Visiting the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire in January with my daughter was a slightly spooky experience. Set in a field next to an ancient ridgeway with a wood nearby, these prehistoric stones still exude an air of power. The most important are ‘The King’s Men’, a Neolithic stone circle of over a hundred stones weather-worn into fantastical shapes (the exact number is unknown – legend has it that they are uncountable), dating from around 3000 BC.

Me, standing by one of the King’s Men stones

The photo of me standing beside one of the King’s Stones gives an indication of height – I am 5ft. 7in. Note the yellow roses in the bottom right hand corner. There was no-one else there when we visited – mind you it was a cold January day, but there was plenty of evidence that people had been there and left offerings.

Hobberdy Dick by Katherine M. Briggs

The reason we were visiting the Rollright Stones was because we both love Katherine M Briggs’s children’s book, Hobberdy Dick (1955) and we wanted to see the Stones, which are part of the story, for ourselves. Hobberdy Dick is a hobgoblin who lives in Widford Manor near the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire, just after the English Civil War. Briggs was a well-known authority on English folk lore and she plainly knew about 17th century witchcraft’s link with the Stones.

 

The King’s Men, another angle

Originally, the stones stood shoulder to shoulder and a portal on the south-east side is just discernible. The stones on the north-west are about a third higher and heavier – we don’t know why.

 

The Whispering Knights

‘The Whispering Knights’, the remains of a portal dolmen or burial chamber about ten minutes’ walk away at the far end of the field, is the oldest of the stone structures, dating from 3800-3000 BC. The three ‘Whispering Knights’ are the two massive portal supports together with another large leaning stone; the huge capstone which once sat aslant on top of the burial chamber has fallen down and isn’t visible in this picture.

The Whispering Knights  – the other side

However, from the other side, it looks completely different; and here you can just see the fallen capstone at the back. We also spotted small gifts of rose hips, a flower or two and so on, tucked into some of the crevices.

The King’s Stone

‘The King’s Stone’, a large single standing stone, stands by itself in field next to the stone circle. In reality, it is nothing to do with the circle but was erected much later, around 1800-1500 BC, probably to mark a Bronze Age cemetery. The reason it has a notch on the left side is because in the 19th century people chipped bits off for luck. The railings are now there to protect it.

Offering in the centre of the King’s Men Stone Circle

What I love about the whole complex is that the stones are completely accessible – there is no Visitor Centre, no ticket office. They are there, in the field, next to a B road as they have been for thousands of years, and anybody can visit them at any time. There are numerous prehistoric burial chambers nearby, and the whole area must have been an important and significant site for at least two thousand years.

 

The Wicker Witch

Naturally, legends about the site abound. One story goes that King Rollo the Dane passed by with his army on his way to conquer England. He met a witch who said:

              Seven long strides shalt thou take, and

              If Long Compton thou canst see

              King of England shalt thou be.

Rollo stepped forward eagerly but the witch raised a long mound in front of him and his view was obscured. She then turned them all to stone; the king by himself overlooking Long Compton, his men in a circle nearby and the five treacherous knights further off. Finally, she transformed herself into an elder tree. It is said that, at night, the stones comes alive and the King’s Men go down to the river to drink.

When we visited, the place was deserted but other visitors had been there very recently. In the centre of the circle lay a wreath of holly, ivy, pine cones, a pomegranate, some apples and some feathers, evidence of some sort of ceremony. Others, too, had left offerings of rose hips and berries elsewhere. What a setting for a novel, I thought.

‘This part of the world is a very witchy place,’ said my daughter. I could see what she meant. But we both agreed that, whatever may have happened here in the past, nowadays, walking around quietly among the King’s Men and visiting the Whispering Knights and the King Stone, the atmosphere was peaceful and benign.

The Rollright Trust, who looks after the place, urges to public to subscribe to the Sacred Sites Charter: Take nothing but photographs and memories. Leave nothing but footprints.

We complied.

Elizabeth Hawksley

 

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10 Responses to Witchcraft and the Rollright Stones

  • Wonderful. These stone remind me somewhat of the Neolithic and Bronze age menhirs found elsewhere in Europe. including in Corsica. Generally supposed to be monuments to past heroes and warriors, creating a sacred place for solemn meetings of the living.

    • You could be right, Julia. Whoever erected them must have taken a lot of trouble, especially with the King’s Men circle where the stones originally fitted so closely together that they created a sort of wall against the outside world. The site was obviously important and remained so, according to archaeologists, for two thousand years.

  • Thanks for posting, this, Elizabeth. It’s interesting that you thought the atmosphere was peaceful and benign. I haven’t visited that articular site but all the other British stone circles I’ve seen gave off unpleasantly jarring vibes. Castlerigg near Keswick, Cumbria was particularly menacing, it is beautifully situated with gorgeous views of the mountains but I couldn’t leave to leave!

    • How interesting, Gail. I don’t often find that stone circles give off unpleasant vibes; I usually get a feeling of power coming from them, and sometimes a sort of warmth. My daughter and I was quiet and respectful and the stones were kind.

      I came across a wonderful account of a midnight performance of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ inside the Rollright circle in June, 1991. The audience stood outside. The play was disrupted by a sudden fierce gale; mobile phones failed, a stop watch lost ten minutes an hour, quartz watches went wrong, actors forgot their lines, and some of the actors saw strange lights. At the end, the players applauded the audience for their staying-power, and the drenched spectators cheered the cast! Plainly, something happened, but what?

      Some battlefields, however, can be very disturbing – Edgehill (1643) for example.

      • That is extraordinary! (The spooky goings on during The Tempest, I mean ). Was it reported in a newspaper? If you put that in a novel no one would believe it.

        • I learnt about the production from Dr Aubrey Burl’s Guidebook to The Rollright Stones. ‘The Tempest’ was performed by the Phoebus Cart Company, an offshoot of the Globe Theatre, and if you google The Tempest, Phoebus Cart Company, Rollright Stones, it comes up with a number of websites which might interest you.

          I don’t know what date in June they performed it but, I agree with you, Midsummer’s Eve would seem a suitable date.

  • Spooky indeed. I love this kind of thing and watch Time Team whenever I can. The archaeologists produce such interesting data from a few stones and shadows in the earth. I wonder if this site has ever been excavated or if they know enough from what is on the surface?

    • Me, too, Elizabeth! Bring back ‘Time Team’ – I really miss them. I recommend Dr Aubrey Burl’s guidebook on The Rollright Stones which gives an excellent archaeological and historical account of the site, which is a complex one, as well as mentioning variousw legends and the spooky performance. (I think Mark Rylance might have played Prospero!)

  • Maybe the time of year affects what happens in circles. If the “Tempest” performance was around the date of the summer solstice then that could have had something to do with it. I know a lot of people think other-worldly vibes are a load of rubbish, but I think certain places do have an atmosphere that’s not easily explained. As you say, Elizabeth, battlefields are often upsetting and I’m sure it isn’t all down to over active imagination.

    • I agree with you, Gail. I have been in one or two places which have felt seriously unpleasant. And you could be right about the Summer Solstice – see my answer to Julia below.