By the Rev. Geo. S. Tyack, b.a.

SOMETHING  concerning the construction of labyrinths, or mazes, is known even to the most general reader; it needs but a slight acquaintance with classical literature to learn of the famous example formed at Crete by Dædalus; the legend of the concealment of “fair Rosamond,” within a maze at Woodstock, is familiar enough; and the existing labyrinth at Hampton Court, the work of William III. is well known. But probably few who have not looked somewhat into the matter, have any idea of the number of such mazes which still exist, or of the yet greater number of which we have authentic records. A learned French antiquary, Mons. Bonnin, of Evreux, collected two hundred examples, gathered from many lands, and stretching in history from classical to modern times.

Of the most ancient labyrinths it will be enough to indicate the localities. One is said to have been constructed in Egypt by King Minos, and to have served as a model for the one raised by Dædalus at Cnossus, in Crete, as a prison for the Minataur. Another Egyptian example, which has been noticed by several authors, was near Lake Mœris. Lemnos contained a famous labyrinth; and Lar Porsena built one at Clusium, in Etruria. These mazes consisted either of a series of connected caverns, as it has been supposed was the case in Crete; or, as in the other instances, were formed of courts enclosed by walls and colonnades.


The use of the labyrinth in mediæval times, has, however, greater interest for us in this paper, especially from the fact that such was distinctly ecclesiastical. Several continental churches have labyrinths, either cut in stone or inlaid in coloured marbles, figured upon their walls or elsewhere. At Lucca Cathedral is an example incised upon one of the piers of the porch; and others may be seen at Pavia, Aix in Provence, and at Poitiers. These are all small, the diameter of the Lucca labyrinth being 1 foot 7½ inches, which is the dimension also of one in an ancient pavement in the church of S. Maria in Aquiro, in Rome. That the suggestion for the construction of these arose from the mythological legends concerning those of pagan days is proved by the fact that in several of them the figures of Theseus and the Minataur were placed in the centre. Probably from the first, the Church, in her use of the figure, spiritualized the meaning of the heathen story, as we know was her wont in other cases; and a labyrinth formed in mosaic on the floor of an ancient basilica at Orleansville, Algeria, shows that presently the mythological symbols gave place entirely to obviously Christian ones. In this last-named instance, the centre is occupied by the words Sancta Ecclesia .

About the twelfth century these curious figures became very popular, and a considerable number dating from that period still exist. They have for the most part been constructed in parti-coloured marbles on some portion of the floor of the church. One was laid down in 1189 at S. Maria in Trastevere, in Rome; S. Vitale, Ravenna, contains another; and the parish church of S. Quentin has a third. Others formerly existed at Amiens Cathedral (made in 1288 and destroyed in 1825), at Rheims (made about 1240 and destroyed in 1779), and at Arras (destroyed at the Revolution). These are much larger than the examples before noticed; the two Italian examples are each about 11 feet across, but the French ones greatly exceed this. Those of S. Quentin and Arras were each over 34 feet in diameter, and the others were somewhat larger; Amiens possessed the largest, measuring 42 feet. France had another example of a similar kind at Chartres.

The Christian meaning which was read into these complicated designs was more emphatically expressed in these twelfth-century instances. The centre is usually occupied by a cross, round which, in some cases, were arranged figures of bishops, angels, and others.

The introduction of these large labyrinths, together with the name which came at this time to be applied to them in France, namely, Chemins de Jerusalem, suggests the new use to which such arrangements now began to be put. It is well known that in some cases substitutes for the great pilgrimage to Jerusalem were allowed to be counted as of almost equal merit. Thus the Spaniards, so long as they had not expelled the infidel from their own territory, were forbidden to join the Crusades to the Holy Land; and were permitted to substitute a journey to the shrine of S. Jago, at Compostella, for one to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. By an extension of the same principle, especially when the zeal of Christendom for pilgrimages began to cool, easy substitutes for the more exacting devotion were found in many ways. The introduction of the Stations of the Cross is ascribed to this cause, the devout following in imagination of the footsteps of the Saviour in His last sufferings, being accounted equivalent to visiting the holy places; and somewhat similarly, the maze, or labyrinth, is said to have been pressed into the service of religion, the following out (probably upon the knees) of its long and tortuous path- way, being reckoned as a simple substitute for a longer pilgrimage.

