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Britain's spiritual history

William Dalrymple, presenting The Long Search, stands at Avebury stone circle, ancient standing stones in the heart of the green Wiltshire countryside

Avebury stone circle
Before 3000 BCE, Britain's traditional religion centred around honouring the dead. That came to an end when the great stone circles like the ones at Stonehenge and Avebury began to be built, replacing the former religion with a new way of worship.

We don't know for sure that ancient druids used the stone circles, but to modern Druids and Pagans they are important links to Britain's past. Emma Restall Orr, former Joint Chief of the British Druid Order, says "Druidry is about the relationship between the people and the land... In some ways we are looking at the fundamentals that are the foundation of any religion." (The Long Search: In the beginning)

Roman columns and statues surround a pool of greenish water: the famous mineral spring of Bath in southwest England

Roman Bath
When the Romans came to Britain and found hundreds of different gods being worshipped, they tried to match up their own pantheon to the functions of the British gods. One example can be seen at the healing spring in Bath, which was associated with a goddess called Sulis. The Romans identified her with their goddess Minerva.

People threw messages written on lead tablets into the spring to ask Sulis Minerva for help or revenge. (The Long Search: In the beginning)

Ornately decorated Anglo-Saxon helmet with long side-pieces to protect the cheeks. The front is a replica of a face, even featuring a short moustache, with large eye-holes

Sutton Hoo burial mask
Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, houses a seventh-century burial site that gives a glimpse into the world of the Anglo-Saxons and their kings at the moment of transition from Paganism to Christianity. Whoever was interred at Sutton Hoo was important enough to merit burial in a 90ft ship with treasures like this helmet (left, replica on the right).

One possibility is that this is the grave of Raedwald of East Anglia. The historian monk Bede says that King Raedwald established a temple with two altars - Christian and Pagan. Raedwald's temple was the only royal Christian altar in use in England for a time. (The Long Search: A long way from home)
Photos © Jon Wisbey from stock.xchng (left), Arne Koehler (right)

The ruins of Lindisfarne Priory: only a few broken sections of stone wall remain standing.  Old, irregularly spaced gravestones can be seen in the foreground

Lindisfarne Priory
The monastery on the 'Holy Island' of Lindisfarne was founded by Saint Aidan in the 7th century. Aidan came from Iona in Scotland, a very active missionary centre. Monks from Iona travelled across England and Europe, founding monasteries in France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Italy and Russia.

The island is famous for the Lindisfarne Gospels, believed to have been written around 710-720. The monastic community was forced to leave Lindisfarne in 875 after almost a century of Viking raids. The priory was finally dissolved under Henry VIII. (The Long Search: The voyage of the coracle)

The ruins of the church at Rievaulx Abbey: a shell of a building, stone walls and window arches largely intact but no roof

Rievaulx Abbey church
Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire, founded in 1132, was the first Cistercian monastery in the north of England. Supported by wool farming - the abbey is estimated to have owned at least 40,000 sheep - the monks transmitted their message emphasising a loving God instead of a stern one.

Aelred of Rievaulx, the most famous member, was the third abbot during the 1100s. He was the first Englishman to join the Cistercian order in the North of England. Aelred wrote that friendship, more than any other relationship, propels us into the heart of the divine. (The Long Search: In the company of friends)

Statue of Julian of Norwich, a small, fine-boned woman in mediaeval kirtle and headscarf, holding a quill pen and a book with the title Revelations of Divine Love, with the wall and arched door of a cathedral visible in the background

Julian of Norwich
In 14th Century England, mysticism gave freedom of expression to women, otherwise silenced by the Church. Julian of Norwich is one of the most well-known of them: her Revelations of Divine Love was the first book in English written by a woman. This statue of her, by David Holdgate, stands on the west front of Norwich Cathedral.

After receiving her revelations in 1373, Julian took the role of anchoress at the church of St Julian, from where she also took her name. The life of an anchorite was a solitary one: they would spend their entire life in a cell, praying and dispensing advice to visitors. (The Long Search: Mystics and madwomen)

Hand-powered vacuum pump designed by Robert Boyle: a mahogany framework encloses a thick glass bell jar on a brass plate.  Simple machinery attached lower down allows a handle to be turned to extract air from the jar

Boyle's air pump
Robert Boyle and his collaborators designed this apparatus at the end of the 1650s. A turned handle pumped air out of the bell jar, leaving a near-vacuum. Experiments on candles and animals gave the first insight into the role of air in sustaining life.

Scientists in the 17th century saw no conflict, indeed no distinction, between science and creationism. Experiments like Boyle's were seen as reading the book of nature, a parallel to studying scripture to discover more about God's creation. (The Long Search: God and the air-pump)

Detail from a watercolour painting by William Blake showing the tail and legs of a red demonic monster flying over a pregnant woman. The woman is clothed in gold and seems to glow, with an impression of angel wings behind her, and is holding out her hands as though driving back the darkness

The woman clothed with the sun - William Blake
'The woman clothed with the sun' is a famous image by the poet and illustrator William Blake (1757-1827). It shows a great red dragon swooping down on a pregnant woman, with high seas and figures drowning in the tempest. The woman was to give birth to a child who would bring the new Jerusalem to England.

In the 18th century, this powerful image inspired mystics including Joanna Southcott of Devon, who claimed to be miraculously pregnant with the prophesied child, though a virgin and 64 years old at the time. (The Long Search: The woman clothed with the sun)
Image courtesy of the Yorck Project/Wikimedia Commons

Cartoons of Bishop Wilberforce (left), in clerical dress with his hands folded and a grim expression, and Thomas Huxley (right), shown in a black frock coat with pince-nez spectacles and large sideburns, arms folded and looking unimpressed

Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley
Advances in philosophy, geology and science presented a concerted challenge to Christian creationist beliefs in the 1860s and 1870s. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species elicited mixed reactions, from anguished concern to humorous cartoons depicting the author as a monkey.

Within a year of its publication, the famous 'monkey debate' took place in Oxford between Bishop 'Soapy Sam' Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley, 'Darwin's bulldog'. The general consensus: victory for Huxley and evolution. Vanity Fair published cartoons of the two opponents. (The Long Search: Apes, angels and apparitions)
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Black-and-white photo from 1915. Soldiers in First World War uniform sit on the ground, some looking at the camera, while a Church of England clergyman speaks. In the background are rows of tents

World War I service
Soldiers in the Great War typically held a mixture of superstitions and Christian beliefs. A single soldier might carry a lucky sixpence, some religious medals and a rosary.

This photograph from The War Illustrated, 12 June 1915, shows an open-air Church of England service, attended by the 10th Irish Division at their camp in Basingstoke.

"The hardest men prayed - when the chips were down they all prayed." - Charlie Wakeley, 1st Battalion, Worcestershire regiment.
(The Long Search: The times they are a-changing)
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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