skip to content

Boston - The Small Town With A Big Story

 WILLIAM STUKELEY (1697-1765) 

David Haycock

Dr. William Stukeley was one of the founders of modern field archaeology and one of the 18th-century’s distinguished antiquarians. He was born in Holbeach in 1687 and after studying medicine at Corpus Christi, Cambridge and a brief stint in London studying anatomy, he set up his practice in Boston. While living in the town from 1710 to 1717 he played an active part in its life. He established a botanical club, became a trustee of the new Blue Coat School and was a member of the recently founded Spalding Gentleman’s Society that is still in existence today. In 1713, Dr. Stukeley was honoured by being made a freeman of Boston.

Portrait of William Stukeley

Portrait of William Stukeley

St Botolph’s Church - a drawing by Stukeley

St Botolph’s - a drawing by Stukeley ©Trustees of the British Museum.

During his time in Boston Stukeley began making his annual tour of England, accounts of which he published in 1724 as Itinerarium curiosum, or, An account of the antiquitys and remarkable curiositys in nature or art, observ’d in travels thro’ Great Brittan, illustrated with copper prints. A keen amateur artist, he made drawings of what he observed, including a view of St Botolph’s church. He complained to a friend of the ‘dirty roads and dull company’ he had experienced during his time in Lincolnshire and he decided to move back to London. There, with others he re-founded the Society of Antiquaries and that same year, 1718, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. It was here he became friends with Sir Isaac Newton and would go on to write one of the first biographical accounts of his life.

Stukeley now began a scientific study of Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire where he studied, measured and drew the monuments in great detail. His methods and practices laid down the principles for modern archaeology. His historical and religious interpretation led him to conclude that these ancient monuments were the work of ancient British Druids, based upon ideas first advanced by John Aubrey a century earlier. He published two significant books: Stonehenge: A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids (1740) and Avebury: A Temple of the British Druids (1743). Together they fixed in the public mind the concept that the Druids were the builders of these ancient works.

Drawing of Stonehenge by Stukeley

Drawing of Stonehenge by Stukeley

By the date of their publication Stukeley had again abandoned London in favour of a return to Lincolnshire. In 1726 he moved to Grantham practising first as a physician before being ordained in the Church of England, taking up the living of All Saints, Stamford in 1730. He returned to London as vicar of St George the Martyr in Queen Square, Bloomsbury in 1747, where he remained until his death in 1765. In his later years he was increasingly seen as an eccentric figure, obsessed with Druids, ancient coins, theology and the distant past.