Post by Graveyardbride on Oct 20, 2013 22:40:12 GMT -5
The Rollright Stones and Their Legends
In the neighbourhood of Oxford there are
Great stones, arranged as it were in some
Connection by the hand of man. But at
What time; or by what people; or for
What memorial or significance, is unknown.
Though the place is called by the inhabitants
(Demirabilibus Britanniae, 11th century)
The Rollright Stones is the collective name of a group of prehistoric monuments located next to an ancient ridgeway known as the Jurassic Way on the border between the counties of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire in the English Midlands. The name “Rollright” derives from Hrolla-landriht – “the land of Hrolla.” The complex of monuments at the site consist of three main elements: the “King’s Men,” a circle of about 70 stones, probably dating to around 2500 BC; the “King Stone,” a solitary weathered monolith dated to 1792 BC; and the “Whispering Knights,” the remains of the burial chamber of a Middle to Late Neolithic portal dolmen, estimated to date between 3800 and 3000 BC. There are also two additional monuments, both almost completely destroyed, a round cairn (a roughly hemispherical burial mound constructed primarily of stones) and a ditched round barrow (a hemispherical burial mound). Though by no means as grand and well-preserved as the Avebury or Stonehenge ritual landscapes, the Rollright monuments possess their own unique atmosphere and have attracted a wealth of folklore over the centuries involving witches, fairies, invading “Danes” and the famous prophetess Mother Shipton.
The skeleton of the earliest structure in the Rollright complex, the Whispering Knights portal dolmen, consists of four vertically set stones from 5-feet to around 8-feet in height and a fallen capstone, oriented southeastward down a gradual slope. The covering earthen mound has long since vanished, perhaps during Roman occupation of the site, evidenced by pottery discovered in excavations in the area. Some researchers have contested the identification of the Whispering Knights as a chambered tomb, although the discovery of a fragment of human skull within the chamber by T. H. Ravenhill at least testifies to its use for burial.
Around a thousand years after the construction of the Whispering Knights, the builders of the King’s Men planned and erected their stone circle within sight (about 1150 feet to the west) of the portal dolmen. The Knig’s Men is an almost-perfect circle of 70 heavily weathered oolitic limestone monoliths with an internal diameter of around 105 feet. It is thought the circle may once have contained as many as 100 stones creating an almost continuous wall, with an entrance on the south-southeast formed by two outlying portals, one now collapsed. Unfortunately, a number of stones have fallen, been removed, or been damaged over time and in 1882, some of the fallen stones were re-erected, possibly in the wrong positions, by the local landowner. There are similarities between the Rollright stone circle and those of Swinsdale and Long Meg and Her Daughters in Cumbria (northwest England). These circles also have stones positioned outside their circumference, which are astronomically aligned, as also seems to be the case with the external portal stones at the King’s Men, which Aubrey Burl suggests were aligned to the major rising of the southern moon at midsummer. Burl also suggests another possible connection between the Midland circle and those of Cumbria when he posits that the King’s Men may have been a “depot" from which Cumbrian stone axes were exchanged. Indeed, a fragment of a greenstone axe, probably from Cumbria, was discovered at Rollright, although the theory that the stone circle was constructed primarily as an arena for axe distribution remains unproven.
On the other side of the ridgeway (now a modern road) about 230 feet northeast of the King’s Men, stands the King Stone. This 8-foot-high gnarled pillar attained its odd curved profile in the 19th century as a result of the actions of Welsh drovers, who would hack pieces off to keep as charms. It is not certain what function the King Stone fulfilled, though it may have been a marker for an associated graveyard. Support for this theory is suggested by the remains of a round cairn, 56 feet across, just to the northwest of the Stone, which has been radiocarbon-dated to around 1800 BC, and a small round barrow to the west, inside of which were an infant’s cremated bones and a collared urn (a type of Early and Middle Bronze Age pottery cinerary urn) dating to around 1750 BC.
