John Aubrey – Wiltshire's 17th Century Pioneer

on Tuesday, 11 October 2016. Posted in Wiltshire People

I’ve just finished reading the fascinating book ‘My Own Life’ by Ruth Scurr about the life of the 17th century Wiltshire antiquarian John Aubrey. It has left me with such a great impression of both his life and the times he lived in, that I thought I’d share them with you.

Aubrey was born on St. Gregory’s Day, 12th March 1626, the eldest son of Richard, a gentleman, and Deborah. His cousin and patron was Sir John Aubrey, 2nd Baronet, who had homes in Buckinghamshire and the Vale of Glamorgan.

His love of Wiltshire was derived from growing up at Broad Chalke and Easton Piercy, and through his years spent at school at Leigh Delamare, but also from association with some of the county’s major landowners such as the Pembrokes of Wilton House, spending time at their estates. His father’s death caused financial difficulties. Over time Aubrey had to sell off his property, spending the majority of his time moving between friends, patrons and lodging houses.

Manor Farm at Broad Chalke. The site is associated with John Aubrey and the dovecote to the left may well have existed in his lifetime. Image courtesy of the Wiltshire Buildings Record.

Aubrey had many, many friends, some of whom appear to have taken advantage of his good nature and his genuine wish to help further their work. Aubrey loved science and learning, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1662, only two years after it had been founded, but he also loved nature and the world around him, especially the Wiltshire landscape, and folklore. He had a belief and interest in astrology, and had correspondence with Edmund Halley.

John was particularly interested in springs, and noted many in Wiltshire, testing their composition and presenting them to the Royal Society. He also had a surprising ability for the age; the ability to talk to anyone and show interest in their views, from Kings to lowly peasants.  

Aubrey lived in turbulent times and worried about the lack of care given to historic material, seeing stonework looted, ruins uncared for, old manuscripts used in kitchens and to cover school books. His sense of caring for the past for the future was evident in his relationships with men such as Mr Ashmole who was instrumental in the founding of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He also paid for the etching of the Osney Abbey ruins by Hollar; concerned to document them before they were lost forever.

Aubrey image reference Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1063349

He spent time researching and documenting, and there was a constant worry for the future preservation of his own work which he wrote in English rather than Latin. It seems that Aubrey was interested in so much, and began work on so many projects, such as topographical histories of multiple counties with cartographers such as the Royal cartographer Ogilby, research into the geology, flora and fauna of Wiltshire, work on the teaching of boys in schools and the history of architecture, stories of folklore, a study of British antiquities and biographic accounts of his contemporaries. It was his ardent wish, one common at the time, that his work be published, and not plagiarised, but the former wish was not overly successful in his lifetime.

Aubrey wondered at the site of Avebury at the age of 22 whilst out hunting with friends, feeling that it was an ancient druidic site, in disagreement with contemporaries of the time such as Mr Charleton. He showed Avebury to King Charles II in October 1663 and later it was William Stukeley who furthered his ideas. In 1684 he noted that he’d heard about the demise of one stone at Avebury. "The great stone at Avebury has fallen and broken into two or three pieces (it was but two feet deep in the earth!)… I must go to Avebury and see it if I can.” Aubrey is also known for his plan of Stonehenge, which includes a series of depressions that Stukeley’s later plans miss. It is not until the excavations of 1921-25 by the Society of Antiquities that they again came to light as holes cut into the chalk to hold timber uprights. They were named the Aubrey holes in his honour.

Aubrey lived in a pioneering time, amongst many brilliant minds, and amongst great Wiltshire men such as Christopher Wren and Thomas Hobbes who were also close friends. He did not know it himself, but he too had become a pioneer; one to be admired by those in a future he wished to help. He realised that his ‘Brief Lives’ could never be published in his lifetime, but it turned out to redefine the art of biography, in turn giving us an unprecedented view into the lives of the time. He was an antiquarian and pioneering archaeologist, and a name that will remembered for future generations to come.

Ruth Scurr’s book is available to view at the History Centre, as are copies of much of Aubrey’s work which has subsequently been published. Please contact us to find out more.

Julie Davis Community History Advisor

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