A Stonehenge Story: How to Move a Monument

A color image of Stonehenge from 1645
Old Stonehenge drawing – from 1645. Image in public domain

Stonehenge is an impressive sight. As you gaze upon it, you can’t help but wonder how ancient people built this incredible monument. And how did they manage to put those huge stones on top of one another? People in the Middle Ages were wondering the same thing. And just like today, they came up with their own theory.

As far as we know, Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first one to write a story explaining the origin of the big stone circle. According to him the credit goes to Merlin, the wizard from the King Arthur tales.

Britain Needs a Monument

The story goes something like this… It was a terrible time in Britain. The Saxons had ravaged the land and killed 3,000 nobles. The new King Aurelius, who was the future King Arthur’s uncle, was distressed by all this. He wanted to build a monument on the Salisbury plain which was the burial site of those who had been slain. He brought together the royal architects, but they couldn’t come up with any suitable ideas.

Then someone suggested to the King that he consult Merlin. Merlin was known throughout the land for his wisdom and his knowledge of the mechanical arts. So the king sent for him and explained what he wanted.

Old image of Merlin the wizard
Merlin the wizard. Image in public domain

Merlin Has an Idea

Merlin scratched his head and had a think. Then he said, “Yes, I know just the thing. In Ireland, on top of Mount Killaraus, there’s a monument that would be perfect. It’s called Giant’s Dance, and it’s a circle formed of huge stones which was built by a giant who lived there long ago. He came from Africa and brought the boulders with him.”

“Hang on a minute,” said the King laughing. “Why would we go all the way to Ireland for stones? Don’t we have plenty of them here in Britain? They’re lying all around us.”

“These are special stones,” Merlin continued. “They have healing powers. The priests in Ireland wash these stones and collect the water as it runs off. The water takes on the healing virtue of the stones, and they pour it into tubs. Anyone with any kind of ailment who bathes in that water will be healed. The stones also possess a kind of magic that will preserve the memory of our dead. And if this monument is set up here in Britain, it will last forever.”

The king agreed that it did indeed sound like a fitting monument. Merlin warned him that the stones were pretty big so he would need some strong men. The King sent an army of 15,000 men with Merlin and Uther Pendragon (the future King Arthur’s father) to Ireland to collect the stones. After a little run in with the local king, who didn’t want a British army on his soil or taking his stones, the Brits arrived at the monument they had come for.

Medieval image of a giant placing a large stone on top of two standing stones.
A giant placing one stone on top of others from a 14th-century manuscript. Image in Public domain

How to Move a Monument

The stones were much larger than the soldiers had been expecting, and they stood gaping at them in awe. But they were all strong young men, so if anyone could move those stones, they could. Merlin smiled at them, then told them to go ahead and move the stones by whatever means they could. The men used ropes, levers, pulleys, and lots of brute strength, but not one stone budged.

When they were all exhausted and out of ideas, they just gave up and sat down on the ground. Merlin walked into the center of the stone circle and paced around muttering to himself. Then he rearranged all the ropes, pulleys, and levers and told the men to try again. To their amazement, this time they easily dislodged the stones and moved them to the ship.

When they reached Britain, they used Merlin’s same techniques to transport the stones to the Salisbury plain. They arranged them there just like they had been in Ireland.

Stonehenge was the result. It was a fitting memorial to the dead and a reminder that while you can do a lot with brute strength, it takes brains to move a monument.

1920s newspaper image of a crane placing stones at Stonehenge.
During the 1920s restoration, they used a crane. Image in public domain

Today’s Theory

While today’s researchers reject the Merlin theory, they still can’t be sure how these massive stones were moved. The large ones, which average 25 tons each, were brought from about 20 miles away. The smaller ones, weighing between two and five tons each, came from the mountains of Southwest Wales more than 150 miles away.

The modern theory is that the boulders were transported by water and then by land. And to move one stone, it probably took more than 100 people and a system of sledges or wooden rollers.

It sounds to me like they needed Merlin!

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Read more stories like this in my book Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England

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Margo Lestz


    1. Thanks for all the links, Bill. It’s too bad Merlin didn’t leave a record of how he moved those stones… But then where would the mystery be? Until there is some further proof, I’m sticking with the Merlin story. 🙂

  1. Love the Merlin story Margo: and as we still do not know how it was accomplished, it is a great explanation by our medieval ancestors!
    Hope you are enjoying the summer, despite the difficulties. Here in Melbourne, things with the corona virus are not going so well – it is more difficult than they thought! We need Merlin!
    Best wishes, Paula

    1. Hi Paula, I agree – I think we might need a Merlin to get us out of this mess. Sorry to hear that the situation in Melbourne isn’t settling down as quickly as hoped. They are just easing lockdown restrictions here in the UK and some people are just going right back to normal – so who knows what will happen. All the best to you, Margo

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