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Dorchester

Maumbury Rings


© Compiled by Michael Russell OPC for Dorchester & Fordington April 2011


Maumbury Rings is an ancient Neolithic Henge and later a Roman Amphitheatre. The Rings had three district phases in their construction:-

Map of South Dorchester as it was in 1901


Maumbury Rings can clearly be seen bottom left - Gallows Hill is also marked at the end of the South Roman Wall

(1) Late Neolithic Henge:

Around 2,500 BC a large circular bank was made with chalk rubble on open grassland with an entrance in the north-east marked by a large standing stone. Inside the bank was a wide and deep ditch. Cut into the base of the ditch was a series of 13 large tapering shafts 3 meters apart and with an average depth of 10.4 meters below the original ground level. 18 shafts were located but regular spacing suggests there were originally 45 shafts in all. The shafts were dug using antler picks and spoil was raised in baskets by ropes. The archaeological evidence from the 8 shafts fully excavated suggests that each was deliberately filled in with several separate deposits. Four shafts contained deer skulls or skull fragments of possible ritual importance. Carved chalk objects were found with the red deer fragments adding to the importance of these deposits. It had fallen into disuse however hundreds of years before the Romans arrived in the 1st century AD.
(2) The Romans:


They came to Dorchester in 43 AD and quickly turned the settlement into a major garrison post and trading centre (Durnovaria). At the site of the Neolithic Henge, they built an Amphitheatre by removing earth from the centre of the Rings to a depth of 3 meters and using this material to build up the banks, making it the largest Amphitheatre in Britain measuring 345 ft by 337 ft. The original entrance stayed but a ramp was provided down to the oval arena which was spread with sand. Around the inside of the arena was a timber safety wall behind which was a passage 2 to 3 feet wide around the whole circuit. This had 3 changing, or rest rooms, on the main axes perhaps with spectators boxes above. The wall against the bank was also constructed with horizontal timbers laid into the bank providing extra structural support. The northern entrance had doors in the safety wall and side timbre supports carried a bridge over the gateway onto the narrow platform which ran all the way round the inner edge of the viewing area.

Situated outside of the old roman boundary walls of Dorchester it was approached across the fields as shown in the engraving published in 1786 shown below. It is an oval earthwork covered by grass, the enclosing rampart of which rises to the height of 30 feet. On the inner slope of this embankment the spectators sat. The arena itself measures 218 feet in length by 163 feet in width, while the Amphitheatre will accommodate from ten to twelve thousand spectators. Here they held gladiatorial shows, sports events - even the odd execution or two - as well as religious ceremonies and civic functions. "Some old people," writes Thomas Hardy of this place, "said that at certain moments in the summer time, in broad daylight, persons sitting with a book, or dozing in the arena, had, on lifting their eyes, beheld the slopes lined with a gazing legion of Hadrian's soldiery, as if watching the gladiatorial combat, and had heard the roar of their excited voices ; that the scene would remain but a moment, like a lightning flash, and then disappear". Under the south entrance there still remained arched cells for the reception of the wild animals and athletes who took part in the games. (1) It was not however used in this way for long, being out of use by 150 AD.


(3) Modern Rings:

Although it was always used whenever there was a need to gather together a large number of people its notoriety in more modern times stems from its use as a place of execution:

    In the 15th century the gallows had stood for many years at what is now the junction between Icen Way and South Walks and can just be made out at the bottom of John Speeds map of 1611. It is not depicted as a gibbet but as a cross beam supported by two uprights from which would have hung the remains of convicted criminals as a warning to all. According to the Rev. SA Filleul MA who wrote The History of Dorchester Gallows the "drawing is suggestive enough of a certain width between the two uprights giving space enough for the two wheeled cart to pass through that bore the victim and his coffin". The last section of Icen Way used to be called "Gallows Hill". We know from David Underdown in his book 'Fire from Heaven' that the gallows were still there in 1642 as he refers to the grisly execution of Hugh Green at Gallows Hill.
During the Civil War (1642-51), Dorchester was an armed camp by August 1642, and The Corporation looked to improve the defences of the town mainly building on the old Roman Wall which surrounded most of Dorchester. This included however remodeling the area of Maumbury Rings into an artillery fort and in May 1643 Dorchester was suddenly threatened by two armies and extra labourers recruited. David Underdown states "New earthworks were built and old ones improved; men worked all night on the fort near the East gate". It would therefore seem that the third and final signicicant change to Maumbury Rings took place during the early part of the Civil War.

The Amphitheatre (1755)


Engraving Published 10 Jan 1786 - Depicting Dorchester Gallows
Well before the Railways were built that almost surround it today

 

The Rev. SA Filleul in his account of the gallows concludes "Therefore it seems most likely that

the gallows were removed to Maumbury around the year 1700". They are shown in the above engraving, still of the same design, standing on the west side of the Amphitheatre between it and the Weymouth road. This engraving appears in 'Grose's Antiquities' and according to the Rev Filleul is dated 1755 although published (or re-issued) on 10th Jan 1786.

The most famous of the executions that actually took place within the arena was that of an 18 year old girl called Mary CHANNING which took place on Thursday 21st March 1705/6. I have covered her life, trial, and execution in a short biography which can be reached via the link provided. Mary was accused of murdering her husband by the administration of a poison (white mercury) in his food. At her trial which took place 26th to 28th July 1705 she gave a good account of herself but was still found guilty. Execution was delayed because she was pregnant but carried out on 21st March 1705/6 when she was, in accordance to custom for the execution of women, tied to a stake in the centre of the Amphitheatre, strangled and burnt before a crowd reported to be 10,000 strong.

The gallows by the Amphitheatre seem to haven in regular use up to the time the new prison was built facing North square about the year 1795 when the method of execution also changed.


By 1847 the Amphitheatre is almost surrounded by railway track and accessed from Weymouth Road. In the postcard below can be seen the 'Dorchester South' railway station situated just outside the Amphitheatre. It is one of two railway stations serving the town and situated on the London (Waterloo) to Weymouth railway line. The London and South Western Railway Company received Parliamentary assent to build the line in 1845 and it first opened for business in 1847 nearly 50 years before this picture was taken.

The Roman Amphitheatre (c1896)


Post card image dates to circa 1896.(2)
Through the entrance can be see the Dorchester L&SW Railway station.
Copyright Mr. M Russell FIPD All Rights Reserved

I also took these pictures in May 2012:-

   
The rather somber approach to Maumbury Rings from the gate in Weymouth Avenue and inside showing the embankment with my wife in the picture to give it perspective

   

More pictures of the Amphitheatre can be accessed via this link. When accessed click on Maumbury Ring Images link at the top of the page.

Genealogical Notes:-

(1). Extracts from “Highways and Byways in Dorset by Sir Frederick Treves 1853 -1923 Published 1914 by London Mac Millan

(2). The image on this postcard can be dated approximately from Valentines Series image ref 25230 shown on the front of the card. It is known that Valentine had reached image ref 11788 by 1890 and image 32485 by the year 1900. If production of images was even this gives a year of 1896 which is unlikely to be more than 1 or 2 years out. Date of publication and postage can be very different. This card was posted from Shaftsbury on 19th December 1907.

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