Located on the border between Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, the Rollright Stones sit in the heart of Britain’s Cotswolds, one of the centres of paganism and witchcraft in the country. The stones cover different periods in prehistory and have attracted all manner of folklore and rituals over the many millennia that they have stood. From legends of kings and witches to fertility rituals and modern occultism, the history of the stones is shrouded in the arcane. Yet, amongst the mysteries, valuable archaeological work is also being done to try and preserve one of Britain’s most ancient monuments.
The Rollright Stones consist of three separate megalithic structures, all built close to each other during the Neolithic and Bronze Age. The names of the three constructs derive from local folklore surrounding the site and have been adopted by archaeologists and historians. They are the evocative King’s Men, King Stone, and the Whispering Knights.
The structures were first identified in De Mirabilibus Britanniae (The Wonders of Britain), a 13th-century account of Britain that comes from an unknown author. The manuscript describes the stones as having no known purpose, being built by people that remained unidentified. The book notes that the locals called the rocks “Rollendrith” with the local village of Great Rollright named as “Magna Rollandryght”. The English antiquarian and historian William Camden also wrote a detailed account of the stones in his 1586 work Britannia, putting some of the local legends surrounding the monument to paper for the first time.
The most well known of these is the legend of the king.
It is told that an unnamed King travelled across the Cotswolds with a troop of men. As they approached Rollright, they were accosted by a local witch. Some tellings link the witch to the historic soothsayer Mother Shipton, including the telling by Camden. The witch lured the unsuspecting men into a trap by proclaiming that “Seven long strides shalt thou take and if Long Compton thou canst see, King of England thou shalt be”. The men gathered in a circle to discuss the challenge. However, the greedy king would not wait or take council, instead, striding out to claim the kingdom. He took his seven strides, and as he finished, a mound rose to obstruct his view. As he failed, the witch cackled and said “As Long Compton thou canst not see, King of England thou shalt not be! Rise up stick and stand still stone, For King of England thou shalt be none; Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be, And I myself an elder tree!”
The men and king were immediately turned to stone, forming the King’s Men and the King Stone. As the witch was about to turn herself into an elder tree as stated, a party of men trailing behind came upon the scene. Before they could flee, the witch turned them into the Whispering Knights.
In 2015, the discovery of a female skeleton at the site had many speculating the body of the mythical witch had been found. Playing up the legend, the press reported that the woman had been dated to the 7th century and was seemingly high born and spiritual. She had been buried with a Roman patera used to cook offerings to the gods, a large amber bead and an amethyst set in silver.
“This was more of a social event as we weren’t expecting to find much. The ground is difficult to dig and you normally just find bottle caps from the Rollright Fayre they hold here. When my metal detector made a faint murmur, I knew I’d have to dig down deep, but thought it would only be a plough tooth that had been pressed into the ground. I got 14 inches down, and a small bronze rim appeared, but it seemed in too good condition to be anything significant. As I dug further though I saw it had a handle and it soon became obvious it was a patera, which is a very significant find. There’s a myth around here of the Rollright Witch, and this find is certainly very interesting because of the spiritual element. I’m not saying anything for sure, but there’s no smoke without fire. It was a once in a lifetime find. I could detect for the next 14 years and not find anything like it.”
Charles Wood, ITV
Over the coming centuries, other legends and myths became attached to the stones, with one story claiming that as the church clock at Great Rollright strikes midnight, the King Stone returns to life. Others, meanwhile, say that it is impossible to count the King’s Men and that nobody can ever name the same number three times in a row. Anyone who does manage the feat will have their heart’s desire fulfilled. One foolish baker is said to have tried to trick the stones, placing a loaf of bread on each one as he counted around the circle. However, the Devil himself intervened and removed the loaves as he walked.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the site became associated with fertility rites, with girls dancing naked around the stones at midnight on Midsummer’s Eve. Those taking part believed that they would see the man they would marry if they performed the ritual. Those who were without children would also pray close to the King Stone. Some even rubbed their bare breasts on the rock to encourage pregnancy.
In 1981, the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments commissioned a wide-ranging study to analyse the Rollright Stones and the surrounding area. This study hoped to gather enough information to create future policy surrounding the preservation of the structures. The surveys and excavations resulted in new data and information on the site and the archaeologist George Lambrick published three books on the subject that serve as cornerstones of research into the area. These include 1988’s The Rollright Stones: Megaliths, Monuments, and Settlement in the Prehistoric Landscape, which contains a full site report.
