Part of The King's Men stone circle, one of the three monuments that make up the Rollright Stones.
|Type||Dolmen, Stone circle and monolith|
The Rollright Stones are a complex of three Neolithic and Bronze Age megalithic monuments located near to the village of Long Compton on the borders of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire in the English Midlands. Constructed from local oolitic limestone, the three separate monuments, now known as The King's Men, The King Stone and The Whispering Knights, are each distinct in their design and purpose, and were each built at different periods in late prehistory. The stretch of time during which the three monuments were erected here bears witness to a continuous tradition of ritual behaviour on sacred ground, from the 4th to the 2nd millennium BCE.
The first to be constructed was the Whispering Knights, a dolmen that dates to the Early or Middle Neolithic period and which was likely to have been used as a place of burial. This was followed by the King's Men, a stone circle which was constructed in the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age; unusually, it has parallels to other circles located further north, in the Lake District, implying a trade-based or ritual connection. The third monument, the King Stone, is a single monolith, and although it is not known when it was constructed, the dominant theory amongst archaeologists is that it was a Bronze Age grave marker.
The name "Rollright" is thought to derive from the Old English Hrolla-landriht, meaning "the land of Hrolla". By the Early Modern period, folkloric stories had grown up around the Stones, telling of how they had once been a king and his knights who had been turned to stone by a witch; such stories continued to be taught amongst local people well into the 19th century. Meanwhile, antiquarians such as William Camden, John Aubrey and William Stukeley had begun to take an interest in the monuments, leading to fuller archaeological investigations in the 20th century, culminating in excavations run by George Lambrick in the 1980s.
In the 20th century, the stones became an important site for adherents of various forms of Contemporary Paganism, as well as for other esotericists who hold magico-religious ceremonies there. They also began to appear more widely in popular culture, featuring in television, literature, music and art.
The Rollright Stones are located on the contemporary border between the counties of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, two-and-a-half miles north-northwest of the village of Chipping Norton, and one-and-three-quarters of a mile west of the smaller village at Great Rollright. The monuments sit on the scarp of a range of hills called the Cotswolds, just as the scarp forms a ridge between the Stour valley to the north and the Swere valley to the south; geologically, this ridge had been formed from Chipping Norton limestone, itself a variant of the Great Oolite series of Jurassic limestone.
Early Neolithic Britain
In the 4th millennium BCE, around the start of the Neolithic period in Britain, British society underwent radical changes. These coincided with the introduction to the island of domesticated species of animals and plants, as well as a changing material culture that included pottery. These developments allowed hunter-gatherers to settle down and produce their own food. As agriculture spread, people cleared land. At the same time, they also erected the first monuments to be seen in the local landscape, an activity interpreted as evidence of a change in the way people viewed their place in the world.
The Early and the Middle Neolithic also saw the construction of large megalithic tombs across the British Isles. Because they housed the bodies of the dead, these tombs have typically been considered by archaeologists to be a possible indication of ancestor veneration by those who constructed them. Such Neolithic tombs are common across much of western Europe, from Iberia to Scandinavia, and they were therefore likely brought to the British Isles along with, or roughly concurrent to, the introduction of farming. A widely held theory amongst archaeologists is that these megalithic tombs were intentionally made to resemble the long timber houses which had been constructed by Neolithic farming peoples in the Danube basin from circa 4800 BCE. As the historian Ronald Hutton related:
- There is no doubt that these great tombs, far more impressive than would be required of mere repositories for bones, were the centres of ritual activity in the early Neolithic: they were shrines as well as mausoleums. For some reason, the success of farming and the veneration of ancestral and more recent bones had become bound up together in the minds of the people.
Late Neolithic Britain
During the Late Neolithic, British society underwent a series of major changes. Between 3500 and 3300 BCE, these prehistoric Britons ceased their continual expansion and cultivation of wilderness and instead focused on settling and farming the most agriculturally productive areas of the island: Orkney, eastern Scotland, Anglesey, the upper Thames, Wessex, Essex, Yorkshire and the river valleys of the Wash.
