that he’d acquired his information from a book and I’m reminded once more of what Professor Drout had to say: “The opening lines of the poem seem more literary than specific…the line about the earth holding the lordly builders also feels more like a poetic trope (also similar to Beowulf) than a description.”

I could continue for a while yet, but one translation of The Ruin includes the lines “…and a man of wit, cunning in rings, bound bravely the wallbase with iron, a wonder”, which sounds suspiciously like Merlin’s involvement in bringing the Giant’s Dance from Ireland to Salisbury Plain. A later account in Spenser’s Faery Queen credits Merlin with attempting to surround his home city of Carmarthen with a brazen wall, but I don’t know if this was an invention on Spenser’s part or if it derived from some earlier tale of Merlin.

As for the question of the baths, there’s no denying that The Ruin includes a mention of a ringed pool, but if the author had simply heard a mention of baths from a traveller, then it stands to reason that he’d have assumed that these baths were like others he knew of, although there’s the strange mention of how “they let pour” water over gray stone, which sounds very much like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account.

If we think that this matter of baths and stones is vague or ambiguous, then we’d do well to remember that at the time I’m writing this, the Smithsonian and the BBC specialist factual department have thrown their not inconsiderable weight behind a Timewatch documentary and an excavation at Stonehenge itself, while the subjects of healing water, bluestones and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of baths play a pivotal role in proceedings.


Christopher Chippindale’s book Stonehenge contains many references to verse written about Stonehenge, from the seventeen century to the present day, where it still flourishes. We know that the Druids memorised as much as twenty years worth of verse, so it would be highly surprising if none of their number ever saw fit to compose something celebrating the curiosity in the middle of their land. Pytheas of Massilia wrote of priests of Apollo singing at a “notable temple, circular in shape” that I believe was Stonehenge, and as we know that people were drawn to Stonehenge from as far away as continental Europe in 2,300 BC, then it’s hard to imagine that some song or epic poem wasn’t composed in its honour at some point. There’s a suitably ambiguous statement in the introduction to the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, volume III, where the author writes “…we may think of it (The Ruin) as the first of many English meditations on old stones” which makes me suspect that some authorities have seriously considered settings other than Bath for The Ruin.

All this leaves us with a hefty gap in time for a wonder of the world such as Stonehenge to have somehow failed to influence writers or poets, but from everything I’ve seen, The Ruin was directly inspired by a fantastic yet detailed account that an awestruck Anglo-Saxon poet once heard of a mysterious and unique stone structure decaying on Salisbury Plain.

I’d like to thank Professor Drout for taking the time and trouble to reply in such details to my questions and I should make clear once again that I didn’t so much as mention Stonehenge to him, so any errors or misplaced assumptions are mine and mine alone. However, when I finished this piece, I tried to get an informed opinion from another Anglo-Saxon expert, while I stated at the outset that I was interested by the possibility that The Ruin described Stonehenge, an exercise in honesty that put a firm and rapid end to any further replies.

So, if there are Anglo-Saxon experts or authorities on The Ruin reading this, then I’d be happy to publish any comments you might have, even if you completely disagree with every last point I’ve made; if that proves to be the case, then it will all be to the good as it will give everyone else the opportunity to compare arguments and make their own minds up about the matter.

Finally, I received one reply that fascinated me, even though it didn’t lead any further. It observed that The Ruin “is a notoriously obscure poem with many difficulties of interpretation”, so if we substitute the word “poem” for “prehistoric monument”, we have a perfectly good evaluation of Stonehenge, given the current arguments about healing stones, domains of the dead and royal dynasties. Or we could look at the matter of The Ruin and Stonehenge in another way.

One’s a description of an unidentified ruin, while the other’s an identified ruin that defies description; with these characteristics alone in mind, it’s very difficult to believe that two such notably enigmatic works of man, existing within a mere hundred miles or so of each other on the same small island, should bear no relation whatsoever to each other.


