The Rollright Stones are one of the most well known of Britain's stone circles and megaliths, standing alongside Stonehenge and Avebury as a “must see” ancient site. Each of the three parts of this sacred landscape has it's own history, folklore and indeed its own name but it is The King's Men, the main circle, that is most often associated with the Rollrights.
The exact era of it's construction cannot be nailed down but the evidence indicates sometime between 3000 and 2000 BC. Archaeologists have theorised that it may have been built by a travelling team of “megalith makers” who were brought down for the job as there are many similarities with sites in the Lake District, Long Meg and Castlerigg do spring to mind even if the King's men are on a smaller scale to them.
Most people are familiar with the legend of how the circle came to be. A king was passing along the road with his small army when he was confronted by an old lady standing in their way. She was a witch and promised the king victory in his future battles and the throne of all of England if he accepted her challenge, but dire consequences should he lose. He was to take seven strides towards the village of Long Compton and if he could see it he won.
“Seven long strides thou shalt take, says she And if Long Compton thou canst see, King of England thou shalt be! “
The lord scoffed at the old witch and, ordering his men to form a circle around the crone he marched across in the direction she pointed. The plateau was a lot steeper than he thought though, and to his annoyance after seven steps his view was still blocked. He turned to order his men to strike the woman down but it was too late...
“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! “
They all turned instantly to stone then the witch noticed a small group of stragglers bringing up the rear who had been plotting against the king, they were zapped too. So were born the King's Stone, the King's Men, and the Whispering Knights. Why the witch would want to turn herself permanently into a tree is anyone's guess, but we know now that the Whispering Knights is a collapsed dolmen much older than the King's Men, and the Kings Stone much newer, perhaps a boundary marker. The witch is often supposed to have been Old Mother Shipton the famous prophetess and seer, but her legend is more commonly associated with Yorkshire where the cave she is traditionally said to have lived in is. The king and his men were sometimes said to have been marauding Danes which lends at least a little credible historicity, but they could also have been early Angles or Saxons as much as Vikings, which brings us to another interesting feature of the site.
The grave of an Anglo Saxon lady was discovered by detectorists close to the King's Stone in 2015. Judging from the grave goods found with her she was of some importance in the community but crucially no objects associated with Christianity were found, and this led some media outlets to dub her a “witch”. A silly headline, borne out of most people forgetting that for the first three centuries of their presence here, the Anglo Saxons were pagan, and many even reverted back to their old ways during the later Danish Viking presence in England. She was one of many graves there forming a seventh century Anglo Saxon cemetery but this young woman appears to have been the “grandest”. However, it's not out of the realms of possibility that distant memories of her mound looking a little more intact might have fertilised the shoots of the king and the witch legend?
In the 20thcentury the King's Men, or just “the Rollrights” as they are now more commonly referred to, became a place of great significance to the burgeoning modern pagan movements led by individuals such as Robert Cochrane, Doreen Valiente and of course Gerald Gardner. William Gray, an apprentice of Cochrane, spent a lot of time meditating at the circle in attempts to commune with the forces and entities he claimed dwelt there. Gray developed an elaborate system of occult transformation, more kabbalistic than pagan, finally distilling it into a lengthy ritual he performed at the Rollrights. “The Rollright Ritual” was written as a book and is available today, and I have heard of some performing it at the stones over the course of several nights.
I have written before about the ritualistic murder of Charles Walton at Lower Quinton and locals used to say that he mentioned attending heathen ceremonies as a boy at the Rollrights with a “coven of witches”. This suggests that relatively modern associations with witchcraft and pagan practises go much further back than the advent of wicca, as this would have been around the Victorian age. Why here more than other places, I have no idea. Today the tree overlooking the circle is covered in all manner of clooties and ribbons and, whatever your opinion on them they show that the draw of the King's Men to those of pagan inclinations as as strong as it ever was.
Try as you might, you can't count the same number of stones twice!
The stones looking spooky in the morning mist
Mist gives the Rollrights an atmospheric appearance