Love him or hate him, King James I was an intellectually curious and enquiring character, showing an interest in the world around him, albeit with a tendency to draw entirely the wrong conclusions from his observations. James was as intrigued by one ancient monument in Wiltshire as many of us are today. Yet he was truly stumped for an answer as to what Stonehenge was, how long it had been there, who had built it and why. So he commissioned his household’s go-to guy for all matters architectural to investigate: the Surveyor of the King’s Works.
For most of the early 17th Century, this position was held by Inigo Jones. Now celebrated for pioneering the introduction of Classical architecture into England, Jones rose from humble origins to become what was effectively the King’s personal builder. In 1616 he started building the Queen’s House at Greenwich for James’ wife, Anne of Denmark. In 1619, work began on Banqueting House on Whitehall – where James’ son and successor, Charles I, would be executed thirty years later. Both James and Charles spent lavishly – even recklessly – on royal residences. While the national coffers were being emptied to fund their extravagance, Jones was kept very much in business.
Clearly though, when Jones wasn’t designing the latest palace, he was having to poke around ancient stones at the King’s bequest. Jones carried out his survey of Stonehenge in 1620, and his papers were gathered and published posthumously in 1655. His findings were unequivocal: Stonehenge was built by the Romans.
Jones argued that there was no other evidence of Britons building monumental structures before the Roman Invasion of AD 43. By contrast, in Italy there are plenty of grand ancient edifices – which Jones had seen for himself as a younger man. Furthermore, a close study of the layout and pattern of the British stones had Jones convinced of an Italian parallel. Not only did he conclude that Stonehenge could only have been built by the Romans, he also thought it was built specifically as a temple to the Roman god Caelus (known more commonly by his Greek name, Uranus).
I have not been able to find out what James thought of Jones’ findings, but they certainly were not in academic vogue for very long. From the 1660s to the 1690s, the antiquary John Aubrey conducted extensive research on Stonehenge and the surrounding area. He concluded that the builders were indeed the native British peoples – the view that has prevailed into our own time. However, Aubrey’s attribution of Stonehenge to the druidic culture of Celtic Britain has since been dismissed, as we continue to learn that the site is far older and more complicated than Aubrey supposed.
How could Jones get it so wrong then? We now know that is comparative approach with Roman structures in Italy was flawed by being far too inflexible. Yet perhaps it is possible that he had an ulterior motive. Jones was way ahead of his time – designing buildings in the Classical style in a period which was still Jacobean. By claiming that Stonehenge – one of Britain’s oldest and most prestigious monuments – was its self a Classical structure, could not Jones be wishing to vindicate his (re-)introduction of that style into the palaces and grand country houses of England?