{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Aynslie Hanna June 30, 2008 at 2:15 pm


You make an interesting case for “The Ruin” being inspired by an account of Stonehenge. I’m thrilled that you are investigating possible references to Stonehenge in early writings, and I’m dismayed at the fact that, when you came right out and asked for feedback on your ideas connecting “The Ruin” with Stonehenge, you were basically ignored. Stonehenge has been a larger-than-life mystery on Salisbury Plain since long before writing came to Britain (as far as we know), and people have marveled at it and wondered about it almost as long–how could they not? The Romans, Saxons, Normans, etc. were all human beings and human beings question things. Most human beings don’t see a marvel of the magnitude of Stonehenge and say, “Oh. How interesting,” and then continue on their merry way, never to mention it again, especially if they have the means to write about it. So, unless Stonehenge was for centuries and by every people who came in contact with it considered “That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named”, then people had to have written about it. OK, so maybe “The Ruin” is a reference to it and maybe it’s not. There’s a lot in the text to suggest a connection. But to those who would ignore or dismiss the idea that there is, or that Pytheas was referring to it, I ask: Where, then, are the references to Stonehenge? Why did early visitors to Britain, and the Romans and the Saxons…and on and on–why did these people fail to mention the most unique and confounding structure in their midst?
Dennis June 30, 2008 at 4:11 pm

Hi Aynslie,

First things first – if just one person such as yourself, whom I’d consider to be critical, well-informed and inquisitive, can take the time and trouble to write in to tell me that you think I’ve made an interesting case for “The Ruin” being inspired by an account of Stonehenge, then I’m very happy indeed.

As for getting feedback, then how long I’m prepared to wait, sitting here staring at my email inbox, entirely depends on my mood at the time. I’ve been very fortunate on many occasions in getting informed replies from experts in their various fields, such as the Vice Director of the Vatican Observatory in Arizona and others on the Stonehenge Riverside Project, so I can’t really complain. All I can do is to continue to post up the best essays I can possibly piece together, continue to write polite enquiries to experts in other fields and try to be patient, because the world doesn’t revolve around my desires.

Otherwise, I think you’re absolutely right with everything you wrote, particularly the idea that “The Ruin” may or may not be about Stonehenge. However, I either put my thoughts into the public domain and make a detailed case, or else I wait for someone else to do it, something that may never happen. Obviously, you’ve just read this piece while I’ve had the benefit of thinking about it long and hard for over a year, and the more I ponder this idea of “The Ruin” coming into being as a result of a traveller’s tale, the more likely I believe it is that the poem was inspired by Stonehenge, although I’m happy to be corrected on even the most minor detail.

I have a few more things to add to this subject, but I left them out for now because the post or essay was long enough anyway. However, I try to be thorough, so I’ll post them up when time allows, although it has to be said I can’t really contribute anything more along the lines of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary as I’ve pretty much exhausted what little knowledge I ever had of this subject.

Finally, you made some very good and thought-provoking points, all of which I’m grateful for. We don’t have the full historical record, so there’s every chance that Stonehenge may have been mentioned on numerous occasions in ancient writings that haven’t survived, but I’m sure there are other accounts that refer to it, either obliquely, or else in highly specific detail. However, your presumably ironic reference to “That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named” is a fascinating notion in and of itself, and it’s one that I’ll be writing about at greater length….if and when I find the time!
Michael Goormachtigh July 8, 2008 at 8:50 am

Dear Dennis,

Just about the word stanhofum. The first part is indeed ‘stone’ and should be read like ‘stane’. The second part is maybe interesting. ‘Hof-um’ could be an inflexion of ‘hof’ and the ‘-um’ suffix should then be read aphonically. The word ‘hof’ is the same word as ‘cohort’ in Latin. Derived is the French word ‘cour’ and the English word ‘court’. ‘co-hort’ means ‘part of the fenced garden (hortus)’. Later the word was used to indicate a part or regiment of the Roman army. We wrongly assume that the Roman army was constituted exclusively of citizens of the city of Rome. In reality, since very early on, already during the time of the Roman kings, the city of Rome could only deliver a very limited part of the ‘Roman’ soldiery. In general no more than 5%. Contemporary people knew that the Roman army was in fact an army of allies who gathered before the battle in a fenced camp where each regiment from the various allied regions had its fixed place within that camp. The word ‘cohort’ later became a well determined section of a legion (500-600 men).

