The Long Man of Wilmington, Genius of the Place, monument to Spencer Compton 2nd Earl of Northampton?

Last Friday Zak and I went for a walk at sunrise round the Long Man of Wilmington.

The Long Man is one of the most famous hill figures in this country, but we’d never been before. It’s a huge figure, 72 metres tall, taking up the whole slope of Windover Hill facing the village of Wilmington. He seems to be emerging from double doors in the hillside.

This is the view from the information panel by the car park next to the old medieval priory. Said the panel, the white outline isn’t chalk but painted breezeblocks. The figure was originally cut into the chalk, but as an archaeological survey in 2003 discovered, it was scoured only a handful of times afterwards. Scouring is the process of cleaning and rechalking the figure, a local tradition with the White Horse at Uffington or the Cerne Abbas Giant. The Long Man was allowed to grass over, and he became locally known as the Green Man, an indentation in the ground, visible only after a snowfall, and in the different colour the grass grew in its outlines.

In 1874 the Victorians, led by the antiquarian Rev. William de St Croix, replaced this with whitewashed yellow bricks. The Duke of Devonshire who owned the land and funded the restoration wrote to congratulate the team on their work, though he noted that in places the outline was different from the original. The alignment of the feet may have been altered at this time. According to local people in the Nineteenth Century the feet originally faced down the hill. Ann Downs who’d lived there in the 1840s said the giant used to seem as though he was walking towards them. The bricks were painted green during the Second World War to avoid being a marker for enemy aircraft. In 1969 they were replaced by white-painted breeze-blocks. Subsequent excavations revealed that the breeze blocks didn’t always follow the line of the bricks.

This could have been discouraging to read, but it really wasn’t. The Long Man is a timeless presence. Walking across the field to it with the sunrise coming round the hills and deep shadows and golden highlights on the grass is awe-inspiring.

Then there’s the second surprise. The Long Man isn’t neolithic like the White Horse of Uffington, or Saxon as used to be believed, or medieval. The 2003 Survey found that the surface of the hill was undisturbed until the Sixteenth or Seventeenth Century, so the Long Man could not have been created before then. Professor Ronald Hutton has described it as England’s first Early Modern hill figure. (Thanks to recent research it has also been swiftly followed by the Cerne Abbas Giant, of which more another time.)

As a Sixteenth or Seventeenth Century creation you can make several valid assumptions about the Long Man as you would about a painting.

The first one is that the Long Man was (most probably) commissioned by the person who owned the land it’s on. It’s a massive thing. Cutting it into the hillside would’ve been a major task. Time-consuming and even in the days of cheap labour too expensive to do without good reason. It’s the tallest hill-figure in Europe.

Windover Hill and a vast stretch of the neighbouring country belonged to the Compton family from the middle ages until 1782, when Lady Elizabeth Compton daughter of the 7th Earl of Northampton married George Cavendish 1st Earl of Burlington. Their grandson was the Duke of Devonshire who owned the Long Man in 1874. The 9th Duke gave the Long Man to the Sussex Archaeological Trust in 1925. So the Tudor/Stuart patron should be one of the Comptons.

The next assumption is that the style of the figure should tell us something about the date it was made. (The Cerne Abbas Giant is an exception). The Long Man is well drawn. It looks as though muscles are shown, making it more likely to be post-Renaissance. And there’s one really unusual thing about the Long Man. The outline of the figure is elongated so it resolves to the right proportions when you see it from the middle of the field below.

Anamorphic projection is everywhere now, like the adverts painted on rugger pitches, but it’s unknown in British art until the mid-Sixteenth Century. It works very well in the Long Man, even if we’re seeing the outline of an outline of an outline.*

The figure has greatest impact from a single viewpoint in the middle of the field below. It animates at that point. You come into its presence. That’s not an easy effect to bring off on 250 foot of hillside. My guess is that the artist would’ve had people stationed on the hillside with markers, waving and shouting to line them up with their drawing. It’s an incredible achievement.

As far as dating goes, it seems mid-seventeenth Century to me. The pose might have a look of King Henry VIII by Holbein but I reckon it’s closer to the front-facing images in Civil War period prints, like this one of a musketeer with his arquebus and gun-rest.

The figure would have to represent someone, or something of massive importance to the Comptons at this date. Perhaps it was created as a monument to Spencer Compton 1st Earl of Northampton, Royalist officer killed at the Battle of Hopton Heath in 1643. Or to the Civil War. Or to the Restoration for which the Comptons worked as members of the secret Royalist society, the Sealed Knot. In that case the patron was most probably Spencer Compton’s son James Compton 3rd Earl of Northampton.

There’s debate about whether the figure was always naked. One survey detected the trace of a plume above the figure’s head, and a drawing by John Rowley in 1710 (Chatsworth; image Castleden 2002) shows the figure in a helmet. Rowley’s dotted outline indicates that the figure was an indentation in the grass rather than a firm outline.

This drawing is the earliest documentary evidence of the Long Man, supporting a date not long before. Later ground surveys have confirmed that the figure was wearing headgear of some kind, and Rowley’s drawing may well be correct. In that case one other mystery might be solved. The Long Man isn’t naked. He’s wearing armour, an outfit that shows a muscular contour.

2nd Earl of Northampton in armour, Henry Peart the Elder after Cornelius Johnson and Sir Anthony Van Dyck (c) National Portrait Gallery, London

What is he holding though? Rowley’s drawing shows him with two staves as he holds today. A drawing by William Burrell in 1781 (British Library; image Castleden 2002) shows him with a scythe and a rake. This is a bit dubious and Burrell’s sketch is not a great drawing. He was viewing the outline as an indistinct shape in the grass, and might have been mistaken, filling in what he imagined or thought ought to be there. No other witness mentions a scythe or a rake. He agrees with Rowley though that the face had features at that date. If the figure is indeed a soldier, then perhaps they are two spears, or a lance and a standard. The immortal words, we may never know.

Windover Hill may not have had a hill figure in the stone age, but it was still a highly important place. And sacred. There are Neolithic burial mounds on the summit, two bowl barrows and this long barrow that Zak and Maisie are standing on here. It dominated the skyline above the Long Man as we walked our way up round the back of the hill to the top.

If the Long Man is indeed a monument to the 2nd Earl of Northampton, or to the Civil War, we still don’t know exactly why Windover Hill was chosen as the site for it. Places choose themselves, perhaps. It’s a powerful, ancient site and must have been central to the local people’s mental landscape for thousands of years. A magical place and a magical morning to be there.

Photographs (c) ZC Innes-Mulraine

*Rodney Castleden Shapeshifting the changing outline of the Long Man of Wilmington Sussex Archaeological Collections 140 (2002) 83 – 95 https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-285-1/dissemination/pdf/vol_140/Castleden.pdf

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