Category Archives: History

Europe’s Last War of Religion

We commonly regard the seventeenth century as among the most turbulent in English history. The continuing aftershocks of the Reformation, and the Civil War, certainly caused widespread disruption. But events in England were placid compared to what was unfolding across the channel in Central Europe. What came to be known as the Thirty Years War, which began 400 years ago next year, wreaked death and destruction a scale unequalled until the 20th century.

Emperor Ferdinand II

It started as a war of religion. Since the Augsburg Settlement of 1555, peace between the many independent states of the Holy Roman Empire had been maintained through the doctrine of Cuius Regio, eius Religio: Whose Realm, His Religion. Each state adopted the religion – either Roman Catholicism or Lutheranism – of its ruler. Strong religious convictions unleashed by the Reformation were held together in a fragile equilibrium until the arrival of the staunchly Catholic Ferdinand II as Holy Roman Emperor. He was to violate the settlement by trying to impose Roman Catholicism on all the states under his nominal rule as Emperor.

His first move was to send representatives to Prague, capital of Bohemia, with a decree preventing the construction of Protestant chapels on royal land. A volatile meeting with its Protestant leaders followed. Their implacable opposition to the imperial decree resulted in the wonderfully-named Defenestration of Prague, in which the Catholic delegates were ejected out of a third-floor window onto a dung-heap.

Rapidly worsening relations between Protestant and Catholic states led to those in northern Europe forming themselves into the Protestant Union; those loyal to the Holy Roman Empire and the Hapsburg states of Austria and the Netherlands joined the Catholic League. Soon, what began as a localised religious skirmish drew in wider European powers. The Hapsburg alliance was supported by its home state Spain, and the emerging country of Sweden, led by its ambitious King Gustavus Adolphus, weighed in on the Protestant side. Uncomfortable with Hapsburg activity on its borders, France became decisively involved from 1628. Thus a provincial dispute in Bohemia developed into a full-scale imperial European war.

And what an inconceivably destructive war it was. Both sides fielded largely mercenary armies who relied on plunder as their payment, leaving famine and disease in their wake. Towns and villages were routinely burned to deny shelter, food and supplies to their enemies. The worst affected states were Württemberg and Brandenburg; it is calculated that the German states lost about one half of their adult male population.  The death toll overall is thought to be around 8 million, mostly civilian.

The Thirty Years War was finally ended in 1648 by the Peace of Westphalia. The main loser was the Hapsburg Empire, which remained intact only in their heartlands of Spain and Austria. The Dutch Republic was freed from Hapsburg control and entered a period of prosperity and growth. France’s military success preceded a long period of European cultural and economic dominance under the rule of Louis XIV. The Holy Roman Empire was left fragmented and remained so until re-united in a different form under Bismarck over 200 years later.

The war had little direct effect on England. However a key player was Frederick V of the Rhineland Palatinate, known derisively as the Winter King as his kingship of Bohemia had only lasted one season before he was deposed. His wife – the Winter Queen – was the daughter of King James I of England. Through her grandson George of Hanover, her family became the rulers of Great Britain from 1714 and remain so today. Queen Elizabeth II is her 9-times-great grand-daughter.

Names Matter

Names matter. Over the centuries a person’s family name could cost them their life. Exile, imprisonment or death faced those who, at the wrong time or place, were associated with the families of Plantagenet, Tudor or Stuart. After a long period of relative stability under the Hanoverians, the last royal name change occurred in 1917, 100 years ago.

King George V

Queen Elizabeth II is the 7th great grand-daughter of the first Hanoverian monarch, George I, who became king in 1714. During that time the royal surname has been changed twice. The first was in 1840, when Queen Victoria married Albert and chose to take his surname in place of Hanover. His surname, reflecting his family origins, was “Saxe-Coburg-Gotha”. This remained the royal surname for the next 77 years, when the First World War brought about another change.

World War One was named “The Great War” for a reason: it was by far the most widespread and deadly conflict the world had ever seen. In Great Britain, patriotic fervour reached such a pitch that German immigrant families came under attack. Many had settled in London’s East End, where they worked in the sugar baking industry. As the war progressed they were increasingly persecuted and one of their most popular gathering places, the King of Prussia pub, was renamed the King Edward VII.

