Myths and legends
Kings, Witches and Faeries - some of the Wyrd stuff
At certain times the Rollright Stone Circle exudes a feeling of timelessness - an atmosphere of mystery and magic which is enhanced by the large collection of folklore, myth and tales of strange goings-on associated with the Stones.
Turned to Stone
Many Stone Circles and standing stones in the British Isles are said to be the stony images of impious revellers petrified by the hand of either God or the Devil for wickedly dancing and fiddling (or picking turnips) on the Sabbath. These legends may have originated at a time when Christianity was struggling to win over (or frighten) the hearts and minds of the largely pagan populace, or they could date from the righteous maelstrom created by the Puritans.
The Rollright stone story is different and was first referred to in print by Camden in 1586, since when the tale has become considerably more elaborate.
A King with ambitions to conquer all of England had got as far as the Rollrights when up popped a witch. According to some accounts she was Mother Shipton of Shipton-under-Wychwood (c.1488-1551). She challenged the King with these words -
“Seven long strides shalt thou take And if Long Compton thou canst see, King of England thou shalt be.”
Off went the King, shouting -
“Stick, stock, stone As King of England I shall be known.”
On his seventh stride the ground rose up before him in a long mound sometimes known as the Arch-Druid’s barrow. The witch laughed and declared -
“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 eldern tree.”
And so it was that the King became the King Stone, his men the King’s Men Stone Circle, and his treacherous and conniving knights the Whispering Knights, although some say that the knights were actually at prayer.
Tradition has it that one day the spell will be broken. The King and his men will return to life and continue with their conquest of England. (Unless they meet another witch).
What the unfortunate King had done to incur the wrath of Mother Shipton is not known. Even less clear is why the witch should have turned herself into an elder tree - maybe she was keeping an eye on the victims of her magic. The witch-elder is said to be in a hedge between the King Stone and the Stone Circle, and if cut when in blossom it will bleed. Once upon a time people would gather round the King Stone on Midsummer’s Eve - when the elder was cut the King would move his head.
Drinking and Dancing with the Stones
Mother Shipton’s spell is temporarily broken at midnight when the King’s Men come back to life and, joining hands, they dance in a circle. Also at the witching hour the Stones go down the hill to drink at a spring at Little Rollright spinney, although the King only goes when he hears the Long Compton clock striking twelve.
Anyone witnessing these scenes will either go mad or die. Tales of madness or death must have been very useful to people (witches or otherwise) who wanted to keep prying eyes away from the Stones, in much the same way that Cornish smugglers used to spread gruesome ghost stories.
There are also stories about the consequences of moving or damaging the Stones. A man from Banbury took a chipping from one of the stones - on returning to his cart he found that the wheels were solidly locked. A young soldier took a chip with him to India where he promptly died of typhus.
A farmer from Little Rollright is said to have removed the capstone of the Whispering Knights to build a bridge across the stream. It took a score of horses (and the death of two men) to drag the stone down the hill. Strange and eery noises gave the farmer no peace - every morning the stone had turned over and lay on the bank. The farmer finally decided that enough was enough and that he had to take the stone back. With the greatest of ease one horse pulled the stone back up the hill.
Counting the Countless Stones
Legend has it that it is impossible to count the King’s Men. A baker swore he could count them and and to prove it he baked a number of loaves. He placed one on each of the stones, but each time he tried to tally them up some of the loaves were missing, spirited away either by the Devil or by faeries. It is said that -
The man will never live who shall count the stones three times and find the number the same each time.
In complete contrast it is also said that anyone who thrice counts the same number will have their heart’s desire fulfilled.
Even to this day it it genuinely difficult to count the Stones, and modern accounts seem to vary in the numbers they give, especially as it is not known exactly which of the Stones are original.
Underneath the King Stone and the King’s Men there are supposed to be caves which are the haunt of the faeries, or little folk. At midnight the faeries come out of a hole in a bank and dance around the Stones by the light of the moon - if the hole is blocked up with a flat stone it will have been turned over by the time the morning sun rises. At other sites across the country where faeries are said to live there are reports of people disappearing into faerie holes for what seems like many years. When they re-emerge, however, they find that they have only been gone for a matter of hours. Tradition has it that it is good luck to leave a small gift for the faeries, who could well be a lingering memory of pagan deities.
We heard a story recently about a four year old girl who visited the Rollrights for the first time. Although she couldn’t say why, she was frightened by the atmosphere of the Stones. Since then she has had a recurring dream in which she sees a woman entering a cavern underneath the Circle and turning into a serpent. This young girl has never been told about the faeries who live under the Stones - maybe children possess a knowledge or intuition that we lose as we grow older? Young children certainly have a wisdom that goes beyond their years.
The Rollrights have been a traditional meeting place of witches since at least Tudor times and probably long before that, presumably because of the Stones’ mysterious power and their pagan origins. One Good Friday a labourer met a farmer who asked him where he was headed. He replied, “Why, I be a-going to the King-Stones, for there I shall be on holy ground.”
Long Compton, a mile away from the Stones, has a centuries old tradition of witchcraft. Unfortunately in 1875 this led to the murder of 80 year old Anne by James Heywood, who believed that he had been bewitched by Mistress Tennant. For Heywood the fact that his neighbour kept toads in her garden was probably ample evidence of witchcraft. He was quickly apprehended and readily confessed. He added that there were 16 witches in Long Compton and said “If I had my way, I would kill them all”. At his trial he asked the judge to weigh Anne Tennant’s body against the church Bible - an old test of determining a witch. Heywood was judged to be insane and was sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Warwick jail. Still believing himself to be bewitched, Heywood refused to eat or drink and died a few months later. What comes around, goes around.
Maybe Heywood had been influenced by the well-known local saying that “there are enough witches in Long Compton to draw a wagon-load of hay up Long Compton Hill”. (Surely if they were proper witches they wouldn’t have had to push?)
Fertility and Fortune Telling
The Stones, and in particular the King Stone, are supposed to have the power to promote fertility. Young women would go to the King Stone at night to touch it with their breasts. William Stukeley in 1743 related a tale of young men and maidens gathering on a certain day of the year to “make merry with cakes and ale.”
During the last century the Whispering Knights were often visited by girls and young women who would put their ears to the Stones to hear them whisper the name of their future husbands.
George Lambrick “The Rollright Stones” (pamphlet) 1983
Janet and Colin Bord “Mysterious Britain” 1974 Ed.
Chris Morgan “Strange Oxford” 1987
Doreen Valiente “An ABC of Witchcraft” 1996
Mark Turner “Folklore & Mysteries of the Cotswolds” 1993