The Devil's Churchyard at Checkendon
22 October 2023
Buried in woodland halfway between Checkendon and Ipsden in South Oxfordshire is a heart-shaped earthwork enclosure that for hundreds of years has been known as the Devil's Churchyard.
The legend of the Devil's Churchyard
According to the legend, the site known as the Devil's Churchyard was the location that the people of Checkendon had chosen on which to build their church. They assembled all the building materials needed for the construction on the spot, but the next morning the locals discovered to their dismay that the stones had all been mysterious moved to a different location overnight. Repeated attempts to build their church at this spot were met with the same result. Who could be responsible? Surely only only that great antagonist of English folk tales, the Devil himself!
Faced with such stiff opposition from the horned-one, the locals decided to cut their losses and build their church at a more conventional location in the middle of the village, and found that here their building work could go ahead unmolested.
But why would the locals have originally wished to build their church in such a remote spot, nearly 2 miles outside the village? In Curious Oxfordshire, Roger Long suggests that the locals were intentionally trying to encroach on what they knew to be the Devil's territory, hallowing the unhallowed ground as it were. If this was the case, their attempt was a dismal failure and the spot remains part of the Devil's domain to this day.
The Devil and church-building in English folklore
The stories told in folklore about the church at Checkendon mirror those told about a number of other churches throughout England. The story always begins the same, with locals setting out to build themselves a church, but finding that the stones keep being relocated overnight. The culprit in these stories is invariably the Devil, although his motivations differ, as do the methods by which the locals foil the Devil's plans and ultimately succeed in getting their church built.
The tale is commonly used to explain why a church has been built in an unusual, inaccessible or out-of-the-way location. Such as is the case with All Saints' Church at Godshill on the Isle of Wight. Here the locals planned to build their church on a flat spot at the bottom of the hill, only to find that the stones kept being mysteriously relocated to the top of a nearby hill. In the end the locals grew tired of moving the stones back down the hill and decide to build their church at the top of the hill instead.
Similar tales are told about other hilltop churches at Churchdown in Gloucestershire and Brentor on the edge of Dartmoor. However, hills do not need to be involved. The same tale is told about a number of churches in locations that are flat but at an unusual distance from the parish they serve.
The tale of the Devil's Churchyard near Checkendon oddly reverses this pattern, in that the locals apparently wished to build their church in a remote location, and were forced by the machinations of the Devil to instead build their church at a more conventional and accessible location!
Either way, in folklore, instances like those mentioned above are typically framed as examples of the locals getting the better of the Devil, rather than of the Devil getting his own way!
Other devilish churches in Oxfordshire
Another Oxfordshire location where a variant of the 'Devil-moves-a-church' story is told is at St. Mary's church, Ambrosden. Here, legend has it that the originally-chosen location of the church was elsewhere but the Devil repeatedly moved the stones overnight until the locals resigned themselves to building their church where it now stands close to the centre of the old part of the village. If Ambrosden has its own 'Devil's Churchyard', I've not been able to track it down.
For other devilish goings-on at Oxfordshire churches, see the churches of Bloxham, Adderbury and King's Sutton in the north of the county where the Devil apparently went against type and actually helped the churches be constructed in record time!
What is the Devil's Churchyard, really?
Putting the tales of devilish church-moving aside for a moment, why has this location really become known as the Devil's Churchyard? The naming is likely part of a wider trend of prescribing a devilish origin to any earthwork or similar geographical feature that people of the past were unable to explain the existence of. Jeremy Harte's book Cloven Country: the Devil and the English landscape contains many examples of this.
The collection of standing stones known as the Devil's Quoits at Stanton Harcourt are a classic local example. One legend subscribes a devilish origin to Scutchamer Knob, a barrow mound on the Ridgeway. The Devil was said to have been out one night ploughing a huge furrow across northern Berkshire, but when he came in sight of Wantage, his ploughshare became clogged with earth. He scooped this earth out and casually tossed it across the Ridgeway where it landed and became the mound known as Scutchamer Knob.
The Iron Age origins of the Devil's Churchyard, Checkendon
An archaeological excavation of the Devil's Churchyard took place between 1979-81, and concluded that the site's enclosure and boundary ditches date from the mid to late Iron Age. Finds including pottery, worked flint and animal bones, but a general lack of domestic debris suggest that the site may have been used for seasonal occupation rather than as a year-round dwelling place. Another possibility is that the site may have been used as a seasonal enclosure for keeping livestock, with the earthworks and ditches providing the livestock with some protection from large predators.
- 'The Devil's Churchyard. An Iron Age Enclosure at Checkenden, Oxon., 1979-81' By R. A. Chambers (Oxeniensia Vol 51, 1986)
- 'Cloven Country: the Devil and the English landscape' by Jeremy Harte (Reaktion Books Ltd, 2022, ISBN: 9781789146509)
- 'Curious Oxfordshire' by Roger Long (2008, The History Press, ISBN: 9780750949576)