The stones used in the building of the site were local to the area, and Lambrick has argued that the immense stones weren’t quarried, instead being found as naturally occurring boulders. Despite there being less work involved than the infamous Stonehenge, the builders would still have had to transport the rocks uphill and are likely to have utilised wooden sledges for the task, possibly using logs as rollers.
The first of the megaliths to be constructed was the Whispering Knights. This structure was once a burial chamber around two metres in area. Four stones remain standing with a fifth believed to be a collapsed roof. The English antiquarian, physician, and Anglican clergyman William Stukeley thought that the Whispering Knights stood atop a round barrow. However, archaeological evidence has failed to prove the popular theory.
It is said that on New Year’s Day, these stones will move down to a local stream to drink, gaining sustenance for another year. Others say they were, in fact, not late to the disaster that befell their king but instead were plotting against him. The witch took no sympathy with them and turned them to stone anyway. At night, you can still hear the whispers of the men in the wind. Equally, those who climbed atop the rocks could listen to the wisdom of the ancients whispered into their ears.
The largest of the three structures is the King’s Men, being 108 feet in diameter and consisting of 77 closely spaced stones. Working at the site in the 1980s, George Lambrick believes that the stone circle would have been initially a more perfect barrier than it is today, suggesting that the stones had once touched to create walls. Surveys undertaken suggest there may be pits located in the centre of the circle related to burning. The monument isn’t entirely as it once was, with the owner of the site re-erecting and moving some of the stones in the late 1800s, even adding some to create a more perfect look. However, Lambrick believes the number of “fake” rocks to be no more than two.
Legend has it that removing the stones is fraught with danger. A local farmer is once said to have taken one of the biggest rocks, trying to create a bridge across a stream on his own property some distance away. 24 horses were required to pull the stone down the hill, and a man was killed in the attempt. Each time the labourers attempted to place the rock over the stream, it was flipped onto the bank. It was as if it had a mind of its own. Eventually, the farmer came to believe the stone was cursed and the men were forced to haul the immense megalith back up the hill as the original builders had done. Strangely, it only took one horse to take the stone home.
While there are legends about most of the stones, the most mysterious is perhaps the King Stone, with many debating the purpose of the single solitary construction. Standing alone, the stone has an uncertain date to add to its uncertain meaning. It is believed to have gained its unusual shape through the Victorian belief that the stone could avert evil, visitors chipping away pieces to use as charms.
George Lambrick has collated at least six distinct hypotheses as to the function of the King Stone, with some suggesting it’s positioning is relative to the King’s Men. In contrast, others believe it forms part of a long barrow, although no evidence has again been found for the presence of a barrow, much like at the Whispering Knights. The archaeologist Harry Aubrey Woodruff Burl believed that the King Stone was a marker to show the position of the King’s Men. Burl was noted for his work on both megalithic monuments and the prehistoric rituals associated with them. Despite this, most archaeologists favour the stone being a grave marker and believe it to be the last construction at the site during the Bronze Age.
Legends set the King Stone apart from the other Rollright Stones as something unique, with local tales suggesting that there are caves beneath the rock. These caves contain a portal to another realm where the fairie-folk reside. Days pass in this realm while only hours do above ground. At midnight, it is said you can see the fairies dancing around the stone.
In more recent times, the Rollright Stones have become a centre for both the occult and new age religions, with the Hertfordshire coven led by Gerald Gardner meeting at the site in 1959. In 1975, the ceremonial magician Bill Gray published the book The Rollright Ritual which recanted tales of his own experiences at the site. Gray revealed that the stones were utilised by a coven that he thought may have been led or influenced by his friend Robert Cochrane, another noted occultist. Pagan groups have likewise made the site home, many seeking meditation and communion with spirits they believe reside there.
In 1997, when the Rollright site was placed up for sale, these groups allied with other concerned individuals to ensure the stones remained accessible to the public, forming the private charity, the Rollright Trust. They continue to handle and maintain the site into the present day. The board consists of individuals from a range of backgrounds, including both Christians and Pagans, archaeologists, a biologist, and a landscape architect. Sadly, the site has come under attacks from those protesting against paganism in recent years and in 2006 a hut that was used to provide informational literature was destroyed in an arson attack. On another occasion, the King’s Men were covered in yellow gloss paint.
The Rollright Stones are one of many such stone circles that were built across Britain and Ireland over a period that spanned a thousand years. Pagan association with the site comes at the monument’s inception and reaches the present day, with verifiable links to fertility rites, witchcraft and the occult. The legends associated with the site add immense flavour to the location, yet even without the mythology, the stones stand as one of the hidden treasures of British history. While they may not be a king and his men, there are certainly plenty of mysteries as to the real purpose of the stones and what function they played in the day to day lives of ancient Britons.
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