The word ‘hof’ exists in Dutch (and German) with approximately the same meaning as in English with this difference that it initially referred to a farm with a courtyard in the middle. It was completely surrounded by a defensive stone wall. This sort of building pattern is very old. We know that it was classic in ancient Greece and that most rich Roman houses were build that way: a square building with an open space in the middle. In Dutch the meaning of ‘hof’ evolved into ‘court’, ‘royal court’, but the meaning of ‘farm’ nevertheless persisted. Some etymologists (I refer to my extensive etymology dictionary EWN) believe that the Dutch meaning was heavily influenced by the French meaning (‘noble house’), but given the strong influence of the Franks upon the French language, it’s very possible that the French connotation came originally from the Frankish language. Only the rich and powerful Franks had the means to build such a farm. Roman villas (farms) had an open building pattern.

In my opinion, the word ‘hof’ refers to a closed construction, completely fenced, with an open space in the middle. There still are many such farms in the centre of Belgium. They are called ‘castle farms’ (kasteelhoeven).

Perhaps also interesting is the fact that a rather common family name exists in Belgium : ‘Van Steenhoven’ = ‘from stone hof’. A word like ‘stonehof’ must have been a generic word. The word ‘steen’ (stone) means also burgh, castle in Dutch and German. There is a (circular) castle in the middle of Gent called ‘Gravensteen’ = ‘the count’s castle’. So I think that ‘stanhofum’ meant something specific: a circular or square farm protected by a wall of stone with an open space in the middle. It’s clear that only the rich landowners could afford such a construction. Moreover: it was common that the yields of their tenants was stockpiled within a ‘stanhof’ during uncertain times. Hence the association with wealth, nobility and grandeur.
Dennis July 8, 2008 at 10:37 am

Michael, this is fascinating, so thank you very much for taking the time and trouble to write in. I’m away for a few days beyond the reach of the internet, but I’ll certainly reply at greater length when I return. Until then, many thanks again and best wishes from Dennis.
satchi July 10, 2008 at 5:09 pm

Dennis, I came upon this site well over a year ago.
I just want to say I absolutely love reading all of it, and it’s getting better and better!
To me, You’re a Genius!
Dennis July 11, 2008 at 12:33 am

Well, Satchi, what can I say? Thank you very much indeed for your kind comments, as things like this are always welcome. At the risk of sounding like a scratched record, I’m more interested in people enjoying reading what they find here than in agreeing with me, so thank you for taking the time and the trouble to write in. I might add that the best is yet to come, though…
Michael Goormachtigh July 13, 2008 at 1:45 pm

Dear Dennis,
I examined more closely the original text. Here are 10 remarks.

First remark : it’s stanhofu not stanhofum. “Stanhofu stodan” = “the castlefarms stood” – it’s a plural for ‘stodan’ is 3 pers. plural. In Dutch it would be “Steenhoven stonden”.

(2) I found that the translations are a bit too poetic. Let’s give an example.
The original text begins with:

Wr??tlic is ??es wealstan, wyrde gebr??con;
burgstede burston, brosna?? enta geweorc.

Translation from R. Hamer, London, 1970:

The city buildings fell apart, the works
Of giants crumble.

Translation from Jack Watson ‘The Anglo-Saxon Poetry Project” (http://www.aspp.ca) :

This masonry is wondrous, fates broke it
courtyard pavements were smashed, the work of giants is decaying.

