Aubrey, John (1626-1697)

views updated May 21 2018

Aubrey, John (1626-1697)

John Aubrey, an antiquarian whose work stands as the fountain of the modern revival of Druidism, was born into a well-todo family in Easton Pierse, Wiltshire, England, on March 12, 1626. He entered Trinity College Oxford in 1642 but his stay was cut short the following year due to an outbreak of smallpox and the beginning of the civil war that would eventually lead to the execution of the king. Through the rest of the decade he studied the megaliths of the country, particularly Stonehenge, studied law, and worked for his father. His father died in 1652 and he inherited his father's estates. However, several lawsuits and an extravagant lifestyle reduced him to poverty over the next decade.

During this time Aubrey continued his antiquarian studies and in 1671 received a commission from the government to make surveys of antiquarian sites. While collecting a mass of data, he published none of it, though he shared some of it with a colleague, Anthony A. Wood, for a volume on the antiquities of Oxford. The only book he published, Miscellanies, was a collection of ghost stories and other accounts of the supernatural. At one point during the reign of Charles II (1660-85), he composed an unpublished manuscript on the Wiltshire stone monuments in which he presented his major thesis that they were a product of the Druids. At the time, the common wisdom was that they were of Roman origin, and Aubrey was the first to realize that they were far older. He expanded upon his beliefs in an unpublished manuscript, Monumenta Britannica.

Aubrey gained a certain fame in later life. He was a guest of many of the intellectual elite and at one point was visited by John Toland, later to be elected the first chief of a revived Druid Order. Aubrey died in Oxford in 1697.

While Aubrey published little during his life, his manuscripts were saved and in 1719, his text Perambulation of Surrey became the basis of Rawlinson's Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey. A number of his works, including extracts from Monumenta Britannica, were issued in the nineteenth century.

Within the modern Druid movement, many believe that Aubrey was more than a gentleman scholar. They have concluded that he was a Druid himself, that he participated in a Druid grove that met at Mount Haemus, and that he passed along some authority to John Toland. There is no hard evidence to support such belief.


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

Aubrey, John

views updated May 21 2018

Aubrey, John (1626–97). A Wiltshire country gentleman of antiquarian interests, reduced to penury by litigation and imprudence. The only work he published himself was Miscellanies (1696), dealing with astrology and the occult, but his copious notes on antiquity and topography were used by others. In 1680 he sent to Anthony à Wood at Oxford his Minutes of Lives, sketches mainly of contemporaries. They were not published until 1813 and a full, though bowdlerized, edition waited until 1898. They became a classic of quizzical humour. The best known is his description of Thomas Hobbes, also from north Wiltshire and, though forty years older, educated by the same schoolmaster. To Aubrey, we owe Hobbes at 40 taking up Euclid's theorems and declaring, ‘”By God, this is impossible” … This made him in love with Geometry.’ But the other lives contain vivid glimpses of 17th-cent. characters. Dr Kettell, president of Aubrey's college, Trinity, Oxford, who ‘dragged with one foot a little, by which he gave warning (like a rattlesnake) of his coming’; Prynne, with his ‘long, quil cap, which came 2 or 3, at least, inches over his eyes, which served him as an umbrella’; Dr Corbet, bishop of Oxford, at confirmation—‘there was a man with a great venerable beard; sayd the Bishop, You, behind the Beard.’ Aubrey quarrelled with Wood, whose unkind description has something of Aubrey's own vivacity: ‘a shiftless person, roving and magotie-headed, and sometimes little better than crazed.’

J. A. Cannon

Aubrey, John

views updated May 17 2018

Aubrey, John (1626–97), English antiquarian and author, chiefly remembered for Brief Lives, a collection of biographies of eminent people (a bowdlerized edition was first published in 1813).

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