Late Neolithic Britons also appeared to have changed their religious beliefs, ceasing to construct the large chambered tombs that are widely thought to have been connected with ancestor veneration by archaeologists. Instead, they began the construction of large wooden or stone circles, with many hundreds being built across Britain and Ireland over a period of a thousand years.
The Rollright Stones themselves are three separate megalithic monuments, all of which were constructed in close proximity to one another during the later prehistoric ages of the Neolithic and Bronze Age. The names which are currently given to them — the King's Men, the King Stone and the Whispering Knights — descend from folklore that has surrounded the site since the Early Modern period, although these terms have since been adopted by archaeologists and heritage managers.
Fragments of stone used in the construction of the monument underwent a petrological examination at the British Museum in London, where it was established that they were a form of oolithic limestone that was local to the area around the Rollrights. Archaeologist George Lambrick argued that the stones had been discovered by prehistoric peoples as naturally occurring surface boulders, rather than having been quarried, because of certain weathering patterns that could be found on them and which were consistent with those found on surface boulders. He went on to argue that the most likely place that such surface boulders would have been found in the late prehistoric was "on the sides of the ridge at or near the level of the strong spring line between the Inferior Oolithic and the Lias clay." If this had indeed been the place where the megalith builders had found the boulders, then they would have had to be transported up hill, at a gradient averaging about 1 in 15 on the shortest routes, for either 250 metres (for the Whispering Knights), or 450 metres (for the King Stone and King's Men).
Basing his ideas upon experimental archaeological investigations performed at Stonehenge, Lambrick suggested that the prehistoric workers who hauled the stones uphill would have made use of wooden sledges, which were perhaps made more efficient by the use of timber rollers beneath them, cutting down the manpower needed to drag the sledge. After calculating the estimated work force and labour that would have been required to produce the Rollright Stone monuments, Lambrick related that in comparisons with many other monuments, the time and labour investment would have been "trivial", not stretching resources in terms of manpower.
The Whispering Knights
Apparently the earliest of the Rollright Stones, the Whispering Knights are the remains of the burial chamber of an Early or Middle Neolithic portal dolmen lying 400 metres east of the King's Men. Four standing stones survive, forming a chamber about two square metres in area around a fifth recumbent stone, probably the collapsed roof capstone. Although archaeologists and antiquarians had been speculating and debating the nature of the Whispering Knights for centuries, more about the monument was only revealed following the excavations carried out around the stones by George Lambrick and his team during the 1980s. They revealed that the portal dolmen had never been a part of a longer cairn, as had been suggested by some earlier investigators, and uncovered a few pieces of Neolithic pottery around the monument.
Writing in 1743, the antiquarian William Stukeley described the Whispering Knights as sitting upon a round barrow, something that Lambrick accepted as being "reasonable in the context of a portal dolmen", however he cautioned against accepting such an explanation too readily. He went on to argue that a "mound-like effect" could have been created at the base of the monument if ploughing in later centuries had led to the accumulation of soil around the dolmen's uphill side and the removal of it on the downhill side. Excavation failed to provide evidence to prove either suggestion, leaving the issue "ambiguous"; Lambrick noted however that there was a possibility that some of the stratigraphic layers "may represent the base of some sort of cairn" around the Whispering Knights.
Lambrick believed that raising the capstone on the Whispering Knights would have been the hardest task in the entirety of the Rollrights' construction, remarking that it was "analogous" to the raising of the lintels on Stonehenge. He suggested the possibility that the builders had constructed a ramp out of "collected stones", which was then "placed against the back of the chamber", with the capstone then being "hauled up on rollers, probably running on logs embedded longitudinally in the ramp" in order to get it into position.
