The Witch and the Rollright Stones

Magic, ritual, myth, and mystery – there’s a lot to love about the Rollright Stones, located on the border between Oxfordshire and Warwickshire in England. And although this isn’t the only prehistoric stone circle in Great Britain, it does have one attraction the others don’t – a witch legend.  

According to the story, once upon a time a king, his army, and his knights were marching through the ancient Cotswold Hills when they encountered a witch. This witch told the king that he could become the king of all England if after taking seven long strides he could take see the town of Long Compton.

The King Stone
The king followed her instructions, but after taking seven steps his view of the town was blocked by a mound. So, the witch, no doubt with an evil cackle, turned the king and his followers to stone. And they remain petrified to this day - the king’s men, the huddled knights, and the solitary king. 

The legend doesn’t end there. The witch herself became an elder tree, supposedly still nearby. If you can find the tree and cut it down, the story goes, you’ll release the king and his men from their prisons of stone.

It makes a great tale, but there’s one problem. The Rollright Stones date back to the Neolithic and Bronze Ages – approximately 2800-1800 BCE. The legend doesn't go back nearly as far. In fact, it was first documented by William Camden in 1610, only 400 years ago.

The Whispering Knights
No doubt the odd grouping of stones inspired the legend. At Rollright there sits a large circle of stones (108 feet in diameter) which is named for the King’s Men. 

About 83 yards north of the King's Men is the King Stone, the resting place of the unlucky king according to the myth.

East of the stone circle about 400 yards is a small group of four standing stones (there used to be more) known as the Whispering Knights. 

But the Rollright Stones and Stonehenge aren’t the only prehistoric stone circles around. There’s an even older and bigger complex of stones at the Avebury monument site in Wiltshire, about 17 miles north of Stonehenge. 

And I was amazed to learn that even though many ancient megaliths have been demolished, there are still over 1,000 stone circles that exist in the UK and neighboring areas.

Most of these circles are in Scotland (508), with an additional 187 in Ireland and 156 in Northern Ireland. There are also 81 stone circles in Wales, 56 in Brittany and 6 in the Channel Islands. 

If you want to go further afield, you can find similar stone circles in countries like Australia, Senegal, Gambia, Israel, and Hong Kong. Our prehistoric ancestors must have loved creating these massive circles of stone!  

Part of the King's Men circle of stones

How does all this relate to the Regency period? Well, even though Jane Austen never wrote about the Rollright Stones in any of her novels, people during that era certainly knew about them and other stone circles in their country. Their knowledge was mainly due to the work of four Englishmen who lived during the 16th and 17th centuries.  

The first of these was John Leland, an early 16th-century poet and student of antiquities who came across the stones in his travels across England. William Camden, another antiquarian who lived later in that century, went into topographical detail about the stones in his 1586 book Britannia.

John Aubrey
But it wasn’t until much later that John Aubrey and William Stukeley took a more scholarly approach to the topic of Neolithic stone circles, and they pioneered the field of archaeology in the process.

Aubrey (1626-1697) wrote many first accounts of the megalithic stone monuments he saw in the fields of southern England. He made significant discoveries at the Avebury and Stonehenge sites, and created maps and records that have preserved his findings. The Aubrey holes at Stonehenge are named in his honor. 

William Stukeley’s long life ended almost a decade before Jane Austen was born, but while he lived he advanced the study of stone circles even further. Besides being a scholar and one of the first archaeologists, Stukeley (1687-1785) was also a clergyman and physician, and a friend of Isaac Newton. 

William Stukeley
Like Aubury, Stukeley was fascinated by the stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury and visited the two sites often, taking careful measurements. He was appalled when he saw people chipping pieces of stone off the megaliths. Though he couldn’t stop all of the destruction, the drawings he made have given future generations an accurate image of what the circles used to look like. 

Though we know a lot about the stones, there’s still plenty of unanswered questions regarding who placed them where they are and why.

Were stone circles used as a site for religious ceremonies? Were they carefully positioned as a way to read the stars? Or were they perhaps a monument to the dead? Modern scientists have detected human remains in a burial chamber beneath the Whispering Knights, making it credible that those stones were installed to mark a grave. 

In addition to those mysteries, the Rollright Stones are also associated with some intriguing phenomenon. Experiments suggest that the stones may possess unusual magnetic energy. People who have explored the area with dowsing rods have reported strong reactions – one dowser said that at one point his rods spun like helicopter rotors.

Other investigators hypothesize that the stones could be part of a network of ancient ley lines that connect them to other megaliths or sites sacred to ancient pagan religions. If this theory is accurate, these lines would have functioned like a track or roadmap for prehistoric pilgrims.

Over the centuries other legends about the stones have developed. A popular one is that no one can count the stones the same way three times and get the same number. And surprisingly, from the accounts I’ve read, it is unexpectedly difficult to get a repeatable count of the number of stones at Rollright.

A 1645 illustration of the King's Men at the Rollright Stones,
showing how the circle looked several centuries ago

Colorful stories swirled around the Rollright stone circle in the 18th and 19th centuries, folklore that included not only fairies and witches but also supernatural events and fertility rituals.

For example, some people believed that the king trapped in the King Stone could come to life briefly every night when the church clock of the nearby village chimed the midnight hour. A similar story is that the king and his men could reanimate on holy days.  

And, according to some fables, if a young unmarried woman ran naked around the circle of stones at midnight on Midsummer’s Eve, she could catch a mystical glimpse of the man she was destined to marry or overhear the king and his men (who'd magically come to life) drop the name of her future husband.

A similar ritual involved barren wives, who hoped that by rubbing their bare breasts on the King's Stone, also at midnight on Midsummer's Eve, they'd be able to conceive a child. 

The cast of Father Brown, starring Mark Williams

Today the stones still work plenty of magic on people’s imaginations, as they’ve done for centuries. 

In the 20th century, ancient stone circles became a magnet for contemporary pagans, Wiccans and others, who use the site for their own magical or religious ceremonies. 

There was even a coven known as the Regency which used to meet at the Rollright stone circle during the revival of paganism in the 1960s and 70s. The founders of the coven didn't have the Prince Regent in mind when they chose their name, but you have to admit it's a nice coincidence for this blog. 

Witchcraft aside, the Rollright Stones are a popular tourist attraction and continue to inspire stories and songs.                             

The stones played a prominent role in a 2015 episode of the British TV series Father Brown, which is set in the Cotswolds in the early 1950s. In “The Standing Stones” superstitious villagers enact a pagan ritual within the stone circle to end a polio epidemic in their village.  

In 1978 the long-running British serial Doctor Who featured the Rollright Stones in an episode titled "The Stone of Blood." 
Also in the 1970s, Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi of the English rock band Traffic wrote and recorded “The Roll Right Stones” on their album Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory. (You can hear the song on YouTube here.)

Today the stones are protected by the Rollright Trust and private individuals. You see the stones at Fairs (or “fayres”) and other events hosted at the site. Or you can just hike there and walk around to take in their atmosphere on your own.

No need to hurry. One thing is for certain: those ancient stones aren’t going anywhere. 

Happy Halloween!

For more information on the Rollright Stones visit the official website.

You can read more stories about fables and rituals in Great Stone Circles by Aubrey Burl, Yale University, 1999.

Finally, for other tales of witches see this episode of Mystic Britain, "The Rollright Witch," on the Smithsonian Channel.

Images courtesy of Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons 
(Photos of the Rollright Stones were taken by Midnightblueowl for English Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0)

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