Knowlton is a hamlet in Dorset, on the B3078, which is home to a ruinous 12th century Norman church. What makes the church remarkable is not its ruinous state, but the fact that is was constructed within the earthworks of a much older Neolithic henge monument (circa 2,500 BC).
The Knowlton site is home to three Neolithic henges. The henge in which the church resides is known as “Church Henge”. It is the best preserved of the three with the banks and ditches of the henge still visible. Church Henge has a broadly circular footprint and a maximum diameter of an impressive 106m. The other two henges (the “North Circle” and the “South Circle”) have been mostly destroyed over the years by ploughing or by being bisected by the nearby B3078! The North and South Circles can however still be discerned by the tell-tale marks in the crops, which can be readily seen in aerial photographs. The Knowlton site is also known to have been home to at least 35 barrows (burial mounds), the largest being known as the Great Barrow. The Great Barrow is of late Neolithic or early Bronze Age vintage and is the largest barrow in Dorset, measuring in at 40m in diameter and 6m in height. The Great Barrow would have originally been surrounded by two concentric ditches, but again these have been ploughed into obscurity.
This large concentration of barrows points towards Knowlton being an important Pagan religious centre. The prominence of Knowlton in the Pagan landscape is likely to be the reason why the church was built where it was – a Christian attempt to assimilate the Pagans into their religion. This assimilation is unlikely to have just included the local Pagan population, the standing stones that would have once adorned the Neolithic henge were most likely broken up and used in the construction of the new church.
The chancel and nave of the church at Knowlton date from the 12th century. Further additions and improvements were made to the church over its history, with the latest addition being the north aisle which was added to the church in the 18th century. The church remained in use until the late 18th century when the roof of the building collapsed and the church was eventually abandoned to ruin.
Most unusual ancient locations tend to have an associated local legend, and Knowlton Church is no different. At some point in the church’s history its bell is said to have gone missing. Some suggest that the bell was stolen by thieves who, finding it hard to make off with the bell, eventually abandoned their plans and dumped the bell into the River Stour. The residents of Knowlton apparently tried to recover the bell from the river, but ultimately failed. Others suggest that the stolen bell found its way to another nearby church, perhaps nearby Shapwick or Sturminster Marshall. Even stranger, one legend suggests that the bell was stolen by the Devil, who threw the bell into the River Allen and thwarted all attempts by the locals to retrieve it.
Whatever the truth, the legend surrounding the loss of the Knowlton bell was immortalised in the rhyme: "Knowlton bell is stole; And thrown into White Mill hole; Where all the devils in hell; could never pull up Knowlton Bell."
Pictures: Dorset (May 2015).
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