The King's Men
The King's Men is a stone circle that is 33 metres in diameter, currently composed of seventy-seven closely spaced stones. Being a stone circle, it was constructed at some point during the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age in British prehistory.
After undertaking limited excavation at the circle in the 1980s, archaeologist George Lambrick came to the conclusion that when it had been originally erected, it would have been a "more perfect circle" than it is today, with each of the stones touching one another, creating a continuous barrier all the way around. He also speculated that the monument's builders intentionally chose the smoother sides of the boulders that they were using to face inwards, something evidenced by the fact that the outer facing sides are predominantly rougher in texture.
Resistivity and magnetometry surveys undertaken during the 1980s revealed four magnetic anomalies within the centre of the circle, possibly representing "pits related in some way to local ground surface undulations and the presence of localised burning." Lambrick noted that similar features could be found within the stone circles of Mayburgh, Stenness and Balbirnie, suggesting that it was a possible original prehistoric feature, although accepted that it could equally be the result of refuse deposited in the Romano-British period or tree-planting holes. Meanwhile, archaeological excavation also revealed that there was "no indication" of there being "a substantial ditch" either inside or outside the bank on which the stones were positioned.
Making an estimate of the time and manpower that it would have taken to transport the boulders to the site and then erect them, Lambrick concluded that each of the King's Men could have been constructed by a team of ten or twenty (depending on the size of the stone) in about two-and-a-half hours. He noted however that this would have been speeded up if the workers had divided into two groups for some of the smaller stones. Concluding his examination of this issue, he argued that "83 journeys by the whole team would have been required, giving an actual construction time of c 137 hours, or 3735 manhours." Adding to this "210 manhours" for digging the post holes for the boulders, as well as "40 manhours for cutting timber and making the shear-legs and sledges" and also "another 40 for fetching and trimming the timbers", Lambrick came to the conclusion that a total of around "4035 manhours" would have gone into the construction of the stone circle, taking up about three weeks' work for around twenty workers.
As it stands today, the monument is in part a reconstruction, because in 1882, the owner of the site re-erected around a third of the stones that had previously fallen, and in doing so some were moved out of their original positions. Using documentary evidence and lichen growth analysis, archaeologists have also established that around that time, several new stones were added to the circle in order to fill in gaps where the original stone had been lost or destroyed, although Lambrick doubted that any more than two of those currently standing were modern additions, with four of the other, smaller additions having been stolen by vandals in the 20th century.
The King Stone
The King Stone is a single, weathered monolith, 2.4 metres high by 1.5 metres wide, standing 76 metres north of the King's Men. Unlike the other two of the Rollright monuments, it is of uncertain date. Many different interpretations have been made of the King Stone, with various arguments being presented as to what it had originally been designed to be. Lambrick catalogued six distinct hypotheses that had been presented by antiquarians and archaeologists over the preceding centuries and evaluated their likelihood. Some of these argued that it had been positioned in relation to the King's Men stone circle, with others instead suggesting that it was a component of a long barrow or other burial site.
Lockyer (1909) and Thom (1967) suggested that the King Stone had been an astronomical marker that may at the same time have had a relation to the ceremonies being undertaken at the King's Men. Lambrick dismissed any astronomical significance as unlikely, because the Stone only aligns with the rising of the star Capella as it would have appeared circa 1750 BCE, and there is no evidence that late prehistoric Britons saw any relevance with this or any other stars, instead building several of their monuments to have solar or lunar alignments. A second idea, posited by megalithic specialist Aubrey Burl (1976), suggested that the King Stone had been a landmark or guidepost designed to mark out the position of the King's Men. Again, Lambrick disagreed with this, remarking that its "position and orientation make it too unconspicuous to be satisfactory as a marker for anyone approaching the circle either along the ridge or from the alleys either side." It had also been suggested, by both early antiquarian John Aubrey and the archaeologist Arthur Evans, that the monolith was a surviving remnant of a stone avenue that had once led to the King's Men, but Lambrick once more believed that this was unlikely, noting that there was no other archaeological evidence for such an avenue, and that it would have been poorly aligned with the circle.