In March of 1917, in the first use of powered aircraft in warfare, the German Air Force began launching strategic bombing raids over London.  Though initially plagued by equipment failures, the German heavy bombers eventually began to pose a significant threat to civilian populations. In June 1917, the most devastating such raid took place over Poplar in East London. The death toll of 162 included 18 schoolchildren found in the rubble of a local primary school. Adding insult to death and injury, the aircraft used was the Gotha G.IV, after its place of manufacture. The Germanic nature of “Saxe-Coburg-Gotha” had already become an embarrassment. This clear association with the surname of the King proved fateful.

The Gotha G.IV Heavy Bomber

After three years embroiled in a conflict costing millions of lives against an enemy led by his own cousin, this was too much for King and country to tolerate. The following month George V issued a proclamation renouncing all his German titles, revoking all British titles held by his German relatives, and declared that the House and Family of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha  would henceforth be known by the name Windsor.  The old surname was gone, but not before George V’s cousin Kaiser Wilhelm used the occasion to joke that he was looking forward to seeing a performance of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg Gotha”.

The choice of “Windsor” reflected the long association of the castle with the Royal Family. And so it has remained, though the name was briefly challenged in 1952, when Prince Philip’s uncle and mentor, Lord Louis Mountbatten, attempted to use the accession of Elizabeth II as a pretext to rename the royal family the “House of Mountbatten”. This was quickly squashed by the new Queen and her family, though later she authorised the use of the surname “Mountbatten-Windsor” for those of her children who chose to do so. However the next three generations of successors are firmly within the House of Windsor, so the name is likely to remain unchallenged for the foreseeable future.

400 Years of Beauty and Culture

In any other century, the reputation of Elias Ashmole might have been pre-eminent. But alongside Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and countless other thinkers of the Enlightenment, it gets lost in the shadows. His name might even have been forgotten entirely were it not for the perfect jewel of a museum that bears his name.

Elias Ashmole

Born in Lichfield 400 years ago this year, Ashmole had the sort of wide-ranging intellectual curiosity typical of the time. His interests encompassed natural philosophy, mathematics, alchemy and astrology, though he was at heart an antiquarian. He qualified as a solicitor but earned a living through his military role in support of the Royalists and King Charles I. Stationed in Oxford, he lodged at Brasenose College and took advantage of his proximity to the university by studying mathematics and physics.

Despite these academic pursuits Ashmole was practical and ambitious. In order to live comfortably while pursuing his intellectual interests he did what any resourceful 17th century gentleman might do: he set about finding a wealthy widow to marry. The lucky lady (if that is the right description) was the thrice-widowed Lady Mary Mainwaring, 20 years his senior. Though successful in its primary purpose of securing his fortune, the marriage was opposed by the bride’s family and led to an acrimonious separation.

After the Restoration, Ashmole was rewarded for his loyalty to the King with many public offices, including that of Accountant-General of the Excise. These conferred not just wealth but the power of patronage; he was a made man.

First and foremost, Ashmole was an antiquarian and a collector, especially of manuscripts. He was always more of a student than a practitioner, obsessively cataloguing his own collections as well as those of others. He befriended the botanist and plant hunter John Tradescant the Younger, whose collection he inherited after Tradescant’s death in 1662. This, combined with his own extensive collection of artefacts and manuscripts, formed the basis of his bequest to found a museum for the University of Oxford. In the event, the Tradescant collection formed the majority of the bequest after a fire at Middle Temple destroyed most of Ashmole’s own contribution, which lead to Ashmole being accused in some quarters of stealing the Tradescant legacy and glorifying his own name.

Ashmolean Museum

After two unsuccessful attempts to enter Parliament and completing a definitive history of the Order of the Garter, Elias Ashmole died at his Lambeth home in 1692.

Whilst not an Enlightenment A-lister, his name lives on in the outstanding museum, known simply as The Ashmolean, he founded in 1683. With a strong claim to be the country’s first truly public museum (it predates the British Museum by some 76 years), the Ashmolean has a diverse collection of exceptional quality. Its main advantage over the British Museum is its size. A perfect example of the principle that “less is more“, the Ashmolean is human and manageable. And yet it boasts exhibits ranging from very fine European paintings and drawings, to Anglo-Saxon treasures, Egyptian pre-dynastic sculpture and treasures from ancient Minoa. Housed in a handsome neoclassical building on Beaumont Street, the interior was extensively renovated between 2006 and 2009 and now has five floors of excellent exhibition space. This has clearly paid dividends and the Ashmolean is now the most visited museum outside London. Located in the centre of Oxford, it is surrounded by amenities, it is accessible and best of all, entry to all but special exhibitions is absolutely free of charge. More details here:




What’s in a Name?

