A Note on William Blake and the Druids of Primrose Hill
On the second of January, 1810, Charles Lamb wrote to Thomas Manning that “The Persian ambassador is the principal thing talked of now. I sent some people to see him worship the sun on Primrose Hill at half past six in the morning, 28th November; but he did not come, which makes me think the old fire-worshippers are a sect almost extinct in Persia.”1↤ 1 J. Marrs, Jr., ed., The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1978), III, 36. Lamb was of course merely being mischievous in pretending that the dignified Moslem ambassador was likely to indulge in ancient Zoroastrian rites on—as it happens—the morning of Blake’s forty-second birthday. The rather curious thing about Lamb’s bit of humor, however, is the fact that he expected the rites to be performed specifically on Primrose Hill, without giving any explanation as to why that particular site was appropriate. The curiosity of the specification becomes greater in light of the fact that Blake too made reference to Primrose Hill as being in some way sacred to the sun. Blake told Crabb Robinson that ↤ 2 G. E. Bentley, Jr., Blake Records (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), pp. 313-14.
[“]I have conversed with the—Spiritual Sun—I saw him on Primrose-hill[.] He said ‘Do you take me for the Greek Apollo[?‘ ’] No[’] I said ‘that (and Bl pointed to the sky) that is the Greek Apollo—He is Satan [.’ ”]2
The sun-worshipping Druid religion as “revived” by Stukeley, Henry Rowlands and other eighteenth-century antiquarians was of widespread and active interest in the latter part of that century. In fact, on the wall of the King’s Arms Tavern, very close to where Blake lived in Poland Street, there is a plaque inscribed: “In this Old King’s Arms Tavern the ANCIENT ORDER OF DRUIDS was revived 28th November 1781.” Something about this day seems to have been very attractive to the Druids—some prophetic insight perhaps—for this date was Blake’s twenty-fourth birthday.
Primrose Hill is apparently the highest spot in London, and, in addition to the rather dubious distinction of being the spot on which Judge Jeffries of the Popish Plot was found murdered, it was also the site of a Druid procession in 1792, and every year thereafter. The Welsh poet and lexicographer Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg, 1747-1826) was convinced that the bardic traditions of his native Glamorgan had preserved the true esoteric lore of the Druids. He accordingly devised a ritual called the Gorsedd of Bards, which involved the ceremonious sheathing of a naked sword inside a magic circle of stones. With a small group of fellow Welshmen that included Blake’s friend William Owen, he performed this rite on Primrose Hill at the Autumn Equinox of 1792. There are a couple of contemporary references to the meeting. A lengthy account, giving details of the ritual, was published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, 62 (October, 1792), 956:
Saturday, Sept. 22.
This being the day on which the autumnal equinox occurred, some Welsh Bards, resident in London, assembled in congress on Primrose Hill, according to ancient usage, which requires that it should be in the eye of public observation, in the open air, in a conspicuous place, and whilst the sun is above the horizon. The wonted ceremonies were observed. . . . On this occasion the Bards appeared in the insignia of their various orders. The presiding Bards were David Samwell, of the primitive, and claimant of the ovation order; William Owen, of the ovation and primitive orders; Edward Jones, of the ovation, and claimant of the primitive order; and Edward Williams, of the primitive and druidic orders. The Bardic traditions, and several odes, were recited. . . .
Williams himself described the meeting in The Monthly Register, 3 (January, 1793), 16-19. In this article of “Biographical Anecdotes of Mr. David Thomas, an eminent Welch Bard,” age 26, Williams included a poem, “The Banks of the Menai. An Ode. Inscribed to the Druidical Society of Anglesey. Recited at the Meeting of the Welch Bards on Primrose Hill, September 22d, 1792.” Williams also says that “It is not a little remarkable that the order, or hierarchy of the ancient British Bards has been continued in regular succession from remotest antiquity down to the present day, without any interruption; for some time, indeed, it has been in a languishing state, but is now recovering apace. . . . ” (p. 19). Williams was so successful in aiding the recovery of ailing Druidism that his ritual is performed to this day as begin page 105 | a public ceremony on Primrose Hill every autumn equinox by the spiritual heirs of Williams’ small group of Welsh Bards, The Ancient Druid Order/The British Circle of the Universal Bond. One of their pamphlets is entitled The Ceremony of the Autumn Equinox (Primrose Hill Ceremony) (London, n.d.).
What is Blake’s relation to this ceremony? The Ancient Druid Order itself claims that Blake was their “Chosen Chief” from 1799 until his death3↤ 3 In a pamphlet history of their order, The Ancient Druid Order/The British Circle of the Universal Bond (London, n.d.), p. 19. but, alas, no evidence of this is visible in their literature or elsewhere. Blake apparently did, however, know of the Primrose Hill ceremony, and his words even indicate the possibility that he attended one of the rituals. He may have known Edward Williams, who was a close friend of William Owen. Even if he didn’t, the enthusiastic Owen may have interested Blake in seeing a ritual of the original “Patriarchal Religion.”