Friday, 19 December 2014

Knowlton: the strange case of the village which mysteriously vanished.

Knowlton Church

Knowlton village or hamlet in Dorset was always unusual. It is listed in Domesday and west of Knowlton lie Iron Age remains of dwellings laid bare by archaeology(1); but Knowlton village is unlikely to extend backwards in time beyond the Saxon period. Saxon inhumations have been found(2); strangely no medieval burials have come to light yet, the Middle Ages being the heyday of Knowlton. But what is chiefly unusual about Knowlton is its Norman era church – now a ruined shell – but situated right in the middle of a late Neolithic, ceremonial earthern henge, and at some remove from the village as well.

Knowlton village grew into being along the east bank of the pretty river Allen, apparently renamed the Wimborne [‘wim’, bright/ ‘borne’, river] in Anglo-Saxon times. I believe the Allen was always its name. There’s another River Allen seven miles north-east, a tributary of the Avon, so the place name has a local precedent. Allen in the Old British tongue means deer, that’s ‘elain’ in Middle Welsh. From records – which are scant – the village seems to have possessed a mill(3), presumably a water mill; and to have had its own fair held on July 5th, if the neighbouring fair at Woodlands village is the one which was transferred there when Knowlton went into terminal decline.

The River Allen at Knowlton

The henge in which Knowlton church stands is not alone, there was a much larger circle to its south which has been cut in two by the B3078 road and flattened by farm buildings and the plough. It cannot now be discerned from ground level and has to all intents and purposes vanished from the once monumental ritual landscape. North-west of the church circle are several more earth henges which have also fallen victim to the insatiable plough, and elsewhere there were numerous barrows testifying to the religious significance of the Knowlton area in prehistory. Only one barrow has escaped the flattening onslaught of agriculture and that is the Great Barrow north-east of Church or Centre Circle, impressive even after thousands of years of natural weathering and erosion. Of especial interest to ancient tree hunters is an interrupted line of yew trees which points towards the Norman church then veers away on a trajectory which takes it – if the tree line extended further – neatly between the church henge and the Great Barrow, plausibly linking up with a trackway to Knowle Hill Farm on the other side of the B road. How old are these venerable yews? Since they proceed over the now erased North Circle henge I think it unlikely they are prehistoric. Yew lore is documented especially in ancient Ireland so I would tend to see the churchyard yew tradition, to which these trees perhaps belong, beginning in the Iron Age. The henge builders were often drawn to astronomical events on the horizon, so I can’t see that they would have gained much by planting trees around their henges; which is not to say that they did not esteem trees in other contexts: quite a few wooden henge sites have been discovered for example. But the question remains, who planted these isolated yews and why? Jeremy Harte thinks they may be the remains of an abandoned hedgerow – which would accord with the linear nature of this feature, but why only yew trees left standing, what of thorn trees – the hedgerow tree of choice? And as noted earlier, the first stand of yews orients directly towards the centre of Church Henge – pointing right at the church in fact.

Knowlton church with yew trees beyond

Knowlton centre henge was the location of a regular ‘hundred’ meeting, and so the ritualistic henge associations could have accorded with pagan law making, as the assembly sat in session. The yew was recognised as a sacred wood in West Germanic tradition(4) although the custom itself may have been the result of Celtic influence. It may be feasible then that the yew line represents a processional way towards the henge; after all, Centre Circle was also selected by the early Church as a site for its house of worship. But why this lesser henge received so much attention is not clear to me – the largest henge, the South Circle looks like it was summarily obliterated in favour of the road and farming.

Knowlton village seems never to have fully recovered from the Plague (c.1348-1350 and later) which swept across medieval Europe including the British Isles. Probably drastically depopulated, the ailing village limped on until 1659 when the church was considered for demolition, perhaps due to the sharp village population decline; although church attendance seems to have rallied sufficiently for a north aisle to be added in 1730 and subsequently a new roof to be added. Yet by 1750 the roof had disastrously collapsed and the church was finally abandoned, which also seems to have been the fate of the village at around this time. But how can we read the erection of a church in the middle of a pagan henge? We know next to nothing about either monument.