Next month, on April 21st 2016, Queen Elizabeth II will celebrate her 90th birthday. So will a largely supportive country, most of whose population cannot remember a time when she was not Queen. At some point, of course, they will also see the succession, when the crown passes to her son Charles.  Will we therefore have to get used to hearing the phrase “King Charles the Third”?  There are some compelling reasons why not.

Current Royal Cypher

Current Royal Cypher

Forget the numerous tabloid claims that the Monarchy will “skip a generation” or that the Queen will “pass on her crown to William”.  It won’t and she can’t.  If Charles is alive the day his mother dies, he becomes King; the doubt surrounds whether he will be crowned “Charles III”. Charles was christened “Charles Philip Arthur George”: he could chose any of these names, or even another name entirely, as his “regnal name”.

There have been two King Charleses, both arrogant, tyrannical Stuart monarchs who ensured the 17th Century was one of the most turbulent and unstable in British history.  The first was beheaded and the second sired at least 13 children, not one of whom was legitimate.

We have never had a King Philip, but France and Spain have had several, who spent much of their reigns enthusiastically waging war against Britain.

c3powKing Arthur only ever existed in legend – the sort of legend which has been developed in recent years into the fantasy world of “Game of Thrones”: hardly the model of sober respectability expected of a modern king. Moreover Camilla would suffer by comparison to the beautiful and courtly Queen Guinevere.

So we are left with George.  Of the nine kings since the current Royal dynasty came to the throne, six have been Georges.  Charles’ grandfather, George VI, is well regarded by  historians: staid, unimaginative and dull.  Charles shares these qualities and is highly likely to share the name too.

e2 coronationWhatever Charles’ regnal name turns out to be, it is already known to a select few. There are preparations to be made: coins to be minted, cyphers designed, stationery printed. Finally – and decisively in my view – you cannot find a bookmaker in the country prepared to take a bet on “George VII”.  If you can, put your shirt on it.

My my, at Waterloo Napoleon Did Surrender

At the Place Charles de Gaulle in Paris, and at Hyde Park Corner in London, you will find triumphal arches.  The first (the Arc de Triomphe) celebrates the great victories of Napoleon Bonaparte; the second (the Wellington Arch) celebrates his defeat – at the Battle of Waterloo, 200 years ago this year.

Wellington ArchFrom modest beginnings in Corsica, Napoleon became the leader of the largest empire seen in Europe since Roman times.  He is famous as a military leader but was also an enlightened legislator.  From the chaos of post-revolutionary France, Napoleon brought about order, meritocracy, equality before the law and sound finances.  He was also a ruthless French nationalist who readily invaded any nation with whom he could not form an alliance.  He expanded the French Empire south west to the Iberian Peninsula, and eastwards into the Low Countries and the German states.

However, meritocracy did not extend to the rule of annexed nations and his habit of imposing members of his family as puppet kings generated opposition to the French Empire.  Already opposed to France was Great Britain, who had severely limited Napoleon’s ambitions by virtually destroying his navy at Trafalgar in 1805.

Matters came to a head in the summer of 1815.  A coalition of nations opposed to the French Empire, consisting of the UK, Russia, Prussia and Austria, decided to invade France itself in an attempt to overthrow Bonaparte.  Napoleon marched into the Netherlands to intercept the coalition armies, and the two sides met at Waterloo, south of Brussels.Napoleon

The French took the field with 73,000 well-trained and experienced troops.  The allies had 68,000 British and Dutch soldiers  under the command of the Duke of Wellington, with 50,000 Prussians  under Field Marshal Blücher closing rapidly on the battlefield.

Battle was joined on the morning of the 18th June and continued throughout the day with successive waves of French cavalry attacks on the defensive British formations known as Squares.  These were square formations of infantry; 500 men four ranks deep on all sides of a 60-foot (18 metre) square, with light artillery pieces in the centre.  Time and again the feared French Cuirassiers attacked these squares, but the their horses could not be made to charge the solid line of bayonets facing them.  Once they turned to retreat, they were prey to rifle fire and artillery at the centre of the squares.

Nevertheless the French regrouped and in the afternoon, after repeated infantry and artillery assaults, the initiative began to swing Napoleon’s way.   This could have proved decisive until the arrival of 50,000 Prussians under Blücher.  This turned the tide back towards the Allies.  At 22:00, Blücher and Wellington met at Napoleon’s former headquarters at an inn called La Belle Alliance and shook hands.  It signalled victory.  Wellington called it “the nearest-run thing you ever saw  in your life”.

