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Cerne Abbas

Cerne Abbas
A Brief History of the Village with Local Legends
by Anon.


Amid the rolling, grassy hills of the picturesque Dorset hinterland nestles a perfect gem of typical English villages - Cerne Abbas.

Cerne, by its very geographical situation, might eventually have competed with Dorchester for the honour of being the county town, but all who love the unspoiled English countryside would not have it otherwise. One would not wish it to be anything but the peaceful village one finds it today.

How old is this gem of central Dorset? It is difficult to say, but that it was a settlement of man in the dim past, thousands of years ago, is pretty certain. Even as a village - as we know a village today, with houses and a church - it must be over a thousand years old, for we read that the construction of its abbey was finished in A.D. 987, though some put the date earlier.

And how came it
s name? "Abbas," of course, was added after the erection of the abbey, but "Cerne," in one form or another, must have existed as a place-name for countless years before that event.

The name has been variously rendered as Cornel, Cerno, Cerneli, and, in the Latin, Kerneliensis.
 
One authority holds that "Cernel" arose from the Latine "Cerno" signifying "to see" and the Hebrew "El" or "God" - "To see God" and it is said that Saint Augustine gave it that name whenhe had been badly received by the inhabitants.

Whereby hangs a tale - curiously enough of the hanging of tails!

The story is told by a French monk of the 11th century, a translation of whose writings into quaint and fascinating English relates that Saint Augustine "coming into the countie of Dorset! allwaies announcing Christ's holy Ghospell, he arrived at a village where the wicked people not only refused to obey his doctrine, but very impiously and approbriously beat him and his fellowes out of their village and in mockerie fastened fish-tayles at their backs; which became a new purchase of eternall glory to the Saints, but a perpetuall ignomine to the doers."

Another writer In even quainter English, tells the same story and adds that Saint Augustine "besought Alm
ighty God to shewe hys jugement on them ; and God sent to them a shamefull token, for the chyldren that were born after in the place had tayles,as it is sayd, tyil they had repented them."

That repentance was complete ages ago, anyone who had seen the 20th century Cerne children will havegather
ed!                                                .

St. Augustine's Well, Cerne AbbasIt is also recorded that when the people repented they sent for Saint Augustine to return among them whereat the Saint gave vent to his joyous "Cerno Deum;" and gave the place its name.

Not only that but, legend has it, he "struck hiss staffe into the ground and there straight sprung forth a cleere fountaine of cristall streames."
                                    .
And so was established the legend of Saint Augustine's Well. A well bearing the name can be seen in the village today, though its water cannot really be termed "crystal clear." It is,however, of great age and supposed to contain the curative properties of many such wells throughout England and even in the far north of Scotland.
                                 .
Legend also has it that Saint Augustine tapped the well after destroying the idol Heile, and this legend very naturally-became associated with the feature which has for centuries been Cerne's chief attraction — the Giant on the hillside.


But one suspects the Giant was there centuries before Augustine was born.

Drive out to the far end of the village and you will see him, a gigantic, crude figure cut out in the hillside  He represents nothing better than a prehistoric man, with right arm holding a massive club an ugly, threatening figure of immense age, very well proportioned and a mystery for all time.

The Cerne GiantBefore we examine the theories of one or two authorities, let us get some idea of the figure's immensity by considering some of the measurements:—entire length, 180 ft.; length of leg, 85ft.; length of arm, 102 ft.; length of club, 120 ft.; length of face, 23.5ft.; length of nose, 6ft. Up to at all events 60 years ago there were three figures between the feet of the Giant, a signature, a date or a mark put there by monks, it is said, to arrest the Giant's power for evil. The first mark was a slight curve to the right, the second a kind of elongated written "N" and the third much like a figure "9" One authority considered them respectively to represent a "J", the symbol of Saturn and a "D", sanding for "Jehovah, Saturnum Destruxit" - "God has overthrown this idol " (or Saturn).

When our county historian, John Hutchins, saw them in 1870, the figures probably differed from their original form owing to cleaning, and therefore, cutting and trimming, throughout the ages, so speculation as to their meaning may get one nowhere. In any case, the symbols have long since disappeared. But it is interesting to reflect that Saturn was the god of agriculture and growth, and devourer of his own children, who bore an implement in his right hand, whose festival was celebrated with riotous merriment and to whom sacrifices were offered.

However, that may be, there are several characteristics of the Cerne Giant which link it up with carvings in other parts of Europe belonging to the Bronze Age or the Early Iron Age, so one isjustified in assuming that it is several thousand years old. Its colossal size indicates divinity, it being the custom, for example, in groups of figures to make the divine one larger than the others.

The fact that it is nude is another sign of divinity, for it was the custom in early art to represent unrobed the shape of the superior gods. Man and the inferior gods were clothed.

A feature of the carving which is apt to be misunderstood by those not versed in archaeology is not, as many imagine, the result of some flippant afterthought on the part of the ancient and crudeminded artist, but an indication that the Giant represents the highest of all deities, the creative or cosmogonic whose function was to inseminate.

