So: there are a lot of people who say Geoffrey of Monmouth made it up as he went along.
With ingenuity he constructed a history of Albion: while it was discredited as a history in the 16th century, Geoffrey’s ability to tell a good yarn remains undisputed. In the pages of ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’ we first hear the tale of King Lear: and King Arthur becomes a legend.
According to Monmouth, Brutus was the first king of Britain, followed by monarchs with names that read as if they were poetry: Lochrinus, Gwendolen, Maddan, Mempricius, Ebrauchus, Leil, Rud Hud Hudibras, Bladud and Leir, Cordelia and Marganus.
And many more.
But if I want to know what king might have been marauding on a hill in the Cotswolds, England, roundabout 1500BC, Geoffrey is not a great deal of help.
Yet a King and his men drew up and halted their horses on Long Compton Hill and took a look across the landscape. They stood on a high ridge which commands a view of two lush, fertile counties. There were rich pickings here which seemed unguarded.
But they were not as defenceless as they seemed.
Way down the hill, as the wind whipped around the horse’s legs, an old woman was making her way laboriously towards them.
They watched, fascinated and puzzled in equal measure. This, because despite the fact the woman was old and found moving difficult – she cut a slightly grotesque figure – she seemed to be covering ground with unsettling ease.
Gliding, almost, though her legs walked, one in front of the other, up this arduous hill, with eyes like glowing coals.
The old woman was not happy.
The King and his men were unsure why they remained transfixed as she approached. Why her eyes seemed to pin them to the spot and make the horses shy if the men attempted to move them. But what, the King concluded, could there be to fear from one old woman?
She came to stand, bold, in front of the horses, who found their tongues and footholds, and whinnied and whimpered and tried to steer their riders away while there was still time.
It transpired there was really very little time left at all.
She looked the King full in the eyes, and asked him: what brings you here, Foreigner?
And the King saw no reason why he should not tell the woman. He disliked her on sight, and a little shock can have nasty effects on the old.We’re here to take and use this land for our own, he said, and its people as slaves. Behind him, his men smirked, and waited for the woman to faint or cry or drop to her knees.
Instead, on the hill, the wind suddenly dropped and an intense quiet fell. The men looked about them in surprise and turned as the woman raised her arms above her head and began to sing-chant in a voice which would rattle the dry bones of the dead.
The stories do not record what she rasped, but her words realised the impossible in front of her eyes: the men found they could not move, and looked down to see their limbs were turning grey-speckled-granite still, and they had no time to prepare themselves for a petrified eternity.
The surprise has been wiped off their faces by the elements of more than 3500 years, but the stones still stand on the hill. There is no record of how the Witch of Shipton-Under-Wychwood stood, arms by her side now, and regarded her work with satisfaction before going home to tea.
Those were the days when a witch could be the only thing standing between a community and its marauding invaders; and a witch was quite enough.
The witches never stopped coming, standing in the shadow of the Kingstone and his subjects. The Rollright Stones – for such they are called these days – have always been a meeting place for those who favour enchantment as their modus operandum.
The prehistoric stone circle has collected witches and stories and legend for as long as it has existed. All sewn up in a purse of folklore.
Which I fancy I might open soon…
To be continued…..