Feature Articles – London’s Celtic “heritage”
From the 18th century onwards, a “Druid history” of London was slowly discovered – or imagined – on London’s landscape. It reached a climax with the English mystic William Blake, who transformed it into a sacred site – the Heavenly Jerusalem.
by Philip Coppens
Primrose Hill Druids may seem far removed from the busy London streets, but some centuries ago, places such as Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill were at the centre of London’s fascination with a pagan past that was painted onto its layout. The Druids were chased out of England and Wales by the Romans. It lasted until the 18th century to see a Druid Revival, inspired by a renewed interest in Classical and medieval Celtic literature and antiquarian studies of ancient sacred sites. People began to take an interest in Stonehenge and no longer tried to destroy or bury the stones of Avebury.
The Druid Revival in England and Wales was largely started by the writings of John Aubrey (1629-1697), John Toland (1670-1722), and William Stukeley (1687-1765). Aubrey was the first modern writer to make surveys of Stonehenge and Avebury and to put forward the idea that Stonehenge was built by Druids. Today, we know they predated the Druids by many generations, but this misidentification is a small prize to pay for making sure Britain’s megalithic heritage would not further be destroyed. It is said that Aubrey’s enthusiasm for Stonehenge – believing it to be an observatory – led Charles I to found Greenwich. Isaac Newton is also said to have had an interest in Druidism and it is known that Stukeley was a close friend of the world famous physicist.
Toland was an Irish revolutionary who, as a young man, met Aubrey and was fascinated by his views on Druids and stone circles, even though he failed to mention Aubrey in his book.
The final “arch druid” was William Stukeley, an antiquarian in the mould of John Aubrey. Stukeley made field trips to Avebury and Stonehenge and made surveys and drawings of both sites. He agreed with Aubrey on the Druidic nature of megalithic monuments. Stukeley joined the clergy and it seems that with his own holy orders, his view on the ancient Druid order became increasingly eccentric. He had the vicarage garden redesigned in his idea of a Druid grove complete with megalithic folly and began to expound Druidic principles from the pulpit of his church. He even signed letters as “Chyndonax, Druid of Mount Haemus”. John Aubrey (left) and William Stukeley To all likelihood, the Druid Revival was just that: a few people taking an interest in Britain’s ancient past. But the Ancient Order of Druids (AOD) has claimed that both Aubrey and Toland held a gathering of Druids from all over Britain and Ireland in a London tavern on June 24, 1717, which according to legend occurred at the same date as the foundation of Grand Lodge of Freemasonry, which occurred in a different tavern in the same town.
All the evidence suggests that the meeting was a later invention, as Toland wrote in 1718 disparagingly of the institution that was the priesthood, including the Druidic type. His intense hatred of anything priestly has been linked with the fact that he was a lapsed Catholic.
If we must dismiss Aubrey and Toland as an “arch druid”, we should equally question whether the Primrose Hill gathering ever took place. Primrose Hill sits just to the north of Regent’s Park. Because of its proximity to the Hampstead School of Speech and Drama, it is an often used location for filming. It offers exquisite views of central London, now dominated by the BT Tower and the London Eye. But Canary Wharf and the tall buildings of the City are equally visible from this prime location. After the initial wave of Aubrey, Toland and Stukeley, the Revival was “revived” by a group of gentlemen who met at a London tavern, to found the Ancient Order of Druids (AOD) in 1781. The group incorporated a lot of Masonic ideas, including those of mutual support and charitable good works. The wave of interest continued into the 19th century, spurred by two publications, The Iolo Manuscripts (1848), and Barddas (1862). Both were written by, Edward Williams (1747-1822), better known by his Bardic name, Iolo Morganwg. He claimed to have found a complete system of Druidry in ancient manuscripts that he had collected in his native Wales. Iolo then held a gathering of what he styled the Gorsedd of Bards of the Isles of Britain. Even though the books remain popular in druidic circles, it is now known that he had composed the `ancient` manuscripts himself, while he was imprisoned for debt after a business enterprise failed. The fraud was only uncovered 150 years after his death, when an inquisitive scholar looked through Iolo`s manuscripts and found draft versions of most of the supposedly medieval documents written in Iolo`s own hand. Parliament Hill Though nothing seems to have happened on Primrose Hill on the Autumn Equinox of 1717, it is known that Iolo Morganwg’s proclamation of the Gorsedd of Bards of the Islands of Britain happened on Primrose Hill, in 1792. The hill’s position to the north of London, offering a wide-angled view of the city, makes it a prime location from which to “charm” London. In recent years, the various Druid orders are best known for their internal rivalry, specifically when it comes to access to Stonehenge at the summer solstice. For some organisations, the Wiltshire site remains the centre of their movement, though many orders continue to prefer London as the centre of their activities. Because of access restrictions to Stonehenge in the 1980s and 1990s, many solstice celebrations were held on the London hill tops.
One of these, The Council of British Druid Orders, was inaugurated on the Summer Solstice, on Parliament Hill, in Hampstead, in 1994. “Dylan Ap Thuin” blew the herald’s horn to start the ceremony at noon. Since then, the annual ceremony continues to be held either at Primrose Hill or Parliament Hill. Parliament Hill is an open area of in north-west London adjacent to Hampstead Heath. The hill was once known as Traitors’ Hill, as during the English Civil War, it was occupied by troops loyal to the English Parliament. The hill is not, as the name might suggest, home to the Houses of Parliament – though it seems possible that its name, together with its ability to give good views over London, was used by the Druids. Many Druids now believe that the hill – known to them as the Llandin, from a Welsh name signifying a “High-place of worship – is part of a sacred grid. A ley line between here and the White Hill in the Tower of London is to them the Midsummer’s day azimuth – the line in which the sun rises on Midsummer’s day.
