After intense rock and pop music video discussions, I want to bring things down a key with this next post. I focus on the archaeology and folklore of an archaeological site I visited when in South-East Wales last year: Harold’s Stones, Trellech, Monmouthshire.
These three megalithic stones stand in a line south-west of medieval and modern settlement of Trelech, just east of a stream and close to springs. This rare stone arrangement is intriguing and evocative: I’ve only previously addressed anprehistoric standing stone alignment once before for the much-larger and widely spaced Devil’s Arrows. The Trelech stones tip at different angles on a gradual hillside, the middle and north tip slightly westwards, while the tallest and southernmost has a striking lean eastwards. Indeed, Elizabeth Whittle (1992) described their collective impression as being ‘drunken’.
The stones are set on a NE-SW alignment. Each stone is over 2m tall: with the largest to the south. They are each comprised of conglomerate puddingstone.
The central stone might have been shaped by human hand, and has two cup marks on its south side.
Coflein tells me that geophysical survey around the stone revealed traces of medieval or later structures and a c. 40m diameter subrectangular ditched enclosure (presumably undated). Further images can be found on the Megalithic Portal.
So these are prehistoric standing stones, presumably of late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age date, and perhaps part of a longer alignment and other monuments, now lost. I recognise the standard later association with the Devil in folklore: namely that they were thrown from the Sugar Loaf mountain by Jack o-Kent – a giant, when playing pitch and toss with the Devil. Such satanic associations tend to be of early modern in origins.
Naming: Why Harold?
Yet there seems to have been more to these stones in the medieval mind than devilish connections. The place-name ‘Trelech’ means the ‘settlement/village of the stones’. This suggests that the vicinity was defined by these prominent triad of megaliths that acquired the roles of prominent landmarks and perhaps also the association with rich now-lost fables.
Why Harold’s stones? Before getting one in the eye, Earl Harold Godwinson of Wessex and then Hereford too, defeated Gruffyd ap Llywyelyn in 1063 and thus continued his rise to power as a war leader. At some unknown point, these three stones could have been ascribed to Harold’s victories in battle, and more specifically, that each stone commemorates a chieftain slain/defeated in battle by Harold. I’m still intrigued by the possible and specific association of the Trelech stones with the man to briefly become King of England and died at Hastings in 1066.
Now, there are 3 “Harold Stone” place-names in Pembrokeshire, each associated with a single megalith:
All are single isolated standing stones, two in coastal locations, the third not far from the sea. Given the far-west location of this cluster, their association with the victories of Harold over the Welsh in the 1060s doesn’t seem very likely. However, they might well be connected to the travels of Harold and his fame. The logic of this cluster might lie less in 11th-century events and more than the extensive settlement of Normans, Saxons and Flemings during the 12th/13th centuries. Could these groups have been prompted to attribute ancient stones in the west Welsh landscape with earlier invaders of famed reputation?
Might such an explanation work for Trelech? Certainly, but perhaps there’s more. The triad of stones at Trellech is more logically located in relation to sites of potential Saxon-Welsh conflict. Trelech is located just west of the Wye and thus the line of the eighth-century linear earthwork – Offa’s Dyke. Hence, the feasibility that this is the site of a battle, or became equated with a series of epic conflicts between the West Saxons and the Welsh, is persuasive. Moreover, using the Pillar of Eliseg as an analogy, perhaps the stones served as a regular assembly place before and after such conflicts. What is perhaps important from a Welsh perspective is that any memorials attributed to Harold would commemorate a powerful aggressor, but one who eventually met their doom in a cataclysmic fashion in the field. Such an association might have been more powerful than any positive megalithic attribution to a legendary Welsh ruler.
I’m not saying that we can believe these stones marked an assembly site, a battle site or a burial site of early medieval date. However, I do propose that sometime in the 12th/13th centuries, they may well have become linked to a legacy of Harold’s impact on the Welsh landscape, and the deeds of his enemies, as much as to Harold himself. These stones might have thus served in discourses of resistance to the Saxons and Normans with this attribution, as much as ‘colonial’ monuments, in a complex and fluid Anglo-Welsh borderland.
There is a metal Ministry of Works-style sign, but actually it is far more recent, dating from the Cadw era (1986, i.e. post-1984). It is just decidedly ‘retro’.
A more modern yet faded heritage board by the gate. It speaks of the archaeology and the legendary associations.
A further heritage aspect is that the gate is itself commemorative: a threshold enforcing association between stones and heritage organisations.
In summary, this is a fascinating site and well worth a visit. The potential of early medieval activity of some sort at this location – assembly, battle, burial site – and thus inspiring the Harold attribute, remains a temptation. Whether so or not, the Harold association does suggest a now-lost specific story linked to Harold Godwinson and circulating in the area in the Anglo-Norman period.
Whittle, E. 1992. A Guide to Ancient and Historic Wales: Glamorgan and Gwent. Cardiff: Cadw.