I’ll try to translate it:
Wraetlic = (du) wreed-lijk. ‘wreed’ means cruel, weird, unbelievable, a lot. So ‘cruel-like’ or ‘cruelsome’ is the best translation.
first sentence:
Wraetlic is thes wealstan = Cruelsome is this wallstone.

wyrde = a passive word, no equivalent in modern English meaning something like ‘became’ (in Du. ex. : “hij werd een man” = “He became a man”).
gebraecon= broken or in Dutch ‘gebroken’
burgstede = in Dutch “hofstede” so in mod. English = “farmstead”. A ‘burg’ was a fortified, safe place. The word ‘farm’ comes from the French verb ‘fermer’ = to close.
burston = in Dutch “barsten” (to crack) – it’s again a 3 pers. plural.
brosnad = related to (Du.) “bros” = ‘brittle’ = ‘made brittle’
enta = usually translated as ‘giants’. Not necessarily real giants, possibly also ‘high ranking, very powerful people’.
geweorc = the work

It gives us this possible translation:

“Cruelsome is the wallstone, became broken,
farmsteads cracked, the gigantic work made brittle”

(3) The use of the word ‘sind’ instead of ‘are’ points to a southern origin of the poem. On my website (www.proto-english.org), I state that there were two ‘families’ of English (or sublanguages) : Scandi-proto-english (in the North and Midlands), using ‘are’ and Coastal-proto-english (in the South and South-east) using ‘be’ and ‘sind’.

(4) The word “hofu” without “stan-” is also used:
“Forthon thas hofu dreorgiad,” = “Forgone the farmstead sad(ly)” The Hamer translation is “And so these halls
Are empty,”.

(5) In those days, the only stones found in a ‘stonehof’ were in the outer wall and in chimneys. The ‘ruins’ should not be compared with clerical medieval ruins, which almost completely were build with bricks or stones. The picture here is one of an abandoned farm: only parts of the outer wall still stand up, and some chimneys within. The rest of the buildings had disappeared. They had been made in wood, which decays rapidly when no longer maintained. Moreover, the neighbours would have removed this wood (to build or burn). Stonehenge looks like this picture.

(6) I found at the end of the poem the word ‘hringmere’, which we nowadays would write ‘ringmere’. The word in Dutch is ‘slotgracht’ and not ’round pool’ or ‘ringed sea’. A ‘slot’ (in Dutch) is a castle (from the word ‘closed’) and ‘gracht’ is closely related to ‘grave’ in the sense of a ditch. So: ‘castle moat’. It refers to the ditch around the ‘stonehof’ which usually was filled with water. Can there indeed be a link with the ditch around Stonehenge?

(7) The word ‘burnsele’ is translated as bath-house. But it means literally: any wooden construction (sele) over a well (bourne). Wells, water pits, were in general covered by some sort of cap to prevent dirt falling in. The meaning of ‘burnsele’ depends upon the context.

(8) I found it strange that the poem is associated with the supposed ruins of Bath. ‘Burnsele’ is one of the arguments. But Bath was never completely ruined. It’s hot water pools continued to attract people well beyond the Roman Empire. These waters were considered to have healing powers, and when there are no (efficient) doctors, people had little alternatives. Bath was the English ‘Lourdes’ for the desperate sick.

(9) The ‘translations’ are for my taste far too much ‘poetic’, biased (it’s about Bath) and therefore inaccurate. What I can make of the poem, with my rather limited knowledge of Old English, is that’s a poem of some farm ruin. Or, as you suggest, Dennis, it could indeed refer to Stonehenge. No knowing what the stones were doing there, the author composed a poem of what he thought to be an abandoned farmstead.

