Monday, 4 March 2019

The Rollright Stones

The King’s Men stone circle.

The Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire consist a stone circle called the King’s Men, a Neolithic burial chamber called the Whispering Knights, and a lone standing stone called the King Stone.

The Whispering Knights, dating to c3800BC is the earliest of these. It is a portal dolmen, a tomb consisting of several upright stones with a capstone. There were probably originally more stones. A fragment of human bone was found inside it.

          The Whispering Knights.

The King’s Men is a 30m diameter stone circle consisting around seventy irregular-shaped stones – legend claims them uncountable – gathered from the nearby area. It was probably built c2500BC, the start of the Bronze Age. Originally there were around 105 stones, set in a continuous circle with an entrance on the southeast flanked by two portal stones. The tallest stone in the circle is directly opposite it.

The circle is slightly off the top of the hill and focuses the eye on the wide valley to the south; all along this, it is clearly prominent on the skyline. The Whispering Knights the same. The location of the circle was probably chosen because of this now ancient and dramatic tomb, from which it seems to be set at a polite distance.

The south-facing valley is possibly the best farmland in the immediate area and has been cultivated continuously since the Neolithic period when early farmers, perhaps those who raised the Whispering Knights, cleared woodland and rocks and began to work the soil. The circle was a gathering point, and celebrations which overlooked the valley and vice versa would have sealed the inhabitants’ lives and stories into the collective memory of the area. It may also have been a trade point. Similar stone circles are found in the Lake District, and Lake District stone axes are found right across Britain.

The King Stone. Its unusual shape is a result of 19th century drovers chipping talismans from it.

The King Stone is set a few metres from the top of the hill, by a rise which seems artificial. This no doubt gave rise to the legend of its origin.

The Danish warlord Rollo had invaded England with his army and a witch told him:

Seven long strides shalt thou take,

If Long Compton thou canst see,

King of England thou shalt be.

Rollo strode forward, sure of victory, shouting: Stick, stock, stone! As King of England I shall be known!

The witch caused a hill to rise in front of him, obscuring his view, and proclaimed,

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 myself an eldern tree.

Incidentally, Rollright derives from ‘Land of Rollo’. In the 19th century it was said there were enough witches in Long Compton to draw a load of hay up Long Compton Hill.

The King Stone is associated with a series of Bronze Age burials dating to c1800BC. It’s unclear whether the burials were positioned in relation to the stone or whether the stone was raised as a marker for them.

The view of Long Compton which Rollo was a few strides from seeing.

The stones are rife with folklore. The Whispering Knights, in common with megaliths across Britain, are said to go to the brook to drink at New Year or when they hear the church bells. Local girls ran naked around the stones on Midsummer’s Eve to see the face of the man they would marry. When a local farmer dragged the King Stone away to make a bridge, it took eight horses to draw it. After a plague of ill-luck, he returned it. Only one horse was needed for the uphill return journey.

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