The ancient religious beliefs of the people who lived in Britain throughout the Stone Age and Iron Age have left an important legacy on modern society. Many ancient religious sites in Britain are still real places of worship today, and some are also important historical sites. Many of these ancient sites are still in use today – for example as Pagan temples or as Christian holy sites. The rituals and traditions that go hand-in-hand with ancient religious beliefs are still practiced by a minority of people. The majority of people in Britain today follow a different set of religious beliefs that can be traced back to Christianity, Judaism, or other ancient beliefs. Many ancient religious sites in Britain were built in prehistoric times, between around 6000 and 2000 BC. These sites include henges, mounds, and other sacred places, built by prehistoric peoples. Some of these sites, like Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire, are still highly important to modern Pagans.
Some, like West Kennett and Long Barrow in the Thames Valley, are also important historical sites, containing important evidence about Britain’s prehistoric past. West Kennett Long Barrow is one of the best-known archaeological sites in the world and is perhaps best-known for the enormous, standing stone circle that is often visible from space. The site itself is actually a long barrow, or hillfort, which is also a World Heritage Site. The barrow is also known for its large quantity of archaeological and historical materials that has been found within its original enclosure.
Unfortunately, some of these have been illegally removed from the barrow. The most famous of these is Stone Age pottery, which is often found at the barrow.
The Neolithic (“new stone”) henges and mounds in Scotland date from between 3,500 and 3,200 BC and are some of the most impressive archaeological sites in Europe. They are large stone structures spanning between 15 and 40 acres and are often aligned with the Sun or with the Milky Way. Almost all of them have standing structures and have been used for ritual or astronomical purposes. The most famous henges are the three at Newgrange, formerly called “The Henges of Newgrange”. These henges are connected by a passage which was used for ritual and ceremonial purposes. The largest of the henges is Dun Broch in the north of the Highlands and is the site of a Neolithic city.
The Neolithic period in Scotland is well-documented and is often referred to as the “Munda” phase, after the popular Neolithic stone circle at Flegeton Hill in Staffordshire. During this time, many different cultural practices and traditions evolved, including the use of hills as religious sites. Some of the most impressive Neolithic mounds in Scotland include Mousa Munda in Berwickshire, Orkney and Skye Mounds in the Highlands and Granny’s Mound in Caithness. Mousa Munda in particular has been well-researched and is often referred to as the “Mother of All Mounds”, due to the sheer number of Neolithic and Bronze Age sites that have been excavated there over the years. There are also a number of hill forts that have been associated with Neolithic sites, including Dunrobin Castle in Argyll and Lewis and the Standing Stones of the Hebrides.
The Neolithic settlement of what is now known as Stonehenge, Wiltshire, was the first major site associated with the ancient British religion. The earthworks there appear to be a gathering place for the Druids, who often met there to conduct rituals. There is also evidence that the Druids briefly occupied other sites in the area too, including another earthwork called Salisbury Down, so the council may have been nearby as well.
Another site with strong connections to ancient religion is West Kennett Long Barrow in Wiltshire. Like Stonehenge, it was built around a large standing stone, which was probably the barrow of a former king or priest. It is also linked to the Neolithic revolution, with flints found there dating from around 3000 BC.
Another Neolithic site in Wiltshire is St. Bride’s Church and All Hallows’ Church, Maidenhead. This is one of the most famous churches in England, and its name probably comes from the legend that the first saint ever to be martyred was staked out here. Her name was Lady Godiva, and she is said to have galloped through her horses’ bridles to protest against the injustice done to travelers. It is also possible that All Hallows’ Church was used as a religious site by the Gimel, one of the first Christian groups to settle in Britain, who could have used the church as a base.
At the western edge of the Diocese of Chelmsford is another Neolithic henge. This one is known as St. Michael’s Hill, and is a roughly hewn out prominence that is over 3000 years old. It is located about seven miles northwest of Chelmsford, and is strongly connected with the inhabitants of the nearby village of Bradfield.
The Roman period in Britain was from about AD 43 to 5 AD, during which time it was known as Britannia, and is perhaps best represented by the archaeological sites that survive in that name. The most famous of these is surely Hadrians Wall, which was built by the Romans to demarcate their boundaries with the various tribes and peoples that they encountered in their trek westward. However, there were a number of religious sites which were popular with the Romans, particularly the hillforts and other fortified sites which they constructed.