(10)In fact, we should bear in mind that a ‘farm in ruins’ was highly unusual for the time, if not impossible. Unless the destruction just happened. 95% of the total population lived on the land and from the land. Letting a burned farm unused was a luxury those farmers could not afford. Especially when it was a ‘castlefarm’. A stone chimney was simply gold. Slammed walls could be rebuild, as could be the main buildings (the latter in wood of course). Castles became in disuse after the middle ages, after they lost their function. Real ruins began to appear after Henry VIII forbade Catholicism. Then, the many monasteries fell in ruins. Nobody had the permission to restore them. But ruined farms? Forget that. Farms were way too important. I wonder, if is maintained that the poem was NOT about Stonehenge, what other ‘ruin’ was meant. Roman buildings? Roman villas had no castle moat around them. Besides, the words ‘burgstede’ (castlefarm), ‘stanhofu’ and ‘hofu’, ‘burgstaell’ (farm-stables), ‘hringmere’, all points in one direction: a castlefarm, or what was thought to be one (Stonehenge?).
JohnWitts July 14, 2008 at 7:43 am

This an excellent thread and Michael clearly knows his stuff (something I do not claim)

I am not sure if this is the correct place but the following would seem to be generally interesting especially with reference to a “farm” so I wonder if Stanton Drew might come up as the site referred to?

From the Megalithic Portal


“The name Stanton is derived from the Angle-Saxon “stan’ (stone) ‘tun’ (farm). The site has not been excavated, but it is believed to be the same age as the Avebury circles. In the news in 1998 was the discovery of concentric post-hole rings inside the main circle. These showed up on a geophysical survey carried out by English Heritage with new, more sensitive magnetic instruments. They indicate that once there was a massive timber henge or building here”

Stanton Drew is the second biggest Stone circle and a complex akin to Avebury .

A site which proposes a theory of East to West diffusion (which would makes a lot of sense given the source of the Bluestones at Stonehenge) is http://www.cems.uwe.ac.uk/~lbull/stanton.html.

Is it any surprise the author of that site has not received anything back from Academia (vested interest in a Establishment line)?
JohnWitts July 14, 2008 at 5:09 pm

I did mean West to East diffusion

I apologise for the dyslexia – I have the same problem with left and right but not up and down and North and South 🙂
David Lawrence January 18, 2012 at 1:49 pm

It is entirely likely that Stonehenge was written about in numerous Anglo-Saxon documents. It’s on record that the monasteries of the middle ages held numerous Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in their libraries. Most would probably have been secular in nature although many of the poems, such as the Wanderer, the Sea-Fairer etc were also included.

When the monasteries were abolished under Henry VIII, a large number of the manuscripts were destroyed or lost. Some were rescued by collectors and ended up in private collections, like the Exeter Book. It’s unknown what manuscripts were lost in this period, but I should think it highly likely that some would have contained descriptions of Stonehenge, as it is such an imposing sight.

It can’t be known for certain which building was being described, but I think your case for Stonehenge should not be ignored.

If ‘The Ruin’ was written from one, or more, second hand accounts, it could well include descriptions from more than one site and could have been based on an amalgam of ruins, including Stonehenge.
Dennis January 18, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Thank you very much for this, David. My writings on The Ruin receive a steady stream of visitors, but I’m nonetheless aware that I’m in a minority in considering that a traveller’s tale of Stonehenge at least partly inspired this poem.

There’s a mention in Hengeworld of these matters, when Mike Pitts writes “In a recent Oxford University thesis, Sarah Semple had shown that in Anglo-Saxon times, the eighth century and the later world of Beowulf, there was a fear of remote barrows as places of evil, death and dragons. By committing certain offences, or at least by being believed to have done so, people put themselves outside society, and were fit only to end their days beyond the realms of normal life and death.”

He wrote this with reference to the evidence for “Anglo-Saxon execution and burial….at ancient burial mounds on hill-top boundaries”. Without going through all the evidence again, the gloom and death in The Ruin seems to echo the bleakness of such practises, while as you point out, the simple fact that Stonehenge was and remains such a unique, imposing sight suggests to me that it would have appeared in literature in some form.
Chris Johnson January 22, 2012 at 10:35 am

I studied this poem many years ago in the original. I don’t think there is much to comment on in the translation although there is a lot of uncertainty with Anglo-Saxon, as relatively little survives.