A Dr. Stukeley, in a paper to the Society of Antiquaries nearly 200 years ago, held that the Giant is "unquestionably an immense figure of Hercules," the Phoenician leader of the first colony to Britain when they came for the Cornish tin.

Said Dr. Stukeley, "It is not to be supposed that it was made in his time but afterwards, and in memory of him, when the Britons had a notion of the later Theban Hercules, the tamer of wild men and of wild beasts. But our Phoenician Hercules was a different person, and a different sort of a person,as coming from the politest part of the Asiatic world."

John Sydenham, a Dorset historian of about a century ago, thought the figure was carved by the Celto-Belgae, the invading sun worshippers, in commemoration of a victory over the aboriginal Celtse.

The Cerne GiantA Dr. Maton who wrote some "Observations on the Western Counties" many years ago, records that "there is a tradition among the vulgar that the figure was to commemorate the destruction of a giant who, having feasted on some sheep at Blackmore, and laid himself down to sleep after his meal on this hill, was bound and killed by the enraged peasants on the spot."

Dr. Maton discounted this story, as most antiquaries would, in turn, discount his own observation that "most works of this sort were the amusement merely of idle people, and cut with as little meaning, perhaps, as shepherd boys strip off the turf on the Wiltshire plains."

Surely the ancients did not go to all that trouble for mere amusement. An antiquary of 5,ooo years hence, finding the remnants of Nelson's column beneath the surface of 26th century London, might just as well conclude that it was carved for the fun of the thing!

Be that as it may, whatever its origin, Cerne is grateful to the unknown artist who gave it the Giant which has brought it fame in the eyes of visitors without turning it into the noisy rendezvous of trippers.

But there are other lesser known features of Cerne's storied past holding as great an interest to those who find fascination in the legends, traditions and customs of Merrie England — and who does not?

Take, for example, the Cerne Maypole. Every village in England had its Maypole until Cromwellian Puritanism drove the joy and colour out of life in a mistaken effort to "clean-up" the land. But the Cerne Maypole was rather different from the average in that it was not erected on the village green, but on top of Trendel Hill above the Giant.

The sexton of 1901, Robert Childs, well remembered it and once told an antiquary, "It was made every year from a fir-bole and was raised in the night in the ring just above the Giant. It was decorated and the villagers went up the hill and danced round the pole on the First of May."

It was also the custom to make tiny Maypoles which were placed in cattle stalls over the heads of horses and cows to promote fertility and lactation. By the same token they were set up in front of the dwellings of marriageable girls! And, be it noted by superstitious and unsuperstitious alike, the population of Cerne was far greater in the glorious days of the Maypole than it is today!  Honi soit qui mal y pense! (
"Shame be to him who thinks evil of it")

In some places it was the duty of the Mayor to climb up the tree and fix to its summit a masculine cross of wood surmounted by an iron cock. The former was sometimes omitted but never the bird, which, as in Sweden, was an especial symbol of fertility both as to animal life and as to fruit and corn.

And so the Maypole was set up and on May Day around it danced the villagers, going round the pole from left to right—in conformity with the apparent movement of the sun — and a further association with the sun is found in the fact that sometimes the pole, and even the wreath, were ultimately consumed in the Mid-summer Fire, the collection of materials for which was begun at Easter. In some parts of Europe the pole would not be burnt but remain in situ for from five to seven years, and redecorated each year, of course.

It would seem that no function, however simple, or pastoral, or divine, has been free at times from debauchery. Church Ales were often denounced as the cause of unseemly revels and the festival of the Maypole called forth ample invective.

The MaypoleThus Philip Stubbes recorded in 1583 that "hundreds of men, women and children go off to the woods and groves and spend all the night in pastimes, and in the morning they return with bircheboughes and branches of trees to deck their assemblies withal. And they bring home with great veneration the Maie-pole, their stinking idol rather, covered all over with flowers and herbes, and then fall they to leaping and dancing about it, as the heathen people did. I have heard it crediblie reported by men of great gravity that, of an hundred maides going to the wood, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home againe as they went."

And one has little doubt that the same sort of debauchery went on at Cerne, with the difference that instead of carrying their pole to the village, the Cerne people carried it up the hill and set it up above the Giant, there to celebrate the return of warm sunshine after dreary winter, the return of the season of fertility above a representation of the god of fertility.

Until Cromwell came! Then the Long Parliament of "men of great gravity" decreed in 1644 that all Maypoles were to be taken down and removed by the constables, churchwardens and other parish officers, but they met with a good deal of resistance from the tradition-loving villagers. Cerne people seem to have anticipated what the Puritans would do, for in the churchwardens' accounts for 1635 is an entry — "Paid Anth. Thorne and others for taking down ye Maypole and making a town ladder of it — 3s. 10d."

But Cromwell, like all stern dictators, came to an end, and with the Restoration of the gay, care-free King Charles II, the Maypole was set up again and had a long life, in Cerne among mostother villages.

Cerne was at one time a quite considerable commercial centre with frequent markets and fairs, but trade seems to have dwindled with the suppression of the Abbey. One is forced to reflect what might happen to such towns and Salisbury and Canterbury if by some chance cathedrals were suppressed!