Tomb of NBNapoleon fled the field and tried to leave Europe for the United States.  The British, however, had blocked all the ports and he eventually surrendered himself to a British captain.  He was sent into exile on the remote island of St Helena, where he died in 1821.  In 1840 the French King Louis Philippe was given permission to return Napoleon’s remains to France where they were laid to rest in a tomb at Les Invalides, the military hospital.

The Duke of Wellington returned to Britain, entered politics and in 1828 became Prime Minister. He died in 1852 aged 83 and is buried in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.  He was given a state funeral, one of the largest ever held in London.

The Battle of Waterloo changed the face of Europe and led to 50 years of peace.  It also gave rise to the word “Waterloo” being used to denote doom, destitution and defeat.  And it resulted in the building of an arch at a busy intersection on the west side of London.





Built for a Cardinal but Fit for a King

Of all the locations associated with King Henry VIII, himself perhaps the best known and most notorious of English monarchs, none is more evocative of the Tudor age than Hampton Court Palace.  But its grandeur, beauty and red-brick charm was the work of another man – Cardinal Thomas Wolsey – who began building his palace in 1515, 500 years ago this year.HCP Front

The son of a butcher, Wolsey took the surest route to wealth and power open to able and ambitious commoners of the time: he joined the church.  His administrative skills and political cunning ensured rapid advancement and by 1514 he was both Cardinal and Lord Chancellor of England.  Wolsey had arrived on the European stage and it was time to demonstrate that in tangible form.

Wolsey paid £50 for a 99 year lease on land southwest of London belonging to the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem and spent the next 7 years building a lavish palace.  Exteriors of striking red brick enclose luxurious apartments panelled in wood from the Order of St John’s forested lands north of London in an area known to this day as St John’s Wood.  Wolsey was determined to impress his important new friends – the princes, cardinals and bishops  from the continent of Europe.  He followed the precepts of Paulo Cortese’s De Cardinalatu, a manual on how to be a cardinal, including what to wear, what to eat and where to live.Wolsey

The result was the elegant, comfortable and (at the time) modern palace known as Hampton Court.  Wolsey ensured he had room for up to 280 guests at any time, occupying over 40 apartments around a large courtyard and bristling with individually-decorated chimneys promising many fireplaces in the warm rooms below.  Each apartment was equipped with an indoor “closet” (emptied daily by servants) for the use of privileged guests.  Those of lesser status were obliged to use a separate block of closets known as the Great House of Easement – still preferable to the normal practice of resorting to the nearest dark corner, indoors or outdoors.

Sadly Wolsey did not have long to enjoy his new palace.  His failure to secure the annulment of Henry VIII’s first marriage led to his downfall.  His attempts to return to the king’s favour included gifting him Hampton Court Palace, but it was all in vain.  Wolsey decided to absent himself from the royal court, hoping his luck would change.  It didn’t.  He was summoned back to London from York in 1529 but died in Leicester on the way.Hampton Court Wolsey Coat of Arms

Henry VIII greatly expanded Hampton Court for his own use, building the largest kitchens in Europe to feed his enormous household.  He also ordered that any signs of Wolsey’s ownership be removed.  Luckily this order was inefficiently carried through, as after Henry’s own death an intact emblem (above) bearing Wolsey’s arms was discovered over the entrance to Clock Court, where it can be seen today, 500 years later.

Click the link to the right to learn more!

The First Voice of the People

Competition for the title “world’s oldest Parliament” is intense.  Much of the discussion centres around definitions of democracy and whether or when voting was extended to all members of society.  Contenders include Greece, Iceland and the Isle of Man.  Britain’s case rests on the first recognisably representative Parliament, held in 1265, exactly 750 years ago this year.

Even in 1265 there had been a long tradition of kings consulting with advisors, usually consisting of the nobility and the clergy, before making major decisions concerning land ownership, tax and war.  These consultations did not hide the fact that the king still kept a firm hold on the reins of power.

Increasingly, however, kings had to rely on the cooperation of their barons in order to raise money and men, to fight wars and maintain their rule.  Sometimes serious rifts developed: one such occurred in the middle of the 13th century under King Henry III.Henry III

Henry was unpopular, having been crowned as a child and never managing to prove himself an effective or respected leader.  He was thought to be under the control of his wife, Eleanor of Provence, and her avaricious family, on whom Henry bestowed wealth and privileges.