From such a use as this, it was no great step to the employment of the maze as a means of penance in other cases. The whole of the intricate pathway was intended to remind the penitent of the difficulties which beset the Christian course; and the centre, which could only be reached by surmounting them, was often called heaven (Ciel ). Nor could such a penance be deemed a light one. Though occupying so small a space of ground, the mazy path was so involved as to reach a considerable length, whence it was sometimes named the League (La lièue ). The pathway at Chartres measures 668 feet; at Sens was a maze which required some 2,000 steps to gain the centre. An hour is said to have been often needed to accomplish the journey, due allowance being made for the prayers which had to be recited at certain fixed stations of it, or throughout its whole course.

At S. Omer are one or two examples of the labyrinth. One at the Church of Notre Dame has figures of towns, mountains, rivers, and wild beasts depicted along the pathway, to give, no doubt, greater realism to the pilgrimage. The existing drawing of another, which has been destroyed, is inscribed, “The way of the road to Jerusalem at one time marked on the floor of the Church of S. Bertin.” Many of these designs are not only ingenious, but beautiful. In the Chapterhouse at Bayeux is one enriched with heraldic figures; that at Chartres has its central circle relieved with six cusps, while an engrailed border encloses the whole work. A circular shape was apparently the most popular; the maze at S. Quentin, with some others, however, is octagonal. The pathway is usually marked by coloured marbles, sometimes the darker, sometimes the lighter shades in the design being used for the purpose; at Sens, lead has been employed to indicate it.

The Revolution, as we have seen, led to the destruction of several ecclesiastical labyrinths; some, however, became a source of annoyance to the worshippers, from children attempting to trace the true pathway during the time of service, and they were removed in consequence. Labyrinths of this kind do not appear to have been introduced into England, the only instance known to the present writer being quite a modern one. This is in the church porch at Alkborough, in Lincolnshire, where, at the recent restoration, the design of a local maze (to be noticed further hereafter) was reproduced.

If England, however, has not imitated the continent in this respect, she has struck out a line no less interesting, which has remained almost exclusively her own; namely, in the mazes cut in the green turf of her meadows. Shakespeare has an allusion to these in the “Midsummer Night's Dream,” (Act iii., 3) where Titania says,

“The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are indistinguishable.”

Some twenty of these rustic labyrinths have been noted as still existing, or as recorded by a sound tradition, in England; and no doubt there have been others which have disappeared, leaving no trace behind.


Among those which have been preserved, the following may be noticed. At Alkborough, in Lincolnshire, near the confluence of the Trent and the Ouse, is a maze, the diameter of which is 44 feet; by a happy suggestion, the design of this has been repeated, as was above remarked, in the porch of the Parish Church, so that should the original unfortunately be destroyed, a permanent record has been provided. Hilton, in Huntingdonshire has a maze of exactly the same plan, in the centre of which is a stone pillar, bearing an inscription in Latin and English, to the effect that the work was constructed in 1660, by William Sparrow. Comberton, in Cambridgeshire, possesses a maze, locally known as the “Mazles,” which is fifty feet in diameter. The pathway is two feet wide, and is defined by small trenches, the whole surface being gradually hollowed towards the centre. Northamptonshire is represented by Boughton Green, which has a labyrinth 37 feet in diameter; and Rutland has one at Wing, which measures 40 feet.


At Asenby, in the parish of Topcliffe, Yorkshire, is a maze measuring 51 feet across, which has been carefully preserved by the local authorities. At Chilcombe, near Winchester, a maze is cut in the turf of S. Catherine's Hill; it is square in outline, each side being 86 feet. It is locally known as the “Mize-maze.” One much larger than any yet noticed is found near Saffron Waldon, in Essex, its diameter being 110 feet. There are local records which prove the great antiquity of a maze at this place. The design is peculiar, being properly a circle, save that at four equal distances along the circumference the pathway sweeps out into a horseshoe projection.


A similar plan was followed in cutting a maze, once of some celebrity, near S. Anne's Well, at Sneinton, Nottingham. The projections in this case are bolder, and within the spaces enclosed by the triple pathway which swept around them were cut cross-crosslets. The popular names for this maze in the district were the “Shepherd's Maze,” and “Robin Hood's Race.” This was, unfortunately, ploughed up in 1797, at the enclosure of the lordship of Sneinton. Nottinghamshire has, however, another example in the small square one at Clifton.


Many of these turf-cut labyrinths were destroyed during the Commonwealth, before which period, according to Aubrey in his history of Surrey, there were many in England. Not a few, however, which survived that time of wanton destruction, have been obliterated since.

In 1827 one which was on Ripon Common was ploughed up. Its diameter was 60 feet. Another existed till comparatively recent times at Hillbury, between Farnham and Guildford. At Pimpern, in Dorset, there was formerly a maze of a unique design. The outline was roughly a triangle, which enclosed nearly an acre of ground; the pathway was marked out by ridges of earth about a foot in height, and followed a singularly intricate course. The plough destroyed this also in 1730.

