• Jill Durnford

Cerne Abbas and its Giant

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

Cerne Abbas in Dorset might seem like a sleepy and idyllic village now but at one time it was a thriving and bustling market town with no less than 14 pubs to serve its 1500 residents! There are just 3 left serving a population half that number but what they lack in number, they make up for in charm and historical interest.

Like all good ‘interesting places’, Cerne has its origin legends....

One of the oldest parts of the village is reputed to be St Augustine’s Well. St Augustine was the monk sent by Pope Gregory to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. He landed in Ramsgate in AD 595 where he was given hospitality by the pagan King Æthelberht whose wife Bertha was Christian.

According to the legend, Augustine came to Dorset to convert the people from their pagan beliefs. Arriving in the area of Cerne Abbas he found the people had no interest in what he had to say and jeered him on his way. Angered, he beat the ground with his staff and lo! a stream began to gush from that place! Water was a scarce commodity on the chalk downlands of Dorset in summer so the people were impressed. And, of course, converted to Christianity.

When Augustine created the well he looked heavenwards and said “Cerno Hel” which means “I see God” in a mixture of Latin and Hebrew. This could be the origin of the first part of the name of the village and certainly it was known as Cernal by the time of the Domesday Survey. However, Hel or Helith is also the name associated with the Giant which isn’t recorded until the 17th century. So who knows....

What is certain is that a Benedictine monastery was founded in 987 by Aethelmaer the Stout and a village grew up around it. The monks built a chapel over St Augustine’s Well which is no longer standing, although the well can still be seen in the churchyard.

The monastery of course, is what gives Cerne Abbas the second part of its name.

In 1175 the abbot was granted a charter for a market. This indicates that there must have been a reasonably sized settlement by this time. The villagers were almost certainly selling their produce locally anyway and the charter merely ratified what was already taking place. However, having an official market brought in traders from neighbouring villages and even local towns or from further afield. You can still see the evidence of the market where the Main Street has been widened to the characteristic cigar-shaped space. It was infilled to a large extent at a later date and the planned street from the market place to the abbey gate never materialised.

Part of the job of an abbey was to provide shelter for travellers and one of the few remaining buildings is the Guesthouse. Margaret of Anjou and Anne Neville (wife of Edward of Lancaster) lodged here before the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.

In 1539 the abbey was destroyed as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and now only the guesthouse and the Abbot’s Porch remain. It is thought that the Abbey Farm House was probably the main gateway to the abbey. This was rebuilt after a fire in the 1750s.

St Mary’s Church had been built by the abbot in the 13th century as a place of worship for the parish. It was largely rebuilt in the 15th and 16th centuries and partially rebuilt again in the 17th century. The pulpit remains from this rebuilding. The impressive east window probably came from the abbey.

Despite the removal of the abbey, Cerne Abbas remained a thriving market town. Its underground water made the town famous for its beer which was exported to London and even overseas. The water also led to many other industries such as milling, tanning, glove and hat making and silk weaving amongst others.

When the railways started appearing across the country in the middle of the 19th century Cerne Abbas was one of the small towns which missed out to its neighbours. As a result the town began to decline and by 1906 the population had halved and many houses were in a state of disrepair. In 1919 the village was sold by the Pitt-Rivers estate. It still has a school, post office, tearooms and a few shops as well as 3 pubs and the church.

Probably the reason most people come to Cerne Abbas now is of course its famous Giant. A 55m high figure cut into the chalk above the village, it is best seen from above but can also be viewed from a small car park directly opposite.

No one knows the origin of the giant or how old it is although a team are currently working on establishing a reasonable range of dates by analysing soil samples with a technique which determines when minerals in the soil were last exposed to sunlight. They are also analysing snail shells in the hope that they will discover what the landscape was like at a certain time - was it already grazed or did people have to clear scrub to make the figure?

The two things we do know about it currently are that it was first recorded in 1694 and that it was given to the National Trust by the Pitt-Rivers family in 1920.

Of course, there is no shortage of theories as to its age or purpose!

Some think it is a fertility symbol dating from the Iron Age - there are settlements of that date on the surrounding hills. There is also an enclosure above the giant which may be Iron Age and is now the site for the May Day celebrations. If the giant was there at this time, it is rather strange that the monks decided to build an abbey in its shadow...

Another theory is that it represents the Greco-Roman god Hercules who is known for brandishing a club.

Given the date we know it was definitely around, a further idea is that it was a post-Restoration caricature of Oliver Cromwell.

You can make up your own mind!

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