The Cirencester Obelisk
As requested by a number of members, the following article has been republished here, updated a little but still substantially the same piece which the author submitted to the Annual Report and Newsletter No 24 for 1981- 2 (the imperial measurements have been retained). The Obelisk is still there, off Cotswold Avenue, and can still be visited via the entrance to the amphitheatre, if you care to penetrate the surrounding woodland scrub and do so at your own risk! Other than some inevitable graffiti (of the old school, not the modern variety), it is uninscribed and remains a mystery item to many who pass by. [As at 2016 the area is now cleared by a new action group AQIVA and the obelisk now stands in glory. There is also a proposal to conserve the stonework]
Occasionally a letter appears in the Standard asking for clarification, and this article was written originally with that in mind. Such queries continue to crop up from time to time, so anybody encouraged to undertake further research to put this folly (for that ultimately is what it is) into the wider context of the others in Cirencester Park is warmly encouraged to take up the opportunity now! In particular it would be a real prize to find a date for its construction.
In the quarter century since this article was first written, the archaeological excavations have been published (see McWhirr, Viner and Wells Cirencester Excavations II: Romano British Cemeteries at Cirencester ) and the landscape between obelisk and town has further filled up with the completed Waitrose and Phoenix Way developments, and at the time of writing now the recent opening of a new Leisure Centre to replace its 1970s predecessor. Around the Queen Anne column in the Park, some very welcome landscaping has taken place, giving this fine monument its proper sense of place & scale.
The Cirencester Obelisk (Republished)
Cirencester Park is best known as a fine example of landscaping on the grand scale, and not the least interesting aspect of the first Lord Bathurst’s plans is the fascinating group of architectural ‘follies’ sited at strategic points throughout the Park. The Hexagon, Pope’s Seat, The Horse Guards and the cluster around the present-day Polo Ground (Ivy Lodge, Square House and Round Tower) probably all date from the same period during the 1730s and 1740s when the development of the Park was at its most intensive. One major exception, Alfred’s Hall, is earlier (1721) and has a history and significance all of its own.
There is another architectural feature which does not fit easily into the history of Cirencester Park: the stone obelisk standing in a small plantation off Cotswold Avenue. Long the source of queries in the local press (never satisfactorily answered incidentally) the obelisk has always been assumed to be one of the Park’s ‘follies’ despite its position well outside the walled area of house and grounds. Very little is actually recorded of its history and the structure itself gives little clue, being uninscribed, apart that is from the attentions of the graffiti artists of modern Cirencester.
The concept of an obelisk is, of course, Egyptian in origin, the name originally describing a tapered monolithic pillar erected at the entrance to ancient temples, and usually carved from a single block of stone from the Aswan quarries of red granite. As items of architectural interest they were transported to Italy during the Roman Empire and at least a dozen were set up in Rome. Much the same idea prompted the Egyptian government in the late 19th century to divide a pair of obelisks as gifts to the British and American governments. Thus Cleopatra’s Needle stands on the Thames Embankment and its twin in Central Park, New York, although neither has any historic connection with the famous lady. The obelisks were dedicated at Heliopolis by Thutmose III about 1500 B.C. and bear inscriptions both to him and to Rameses II. Nevertheless, Cleopatra’s Needle remains the best-known example in Britain of the obelisk as an architectural ‘folly’ and may perhaps have influenced in some way the erection of the Cirencester example.
The Cirencester obelisk is not in fact monolithic but rather constructed from blocks of local ashlar; it is approximately 50 feet high (not measured) and the pillar has a shallow taper to a head. The base is plain but not unimpressive, and stands some 7 ft square. Although the stone is obviously from a local source, the actual quarry is unknown. Probably the greatest clue to its history is the siting of the obelisk. It stands on what is now a narrow strip of rough ground between Cotswold Avenue and the decaying but still obvious scarp overlooking the Roman Amphitheatre. The changes in the landscape in this area have been considerable especially in recent years and the obliterations caused during the cutting of the railway in 1840 – 1 have in turn been obscured by the town’s ring road which now effectively cuts off this area from the town centre.
Archaeological excavations all over this area prior to the ring road construction in the early 1970’s have built up a picture of Romano – British development, from which it seems clear that the enormous earth – shifting operations required to construct the amphitheatre together with the consistent demand for good quality building stone in the Roman town brought great changes to the landscape. The whole of this south western side of Cirencester must have resembled one large stone quarry and especially so in what is now the ‘hollow’ immediately below the scarp on which the obelisk stands. Its subsequent use as a cemetery later in the Roman period was the major feature of the excavations, although a consistent picture of earlier quarrying activity has been fairly well attested.
The modern observer must therefore mentally strip away the ring road together with all the current developments in and around Phoenix Way, and also the small surviving evidence of the railway. This done and standing on the scarp looking towards Cirencester Park, he/she will only then begin to appreciate that the obelisk is in fact quite well sited from the mansion on what must have been the skyline on the south side. Other Victorian additions, particularly the former museum (1856) and the maturity of the tree cover immediately around the house tend to obscure the view today, but both almost certainly are later features too.
Although there appears to be no written record at all of the date of the obelisk, or indeed its function (if any), the position of the structure suggests either an isolated feature of the original landscaping programme for the Park, or more likely a rather idiosyncratic later addition to it. It should be remembered that all of the land between mansion and obelisk was in Bathurst ownership and one wonders whether some evidence of the stone-working activities of the Roman and probably also the medieval period remained visible? Did the stone perhaps come from the immediate area?
As to date, there is again almost a blank in the record although the correspondence columns of the Wilts & Gloucestershire Standard include a number of interesting suggestions. Firstly, there is a reference, oft repeated, to what is almost certainly an incorrect date for the obelisk. This is coupled with a confusion of reference to the Queen Anne Monument, which is a major and graceful feature of the Park. This monument is a Doric column of some size built on an artificial plateau and viewed axially from the mansion and diagonally from the Seven Rides, the latter a nodal point in the landscaping design. Much work was involved not only in the monument itself, with its full-size statue of Queen Anne, but also in the associated landscaping which included ground-levelling operations between house and monument.
Its dating is fixed from a letter from Lord Orrery to Dean Swift in July 1741 mentioning that ‘Lord Bathurst is at Cirencester, erecting pillars and statues to Queen Anne’. Subsequent correspondents make the assumption that the reference to pillars equates with the obelisk, which is frankly doubtful, and this is coupled with a confusion between the actual obelisk we now have and Alexander Pope’s recommendation to Lord Bathurst that his monument to Queen Anne should take the form of an obelisk or preferably a solid pyramid 100 feet square. Neither suggestion was taken up and there is little evidence to link the obelisk with Pope’s suggestions at this time.
Local recollections that the waste ground on which the obelisk stands served earlier this century as a rubbish tip might be useful in explaining how old the present scarp face is and whether it conceals evidence of stone mining from an earlier period. But that, of course, is another story altogether …
References in Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard (courtesy Bingham Library, Cirencester, where a microfilm of the newspaper can be consulted by appointment):
20th March 1897, p.4 from ‘Inquirer’ seeking information
27th March 1897, p.5 an answer from ‘Historian’
8th March 1902, p.5 from Mrs Elizabeth Matthews
6th June 1936, p.8 from Rev. G.E. Rees seeking information
13th June 1936, p.11 from E.C. Sewell and Mr Tom Groves
6th Sept 1968 from W.R.S. Bathurst, answering an earlier query
James Lees-Milne, Earls of Creation, Hamish Hamilton 1962, chapter one
Timothy Mowl, Historic Gardens of Gloucestershire, Tempus Publishing 2002