The names locally applied to these structures often imply very erroneous ideas as to their origin and purpose. In some instances they are ascribed to the shepherds, as if cut by them as pastime in their idle moments; a suggestion, which a glance at the mazes themselves, with their intricate designs and correctly formed curves, will prove to be hardly tenable. Two other names of frequent occurrence in England are “Troy Town,” and “Julian's Bower”; the latter being connected with the former, Julius, son of Æneas being the person alluded to. Some have from these titles sought to trace a connection with a very ancient sport known as the Troy Game , which arose in classic times, and survived down to the Middle Ages. It consisted probably in the rhythmicperformance of certain evolutions, much after the fashion of the “Musical Rides” executed by our cavalry. The origin of the idea is to be sought in a passage in Virgil's Æneid (Bk. V., v. 583 et seq.), which has been thus translated by Kennett:—

“Files facing files their bold companions dare,
And wheel, and charge, and urge the sportive war.
Now flight they feign, and naked backs expose,
Now with turned spears drive headlong on the foes,
And now, confederate grown, in peaceful ranks they close.
As Crete's fam'd labyrinth, to a thousand ways
And endless darken'd walls the guest conveys;
Endless, inextricable rounds amuse,
And no kind track the doubtful passage shows;
So the glad Trojan youth, the winding course
Sporting pursue, and charge the rival force.”

Tresco, Scilly, has a maze known as Troy-town; and it would seem that such were once common in Cornwall, since any intricate arrangement is often locally called by that name.

It has, however, been pointed out that most of these mazes date from a time when classical knowledge was not widely spread in England; that, in fact, the name has probably been given in most instances long after the date of the construction of the work.

It would seem rather that the original use of these quaint figures was, as with those continental examples before noted, ecclesiastical. No one who has had the opportunity of comparing the designs of the English and the foreign mazes can fail to be struck with the great similarity between them; suggesting, at least, a common origin and purpose. And this suggestion is greatly strengthened when we notice that, although the English mazes are never (with one modern instance only excepted) within churches, as are the continental instances, yet they are almost invariably close to a church, or the ancient site of a church. The Alkborough and Wing mazes, for instance, are hard by the parish churches; and those at Sneinton, Winchester, and Boughton Green are beside spots once consecrated by chapels dedicated in honour of St. Anne, St. Catherine, and St. John. The most probable conjecture is that these were originally formed, and for long years were used, for purposes of devotion and penance. Doubtless in later times the children often trod those mazy ways in sport and emulation, which had been slowly measured countless times before in silent meditation or in penitential tears.

A word or two may be added in conclusion on mazes of the more modern sort, formed for amusement rather than for use, as a curious feature in a scheme of landscape gardening. These topiary  mazes, as they are called, usually have their paths defined by walls of well-cut box, yew, or other suitable shrubs; and they differ from the turf mazes in that they are often made purposely puzzling and misleading. In the ecclesiastical maze, it is always the patience, not the ingenuity, which is tested; there is but one road to follow, and though that one wanders in and out with tantalizing curves and coils, yet it leads him who follows it unerringly to the centre.

From Tudor times this form of decoration for a large garden has been more or less popular. Burleigh formed one at the old palace at Theobald's, Hertfordshire, about 1560; and the Maze in Southwark, near a spot once occupied by the residence of Queen Mary before coming to the throne, and Maze Hill at Greenwich, no doubt mark the sites of labyrinths now otherwise forgotten. Lord Fauconbergh had a maze at Sutton Court in 1691; and William III. so highly approved of them that, having left one behind him at the Palace of the Loo, he had another constructed at Hampton Court.

Literature and art have not disdained to interest themselves in this somewhat formal method of gardening; for in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries more than one treatise on their construction was published; while Holbein and Tintoretto have left behind them designs for topiary labyrinths.

The oldest and most famous maze in our history is “Fair Rosamond's Bower,” already mentioned. Of what kind this was, if indeed it was at all, it is difficult to say; authorities disagreeing as to whether it was a matter of architectural arrangement, of connected caves, or of some other kind. The trend of modern historical criticism in this, as in so many other romantic stories from our annals, is to deny its genuineness altogether.

Fortunately although so many of our ancient mazes have disappeared, the designs of their construction has, in not a few cases, been preserved to us by means of contemporary drawings; so that a fairly accurate idea of the type most commonly followed may still be obtained.

We have to thank Mr. J. Potter Briscoe, f.r.h.s., editor of “Old Nottinghamshire,” for kindly placing at our disposal the two illustrations relating to the St. Anne's Well Maze.