The witch and the king

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Perched on the border of two English counties, Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, stand a group of mysterious stones known as the King’s Men.

Part of a much larger arrangement, the Rollright Stones, the King’s Men are thought to be even older than Stonehenge.

Like sentries defending some forgotten treasure, they have stood for centuries, gazing sombrely over fields of grassland.

Visit on a cold morning and you’ll see the circle bathed in an eerie mist; an atmosphere of ancient magic and enchantment, and reason why the stones are the subject of many myths and legends. And where there are legends, come druids, magicians, mystics and storytellers, all who have visited the stones over the centuries, attempting to understand and harness their secret power.

Rollright Stones
To this day, the guardians of magic still gather here for meetings and rituals; visit and you may very well see their like standing amongst the decaying pillars. But if you do, mind that you are entering a place of sorcery. Strange energies have been detected around the stones, particularly in the circle of the King’s Men.

It is this strange energy that has been charged with causing confusion within the circle, for try as you might – and many have – if you attempt to count the stones, you’ll never count them all. They have no official total; all attempts arrive at a different number!

Intrigued? Surely, but before you conduct your own personal tally, a warning must be extended to the curious. It is not the most advisable of undertakings, for it is said that to count the stones three times and get the same number will beget a terrible tragedy.

So, go on, count them…..if you dare!

Many stories tell of the witching power of stone circles, but for the King’s Men there is strong evidence of supernatural influence.

If you look carefully, from certain angles, the stones have a startling human quality about them; as if they were men all huddled together, protecting themselves. But what could these frozen figures have been so fearful of?

Rollright Stones
There is one story from the ancient past that could bring some life to these figures; a tale that has been handed down, told and retold between generations of storytellers. So reader, accepting this passage, I will add one more retelling to its venerable history…

Many hundreds of years ago, a powerful king from Europe travelled to England with plans to conquer the country.
The king and his men marched across southern England announcing their presence and laying down new laws with fear and fire. The army enjoyed success and soon declared that they ruled the south of the country. But that wasn’t enough, for they desired sovereignity over the entirety of England; but to do this they would have to confront the armies of the north.

It is has been said that those that live by the sword ultimately will die by it, confronted by a power with far greater desire to rule than their own.

For the invading king and his army, the shadows of impending ruin gathered themselves in the unlikeliest of settings: the lonely road into Long Compton.

Several weeks passed as the rapacious horde trampled its way across southern Britain, on its way to the cold north. Ahead lay a road that would take them through Warwickshire, a meandering route through inconsequential villages and hamlets of this sleepy county. Yet, as they marched through the first settlement , a terrifying-looking old woman appeared before them.

Rollright Stones
Though the men strode with their heads high, no one had seen the old hag walk into the road. But there she was, entirely still with her arms held wide, spread like a cross, barring the way. It was a fearsome sight; some of the men appeared disturbed and mumbled amongst themselves, whispering of witches.

The king sensing some wariness in his troops, ordered them to continue. Reluctant they did so and marched on to within a shadow’s length of the old woman.

Slowly, she twisted her arm to the centre of her chest and from her furled hand, came a bony finger with nails, extended and snaking, pointing directly towards the king.

A terrible, rasping voice emerged from the hag, spitting words at the king:

‘Seven long strides shalt thou take
And if Long Compton thou canst see,
King of England thou shall not be.’

On hearing these riddling words, the king laughed with scorn, and spoke his dismissal of the woman who dared block his way:

‘So this is the first of England’s mighty armies is it? Men, I think we have ourselves an island that surrenders itself to the power of a frail old woman. Out of the way witch, and heed these words…’

‘Stick, stock, stone
As King of England I shall be known,’
he barked.

But the woman stood steadfast and repeated her words:

‘Seven long strides shalt thou take
And if Long Compton thou canst see,
King of England thou shall not be.’

Rollright Stones
The king was now furious. Without a thought, he stepped forward and raised his sword, pointing the sharp blade at the witch; but, just as quickly as he had raised his weapon, he quickly withdrew his hand, not wishing to appear troubled by her warning.

‘Ha!’ he blasted. ‘So your words have the power to stop the might of these men, do they? Well sister of the night, let’s see this magic of yours…’

And with this, the king took seven long strides towards the village.

‘Pitiful wench, I have completed your foolish task and I still see…’

Rollright Stones

But as the king spoke, a thunderous sound bellowed from the ground beneath his feet.

The earth before him appeared to sink, as if carved out by an invisible presence; then a violent torrent of green and black erupted skyward rising to form a huge grassy mound, blocking his view of anything to the north, including the village.

The witch laughed and declared:

‘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.’

With these magical words, the king and his men were enveloped in ribbons of grey mist, turning the warriors to cold dead stone.

The King became the King Stone, his men the stone circle, and his riders the Whispering Knights.

With her spell cast, the witch transformed herself into an elder tree. Here, she would keep a watch over the victims of her magic, making sure that the invaders would never complete their conquest.

Rollright Stones
Tradition says that a day will come when the spell is broken. The king and his men will come back to life and continue with their conquest of England. But, in the meantime, the witch-tree will keep a close watch on the stones and their visitors.

Today, the elder tree can be seen standing near a hedge between the King Stone and the stone circle. Cut the tree when in blossom, and some say it will bleed. You may even see the king move his head, anticipating his release…

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6 thoughts on “The witch and the king

  1. You probably know Penelope Lively’s children’s novel ‘The Whispering Knights’ (1971) which drew on this legend. Can’t remember much about it now after the intervening forty years except that Morgan the Fay was somehow involved! Also the folktale motif of humans turning to stone (as an explanation for the existence of standing stones) is very common, as you no doubt know: it’s told, for example, about the stones of Stanton Drew, south of Bristol where I used to live.

    Nice photos, by the way!

    • Thank you. Yes, I know of it but have not yet read it. I must get a copy. And I agree with the liberal use of the motif; my first encounter being TV’s Children of the Stones. I yearn for more fiction featuring such plot lines…

    • Hi Carol,

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      Please share and pass this on to fellow ghost story fans. Also, if you read the book and have the time, would you be so kind as to write a review for the Amazon book page and Goodreads. Thank you!

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      If you enjoy period ghost tales of that bygone England of country house gatherings, servants and hansom cabs, with smog-filled days and sinister churchyard nights, you’ll love this varied and entertaining collection of chillers.

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      Kind regards, Paul

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