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Stukeley, William (1687-1765)

Stukeley, William (1687-1765)

William Stukeley, an antiquarian famous for his research on Stonehenge and related megalithic monuments in Western England, was born in Holbeach, Lincolnshire, England, on November 7, 1687, the son of a lawyer. As a youth, he collected and studied plants, and studied astrology. He entered Bennet College, Cambridge, in 1703 and received his degree in 1708. During his school days he made some notable contributions to the cataloguing of plant life.

After college he studied medicine and opened a medical practice in Lincolnshire in 1710. He moved to London in 1717, and soon became a member of the Royal Society. Meanwhile he continued formal studies in medicine and in 1719 received his medical degree from Cambridge. The following year he was admitted as a fellow to the College of Physicians.

While making his living as a physician, Stukeley also developed a spiritual quest centered upon a recovery of the mysteries from the ancients. He joined a speculative Freemasonry lodge in 1720, hoping to find there the answer to his questions. He also made a number of trips exploring ancient ruins in England, the first result being a book, Intinerarium Curiosum, published in 1724. His book on Stonehenge appeared in 1740.

Through the 1730s he had accepted the idea first broached by John Aubrey in the previous century tying Stonehenge and related stone monuments to ancient Druidism. He had read and made notes from Aubrey's unpublished Monumenta Britannica, and in 1719 began to make annual visits to study the stone remains in Wiltshire. In 1717 a new Druidic order had emerged in England, and John Toland was named its first chief. Stukeley became the second chief following Toland's death in 1722. He took the name Chyndonax and became known to his friends as the Archdruid. His 1740 book on Stonehenge argued that it was of Druid origin, and a later volume made a similar argument for the nearby formation at Avebury. While Aubrey had first broached the idea, it was Stukeley who popularized it and gave it substance with his publications.

In 1726 Stukeley moved back to Lincolnshire, where he laid out a temple to the Druids centered on an apple tree covered with mistletoe. His understanding of Druidism was consistent with his understanding of Christianity, and in 1730, he became a priest in the Church of England. In 1734 he published a book, Paleographia Sacra, in which he argued that Pagan mythology was derived from the biblical tradition.

He spent the rest of his life as a clergyman, though known for some unorthodox quirks. He is remembered for delaying a church service to allow his congregation to experience an eclipse of the sun and of preaching a sermon after receiving a new set of spectacles from a text in Paul's letter to the Corinthians, "Now we see through a glass darkly." He died on February 25, 1765, in Queen Square, Kent, where he had retired. Among the artifacts he left behind that were sold at auction in 1766 was a wooden model of Stonehenge he had carved.

Sources:

Carr-Gomm, Philip. The Elements of the Druid Tradition. Shaftesbury, Dorset, UK: Element, 1991.

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