At the time, and now, I thought this poem was about the immigrant impression of the many ruined towns, villas, and forts that littered the country, dating to the fall of the Roman empire. The theme is transcience and in this sense speaks to our feelings when we look at older ruins like Avebury and Stonehenge.

The reference to hot waters is puzzling because you tend to think of Bath, however when we think the poem was written the Anglo-Saxons were based in the east of the country. Poetry was oral and would have spoken to the experiences of the bulk of the population who had never travelled that far west. On the other hand most decent Roman towns had hot baths and no doubt this would be remembered for a few hundred years.

Anyway it is a lovely poem and thanks for reminding me.
Chris Johnson January 22, 2012 at 11:21 am

Rereading the original long thread I was very surprised by Professor Grouts remark “The opening lines of the poem seem more literary than specific: where in England would he see tumbled roofs, towers in ruin, high towers in ruin, etc.?”

The answer to his question is “All over the place”. The reference to mead halls and classic Anglo-Saxon world views place the origins of the poem early. It may have been written down in the 10th century but it was written first much earlier — as I am sure the prof would agree.

To Anglo-Saxon eyes the remains of the Roman world would have been staggering — they never built on this scale even in their heyday. The translation as “city” is appropriate and wondrous because the Anglo-Saxons never built cities. We talk about building on a much bigger scale than Stonehenge.

The Roman presence in Britain did not collapse overnight. It slowly became unsustainable economically and militarily over many decades. In say, the 7th century, the ruins would have made an overwhelming impression on a newcomer from Anglo-Saxon society, and those ruins and towers would have been widespread in the areas where the Anglo-Saxons settled.

Maybe you should ask Prof Grout to clarify his remarks. I think he is simply wrong as he is reported here.
Dennis January 22, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Chris, thank you very much for writing in; I’m pleased you were interested by this post and I’m also pleased that I’d managed to remind you of this poem.

Like many other posts on this site, this piece on The Ruin was me ‘thinking out loud’ in a hopefully informed fashion, but I don’t think there’s anything I can add to it, sadly, although I did write a follow-up to it afterwards. I had a very difficult time getting any medieaval expert to offer an opinion, so I’m grateful to Prof Grout for taking the time and trouble to reply to me, but I don’t think he’d care to comment further on this.

Aside from the follow-up piece on The Ruin, I wrote another speculating about a possible early Anglo-Saxon name for Stonehenge. It’s inevitable that both the entries for which I’ve supplied links should be dated to some extent, as they were written about 5 years ago, so you’ll have to excuse them and view them in this light. On the other hand, since those posts were published, Dr Robin Melrose has contributed extensively to this site, as well as publishing a book, and I was intrigued to learn of his theory that the word ‘Druid’ may be directly related to the word ‘door’.

This is something else I’ve written about in depth, because there are so many implications concerning not only the Druid link with Stonehenge, but the Roman and the Saxon ones as well. It’s all here somewhere on the site, but thank you once again for writing in, Chris, with your thoughts and comments.
chris johnson January 23, 2012 at 11:40 am

Thanks for your warm welcome and the links; you have a wonderful site and I will spend many hours browsing and enjoying the many great contributions.

These days there seems to be much erudite commentary on the web about The Ruin. I am not so surprised the mediaevalist academics do not want to make comments as it is well out of their domain; better off trying a professor of anglo-saxon, although I doubt any of them would endorse the link you see with Stonehenge other than in the broadest emotional sense. As Blake said “Anything that can be imagined is an image of the truth”.