The barons were steadily losing their influence over him, which they thought they had established through Magna Carta.  Their many attempts to secure participation in his administration eventually broke into open revolt.  There was effectively a coup d’état in 1258 when a council of barons led by Simon de Montfort, forced Henry III to agree to the Provisions of Oxford, a new governing structure where the king ruled through a panel of 24 barons and churchmen, selected half by the king and half by the barons.

Simon de Montfort statue in Leicester city centre

Simon de Montfort statue in Leicester city centre

However soon thereafter splits began to appear amongst the barons, which were exploited by Henry III in an attempt to escape control by the council.

This culminated in the Battle of Lewes in 1264.  De Montfort’s forces, though outnumbered, won a decisive victory.  Henry III was captured, forced to pardon the rebels and re-instate the Provisions of Oxford.

In an attempt to consolidate his Power, de Montfort called a parliament in 1265 which was to represent not just the clergy and barons, but also representatives from towns and villages throughout the country.

It was the first parliament summoned without the authority of the king.  It was also the first to invite participation by not only appointed knights from the shires but burgesses, representing towns such as York, Lincoln and the Cinque Ports (key coastal towns in south-east England).  It invited comment on wider political issues such as control over the unrestricted powers of feudal lords.  It therefore constituted the first representative parliament in England.

The 1265 de Montfort Parliament

The 1265 de Montfort Parliament

In fact the gathering was less a prototype for what we now regard as parliamentary democracy and more a highly partisan assembly of de Montfort’s supporters.  And, ironically, it led to a re-establishment of royal power in the years that followed.

His new status clearly went to de Montfort’s head, as after this parliament he began blatantly expanding his own power and wealth.  In turn a rebellion against him broke out, resulting in his defeat and death at the Battle of Evesham in August of 1265.  The rebels were led by Henry III’s son Edward, the future King Edward I.

However after the precedent set by de Montfort’s parliament, knights and burgesses continued to be included in future parliaments.  This grouping, being made up of men not part of either the nobility or the clergy, became known as the “Commons of England”, and later as the House of Commons.


Once More Unto the Breach

2015 is rich in significant anniversaries, and one notable example is the Battle of Agincourt, fought between England and France in 1415, 600 years ago.

Throughout the medieval period, the kings of England (who originally came from what is now France) were having to return there to defend their lands and castles from incursions by neighbouring rulers.  Kings of England even claimed sovereignty over France up until the 18th century.

One such king was Henry V (1413-1422), Henry Vwho launched an invasion in 1414, landing near the town of Harfleur.  He was able to capture the surrounding towns and move quite far inland before being intercepted by the French army near a village called Agincourt.  The stage was set for a major land battle typical of the Hundred Years War.

Henry’s army was outnumbered by about 3 to 1: Henry’s 8,500 men faced almost 22,000 French knights, footsoldiers and crossbowmen.   In particular, the French had overwhelming superiority in mounted knights.  The English, however, had a weapon of mass destruction: 7,000 skilled archers carrying longbows.

Aware of his numerical disadvantage, Henry chose the battlefield well.  It was narrow, flanked on both sides by dense woodland.  French troops were arrayed in three deep divisions, with the rearguard unable to play an active role in the fighting due to their distance from the front line.  Thousands of French crossbowmen were hardly used, as they had been deployed too far away to be effective.

As the battle started the French vanguard began to advance on foot over ploughed earth made wet by recent rain.  raining arrowsProgress in full armour was slow and left the French exposed to the a hail of arrows from the English longbowmen.  A six-foot-long English longbow could fire a metal-tipped arrow through chain mail and light armour.

Rate of fire was critical.  In battle, archers would prepare their arrows by planting them point first in the ground in front of them.  An skilled English longbowman could maintain a firing rate of up to 6 per minute.   In the case of Agincourt, imagine the effect of 7,000 archers firing 6 arrows per minute.  The sky would grow dark as 40,000 arrows screamed out of the heavens on to you, followed the next minute by another 40,000.

Advancing though heavy mud, in a crush of fellow soldiers, wearing 60 lbs of armour and with visors down to protect them against a hail of arrows, the French quickly became exhausted and barely able to stand, let alone use their weapons.

The French cavalry, denied the width in which to fight effectively, and seeing the slaughter of their comrades, fled the field before the battle was over.  Estimates of the losses on both sides vary widely, but all agree that the ratio of French deaths to English was about 9 to 1.  The French lost 4,000-6,000 with the English figure being around 450. 

The Battle of Agincourt forms the centrepiece of William Shakespeare’s play Henry the Fifth, and several speeches exemplify the glory and heroism of Henry’s expedition to France.  At the climax of the battle, Henry shouts:

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start.
 The game’s afoot;
Follow your spirit: and upon this charge,
Cry — God for Harry! England and Saint George!