With the Tower of London, we have come to the third primary location of “Druid London”. For example, in 1956, the Ceremony of the Spring Equinox was renewed at the Bryn Gwyn or Tower of London. The site was, of course, the primary royal residence for much of Britain’s history. It remains connected with the tradition of sacred kingship, through the presence of the nine ravens. The sacred landscape of London became the subject of several publications, specifically from the 1930s onwards. Peter Ackroyd’s London: A Biography equally devoted attention to these “Celtic sanctuaries”.
Apart from Parliament Hill, Primrose Hill and the Tower, London has further sacred sites dear to the druids. They range from the less-known Penton (New River Reservoir) to the famous Westminster Abbey (named Tothill). The Tower of London All these sites go back to Christian mythology, which in the Druid Revival’s thinking merely “Christianised” sites that were originally sacred Celtic landmarks. St Paul allegedly preached from Parliament Hill and thus became the patron saint of London.
In the interior of the Penton is a cave known as Merlin’s Cave. An underground passage at the bottom of the hill led to the cave. The entrance was in the cellars of Merlin’s Cave Tavern. It was bricked up at the beginning of the 20th century, the passage being considered no longer safe.
For sure, London, like the small towns and villages, maintained its folkloric atmosphere well into the 20th century. Marble Arch used to be called Tyburn, possibly a remnant of the pagan god Tiw, the God of Law. The River Tyburn, which flows near Marble Arch, splits right where Buckingham Palace is today and forms an island called Thorney Island, on which law making and such was traditionally carried out, according to Celtic tradition. Again, this site has been linked with the Druids, claiming that a Druid tree college existed on the site. Speakers’ Corner, based on the privilege of those condemned to utter a few last words before their execution, is thus possibly the most modern incarnation of the legal history of the site.
As late as 1906, there was a “Swearing on the Horns” in Highgate, when strangers were required to take a pair of antlers horns in their hands, and swear a jocular oath, followed by a wild part, involving dance and “draught”. There is the Horn Fair, still held in Charlton village every year. Herne Hill itself may be a reference to the horned Celtic deities. It should not come as a surprise to find that the name is equally prominent in pub names: there is a Herne’s Tavern on Peckham Rye Common, The Horns in St. Pancras, the Horn Tavern in EC4, the Green Man in Bellingham, etc.
In medieval times, there were at least four major May Day festivals: in May Fair (Mayfair), the Southwark Fair, the Greenwich Fair and the Horn Fair, from Bermondsey to Charlton. Until 1718, there was a 134 ft May Pole by the Church of St. Mary in the Strand in central London. A time honoured custom at the Greenwich May Day was for young couples to climb the hill to where the Royal Observatory is today, and then run or roll down the hill to the great excitement of the gathered crowds. Like Parliament and Primrose Hill, Greenwich Hill offers splendid views of the city. One man that is often seen as a “Druid” is the poet William Blake. He is said to have worked with the Ancient Order that gathered in Poland Street. Blake’s biographer Peter Ackroyd states that Blake never joined any organisation, but according to the lists of grandmasters of the Druid Order, Blake was a grandmaster. Quite a few of Blake’s friends would in the end be freemasons, though there is no record that Blake ever joined.
Though the Druids may have claimed him for their cause, it is clear that Blake definitely was a visionary, a man who transformed his native London into a heavenly city. Blake was born in Soho; it was in Broadwick Street where he had his visions. When he died, he was buried in the nonconformists’ burial ground of Bunfield, together with his father and mother.
Since childhood, Blake had visions, which, unlike in most people, stayed with him throughout life – if not grew in intensity. His first apparently happened when he was eight or ten, at Pecckham Rye, by Dulwich Hill, when he saw a tree filled with angels. Blake saw London as a heavenly city, as he saw angels, souls, prophets. Hence, to him, London was a “Heavenly London”, a Jerusalem.
The fields from Islington to Marybone,
To Primrose Hill and Saint Johns Wood:
Were builded over with pillars of gold,
And there Jerusalems pillars stood.
Blake thus used the same imagery of Primrose Hill in his vision of the divine city that would rise out of the capital. For Blake, time did not exist and he therefore looked to the distant past and the distant future, to see a London of utter bliss, the “Heavenly Jerusalem” spoken off in the Bible. He would walk through London, and particularly seemed to have an affinity for London Stone, where he had quite a few visions of “Jerusalem”. On Primrose Hill, he had a vision of the “Spiritual Sun”, which he compared to the true light, the light of the Imagination. Blake often spoke of Albion, England’s great, mythological past, ruled by Druids. To quote Peter Ackroyd: “All his life, Blake was entranced and persuaded by the idea of a deeply spiritual past, and he continually alluded to the possibility of ancient lore and arcane myths that could be employed to reveal previously hidden truths.”
Blake had read Stukeley’s A[ve]bury on the supposed Druid temples of Avebury and Stonehenge. Blake’s brother Robert drew Druid ceremonies and mythological scenes from British history.
Throughout his life, Blake felt time was an illusion and after his death, he apparently emphasised the point. His wife Catherine continued selling his works and she said that Blake would appear daily to her, sit for some hours with her and advice her on how to run the business. It was no different than Blake’s relationship with his dead brother, whom, Blake stated, appeared to him often for a period of many years. Blake wrote that “He to whom time is the same as eternity, and eternity the same as time, is free of all adversity.” “Celtic London” may largely be an invention of 18th century Londoners, but Blake is the historical proof that London was able to produce visionaries… of which any ancient druid wandering along the banks of the River Thames would have been proud.