Anyway, once Cerne had a flourishing brewery, the products of which found their way mainly to London and thence to the West Indies. But when, in 1811, London's famous "porter beer" largely ousted common beer, the Cerne brew was made solely for home consumption.

From 80 to 100 women and children were at one time employed in Cerne winding silk for a Sherborne manufacturer. Shoes and gloves, too, were once made there in great abundance, and. "The Glove" Inn stands to this day as a reminder of those busy times. Until the Excise people got the upper hand of the illicit trade, Cerne was also a hot-bed of smuggling, a convenient, concealed, inland retreat for those who brought liquor, tea, tobacco, and other dutiable goods ashore at  Winspit, Tillywhim, and other lonely Dorset coast spots.

During the earlier part of last century Cerne tradesmen offered for sale beef, mutton, lamb, veal, and pork of excellent quality, and in enormous quantities, at from one penny to two pence per pound. Chicken and ducks sold at from sixpence to eightpence per couple, butter at three shilling:per pound of 18-ounces, and best raw milk cheese at a guinea a hundredweight. A writer in about 1870 regretted that meat had risen in price to the unheard of figure of sixpence to ninepence per pound,poultry to half-a-crown per couple and the cheese to £3 per hundredweight.

Labourers in those days were getting 1s. 2d. per day but earning much more ; in recording this fact, Hutchins quotes, seemingly by way of compensation, that "the air is healthy, nearly the same as that at Dorchester, and many of the people live to great ages !"

Talking of the atmosphere, Cerne, owing to its position between the hills, has often been visited by whirlwinds, though as a rule, of course, it finds distinct advantages in its sheltered situation. In 1731 a wind swept through the village in the dead of night and for a breadth of 200 yards stripped tiles from roofs, up-rooted trees,threw down the pinnacles and battlements on one side of the church tower and blew a sheet of lead from the church roof for a distance of 100 yards. All the houses were badly shaken, no one was seriously injured but the damage was estimated at £258. No other place was hit by this wind and fifteen minutes before it struck, it was so calm that a man carried a lighted candle through the streets.

A deluge followed the whirlwind.

In 1846 Cerne saw the phenomenon of an inland waterspout but this did no damage whatever except to drench the district with rain.

Like Corfe Castle village and many other ancient settlements, much of Cerne is built from the remains of venerable architecture, and thus we find little bits of the once famous abbey inserted in walls in all sorts of odd corners. The unlearned folk of centuries ago were very fond of turning ancient ruins into stone quarries ; there was no Society for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments in those days !

The finest relic of the abbey is its magnificent gateway, now forming part of a more modern but still ancient farm house. Its wonderful mullioned windows are a delight to discerning visitors and to artists with canvas and camera.

Writes Eleanor Frances Hall in her booklet "Concerning Cerne" — now probably out of print - "This is the gateway under which kings, princes, beggars, bishops, pilgrims, penitents, boy-students, old monks, and plain country people passed to what we shall never see. It was a rich and stately abbey, well endowed by those who could afford to make up the credit side of their account with Heaven by the gifts of lands and manors."

Alternative suggestions as to the abbey's foundation made from time to time are that it was about

A.D. 870 or a century later. History records that Canute—of keep-the-tide-back fame—destroyed it but, after he became King of England, repented and endowed it with many lands and privileges.

The abbots were frequently called upon to raise forces for military service. One of them, Thomas Sewale, who was at the abbey in the mid-i4th century, claimed the right to any wrecks on certain parts of the Dorset coast and there was a long drawn out court case when his baliffs seized the

Dartmouth ship "The Welfare," which went ashore at Kimmeridge with a rich cargo of silver, silks and other costly goods. The abbot and his men were accused of forcibly detaining the goods and with maltreating and wounding the men and servants of Robert Knolles, owner of the cargo. They were tried at Sherborne but the case was adjourned from time to time and from place to place until all trace of it was lost in the records. It probably petered out like some of those House of Commons debates which are "talked out."

Over 200 years ago the fine old abbey house stood in Cerne with many large barns and dog kennels, but a disastrous fire in 1740 totally destroyed it with the animals accommodated there. The imposing, picturesque and architecturally and historically interesting parish church of St. Mary stands on the site of an older chapel built in the ninth century to the honour of St. Edwold, and dates back to the early i4th century, the first vicar being instituted in 1317. Its carved oak pulpit dates at 1640, the stone font to the Middle Ages and the well kept parish registers go back to 1653, valuable records of village life.

One could spend many interesting hours reading its many memorial tablets, quaintly worded, telling stories of human fortitude and of community service. Its many interesting relics include one of those massive stone coffins which are a feature of most ancient eccleciasdcal buildings.

That in brief and somewhat sketchy outline is the story of Cerne Abbas, gem of the Dorset countryside and the Mecca of all who find rest, fascination and inspiration in unspoiked links with a glorious past.


Taken from unknown pamphlet - Cerne Abbas - A Brief History of the Village with Local Legends

Article updated Sunday 12th September 2010