Everyone knows about Stonehenge, England’s most famous ancient monument, but did you know that there are nearly a thousand similar stone circles in the United Kingdom? Some are almost as big as Stonehenge, and all are steeped in folklore and legend.
A favorite of mine are the Rollright Stones, which you can get to as an easy day trip from Oxford or London. They’re near Chipping Norton, a fifty-minute bus ride from Oxford. This is a chance to get out of town and experience some of England’s peaceful countryside as well as a bit of prehistoric mystery.
The Rollright Stones is actually a general name for three ancient monuments within sight of each other. There’s a circle of low stones called the King’s Men, and nearby is a tall, strangely shaped stone called the King Stone (pictured here). A little further away is a cluster of five tall stones called the Whispering Knights. The names come from an old legend.
A long time ago, the legend says, a king and his army were passing through the countryside when five of his knights drew apart and conspired against him. As this was happening, a witch appeared and told him that if he could see the village of Long Compton a mile to the north by taking seven steps, he would become king of England. The king headed off, stretching out his legs as long as he could to get as far as possible, but on his seventh step a ridge rose up ahead of him. This ridge is still there and is called the Arch-Druid’s Barrow. The witch cackled and told him that he would never be king of England. Then the king, his knights, and the conspirators all turned to stone.
(I’m only repeating a legend, folks, so please don’t start a religious flame war like the last time I mentioned witches)
Stone circles are also associated with fertility, and old reports tell of young men and women meeting at the stones to eat, drink and, ahem, “be merry.” Ladies, if you want to find out the name of your future husband, press your ear against one of the Whispering Knights and he’ll whisper it to you. If you’re trying to get pregnant, press your breasts against the King Stone and you soon will be. “Making merry” with someone would probably help too.
So much for legend, what’s the real story of the Rollright Stones?
The Whispering Knights used to have a roof, making a little building called a dolmen. Dolmens were used as tombs for important people and were generally covered with earth to make an artificial hill. It dates to about 4000-3500 BC. This was during the Neolithic, what archaeologists call the last phase of the Stone Age.
The King’s Men was built in the late Neolithic around 2500-2000 BC and is one of many stone circles set up at that time. Many of these circles have astronomical alignments, and the King’s Men is no exception. Two stones line up to mark the spot on the horizon where the moon rises on midsummer’s night. What does this mean? Nobody knows, since they hadn’t invented writing yet.
The King Stone is a bit more recent, probably erected around 1800-1500 BC in the Bronze Age. It’s a single standing stone and marked the spot for a cemetery. It’s interesting that people chose to bury their dead here at this site, already ancient in their day. Some researchers have tried to find astronomical alignments with the King’s Men, but there’s no solid theory yet.
There’s an easy, eight-mile circular hike to get to the Rollright Stones from Chipping Norton, the nearest town of any size. Details of the hike can be found in most hiking guides covering Oxfordshire. I used 50 Walks in Oxfordshire (AA Publishing, 2003).