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The Four Shire Stone, as seen from the A44

The Four Shire Stone, as seen from the A44

Four Shire Stone - The monument that inspired Tolkien

25 August 2022

The Four Shire Stone is an 18th-century monument just off the A44 near Morton-in-Marsh which commemorates the spot where four historical English counties once met.

Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, and Gloucestershire are the counties named on the four sides of the monument, but Worcestershire's border no longer reaches here because the border was changed in 1931.

Who built the Four Shire Stone?

The exact origins of this monument seem to be long forgotten, but it is believed to have been erected in the mid-1700s. It is actually a replacement for an even earlier stone, mentioned by 16th-century historian John Leland in 1520.

The stone itself is in fact a 15ft tall pillar, built from large blocks of local Cotswold stone. It appears extremely sturdy but, according to the Four Shire Stone Restoration Project, the monument was knocked down by a swerving lorry in 1955 and had to be rebuilt!

Four Shire Stone

The Four Shire Stone. Credit: Michael Dibb, via Geograph.org.uk

Prize fights and graffiti

The Four Shire Stone was often used as a meeting place, as is confirmed by the large amount of extremely old graffiti carved into its surface! It's tricky to date much of the graffiti, but carved dates from the mid-19th century can be clearly read.

The stone was apparently once a popular location for prize fights and similarly violent encounters. Its convenient position on the border of four counties meant that anyone falling foul of the law at such an event could easily flee across county borders and thus avoid prosecution!

Graffiti on the Four Shire Stone

Graffiti on the Four Shire Stone. Note the date '1888' in the bottom right corner! Credit: Philip Halling, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, via geograph.org.uk

Where is Tolkien's real Three Farthings Stone?

When writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien looked to the rural landscape around him for inspiration. Many have pointed out similarities between certain Middle Earth locations and spots in and around Oxfordshire.

The fictional home of the hobbits was The Shire, a rural area divided into three smaller 'shires' which Tolkien named Westfarthing, Southfarthing and Eastfarthing. Standing at the point where the three shires met, Tolkien described a monument called the 'Three Farthing Stone'.

While there is no written evidence that Tolkien based the Three Farthing Stone on the Four Shire Stone, it is highly likely that a historian like Tolkien would have been well aware of the monument.

Tolkien would have passed the Four Shire Stone regularly when traveling by road from Oxford to Morton-in-Marsh, a town he often visits to meet his brother, the town being a convenient halfway spot between Tolkien's home in Oxford and his brother's farm in Evesham.

A favourite haunt for Tolkien and his brother was The Bell Inn in Morton-in-Marsh, which is thought to have inspired The Prancing Pony at Bree, the inn where the hobbits stop early on their journey to Mordor!

The Bell Inn, Moreton-in-Marsh

The nearby Bell Inn, Morton-in-Marsh. An inspiration for Tolkien? Credit: Philip HallingĀ , via Geograph.org.uk