Legend has it that centuries ago a witch turned a would-be king of England and his men and knights to stone, which still stand and are among the Rollright Stones circle at Warwickshire. Now a new legend has cropped up: A 7th century AD skeleton recently unearthed at the site is being called the witch who turned the ambitious men to stone.
The woman stood between 4 feet 11 inches and 5 feet tall (about 152 cm) and was buried with a Roman patera or bronze vessel possibly used to cook offerings to the gods, a large amber bead and an amethyst set in silver. The patera is only the fifth found in England. She also had with her a large spindle whorl, which, with the patera, ITV.com says, indicates that “Rita,” the Saxon pagan Rollright Witch, as she is being called, was a spiritual woman of high status.
The person who found the grave is Charles Wood. He was using a metal detector at the Rollright Stones with friends. He explains to ITV:
‘This was more of a social event as we weren’t expecting to find much. The ground is difficult to dig and you normally just find bottle caps from the Rollright Fayre they hold here. When my metal detector made a faint murmur I knew I’d have to dig down deep, but thought it would only be a plough tooth that had been pressed into the ground. I got 14 inches down and a small bronze rim appeared, but it seemed in too good condition to be anything significant. As I dug further though I saw it had a handle and it soon became obvious it was a patera, which is a very significant find. There’s a myth around here of the Rollright Witch, and this find is certainly very interesting because of the spiritual element. I’m not saying anything for sure, but there’s no smoke without fire. It was a once in a lifetime find. I could detect for the next 14 years and not find anything like it.’
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Anni Byard, a British antiquities official, said in a report:
“The location of the grave is of significance, and the items found with her were possibly religious in nature. She was definitely somebody of importance at that time, but this will take further investigation. We are currently trying to raise grants to examine the soil of the grave, this might be able to tell us something more.”
The Bronze Age Rollright Stones have much lore and myth surrounding them to this day. RollrightStones.co.uk is a website devoted just to the stone circle that gives the legend of the king and his entourage. The site says many stone circles in the British Isles were supposedly revelers petrified by God or the devil for dancing and fiddling or picking turnips on the Sabbath. The Rollright Stones legend is different.
There lived a king who aspired to rule England. He got as far as the Rollright Stones when he encountered a witch, possibly Mother Shipton of Shipton-under-Wychwood, who lived from 1488 to 1551 AD. (Mother Shipton is another story, but suffice to say she is England’s most famous prophetess who in childhood was a strange girl raised in a cave and who went on to become an accomplished herbalist and seeress who foretold many calamities of English history.)
The King’s Men stone circle at Rollright Stones (Photo by Midnightblueowl/Wikimedia Commons)
According to the legend reported by Rollrightstones.co.uk, the witch challenged the king:
“Seven long strides shalt thou take And if Long Compton thou canst see, King of England thou shalt be.”
The king continued on toward Long Compton, which is not far from the Rollright Stones, and as he strode along he shouted:
“Stick, stock, stone as King of England I shall be known.”
The King Stone at Rollright Stones in Warwickshire, England (Poliphilo/Wikimedia Commons)
When he hit his seventh stride, the ground rose up before him in the form of what is now sometimes called the Arch-Druid’s barrow. The witch said:
“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 eldern tree.”
Then legend says she turned him into the King Stone, his men into the King’s Men Stone Circle and his knights into the Whispering Knights.
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The Whispering Knights, a Neolithic dolmen at the Rollright Stones in the Cotswolds, England (Midnightblueowl/Wikimedia Commons)
Rollrightstones.co.uk says it is unknown what the king did to incur the witch’s wrath or why she turned herself into a witch-elder tree, which is said to still grow in a nearby hedge.
The site says folk tales tell of caves under the King Stone and King’s Men that are the haunt of fairies or the little folk who dance around the stones at midnight. When people go into the caves, tales say, they report being in the fairy realm for years but only a few hours have passed outside. Similar tales are told of other stone circles and megalithic monuments in the British Isles.
Rita’s remains and her grave goods were shipped to the British Museum in London for further study.
Featured Image: The skeleton of the Rollright Stone “witch” (News Team International photo).