Thornborough Henges: The history behind Yorkshire’s 5,000 year old monument

Thornborough Henges dates back to over 5,000 years ago. Photo by Dave MacLeod, English Heritage.
Thornborough Henges dates back to over 5,000 years ago. Photo by Dave MacLeod, English Heritage.

Located near the village of Thornborough, nearby to the town of Masham in North Yorkshire, Thornborough Henges is a prehistoric monument which dates back to over 5,000 years ago.

The Thornborough Henges comprises of three Neolithic Class II henges, which are situated on the northern bank of the River Ure, and in the past has been referred to as 'The Stonehenge of the North'. It is also believed by many to be one of the most important ancient sites between Stonehenge and the Orkney Islands

The Celtic festival of Beltane take place at Thornborough Henges every year

The Celtic festival of Beltane take place at Thornborough Henges every year

This ancient complex is thought to have been part of a ‘ritual’ landscape from the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age, believed to date from between 3500 and 2500 BC.

The three aligned henges that make up Thornborough Henges are part of a wider group of seven henges which lie between the Rivers Ure and Swale and these collection of henges, represent the largest group outside of Wessex.

The complex of Thornborough is extremely large and is made up of a variety of large ancient structures, which not only includes henges, but a cursus, burial grounds and settlements.

The cursus

A cursus, which takes its name from the Latin for ‘course’, is generally made up of large parallel lengths of banks with external ditches.

Thornborough’s cursus is the oldest and largest ancient monument out of the whole complex, being almost a mile in length and running from Thornborough Village to close to the River Ure.

Burial mounds and mortuary enclosures are usually found alongside cursus monuments, which suggests they were usually used for ceremonial purposes.

The henges

The three henges at Thornborough have a diameter of around 240 metres, making them almost identical in size and this large monument extends for more than a mile.

Archaeological excavations of the central henge have taken place in the past and findings from these excavations suggested that its banks used to be covered with locally mined gypsum, which is widely used as a fertilizer and as the main ingredient in plaster, blackboard chalk and wallboard.

It is believed that the banks of these henges being covered in gypsum would have resulted in a white sheen visible for miles around.

The ancient Celtic Festival of Beltane

Every year the ancient Celtic Festival of Beltane is celebrated at Thornborough Henges, and will return again this year on May 6.

Beltane is a Celtic fire festival which celebrates the beginning of summer. This festival originated with the tradition of lighting 'lucky fires' at the beginning of May.

Traditionally, people and livestock would pass between these fires in the hope of being given magical protection for the year ahead and is believed to have once been performed by druids.

Thornborough’s complex is believed to be located in the heart of the tribal territory of the Brigantes, with Brigantia being the Celtic goddess of the Brigantes tribe, which is why the festival of Beltane is celebrated at Thornborough, as it both honours and pays tribute to the goddess believed to rule this particular area of land.

Although the exact purpose of the Thornborough henge monuments remains a mystery, it continues to intrigue people, with archaeological projects continuing to take place and the festival of Beltane attracts hundreds of visitors every year.

Thornborough Henges has been around for thousands of years and will remain at the heart of North Yorkshire, continuing to attract visitors with its mysterious nature, for many years to come.