However, Aubrey Burl is of the opinion the King Stone functioned rather as an outlier to the King’s Men stone circle, set up as a signpost to guide travelers or pilgrims approaching along the Jurassic Way to the circle. Of course, the King Stone may have begun life as a marker for the King’s Men and later became the focus of burial monuments. Without additional information from archaeological excavation and survey, it is difficult to be certain how the monuments in the Rollrights ritual landscape related to each other and how they were used.
One rather unorthodox attempt to understand prehistoric monuments in terms of the “energy fields” supposedly associated with them was set up by researcher Paul Devereaux in the late 1970s. Based at the Rollright Stones, the “Dragon Project” started in 1977 and involved interdisciplinary work undertaken by volunteers at prehistoric sites in the UK and other countries. The project utilized dowsers, psychics, astronomers and a variety of scientific tests such as ultrasound, infrared photography, magnetometer and Geiger counter monitoring. Although magnetic and radiation anomalies were recorded on some occasions, there was no evidence for the presence of particularly exotic energies connected to prehistoric sites.
Another resource of information on the Rollright Stones is its very rich store of folklore; indeed, the monuments in the area seem to have attracted more legends than almost any other prehistoric site in England. The earliest known belief about the stones – that they were petrified men – is first mentioned in Camden’s Britannia, written in Latin in 1586:
... an ancient Monument ... to wit, certaine large stones placed in a round circle (the common people usually call them Rolle-rick stones, and dreameth that they wer sometimes men by a wonderful Metamorphosis turned into hard stones) ... For, without all form and shape they bee, unequall, and by long continuance of time much impaired. The highest of them all, which without the circle looketh into the earth, they use to call the King, because hee should have beene King of England (forsooth) if hee had once seene Long Compton, a little towne so called lying beneath and which a man if he goe some few paces forward many see; other five standing on the other side, touching as it mere one another, they imagine to have been knights mounted on horsebacke and the rest the Army. But loe the foresaid portraiture. There would I verily thinke to have beene the Monument of some Victory and haply erected by Rollo the Dane who afterwards conquered Normandy.
Writing in the journal Folklore (September 1902), Percy Manning mentions perhaps the earliest appearance of a well-known rhyme about the Rollright Stones, added as manuscript notes to his copy of Dr. R. Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire (2nd edition, 1705):
Said the Danish General,
If Long Compton I cou’d see
Then King of England I shou’d be.
But reply’d the [“British” erased] Saxon General,
Then rise up Hill & stand fast Stone-
For King of England thou’lt be none.
By the mid-19th century, the “Saxon General” had been replaced by a witch. The witch confronts a conquering king at Rollright, who is a few steps away from the crest of the ridge from where the village of Long Compton, lying in the valley below, is visible. According to the most compete version of the tale, collected by Arthur Evans from local people and published in Folklore in 1895, the witch stopped the king in his tracks by saying:
Seven long strides shoult thout take, and if Long Cmpton
thou canst see, King of England thou shalt be.
Realizing the village would certainly be visible fro, the edge of the hill, the king strode forward shouting:
Stick, stock, stone, As King of England I shall be known!
Taking seven strides forward, the king was suddenly confronted by a long mount of earth rising magically before him (the mound of earth that still exists near the King Stone) and blocking his view of the valley below. The witch then said:
As Long Compton thou canst not see
King of England thou shalt not be.
Rise up, stick and I shall still, stone,
For King of England thou shalt be none,
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be
And I myself an eldern-tree.
And so the King and his army became the King Stone and King’s Men stone circle and the witch became an elder tree. The Whispering Knights were said to be huddled together plotting treachery against the King when they were also turned to stone by the witch. The witch in this tale was sometimes identified as the mythical prophetess “Mother Shipton,” probably for reason other than the proximity to Rollright of a village called Shipton-under-Wychwood. As this folktale shows, the stones have a connection in popular imagination with witchcraft, though how far back this connection goes is not clear. Writing in the magazine 3rd Stone (Winter 2000/2001), folklorist Jennifer Westwood has shown that both the witch and the related elder tree elements of Rollright folklore are of comparatively recent date, there being no evidence for either motif earlier than the mid-19th century in stories about the site. In fact, in versions of the petrification tale from earlier in the 19th century, it is not a witch but a “magician” who turns the King and his army to stone. The witch element at Rollright seems to have become popular because the village of Long Compton and surrounding area had a reputation for witchcraft in the 19th century, though the region does not seem to have been noted for its witches during the witchcraft persecutions of the 16th and 17th centuries.