After the abandonment of Knowlton its annual July 5th fair was removed to the nearby village of Woodlands(5). Many medieval fairs were held in honour of the local patron saint. An example of a local, insular saint was St Olfrida or Wulfrida to whom nearby Horton Priory - of which Knowlton was a chapelry - was dedicated. Knowlton’s fair date of July 5 suggests Saint Gwen, supposedly married to a Saint Fragan (feast day October 3rd); the dedication of Knowlton church is today unknown. What else commends Saint Gwen to Knowlton? Beside her English feast day date there is her name and, surprisingly for Dorset, her association with Brittany. According to legend, in the fifth century CE Saints Fragan and Gwen migrated to Brittany where many churches are dedicated to  them. The legend is brought into sudden focus when we read in the Domesday book that the lord at Knowlton in 1086 was one Ansger the Breton(6). With regard to Gwen’s name, it means ‘white’ (or holy) in Welsh. There is another albescent saint associated with Dorset and that is Saint Wite(7) at St. Candida and Holy Cross, Whitchurch Canonicorum 50 miles to the south-west, Candida being the Latin reading for white or ‘gwen’. Is this then the same saint as at Knowlton?

The Allen River at Knowlton

The author S. Baring-Gould(8) informs us that a saint called variously Gwengustle, Guengu, or Vengu migrated to Brittany and that she was probably also called Ninnat, Latinized to Ninnoca. She was additionally known as Saint Candida or Saint Gwen in the Breton town of Scaer. So we are indeed looking at the same British saint with Breton associations. The name Ninnat may be a red herring since the variants Ninnoc or Ninnocha are not forenames, “they mean Little Nun” and this is identical to a Saint Nona’s legend from Cornwall – Nona just means nun. I think this was an early ecclesiastical strategy to adopt formerly pagan goddesses into the Church as saints; perhaps when you didn’t have an appropriate saint to identify a female deity with, you just substituted the local pagan name for ‘nona’ or nun*.

So we have a July 5th insular saint’s name, Gwen, Wite or Candida – all meaning white or perhaps brilliant light - with Breton, Celtic or Old British associations. Is there anything else to commend her to Knowlton? Several kilometres up river from the settlement site we come to the village of Wimborne St Giles. This saint’s attribute is a deer, a doe – one of the factors which suggested to me that the River Stour tributary known as the Allen has always been named this way and that it is an old British river name meaning deer.

St Giles

On researching Gwen in Brittany I discovered the following legend. Gwengustle [Gwen] founded a monastery at Ploemeur, near Lorient in Brittany. Subsequently, a hunter was pursuing a stag nearby when it fled into Gwen’s church for sanctuary and was spared its life. Today at Ploemeur, in the chapel of the Priory of Saint Ninnoc – otherwise known as Gwen - there is a statue of her as an abbess with a stag at her feet. And so I believe – through Gwen’s church at Knowlton - we have a second cervid association for the deer river in Dorset, the Allen River.

Saint Gwen

However, the bright light implicit in Gwen’s name needs some qualification. It’s equally there in her names of Wite (white) and Candida (radiantly white, bright, clear, beautiful, fair), her name rendered in Latin. The association with Centre Circle earth henge at Dorset explains the association. Henges are frequently found with standing stones, and a megalith was recently uncovered from the site of the largest henge at Knowlton(9). Gwen’s adopted Ploemeur** in Brittany is a mere 30 kilometres along the Breton coastline from the gigantic megalithic complex of Carnac, and the nearby stone rectangle of Crucuno with its multiple solar alignments(10). It seems logical to assume that the sun was also the primary focus at prehistoric Knowlton, and that this tradition survived in some form or other down to the early medieval period, moving the Church to dedicate the new edifice and ancient henge to an obscure saint called ‘light’ who may well have stood in for the original female divine presence at Knowlton now lost to us, but not beyond speculation, if not a hypothetical reconstruction.

