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7 tales of the Devil in Oxfordshire

The Devil has been extremely busy in Oxfordshire over the years. From building stone circles to tampering with churches, waylaying lonely travellers and even getting people hanged for treason! Here are 7 times the Devil got up to mischief in Oxfordshire, according to folklore.

1. The Devil at Adderbury, Bloxham and King's Sutton

According to the legend, the magnificent church spires of Adderbury, Bloxham and King's Sutton were constructed in a single night by a mysterious stone mason who then vanished, leaving behind only a whiff of sulphur!

The locals were left in no doubt that this was the Devil's work, although why the Devil was being so uncharacteristically helpful is anyone's guess!

Gargoyle at St. Mary's Church, Bloxham

A gargoyle at Bloxham church. Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

2. The Devil's Quoits at Stanton Harcourt

The massive standing stones that make up the neolithic stone circle at Stanton Harcourt are said to have been tossed into position by the Devil during a game of quoits.

One version of the legend states that the Devil was playing a beggar for this soul on Wytham Hill and tossed his giant quoits down into the valley below.

Another versions says that the Devil was chastised for playing games on a Sunday and threw his quoits down in disgust. Whichever version you chose to believe, let's hope that the Devil never decides to return to collect his quoits!

Devil's Quoits

One of the stones that make up the Devil's Quoits. Image: umbrellahead56, licensed under CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.

3. The Devil and John Deydras

John Deydras was an Oxford clerk who in 1318 made the bold, some would say foolhardy, claim that Edward II was a fraud and that he was the true king of England. King Edward saw the funny side of this, but the Queen did not and insisted that Deydras be arrested and tried for the crime of high treason.

At the trial Deydras admitted that he wasn't really the King, but claimed that he was put up to it by none other than the Devil.

He claimed that he was walking across Christchurch meadow one day when his cat began speaking to him, urging him to make his false claims to kinghood. Deydras said he now realised that it was merely the Devil speaking to him through his cat.

The whole episode ended badly for both Deydras and his cat. Both were executed by hanging.

Edward II

An illuminated detail from the 'Chronicle of England', showing Edward II of England receiving his crown.

4. The Devil at Ambrosden

According to a local legend, St. Mary's church at Ambrosden was originally to have been constructed at a different location. However, the builders would return every morning to find that all the stones and other building materials they had assembled at the chosen spot had been moved to a different locations.

The locals knew who to blame for this, it was surely the Devil attempting to prevent them from building their church!

Eventually, the locals hit on a simple solution. They would simply build their church at the spot where the building materials kept being moved to. This simple strategy worked, and the church was duly constructed. In folklore, this turn of events is characterised as the locals getting one over on the Devil, though you do wonder if ultimately the Devil got his own way.

Ambrosden Church

St. Mary's Church, Ambrosden. Photo: Steve Daniels, via Wikimedia Commons

5. The Devil at Barnard Gate

Once, the story goes, a man was walking back home to North Leigh from Barnard Gate when he was accosted by the Devil in the form of a fiery serpent. The huge burning serpent encircled the poor man, and he wasn't able to escape for a number of hours.

He later returned with a group of friends to the spot, but of Devil, serpent or charred earth there was no sign.

You have to wonder if actually the man just spent a bit too long in the pub at Barnard Gate and came up with this rather less-than-plausible explanation for his lateness in a somewhat befuddled state on the way home!

A man rejecting the devil in the form of a serpent

Woodcut illustration of a man rejecting the devil in the form of a serpent used by Heinrich Stayner of Augsburg (circa 1500-1550).

6. The Devil's Churchyard at Checkendon

Buried in woodland and surrounded by yew trees in South Oxfordshire is an iron age earthwork and enclosure known as the Devil's Churchyard. Legend states that, like at Ambrosden, the locals once planned to build their church here but found that the building materials would be mysteriously relocated overnight.

Realising that this was the Devil's handiwork, the locals wisely decided to build their church elsewhere, but the original spot retained its sinister reputation and is still marked on maps as the Devil's Churchyard to this day.

A map showing the Devil's Churchyard, 1912

A map showing the Devil's Churchyard. Image: National Library of Scotland, reuse by CC-BY (NLS)

7. The Devil's Punchbowl

Just off the Ridgeway in the very south of the country can be found a distinctive smooth-sided valley known as the Devil's Punchbowl. It shares its name with other Devil's Punchbowls in Sussex and Norfolk.

Both of these have suitably Devilish legends attached to them, but the origins of the Oxfordshire Punchbowl remains enigmatic. Perhaps one day someone will meet a cloven-hoofed stranger who is able to explain!

The Devil's Punchbowl, photographed by Andrew Bowden

The Devil's Punchbowl. Photo: Bods, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flicker.

This short list really only scratches the surface of the Devil's antics in Oxfordshire. At North Leigh, locals are said to have encountered the Devil in the form of both a badger and a cricketer (though not at the same time). The Devil is said to have had a hand in creating the South Oxfordshire burial mound known as Scutchamer Knob. A footbridge over the Thames at South Hinksey is known as the Devil's Backbone. A rural road near Crowsley in South Oxfordshire is called Devil's Hill. Truely, the Devil's hoof-prints can be traced across the whole county!

Know of any more devilish goings-on in Oxfordshire? Get in touch and let me know!

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