Monday, 15 July 2013

Druids in Bath

Scrape the veneer of rationality and enlightenment during the eighteenth century, and you never know what you might find lurking underneath!

I was in Bath on Tuesday, so of course I had to see the Circus and the Royal Crescent. They've been seen in many Jane Austen TV adaptations (and I think the chief archaeologist in the lamentable series Bonekickers was supposed to live on the Crescent. I always wondered how she could possibly have afforded it.). Elegant town houses, with Classical proportions, beautifully designed by John Wood, stand near the top of the hill that Bath is built on.

I first got the impression that there was more to this architecture than met the eye when I saw in one of the guide books that the Circus was supposed to represent the sun, and the Royal Crescent the moon - and then it added that the friezes around the houses of the Circus had symbols on them taken from a book of fortune telling.
I'm reading Blood and Mistletoe at the moment, by Ronald Hutton, which is a history of the Druids in Britain, told in a masterly scholarly style - and today I got up to the eighteenth century. Who should be mentioned but John Wood, the same architect who designed the Royal Crescent and Circus in Bath?
It turns out he had some - interesting - ideas about prehistory and the Druids, and fed these ideas into his architectural designs. People who have studied Wood and his work seem to agree that the Circus is based on the Masonic sign of a triangle in a circle. He also believed that stone circles, especially nearby Stanton Drew, which he studied (since other people had already studied Stonehenge and Avebury) represented Druidic temples, where the druids actually lived in houses among the stones, in Druidic colleges. With the Circus, he was putting that idea into contemporary form, and he also decorated the houses with stone acorns, to stress the Druidical associations with oak trees. Ronald Hutton says:
"Symbolically, it is the first Druidic temple to be erected in Britain since ancient times, created as the testimony of faith of a passionate, if highly unusual, Christian. It may, in fact, be the first stone temple ever built in the name of Druidry."
John Wood also wrote a history of Bath, published in two parts in 1742 and 1743. In this, he turned Stanton Drew into a Druidic national university, with the capital at Bath, which he imagined to be full of shrines to the ancient gods, especially Apollo and Diana under the name Onca, representing the sun and moon. He imagined King Bladud, the legendary founder of Bath, going on a fact finding tour around the ancient world and meeting Pythagoras and Zoroaster and the builders of the second temple of Jerusalem (for which he would have needed the aid of a time machine, but never mind....).
The second manuscript copy of his book on architecture, which incorporates his studies of Stanton Drew, are held at Bath Central Library now.

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