In September 1875, an old woman of Long Compton named Anne Turner was stabbed to death with a pitchfork by a feebleminded farm laborer called James Haywood, who believed her to be the head of a local witches’ coven that had cursed him. The local belief in witches was still strong in 1945, when another murder occurred, this time on Meon Hill, near Lower Compton, a few miles to the northwest of Rollright. On Valentine’s Day, a hedger named Charles Walton was found pinned to the ground with a hayfork, with a cross carved into his chest and neck. The murder was never solved, although some suspected a ritual or “witchcraft”-related killing. Over the last few decades, the Rollright Stones have attracted followers of modern witchcraft, or Wicca, as well as other pagan and ritual magic groups that still hold ceremonies within the stone circle today.
Fairies are often connected in folklore with prehistoric monuments and the Rollrights are no exception. In the late 19th century, Arthur Evans was told that a man named Will Hughes, from the village of Long Compton, had once seen fairies dancing around the King Stone and described them as “little folk like girls to look at.” Hughes’ widow, Betsey (whose mother had apparently been “murdered as a witch”), a woman between and 70 and 80 years of age when interviewed by Evans, told him that when she was a little girl working in the hedgerows, there was a gap in the bank close to the King Stone, from where fairies emerged to dance in the night. Betsey and her friends had often placed a flat stone over the hole in the evening to keep the fairies in, only to find it turned over the following morning.
The folklore of the Rollright Stones contains three of the standard motifs connected to megalithic monuments. The first is that whoever removes a stone from the site will suffer the consequences, well illustrated by the tale of the farmer who took away the capstone of the Whispering Knights to act as bridge across the brook at Little Rollright. After an exhausting ordeal using “a score of horses” to drag the stone down to the brook (according to Arthur J. Evans’ article in the March 1895 issue of Folklore), the farmer and his helpers laid it across the stream to form the bridge. But every morning, the stone was found lying in the grass, having somehow turned over in the night. Deciding the stone was more trouble that it was worth, the farmer managed to return it using only a single horse to pull it up the hill – an indication the stone was somehow propelling itself home.
Another common element in megalithic folklore is the idea that it is impossible to accurately count the number of stones at a site. There is a story that a baker once placed a loaf of bread on each stone in order to count them correctly, but no matter how carefully he placed the loaves, there was always one stone without a loaf, thus, he was never able to accurately count the stones. The third element is that the King Stone and Whispering Knights are said to go down the hill at midnight to drink from a spring in Little Rollright Spinney. The Banbury Stone (Worcestershire), the Whetsone at Kingstone in Herefordshire, and the Hoarstone at Enstone (Oxfordshire) are other examples of drinking stones.
Unfortunately, recent history of the Rollright stones, now owned by the Rollright Trust, has been far from pleasant. Over the past few years, the stones have been repeatedly vandalized. In March 2004, many of the King’s Men were daubed in yellow paint and on March 23, 2006, the warden’s hut at the site was broken into and burnt to the ground. Another act of mindless vandalism occurred in September 2007 when the monument plaque at the King Stone was wrenched from the fence, broken and the information board daubed in graffiti. More seriously, a tire was forced over one of the stones in the King’s Men circle, filled with wood and set alight, blackening a large pert of the stone and causing cracks to appear around its circumference. What provokes such moronic acts is unclear, but George Lambrick, chairman of the Rollright Trust, says the Trust is considering “installing some kind of CCTV system here to deter further attacks.” Such action may, indeed, be necessary if we are to preserve what is left of the ancient ritual landscape at Rollright before it is too late.
Sources: Haunted Spaces, Sacred Places: A Field Guide to Stone Circles, Crop Circles, Ancient Tombs and Supernatural Landscapes by Brian Haughton.