Last Photographed: Sunday 21st February 2010
Other Names: The Rollrights, Rowldrich
The King's Men consists of approximately 77 limestone stones (it's impossible to be precise, since their tightly-packed nature makes them difficult to count) arranged in an exact circle with a diameter of 33 metres. The stones vary greatly in height, the tallest reaching almost 3 metres. The circle is broken by an entrance to the south-east, which is flanked by two large marker stones.
Although the circle appears mostly complete, it should be remarked that only 26 stones remained standing in the 19th Century. In 1882, the site was scheduled as an ancient monument and the stones re-erected.
The Rollrights is possibly the most folklore-rich collection of stones in Britain. A staggering volume of myth, legend and tradition surrounds them. Most notable is their creation story - a slightly unusual take on the common petrifaction myth:
A king was out riding with his men, when he encountered a witch upon the road. She said to him:
"Seven long strides thou shalt take, And if Long Compton thou canst see, King of England thou shalt be!"
The king's men gathered round in a circle to discuss the challenge. Whilst they were doing so, the king replied:
"Stick, stock, stone, as King of England I shall be known."
He took seven long strides towards Long Compton, but the ground ahead of him rose up in a mound - the Archdruid's Mound - obscuring his view of the village. The witch cackled and crowed:
"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 was transformed to stone along with his men.
As the witch backtracked, seeking a spot where she might plant herself as an elder tree to watch the king and his men, she came upon a group of knights who had lingered behind, plotting against the king. These she also turned to stone. Having done this, she planted herself in the ground and transformed into an elder tree.
The king became The King Stone, his men The King's Men, and the stragglers The Whispering Knights. The location of the Witch Elder is lost, but strong traditions remained associated with it as late as the 17th Century (see The King Stone).
Other folk traditions associated with the stones include the popular belief that they cannot be counted. This certainly relates to the difficulty in counting the stones referred to earlier. It's said that if the same count is reached three times in a row, the person counting will be granted a wish - or a great disaster will befall, depending on which version you prefer.
The Rollrights appear to have a strong tradition of witchcraft linked to them. This took a grizzly turn in 1875 when a local farmer murdered an elderly lady in Long Compton, convinced she'd laid a curse upon him. Following a traditional method of killing a witch and ensuring her powers were drained, he drove a pitchfork through her throat and carved a cross into her flesh with a bill-hook. He was unrepentant at trial, asserting that as many as 16 more witches were living in the village.
Frighteningly, this vein of violent superstition seems to have survived until relatively recently. In 1945, an almost killing took place. A 74 year-old labourer was found murdered, with a pitchfork driven through his neck and a cross carved upon it. A bill-hook was embedded in his torso. Investigations were thwarted by superstitious and unhelpful locals, and the murderer was never caught.
This is a popular site amongst the tourists, and despite the lack of facilities, it's always busy. On the bright side, most people don't stay long, so it's usually possible to grab a little private time amongst the stones - always good for a photographer. The bitter winter wind that sweeps the hilltop can be a bit draining if visiting in the colder part of the year, but a sunny day still makes the trip worthwhile. The stones are full of character (it has been observed by many that they closely resemble rotting and pitted teeth!) and quite unlike any other circle in Britain. Combined with the King Stone and the King's Men in close proximity, this is site is a real treasure and highly recommended for a visit.