Other suggestions have been put forward arguing that the stone was once a part of a long barrow, but this has been dismissed since archaeological investigation in the 1980s failed to reveal any other evidence for such a monument. Another hypothesis arguing that it was associated with burial had been put forward by Bloxham in 1874, when he suggested that it marked the position of a burial or wider cemetery. It was this view that was adopted by Lambrick, who subsequently "tentatively" interpreted the monolith as a cemetery marker, primarily because of the "unsatisfactory nature of other explanations and the existence nearby of Bronze Age barrows and cremations, one of which had been marked by a broad wooden post."
Lambrick estimated that when it was originally erected, the King Stone would have weighed somewhere in the region of 4.7 tonnes, but that since then much of it has been chipped away. Using his own estimates, Lambrick suggested that with a team of 58 workers, the King Stone could have been set up in about two hours. 
Early Modern period
Numerous folktales are associated with the stones, including the tale reported in a rhyming version by William Camden in 1610, that a king was riding across the county with his army when he was accosted by a local witch called Mother Shipton, who said to him:
- "Seven long strides thou shalt take, says she
- And if Long Compton thou canst see,
- King of England thou shalt be!"
His troops gathered in a circle to discuss the challenge and his knights muttered amongst themselves– but the king boldly took seven steps forward. Rising ground blocked his view of Long Compton in the valley and the witch cackled:
- "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!"
The king became the solitary King Stone, while nearby his soldiers formed a cromlech, or circle, called the King's Men. As the witch prepared to turn herself into an elder tree, she backtracked into four of the king's knights, who had lagged behind and were whispering plots against the king. She turned them to stone as well, and today they are called the Whispering Knights.
18th and 19th centuries
According to 18th-century lore, village maids would sneak out to the Whispering Knights on Midsummer's Eve and listen carefully, hoping to be whispered their future and fate. It is said that one cannot accurately count the stones and that a different tally will result each time an attempt is made. The King Stone was fenced off between the two World Wars to prevent conscripted troops chipping off a piece of stone to carry with them, since legend suggested that this would give protection in battle. But it is considered unlucky to touch the King's Men.
Antiquarian and archaeological investigation and preservation
The earliest known written account describing the Rollrights comes from the 14th century CE, during the Late Mediaeval period in Britain. It was at this time that an unknown author wrote a tract entitled De Mirabilibus Britanniae (The Wonders of Britain) in which the prehistoric monuments at Stonehenge and the White Horse of Uffington were mentioned alongside the Rollrights. As the author related:
- In the neighbourhood of Oxford there are great stones, arranged as it were in some connection by the hand of man. But at what time; or by what people; or for what memorial or significance, is unknown. Though the place is called by the inhabitants Rollendrith.
The nearby village, Great Rollright, is spelt as "Magna Rollandryght" in 1430.
Early Modern antiquarianism
It was in the 16th century, during the Early Modern period of British history, that further written accounts of the Rollrights were made; one of the earliest of these was provided by the pioneering antiquarian John Leland (c.1503-1552) in his unpublished account of his travel's across England, Itinerary. Nonetheless, despite the fact that he referred to it, he failed to go into any detail.
A more detailed account was made by his fellow antiquarian, William Camden (1551-1623), who wrote about it in his 1586 work Britannia, a topographical and historical survey of all of Great Britain and Ireland. Describing the stones and some of the folklore that the locals attributed to them, Camden went on to hypothesise that they were constructed as a "memorial of some victory, perhaps by Rollo the Dane, who later possessed property in Normandy."
John Aubrey and William Stukeley
Sheldon Tapestry Map
An Elizabethan tapestry map of Warwickshire (the Sheldon Tapestry Map), created during the late 1580s for hanging in the home of Ralph Sheldon of Long Compton, is believed to be the earliest known depiction of the Rollright Stones on a map. After conservation and cleaning of the tapestry in 2012 it was noted for the first time that a number of monoliths, perhaps forming a stone circle, appear to be shown in the vicinity of Long Compton.
Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments investigation: 1981-1986
At the start of the 1980s, the state-appointed Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments commissioned an investigation into the Rollright Stones and their immediate surroundings "in order that a fully integrated policy for the future preservation and management of the complex might be formulated." This investigation took place between 1981 and 1982, and involved a multi-pronged approach from both archaeologists and historical researchers. As a part of the initial survey, historians undertook documentary research, examining the reports and accounts of the site that had been produced since the 17th century, with particular emphasis on antiquarian and early archaeological drawings. Aerial photographs of the area were looked at for signs of prehistoric crop marks, whilst both a geophysical survey and a fieldwalk of the area were undertaken.
With the surveying over, the investigators moved on to excavation, opening up several limited trial trenches, as well as excavating one small round barrow (heavily ploughed out) in its entirety. As excavator George Lambick went on to note, although there was a "limited scope" to the excavations, "a substantial new body of data" was uncovered, revealing a number of lithics, pieces of pottery, soil profile changes, molluscan assemblages, carbonised plant remains and both animal and human bones, allowing archaeologists to build up a much wider image of the site and its surroundings.
An interim report on the project's findings was published in a booklet written by archaeologist George Lambick in 1983. He then followed this up with an outline of the management history of the Stones, published in 1986. Lambick's third book on the monument appeared in 1988, being published by the U.K. governmental body English Heritage as The Rollright Stones: Megaliths, monuments, and settlement in the prehistoric landscape. Containing the full site report, it would prove to be "the first full record and analysis of the King's Men, the Whispering Knights, the King Stone, and their archaeological setting" ever produced, and in the book's preface, the-then Inspector of Ancient Monuments A.J. Fleming commented that this "survey provides a firm basis for the improved management of the monument."
Esotericism and Contemporary Paganism
In 1975, the English ceremonial magician William G. Gray published a book entitled The Rollright Ritual which described his personal experiences with the site.
In their academic study of the relationship between archaeologists and Pagans in early 21st century Britain, archaeologist Robert Wallis and anthropologist Jenny Blain used the Rollright Stones as a case study. They noted that members of both communities have "made common cause, in part by drawing actively on the diversity of discursive interpretations and positionings evident at the site. A climate of inclusivity and multivocality has resulted, quite simply, in fruitful negotiation".
Author Penelope Lively uses the Rollright Stones as a central motif in her 1971 children's novel The Whispering Knights.
I fancy I'll open a stationer's,
Stock quaint notepads for weekend pagans
While you were out at the Rollright Stones
I came and set fire to your shed.
- Brian M. Fagan, From Stonehenge to Samarkand: an anthology of archaeological travel writing 2006:6
- Lambrick 1988. p. 1.
- Burl 2005. p. 72.
- Gillings and Pollard 2004. p 26.
- Pearson 2005. p. 34.
- Hutton 1991. p. 21.
- Parker Pearson 2005. p. 57.
- Parker Pearson 2005. pp. 56-57.
- Parker Pearson 2005. pp. 58-59.
- Lambrick 1988. p. 27.
- Lambrick 1988. p. 28.
- See Atkinson 1960.
- Lambrick 1988. p. 49.
- Lambrick 1988. p. 51.
- Lambrick 1988. p. 136.
- Lambrick 1988. p. 34.
- Lambrick 1988. pp. 28-32.
- Lambrick 1988. p. 32.
- Lambrick 1988. pp. 41-42.
- Lambrick 1988. p. 46.
- Lambrick 1988. pp. 38-41.
- Lambrick 1988. p. 48.
- Lambrick 1988. pp. 42.
- Lambrick 1988. p. 50.
- Lambrick 1988. pp. 35, 41.
- Lambrick 1988. pp. 38, 41.