An Anniversary Worthy of the Name

Look hard enough and every year can be made the anniversary of something.  Jubilees and centenaries abound, often only to serve as a hook on which to hang a promotion or sales campaign.  But in 2015 we have something truly meaningful and relevant to commemorate.

In June of 2015, 800 years ago, the deeply unpopular King John of England was forced by his Barons to sign a document spelling out their rights and sealing his commitment to protect them.  It was the first written expression of such rights and the first acknowledgement that even the King had to observe them.  It was rightly called the “Great Charter”, or in Latin, Magna Carta.


One of four extant copies of Magna Carta

Written in abbreviated Medieval Latin, it is an expression of some remarkably progressive ideas.  Consider clause 39: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions…except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land” – a principle now known as Habeus Corpus, and enshrined in the legal systems of the UK, the USA and many other countries.  Some provisions are less exalted: Clause 33 reads “All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames…”, though this too was intended to curtail the tendencies of feudal overlords to appropriate for themselves almost everything they thought they could get away with.

We have to remember that once he had signed Magna Carta, King John proceeded to ignore almost every provision in it, and even persuaded Pope Innocent III to annul it.  John’s repudiation was short-lived however, as he died in 1216.  Magna Carta proved more durable: it was revived and re-issued by future kings seeking ABA2Runnymedeto pacify a rebellious nobility.  There is no doubt it has had an enduring influence on law and politics in the English-speaking world, and has often been cited by those trying to control the arbitrary power of despots, including American revolutionaries fighting against King George III.  In recognition of its central role in the US legal system, the American Bar Association erected a monument (above) at Runnymede, near Windsor, where the original was signed.

There are four extant copies of the 2015 Magna Carta, of which two are in the British Library and one each in Salisbury Cathedral and Lincoln Castle.  To celebrate its 800th birthday, the British Library will collect all four and display them together for the first time in history at a special exhibition.

Rolling with the Stones

This is a follow-up to my post of last autumn, describing the proposed plans for new visitor facilities at Stonehenge.  The plans have now become reality.

SH ExhibitionPity poor English Heritage.  Entrusted with the care of Northern Europe’s most important stone-age monument, it has had to balance the demands of UNESCO (who own the “World Heritage Site” brand), increasing visitor numbers (900,000 in 2013), diminishing budgets and an assortment of Druids, Pagans and New Agers all claiming Stonehenge as sacred to their beliefs.

Until last year, those 900,000 visitors have had to put up with inadequate facilities and heavy traffic thundering along the road just a few feet away from the stones.  Which is why, when English Heritage were given £27 Million (about $44 Million) to improve the site, their priorities were to restore some measure of peace and quiet around Stonehenge itself, and significantly improve the visitor facilities.  The solution to both was clear: build a large, modern visitor centre well away from the stones themselves.  They did it, on time and within budget.  And that’s when the trouble started.

Soon after opening on the 18th December, it became clear that the transportation between the visitor centre and the stones, a distance of about 1½ miles, wasn’t up to the job.  The “land trains” (actually Land Rovers towing three cars each) carry about 45 people every 10 minutes either to or from the stones.  There weren’t enough, and as the queues lengthened, English Heritage hired local buses to improve capacity.  The crowds attracted by the pre-opening publicity were unwilling to wait an hour for transport, so they took to walking the 30-minute stretch instead.  They haven’t yet segregated the walkers from the vehicles, so early television pictures like this showed buses weaving around pedestrians like refugees fleeing from a war zone.  Appalling weather and plummeting online ratings completed English Heritage’s misery over the holiday period.

But there are positives too.  The visitor centre generally is a great improvement, with a good café and much larger and more welcoming shop.  The new exhibition is particularly good, providing an excellent introduction to when, how, why and by whom Stonehenge was built.  It won’t be long before everyone will be asking how we ever managed without it.

Many highly rated public sites (Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport is an example) had major problems when they opened.  The problems are now forgotten, and the time will come when these issues at Stonehenge are forgotten too.  The best advice for now is to book your tickets in advance and print them off – including bar-code.  This will allow you to walk straight in and onto one of the land trains or buses which will take you to the monument itself.  And allow yourself time: no less than an hour and a half.  Stonehenge used to be a drive-by item on a longer itinerary.  If it now gets the time it deserves from the discerning visitor, then English Heritage will have achieved something of real value.