The Mysterious Earthwork
Located next to Dorchester Police station and opposite the Skate Park lies the mysterious earthwork of Maumbury Rings, a monument that has been an important part of what is now called Dorchester for nearly five thousand years and has served important functions throughout all of its history.
The Neolithic Henge’s original function, like so many other structures from the same time, remains enigmatic though scholars have proposed it could have been a place of ritual or astronomical observation, as excavations in the early 20th century revealed the shafts used in its foundation contained fragments of tools made from deer bone, flint, and even fragments of human skull!
The reason Maumbury Rings still stands while so many henges have disappeared over time is that it has been adapted to suit various purposes since its creation. The Roman Town of Durnovaria (Dorchester) modified the rings in roughly 100 AD to make it a place of entertainment – an amphitheatre. Throughout this period the rings would be host to gladiatorial fights and executions.
There’s no record of the rings use in Saxon times though it likely stayed as a place of meeting and by the middle ages it was again host to violent spectator sports, this time jousting tournaments.
In 1642 the earthwork was again remodelled and saw yet another function, this time one of war. The Parliamentarians turned it into an artillery fort guarding the southern flank along Weymouth Road where the Royalists were thought to be advancing.
After the civil war Maumbury rings gained a macabre status as its role as a place of public execution was revived, most notably by the infamous Judge Jeffreys who condemned eighty rebels to death in Maumbury Rings. However, perhaps the most famous execution to take place here was that of Mary Channing sentenced to be burnt at the stake for poisoning her husband. The bloody tale was immortalised by the great Dorset poet Thomas Hardy in the poem ‘The Mock Wife’.
Happily no such events take place in Maumbury Rings any more yet it is still a cultural hub of the Town. In the summer it is host to many free music events such as the Dorchester Arts Festival, Battle enactments and even open air performances of the works of Shakespeare. It was also the screening location of the Royal Wedding last year.
So whether you want to soak up its bloody past, catch some live music, watch a play or just fancy catching some sun in a tranquil location, Maumbury Rings is well worth a visit.