Stonehenge is England’s most important prehistoric monument and undoubtedly the world’s most famous chromlech. UNESCO added it to its World Heritage list in 1986, increasing the level of protection it had from a century earlier, when it was declared a Scheduled Monument, a classification used in the United Kingdom for outstanding archaeological or historical sites. Therefore, the site belongs to the Crown and is under the control of English Heritage. But this was not always the case; there was a time when it was privately owned.
Let’s take it one step at a time. A chromlech is a set of menhirs, stones placed vertically, which are arranged in a circular shape; in fact, in English the word ring is used to designate this type of megalithic constructions. Each Stonehenge menhir measures between four and seven meters high and about two meters wide, weighing from twenty-five to fifty tons.
In fact, it is not a single circle but four concentric ones, probably the result of successive enlargements, with the blocks, which are made of dolerite, in the form of trilithons (that is, lintels, with two verticals holding a horizontal one between them) and assembled by means of the tongue-and-groove joint technique (like the pieces in puzzles). In the center was the so-called Altar Stone, whose purpose is confusing. The set measured one hundred and ten meters in diameter and was surrounded by a moat, saved by a processional road of three kilometers.
Stonehenge is located about two miles west of Amesbury, Wiltshire (near Salisbury). It was built at the end of the Neolithic, more than five thousand years ago with stones brought from Wales through the River Avon. Technical limitations – the wheel was probably not yet known – meant that the work took a long time, perhaps a millennium and a half. This makes one doubt whether it always looked the same and, in fact, Mesolithic wells dating from around 8,000 BC have been found underneath.
This is not the only lack of certainty, since its use is not clear either: if in the past there was talk of a ceremonial center, the orientation of its axes to the summer solstice makes us think today of an astronomical observatory or a calendar feature. But the existence of burials in its surroundings suggests that a funerary function should also be added, and it should not be forgotten that the aforementioned avenue connected it with another nearby cromlech, that of Woodhenge (of which there are hardly any remains because, as its name indicates, it was made of wood).
For a long time, Stonehenge excited people’s imaginations. They attributed healing properties to it, it was related to the Druids and it was identified with numerous legends, among them those of the Arthurian cycle, and its construction was attributed to the wizard Merlin. In a way, today this mystical tone has been recovered by the hand of neo-paganism and other New Age movements (there was even an annual festival in the seventies and first half of the eighties), ignoring the information of archaeologists that Druidism originated much later than Neolithic times.
What interests us here is another historical peculiarity of the site: its ownership. In the Middle Ages, when land ownership was regulated by documents, this area was within the domain of Amesbury Abbey, a Benedictine convent founded by Queen Ælfthryth around 979 AD to adopt religious habits as a way of atoning for her involvement in the murder of her stepson Edward, whom the king had had with a previous wife. The abbey was dissolved by Henry II in 1177, and was replaced by a priory that lasted until the suppression of the monasteries ordered by Henry VIII.
The land remained in the possession of the Crown, which ceded it to the Earl of Hertford, nephew of Jane Seymour (the monarch’s third wife). Over the following centuries it changed hands several times: Lord Carleton first, the Marquis of Queensberry later and the baronet Antrobus then, who acquired it in 1824 and kept it until 1915, when he put it up for auction at the Knight Frank & Rutley estate agency. The buyer was Cecil Chubb, who paid six thousand six hundred pounds for those thirty acres in which, in addition to the cromlech, there was an airfield-school of the Royal Flying Corps, the predecessor of the RAF (Royal Air Force).
Cecil Herbert Edward Chubb was born in 1876 in Schrewton, a neighbouring town less than ten kilometres from Amesbury. He was the son of a saddler who was able to pay for a thorough education, although he helped by working as a teacher from his teenage years. Thanks to this mutual effort, he was able to attend the University of Cambridge, where he completed two degrees, Science and Law, dedicating himself professionally to the latter. Having become a prestigious lawyer, he became rich enough to marry Mary Bella Alice Finch, niece of the owner of Fisherton House, the Salisbury psychiatric facility, which he eventually inherited.
In 1924, the couple founded a management company, changed its name to Old Manor Hospital and introduced new treatments appropriate to the times, making the institution a European reference. As Chubb was the president of the company, he already had social prestige, which allowed him to assume the position of justice of the peace in Salisbury and increase his business with cattle breeding, both bovine (shortorn cows) and equine (purebred horse races). By then he had already accomplished what really made him go down in history: participating in the aforementioned Antrobus auction and buying Stonehenge.
Legend has it that he acquired it as a gift for his wife (a variant attributes the idea to her) but it seems to be false; not only did Mary not like the expense but Chubb himself explained that he intended the new owner to be someone local. In fact, the ratification of that goal was evident three years later when he decided to donate Stonehenge and its surroundings to the government. The corresponding document, signed in October 1918, explains certain conditions such as free access to the residents, mandatory maintenance or the prohibition to build around the monument.
From 1920 onwards, in order to comply with the agreement, the government acquired the surrounding land, thus avoiding the construction of buildings nearby and demolishing those that already existed; only the roads were preserved. Excavation was also carried out – several pieces were found – and the monument was restored, something that had already been started two decades earlier; from then onwards, more work would be carried out repeatedly. Stonehenge continues to surprise from time to time and the last one was in 2014, when up to seventeen more megalithic sets were discovered in an area of twelve square kilometers around it.
Meanwhile, the generous donation earned Chubb a baronetcy from Prime Minister David Lloyd George; the heraldic motif on his bestowed coat of arms was a megalithic trilithon, of course. He died in 1930 of a heart condition.
Sources: El despertar del Hombre (Xavier Musquera) / The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland, and Brittany (Aubrey Burl) / Stonehenge (John North) / The Man who bought Stonehenge (T.H.J. Hefferman) / Cecil Chubb’s Deed of Gift of Stonehenge (www.Sarsen.org) / English Heritage/Wikipedia