The Cerne Abbas Giant

How do you look after a 180-foot-tall giant? Every ten or so years, you gather up a herd of humans and you feed him. Not the humans but chalk. You feed him lots of chalk.                       

The Cerne Abbas giant is cut into a chalky hillside in Dorset. It’s a bit of a thing in the British chalk country, carving figures into the hillsides: horses (16, plus one in paint), giants,  one lone kiwi. The Uffington white horse dates back to the bronze age.  

The giant and the (steep) hill on which he lies now belong to the National Trust, which gathered 60 volunteers to dig out the old chalk, re-edge the lines, fill them with 20 tons of fresh chalk, and hammer it into place. It took nine days. 

So much for upkeep. Let’s talk about who the giant is: He dates back at least to the seventeenth century. The earliest mention anyone’s found is from 1694, in a churchwarden’s accounts, when three shillings were paid out for “repaireing the giant.”  

Irrelevant photo: Hydrangeas. But if you follow any of the links concerning the giant you’ll find photos of him instead. No news outlet can resist.

According one theory, he (and he’s most definitely a he; I don’t use the male pronoun generically) was created to make fun of Oliver Cromwell. The dates do make that possible. A detailed 1617 survey of the manor where the giant now lives doesn’t mention him, which makes it likely that he was created sometime between pre-Cromwell and post-Cromwell. 

The manor was owned by Denzil Holles, one of the MPs Charles I tried to arrest–an act that kicked off the Civil War. Holles raised a regiment (that was how it worked then) that fought for Parliament against the king. It was wiped out–a third were killed and most of the rest taken prisoner–and he withdrew from military life.

He later tried to negotiate a peace with the king and came into conflict with Cromwell, who (or whom, if you like) he hated. When the First Civil War ended, he hoped to pay off the Scottish army and send them home (that worked), then disband Parliament’s New Model Army and make peace with the king. That didn’t work. The New Model Army wasn’t going anywhere until it got its back pay, and by then common soldiers had started to look at what they were actually fighting for and to make demands of their own. 

The army petitioned Parliament and Holles called them enemies of the state. The army gave that some thought and decided that being enemies of the state might be a good idea, so it became far more political, aligning itself with the Levellers. (I’ve messed around with the cause and effect there. I don’t know that Holles’s accusation had any impact on the army becoming politicized. An awful lot of things were going on at once. Apologies.)

The Levellers–well, we could argue about whether they were enemies of the state or not. They wanted a more equal, society, one in which all men, at least, could vote. They would have changed the state of the state dramatically if they’d won that.  

So Parliament and its army were no longer good friends. It was an interesting time. You can read a bit about it hereand more about the Levellers here

Holles called up the London militia to oppose the New Model Army. That didn’t  work and he ended up fleeing to France. 

The next year, when it was safe (Cromwell was in control; the army had been purged of its most radical elements), Holles returned to England and again tried to negotiate a peace between Parliament and the king. Among other things, this involved throwing himself at the king’s feet, which isn’t the recommended negotiating position.

Then Cromwell purged Parliament and Holles fled back to France. 

Like I said, an interesting time.

Holles was later reconciled with Cromwell and returned to England, where he stayed out of politics until Cromwell died and Charles II was be-monarched. Holles joined Charles’s privy council. He became known as the most vindictive of the commissioners appointed to try some of the parliamentarians who’d killed the king. And, just incidentally, he became a baron.

Then he backed the wrong party and was kicked off the privy council. But never mind most of that. The theory goes that he had the giant carved either when he was still in exile or after he returned. 

But all the detail in that story doesn’t stop other theories from circulating. The giant is Hercules. He’s the last abbot of Cerne Abbey, cut into the hillside by pissed-off monks after the abbey was dissolved. He’s a thousand-year-old fertility symbol and childless women who sleep on the penis will get pregnant.

Depending in part, I’m sure, on who sleeps with them, either there or elsewhere. But there is fine. At thirty-six feet long, it offers more than enough room. And, yeah, even in the context of a 180-foot figure, it’s out of proportion. And there’s a story there too: When Victoria was queen, in the interests of general prudishness, the local people who tended to the giant let grass grow over anything they thought might offend anyone. In other words, he became as sexy as a plastic doll. 

After she died, they reinstated it but, hey, they were just coming out of an era of massive prudishness and nobody’d seen a penis for all the many years Victoria was on the throne. They mistook his bellybutton for the tip and ended up adding 2.5 meters–something more than 8 feet. When the Trust used new equipment to survey the ground, they sorted out what had happened and debated whether to tone him down but left him as he was and fixed his nose instead.

I’m relying on an article for that. In the photos, as far as I can see he has no nose. Maybe that’s what they fixed. I doubt anyone noticed the change.

Many people, both visitors and locals, are convinced he’s been there for thousands of years in one form or another. And as the volunteers pounded the chalk into place, they made sure he’d stay there, clean and glowing and wildly out of proportion, for another ten or so years.


A reader contacted me outside of the blog to let me know she can’t leave comments without going through a massive rigamarole involving passwords and secret handshakes and bad temper. The comments are set–to the extent that I have any control over them–not to ask people to sign in (what is this? an exclusive club?), but the WordPress help crew tells me the problem has something to do with the reader’s settings, the cookies she’s been collecting (give up those cookies, Mardi), and assorted other things I can’t control and have no reason to think she can.