For the benefit of your readers it is worth pointing out that Anglo-Saxon poetry was written in a highly alliterative style, designed to be chanted or sung with the power of the repeating sounds contributing strongly to the meaning evoked. This is something one misses completely in translation. The demands of the “music” means that the exact word choice is influenced by the sound the poet is seeking and one needs to be careful before reading too much into a literal meaning.

In my view poetry was more of a team activity then than it is today. Poems would be sharpened and improved during the retelling and over the years. It is possible that the lines about the hot springs were added years later by a bard in Somerset. While on this line of thought, presumably you know that there are lines missing in “The Ruin” – were you to add something explicit about Stonehenge, in Anglo-Saxon of course, then it would in my view fit with the spirit of their times (smile).
Dennis January 24, 2012 at 1:39 am

Chris, I very much like the idea of adding to The Ruin, but I doubt I’ll ever find the time to be able to master poetic Anglo-Saxon to a credible degree. Still, it’s a pleasing idea, so thank you for the suggestion.

On the subject of language, one regular contributor to this site is Dr Robin Melrose, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading his many contributions and I think we’re extremely fortunate that such a knowledgable man has such an interest in Stonehenge, Silbury Hill and others.

On the subject of poetry, there’s a static page at the top of this site devoted to The Spoils of Annwn, although there are many other mentions of it elsewhere as well, while I’ve frequently had cause to quote from The Aeneid in particular, as well as from other poems from antiquity.

To be honest, I long ago lost conscious track of everything on this site, so I try to refresh my memory every now and again by going over some of the older posts, while you can gauge the variety of the subject matter to some degree by looking at the various categories. It’s a great help when someone like yourself writes in, because while I’d not completely forgotten about The Ruin, my mind has been occupied with other matters recently, in particular, the matters of Apollo and Artemis. As I said, though, the great thing about the new format for this site is that when people write in on older posts, their contributions automatically appear on the right of the page, allowing others a chance to join in.

Again, I’m very pleased by your kind words about this site and I hope you enjoy reading some of the hundreds of posts and thousands of comments, not to mention the links, guest posts and illustrations. There aren’t really any hard and fast house rules here, other than to be at least civil to others, even if you completely disagree with what they’re written. If you want to write anything further yourself in the future, then please feel free to write as much as you like; this is primarily a text-based site, so we all enjoy reading the considered thoughts of others on any given subject at our leisure.

It’s also fine to send in links or news items, but if you have something to say, or if you disagree with someone here, then we would all welcome hearing your in-depth views and reasoning, as opposed to a simple statement that allows little or no discussion. There are plenty of other sites that cater for what are in effect captions, but I personally like to read someone’s thoughts in some depth.

A previous contributor here was our late friend Alex Down, who, after a little prompting from me, habitually wrote numerous large essays, which we all very much enjoyed reading, even if we didn’t necessarily agree with everything Alex had to say. If you write in, it requires the physical intervention of either myself or else Aynslie to moderate and post a comment, so don’t worry if it doesn’t instantly appear. You won’t automatically get an instant reply, either, but once again, you are most welcome to contribute and don’t worry about presenting something entirely new, either, as I’m certain I’ve repeated myself on numerous occasions over the years. There’s no harm done, because running this site is a labour of love and I would hope that reading and contributing to it would be a pleasure as well.
C Goulding October 31, 2012 at 8:29 pm

The poem “The Ruin” has long been recognised by experts as being about the Roman ruins of the city of Bath (Aquae Sulis), Somerset.
Dennis October 31, 2012 at 9:22 pm

Thank you – I was aware of this when I wrote the piece, but as I hope I made clear, I thought there were other possibilities, in addition to the mainstream establishment expert view.

This entry was posted in Dead Poets, Stonehenge, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Original investigation into “The Ruin” as being the earliest description in English of Stonehenge: June 29th 2008.

  1. eternalidol says:

    Anyone wishing to view my slightly fractured original post on The Ruin and Stonehenge, along with the time stamp, can do so on this link.


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