John Aubrey was born on this day, 12th of March, 1626 in Easton Piercy, a couple of miles north of Chippenham in Wiltshire, and was educated at Trinity College, Oxford.
From an antiquarian perspective, he is probably best known for including in a plan of Stonehenge a series of slight depressions immediately inside the enclosing earthwork. These depressions, 56 in all and excavated in the 1920’s, were found to be post holes for timber uprights, and were named ‘Aubrey Holes’ in honour of his original observations. There is however some doubt as to whether the holes that he actually observed are the same as those that currently bear his name.
As a pioneer archaeologist, who recorded (often for the first time) numerous megalithic and other field monuments in southern England, his most important contribution to the study of British antiquities was the lengthy “Monumenta Britannica”, which was never actually published and remains in manuscript. It contains the results of Aubrey’s field-work at Avebury and Stonehenge and notes on many other ancient sites, including Wayland’s Smithy. Apparently the original title of the manuscript was to be “Templa Druidum”.
In 1648, at the age of 22 while out foxhunting with some friends near Avebury in Wiltshire, Aubrey first recognized in the earthworks and great stones placed about the landscape in and about the village a great prehistoric temple. He wrote that he “was wonderfully surprised at the sight of those vast stones of which I had never heard before.”
It is Aubrey who is often quoted when comparing Avebury and Stonehenge that “Avebury does as much exceed in greatness the so reknowned Stonehenge, as a cathedral doeth a parish Church.” In 1663, King Charles II visited the site on his way to Bath, and was given a tour of the site by Aubrey.
(In the following century, William Stukeley developed and expanded Aubrey’s original speculation about how the ‘Ancient Britons’ would have used the site, and concluded that Avebury was built as an ancient cult centre of the Druids.)
Aubrey began work on compiling material for a natural historical and antiquarian study of Wiltshire in two parts, in 1656. The work on the antiquities (which he entitled Hypomnemata Antiquaria) was largely finished by 1671, and deposited in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.
His next project was instigated by the Royal Cartographer, John Ogilvy, in 1673. Ogilvy commissioned a survey of the County of Surrey, which Aubrey completed, but Ogilvy never used the work as the project was cut short. Despite this, Aubrey continued on and the work was eventually published in 1718 as the Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey.
But he is probably best remembered outside of Antiquarian circles for his Brief Lives, a series of biographical sketches of some of his contemporaries, compiled between 1669 and 1693. Described thus in Aubrey’s article on Wikipedia:
As private, manuscript texts, the “Lives” were able to contain the richly controversial material which is their chief interest today, and Aubrey’s chief contribution to the formation of modern biographical writing. When he allowed Anthony Wood to use the texts, however, he entered the caveat that much of the content of the Lives was “not fitt to be let flie abroad” while the subjects and the author were still living.
Aubrey’s relationship with Wood was to become increasingly fraught. Aubrey asked Wood to be “my index expurgatorius”: a reference to the Church’s list of banned books, which Wood seems to have taken not as a warning, but as a licence to simply extract pages of notes to paste into his own proofs. In 1692, Aubrey complained bitterly that Wood had mutilated forty pages of his manuscript, perhaps for fear of a libel case. Wood was eventually prosecuted for insinuations against the judicial integrity of the school of Clarendon. One of the two statements called in question was founded on information provided by Aubrey and this may explain the estrangement between the two antiquaries and the ungrateful account that Wood gives of the elder man’s character. It is now famous: “a shiftless person, roving and magotie-headed, and sometimes little better than crased. And being exceedingly credulous, would stuff his many letters sent to A. W. with folliries and misinformations, which would sometimes guid him into the paths of errour”.
Although he was left a large estate when his father died in 1652, a series of complex financial arrangements whittled away his fortune, such that by 1670 he was dependent upon the charity of his many friends until his death by apoplexy on 7 June 1697. He is buried in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalen, Oxford.
The ‘Modern Antiquarian’, Julian Cope, has written an excellent article about Aubrey’s ‘re-discovery’ of Avebury.