One of the largest and most intriguing of all the British chalk figures can be found in the sleepy backwaters of Dorset, deep in the heart of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. The fearsome Cerne Giant is cut into the steep chalk hillside above the picturesque village of Cerne Abbas.
The Cerne Abbas Giant and Thomas Hardy
“…and as the evening light in the direction of the Giant’s Hill by Abbot’s-Cernel dissolved away, the white-faced moon of the season arose from the horizon that lay towards Middleton Abbey…”
(Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy)
Cut into the steep chalk downland that runs along the Cerne Valley, which is situated in and mentioned in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, is the enormous figure of a full blown nude male wielding a massive club. It’s over 180 feet long and 167 feet wide with the huge club measuring a 120 feet long.
Also known as the ‘rude man’, the outline of the figure is created from trenches cut into the chalk-land one to two foot deep and around one foot wide which are packed with chalk. The creation of the Giant is shrouded in mystery and features in many local legends and folklore.
Since Victorian times it has been, for one pretty large obvious reason, associated with fertility. Others have purported that the figure is an ancient symbol and may even be a depiction of Hercules from Greco-Roman mythology. There are even tales of a giant having been killed on the hill and that the locals at the time, somewhere in the deep and distant past, then drew around the corpse leaving the outline that can be seen today!
First Record of the Rude Man of Cerne
There is no known written record of the hill carving until 1694 when a payment of three shillings can be found documented in the churchwarden’s accounts that went towards the ‘repaireing of the Giant’. With Cerne Abbey lying within such close proximity of the chalk figure, it’s highly unlikely that such a prominent feature would not have been mentioned in at least one of the many existing Medieval manuscripts, letters and documents.
If the Giant was indeed already in existence by the 10th century then the famous Anglo-Saxon Benedictine monk Aelfric (955-1010), who lived for many years at Cerne Abbey, would surely have made some reference to the enormous hill figure overshadowing the village in his many writings.
It’s also strange that there’s no mention of the figure in a detailed 1617 survey of Cerne Manor and that no local historians/antiquarians ever sought to mention it in their writings. However, it must be noted that the Giant doesn’t lie on any land border and never provided any form of income for any landowner or tenant and so, in this respect, there was little need for its documentation.
Denzil Holles and the Cerne Giant
It is possible that the hill figure was cut prior to the 17th century but perhaps the most credible explanation seems to be that it was created by the servants of a certain Denzil Holles, Ist Baron Holles of Ifield (1598-1680) and MP for Dorchester.
He was one of Five Members of Parliament that Charles I tried to impeach unconstitutionally in the House of Commons during 1642 and thus sowed the seeds for the devastating English Civil War. In 1642 he married his second wife, Jane Shirley of Ifield and through this marriage acquired the Manor House at Cerne Abbas. Giant Hill was part of the then estate and the Manor was constructed from the ruins of Cerne Abbey.
Is it possible that the Cerne Giant was really a huge Up Yours to Oliver Cromwell?
Holles was leader of the Presbyterian (moderate) party of Parliament and he detested Oliver Cromwell with whom he clashed violently after he felt he had become too zealous. It’s believed that it was this hatred that made Holles create the Cerne Giant, in the 1650s, as a satire of the Parliamentarian leader.
Allegories were frequently used during the 17th century. Oliver Cromwell was sometimes referred to disparagingly as the ‘English Hercules’ by his enemies and it was probably a caricature of this Roman god, often depicted with a club and Nemean lion, that Holles chose as his hill figure.
The nudity may have been an ‘up yours’ to his Puritanism and is it possible that the huge club is, in fact, an allusion to the parliamentary mace? In 1655 Cromwell dissolved the Protectorate Parliament and, in essence, ruled as a military dictator until his death in 1658.
A team of archaeologists in 2008 used specialist equipment and were able to conclude that the Cerne Abbas Giant had originally held a cloak over its left arm which has long since disappeared. This backs up the idea that the figure is of Hercules with the skin of the Neman lion draped over his arm.
The Rev. John Hutchins mentioned the link between Denzil Holles and the Cerne Abbas Giant in his work – The History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset that was published a year after his death in 1774.
Visiting the Cerne Abbas Giant today
Whether created as a satire in the 17th century or indeed of much earlier origin, the Cerne Giant remains a gigantic enigma that is well worth viewing.
A small car park just off the main road (A352) is the designated viewing area offering the best overall view of the hill figure. It can be found approximately a quarter of a mile from the village centre.
There is a circular walk, two miles in distance, that starts at the viewpoint and takes you up onto Giant Hill close to the chalk figure. (Walking upon the figure itself is prohibited.) The National Trust acquired the land in 1920 and is now responsible for the upkeep of the Giant.
DORCHESTER – An ancient county town which is the setting for Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge. The town was occupied by the Romans from c.70ACE and was known as Durnovaria. There are a number of ruins from this era including remains of the Roman wall that enclosed the garrison town.
EVERSHOT – There are few other villages that encapsulate the essence of Thomas Hardy quite like Evershot, which is located in the heart of his Wessex. Step back in time and wander around the village taking in the views that have hardly changed since Hardy strolled around the village himself.
MAX GATE – Yet another reason to visit Dorchester is to view the townhouse designed by Hardy himself in 1885. The large Victorian property stands within its own gardens that have altered little since Hardy created them. It’s here that he wrote Jude the Obscure and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
HARDY’S COTTAGE – The cob and thatch cottage is situated in Higher Bockhampton, close to Dorchester, and is the birthplace of the famous author. It’s here that he penned the novels Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd. Now under the ownership of the National Trust, the cottage is open to the public.