If we accept that Gwen (‘light’) was the prehistoric deity at Knowlton and that her attribute was the deer – also the name of her sacred watercourse – we can find documented parallels. Alauna is a documented river name(11) - as a goddess – it is almost certainly cognate with Allen as Welsh ‘alun’. Elen from the Mabinogion who lives in a palace of red-gold and silver was almost certainly a goddess of the ancient British, and possibly the presence behind so many St Helen churches and holy wells – Helen being a name dating back to at least the Bronze Age which has spread from Greece to Eurasia, and then to Britain in the remote past. And of course the names Elen and Helen recall both the Allen river name and ‘elain’ the Middle Welsh word for a doe or a fawn. A folk association between water and sunlight can be found in the many summer dawn dew rituals(12), and this extends to rivers and bathing, an association which was Christianised under the name of St John the Baptist and his feast day falling on or around the midsummer solstice. Deer are not exclusively female solar symbols, another river-sun lady might be Sequana the spirit of the Seine and her symbol was the swan. The solar deer symbolism probably goes right back to the Mesolithic, a surviving incidence of this would be the Sami sun goddess Beaivi, potentially an antlered female reindeer divinity(13). Beaivi’s symbolism often incorporates a rhombus, a sign which appears again and again throughout British prehistory as a full lozenge or in abstracted form as a chevron.

Epilogue: who stole Knowlton’s church bell?

Well, quite possibly no-one but ironically a ‘culprit’ has been identified(14).

Knowlton tower & belfry

Folklore is correct in identifying the negative loss of the bell since I believe the bell symbolised both the church’s spiritual inspiration – and before that the ritual landscape - and the communal village soul. But the baddies in the story, Sturminster Marshall, suffered their own catastrophe. In 1802, after Knowlton church had stood derelict and empty for 50 years, the west tower of Sturminster Marshall St Mary’s collapsed. It seems likely to me that the three bells, un-rung for half a century in Knowlton’s undamaged tower belfry were taken at this time, to restore the tower at nearby St Mary’s, which has six bells today(15).

The story of the Knowlton yews remains a mystery to me.


1. Cunliffe, B. 'Iron Age Communities in Britain', p.169,  2006.


3. Dorset History Centre, Ref.D-PUD/C/1/2 Date: 7 Aug 1650

4. see Elliott, RWV. ‘Runes, Yews and Magic’, Speculum, Vol. 32, No. 2, Apr., 1957



7., also mentioned is a ‘sun well for sore eyes’



10. Burl, A. ‘Guide to Stone Circles’, Crucuno, pp.254-5, 1995

11. Rivet & Smith, ‘Place-Names of Roman Britain, pp.243-6, 1981.

12. de Vries, A. ‘Dictionary of Symbols’, p.134, ‘dew’ 15.B, folklore, 1984.


14. DNHA vol.19, 1898, a tradition that at least one bell went to Sturminster.


Drawings - after the Internet.

Stills from Ric's 'Knowlton Experimental 2012' Standard 8mm cine film

*Curiously the figure of a nun has claimed to have been seen near the church.

**Gwen's Ploemeur site with its stag legend is also only 19 miles from Teviec, the location of a Mesolithic 'antler burial' ~


fyrefly58 said...

Very interesting and thought provoking. I've been visiting Knowlton since I was a child and love the place.
I've often wondered about the history of Knowlton, mostly because my ancestors lived in Cranborne Chase and because I have a huge interest in genealogy and natural history.
Thanks for sharing, there must've been a lot of work involved.

Ric said...

Many thanks, the whole area is interesting, I'm sure there is much more to discover - hopefully archaeology may reveal a great deal more for us some day :)

Unknown said...

The Breton connection is similar to the history of Amesbury which of course has Stonehenge as a feature, could (a more or less unanswerable question) the Breton folk have had more than a passing interest in the Ancients.