The reason I’m telling you this tale is to ask if anyone else is having trouble leaving comments. If you are–right, you won’t necessarily be able to leave me a comment. Email me, would you? Ditto if you’re being asked to sign in. I can’t promise to fix the problem, but if I get enough data to WordPress, it’s just vaguely possible that they’ll be able to. Their help crew actually does help. And more to the point, it exists.


57 thoughts on “The Cerne Abbas Giant

  1. Another interesting piece, Ellen, about one of those ‘why did they do it’ bits of English history. I’ve heard the Holles/Cromwell theory before, and it certainly stands up (pun intended). Interesting that the history of that time has been chosen by two rock bands as their names – the Levellers and the New Model Army.

    I’ve not had any problems in making comments, but I’m with WordPress too so that’s probably why.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I can’t keep nicking your posts! I mean, they are wonderfully witty and all that…but it would make me seem lazy. Oh, alright, I AM lazy. But not to that extent!
    Oh! Thanks for mentioning the kiwi.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Love this blog, but to your question–for most people who have a Mac, changing the setting of whether you can be tracked across web sites helps. Each wordpress site is a different site, so changing it for one doesn’t help. I tend to change the setting when I am going to look at blogs, but have noticed lately (there have been some updates) that it’s been problematic if I forget…

    Liked by 1 person

      • It’s a privacy feature for browsers that keeps companies from tracking you extensively, so it would be in preferences/settings and is (on Mac) a box to uncheck. If the person has a software update, it may have chosen the privacy setting for them, so they just need to uncheck it. Not sure that was any clearer, but…it’s likely more than Mac users are having the problem and if they just go to Mr. Google they’ll get the full rundown of how to change.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t been there, so I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess, since it’s a hillside, that a person could find places on the ground to–depending on how you see these things–be awed or laugh uncontrollably.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not having issues leaving comments, but I do have to authorize WordPress to connect with Twitter every single time I want to comment, even on a blog I commented on a different post of a few seconds ago. That’s happening to me on all WordPress blogs though, not just yours, and I’m not 100% certain it’s not settings related. Although, if you want to mention to WordPress that it’s incredibly annoying, that would be fine with me.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Since I don’t have an actual WordPress account, I use Twitter to comment, via the “log in with Twitter” button. It used to be that once I logged in with Twitter for each browser session, I could comment on as many posts or blogs as I wanted without needing to authorize the app to be used on WordPress to comment again until I closed the browser. Now I have to authorize it for every comment, even if I just commented on the same blog or post. If it shows me as “commenting using your Twitter account” and I don’t click “change” and re-authorize it, it gives me an error message, and won’t comment. But most times it just prompts me to pick an option for commenting, no matter how many times during that browser session I’ve told it I’m fine with WordPress and Twitter being connected.

        Make more sense now?

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Enjoyed reading your post. It us a relief to think about something other than politics. Things are getting more and more divided over here with both sides becoming more hardened in their views. So to speak which brings us back to the giant.

    I looked in google and found a picture. Sure has an outstanding feature. The Vikings used to go into battle in that undress and posture. That could be where they got the idea. Don’t know about the Cromwell story.

    One of my ancestors had a manor house in Somerset. He first sided with parliament. Then when they bings settled down he made peace and got forgives from Charles. When the battles picked back up he rejoined the parliament forces. They found about his switch yo Charles and took away stall his lands except the acres surrounding and adjoining his house. Not long after that three of his sons sailed west to the new world, one of which was my ancestor.

    Interesting bits of history.

    Change of pace. When I hear of Brexit now I think of the Dylan song. A hard rain is going to fall.

    Have a good week. Looking forward to more irrelevant and esoteric information.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I have passed the Cerne Abbas Giant many times (my in-laws live near Salisbury) but had never bothered my backside to actually conduct any research into its existence. I knew he dated from the 17th Century but didn’t know about the whole Cromwell thing. Thank you for educating me. Giant chalky phalluses certainly make a diverting change from Brexit.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. With all that going back-and-forth it’s so nice that England and France have such good relations. Good thing they didn’t consider him an illegal alien.

    I have the problem with a couple other sites, not yours (sorry about that). I’ve been told, though I’m too lazy to try, that you won’t have the problem if you access the post form your WP account through a browser, the problem (al least what I’m told) has to do with accessing the post by clicking on the email link.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting. The blogs I read I always get to via the email link. I hate WP’s reader and ignore it religiously. (That and not ironing are the two tenets of my religion. Which is probably not what you have in mind for modern theology. Sorry. To each her or his own.) Point being, I have no trouble with it. Presumably the lords of the internet track me and link me to WP even via email. For whatever that information is worth. I’ll assemble the info I gather from this and eventually write to WP, which if it says anything at all will say thanks and ignore me.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. No, I’m not having any trouble commenting (how would I know, I haven’t clicked ‘post comment’ yet), but I have learned what the New Model Army and the Levellers are other than the bands. And I remember one other post of yours on this fellow, because I clicked on the link to see him. I hadn’t before. You are so good for general knowledge. (Not to mention for Brexit. It exists solely so that you can shine.)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh the naughty little readers who keep using sites other than WordPress, it’s all our fault right WP? Bosh. If WP weren’t so greedy for data about readers’ off-WP lives, it would have less trouble with the settings we choose. WordPress never has played well with others.

    What we really need is a global ban on cookies. If a big web site is caught storing any data about anything other than the time and location from which it was accessed, it should be shut down.

    Of course Google, which hosts Blogspot, is the original big offender…but at least Google’s management have had enough sense to try to work with whatever people use, the better to gank information.

    Anyway I observe, grumpily, that WP seems to be working today.

    Liked by 1 person

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