- Some folklore is assembled by Arthur J. Evans, "The Rollright Stones and their folk-lore", Folk-Lore 6 (1895:18f.
- Camden, Britannia.
- Anon. "Rollright Stones". BBC: Where I live:Oxford. BBC. Retrieved 2009-06-19.
- Katharine Mary Briggs, Folklore of the Cotswolds (1974:14).
- Evans 1895:24.
- Lambrick 1988. p. 5.
- Plea Rolls of the Court of Common Pleas; National Archives; CP 40 / 677; http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT1/H6/CP40no677/bCP40no677dorses/IMG_0989.htm; 5th entry; where Thomas Mageton, husbandman lives, as seen on the second line
- Sharpe, Emily (30 August 2012). "Ancient stones revealed on tapestry". The Art Newspaper. Retrieved 2012-09-02.
- Lambrick 1983.
- Lambrick 1986.
- Lambrick 1988. p. vi.
- Blain and Wallis 2007. pp. 173-.
- Blain and Wallis 2007. pp. 173-174.
- Academic books
- Adkins Roy; Adkins, Lesley and Leitch, Victoria (2008). The Handbook of British Archaeology (Revised Edition). London: Constable. ISBN 978-1-84529-606-3.
- Atkinson, R.J.C. (1960). Stonehenge. London: Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 0-14-020450-4.
- Barrett, John C. (1994). Fragments from Antiquity: An Archaeology of Social Life in Britain, 2900-1200 BC. Oxford, UK and Cambridge, USA: Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-18954-1.
- Blain, Jenny and Wallis, Robert (2007). Sacred Sites Contested Rites/Rights: Pagan Engagements with Archaeological Monuments. Brighton and Portland: Sussex Academic Press. ISBN 978-1-84519-130-6.
- Bradley, Richard (2007). The Prehistory of Britain and Ireland. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-61270-8.
- Burl, Aubrey (2005). A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany (Revised Edition). New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-11406-5.
- Gillings, Mark and Pollard, Joshua (2004). Avebury. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. ISBN 0-7156-3240-X.
- Hutton, Ronald (1991). The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-17288-8.
- Lambrick, George (1983). The Rollright Stones. Oxford: Oxford Archaeological Unit. ISBN 0-904220-04-4.
- Lambrick, George (1988). The Rollright Stones: Megaliths, monuments, and settlement in the prehistoric landscape. London: English Heritage. ISBN 1-85074-192-1.
- Malone, Caroline (2001). Neolithic Britain and Ireland. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus. ISBN 0-7524-1442-9.
- Parker Pearson, Michael (2005). Bronze Age Britain (Revised Edition). London: B.T. Batsford and English Heritage. ISBN 978-0-7134-8849-4.
- Williams, Mike (2010). Prehistoric Belief: Shamans, Trance and the Afterlife. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press. ISBN 978-0-7524-4921-0.
- Academic papers
- Evans, Arthur J. (1895). "The Rollright Stones and Their Folk-Lore". Folklore. 6 (1): 6–53. JSTOR 1253704.
- Lambrick, George (1986). "The Rollright Stones, a case study in monument management". In M. Hughes and L. Rowley. The Management and Presentation of Field Monuments (Oxford: Oxford University Department for External Studies): 109–22. ISBN 0-903736-21-7.
- Richards, Colin (1996). "Monuments as Landscape: creating the centre of the world in late Neolithic Orkney". World Archaeology 28: 190–208. doi:10.1080/00438243.1996.9980340. JSTOR 125070.
- Wright, Thomas (1879). "Legend of the Rollright Stones". The Folk-Lore Record 2: 177–179. JSTOR 1252471.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Rollright Stones|
- Rollright Stones website
- Rollright Stones at Megalithia.com
- Aerial photograph
- Handfasting at Rollright Stones
- Photos of the Rollright Stones and surrounding area on geograph
- BBC 360 degree photograph
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