Kit’s Coty House, Wayland Smith’s Cave


Figure 36
36.—Kit's Coty House near Aylesford, Kent
Figure 39
39.—Trevethy Stone
Figure 40
40.—Cromlech at Plas Newydd, Anglesey
Figure 42
42.—Wayland Smith's Cave

The high road from Rochester to Maidstone presents several of those rich and varied prospects which so often in England compensate the traveller for the absence of the grander elements of picturesque beauty. Here, indeed, are no mountains shrouded in mist or tipped with partial sunlight; but the bold ridges of chalk are the boundaries of valleys whose fertility displays itself in wood and pasture, in corn-lands and scattered villages. If we look to the north, the broad Medway expands like a vast lake, with an amphitheatre of town and hill-fort, which tell at one and the same time the history of the different warfare of ancient strength and of modern science. When we have ascended the highest point of the ridge, we again see the Medway, an attenuated stream, winding amidst low banks for many a mile. The hill of chalk is of a sufficient height to wear an aspect of sterility; it has some of the bleak features of a mountain-land. The road lies close under the brow of the hill, with a gentle slope to the village of Aylesford—an historical village. Not far from the point where the Aylesford road intersects the high road is the remarkable monument called Kit’s Coty House (Fig. 36). Unlike most monuments of the same high antiquity, it remains, in all probability, as originally constructed. It was described two hundred and fifty years ago by the antiquary Stow, and the description is as nearly exact as any that we could write at the present hour: “I have myself, in company with divers worshipful and learned gentlemen, beheld it in anno 1590, and it is of four flat stones, one of them standing upright in the middle of two others, inclosing the edge sides of the first, and the fourth laid flat across the other three, and is of such height that men may stand on either side the middle stone in time of storm or tempest, safe from wind and rain, being defended with the breadth of the stones, having one at their backs, one on either side, and the fourth over their heads.” In one point the description of Stow does not agree with what we find at the present day: “About a coit’s cast from this monument lieth another great stone, much part thereof in the ground, as fallen down where the same had been affixed.” This stone was half buried in 1773, when Mr. Colebrooke described the monument; it is now wholly covered up. The demand of a few square feet for the growth of corn, in a country with millions of acres of waste land, would not permit its preservation. Is this Kit’s Coty House something different from other ancient monuments, either in its site or its structure? Let us see how Camden, writing at the same period as Stow, describes an erection in Caermarthenshire, in the parish of Trelech: “We find a vast rude chech, or flat stone, somewhat of an oval form, about three yards in length, five foot over where broadest, and about ten or twelve inches thick. A gentleman, to satisfy my curiosity, having employed some labourers to search under it, found it, after removing much stone, to be the covering of such a barbarous monument as we call Kist-vaen, or Stone-chest; which was about four foot and a half in length, and about three foot broad, but somewhat narrower at the east than west end. It is made up of seven stones, viz., the covering stone, already mentioned, and two side stones, one at each end, and one behind each of these, for the better securing or bolstering of them; all equally rude, and about the same thickness, the two last excepted, which are considerably thicker.” The dimensions of Kit’s Coty House are thus given in Grose’s ‘Antiquities:’ “Upright stone on the N. or N. W. side, eight feet high, eight feet broad, two feet thick; estimated weight, eight tons and a half. Upright stone on the S. or S. E. side, eight feet high, seven and a half feet broad, two feet thick; estimated weight, eight tons. Upright stone between these, very irregular; medium dimensions, five feet high, five feet broad, fourteen inches thick; estimated weight, about two tons. Upper stone, very irregular, eleven feet long, eight feet broad, two feet thick; estimated weight, about ten tons seven cwt.” Holland, the first translator of Camden’s ‘Britannia,’ gives a description of Kit’s Coty House, which includes his notion, which was also that of Camden, of the original purpose of this monument. “Catigern, honoured with a stately and solemn funeral, is thought to have been interred near unto Aylesford, where, under the side of a hill, I saw four huge, rude, hard stones erected, two for the sides, one transversal in the middest between them, and the hugest of all, piled and laid over them in manner of the British monument which is called Stonehenge, but not so artificially with mortice and tenants.” The tradition to which Holland refers is, that a great battle was fought at Aylesford, between the Britons commanded by Catigern, the brother of Vortimer, and the Saxon invaders under Hengist and Horsa: in this battle the Saxons were routed, but Catigern fell. An earlier writer than Holland, Lambarde, in his ‘Perambulation of Kent,’ 1570, also describes this monument in the parish of Aylesford as the tomb of Catigern; “The Britons nevertheless in the mean space followed their victory (as I said) and returning from the chace, erected to the memory of Catigern (as I suppose) that monument of four huge and hard stones, which are yet standing in this parish, pitched upright in the ground, covered after the manner of Stonage (that famous sepulchre of the Britons upon Salisbury Plain) and now termed of the common people here Citscotehouse.” Antiquaries have puzzled themselves about the name of this Kentish monument. Kit, according to Grose, is an abbreviation of Catigern, and Coty is Coity, coit being a name for a large flat stone; so that Kit’s Coty House is Catigern’s House built with coits. Lambarde expressly says, “now termed of the common people here Citscotehouse.” The familiar name has clearly no more to do with the ancient object of the monument than many other common names applied to edifices belonging to the same remote period. No one thinks, for example, that the name of ‘Long Meg and her daughters,’ of which we have spoken, can be traced back even to the Saxon period. The theory of the earlier antiquaries that the monuments which we now generally call Druidical belong to a period of British history after the Christian era, and commemorate great battles with the Saxons or the Danes, is set at rest by the existence of similar monuments in distant parts of the world; proving pretty satisfactorily that they all had a common origin in some form of religious worship that was widely diffused amongst races of men whose civil history is shrouded in almost utter darkness. Palestine has its houses of coits as well as England. The following description is from the travels of Captains Irby and Mangles: “On the banks of the Jordan, at the foot of the mountain, we observed some very singular, interesting, and certainly very ancient tombs, composed of great rough stones, resembling what is called Kit’s Coty House in Kent. They are built of two long side stones, with one at each end, and a small door in front, mostly facing the north: this door was of stone. All were of rough stones, apparently not hewn, but found in flat fragments, many of which are seen about the spot in huge flakes. Over the whole was laid an immense flat piece, projecting both at the sides and ends. What rendered these tombs the more remarkable was, that the interior was not long enough for a body, being only five feet. This is occasioned by both the front and back stones being considerably within the ends of the side ones. There are about twenty-seven of these tombs, very irregularly situated.” These accomplished travellers call these Oriental monuments tombs, but their interior dimensions would seem to contradict this notion. The cause of these narrow dimensions is clearly pointed out; the front and back stones are considerably within the ends of the side ones. Kit’s Coty House (Figs. 37, 38) has no stone that we can call a front stone; it is open; but the back stone has the same peculiarity as the Palestine monuments; it is placed considerably within the side ones. The side stones lean inwards against the back stone; whilst the large flat stone at top, finding its own level on the irregular surfaces, holds them all firmly together, without the mortice and tenon which are required by the nicer adjustment of the superincumbent stone upon two uprights at Stonehenge. It is evident that the mode of construction thus employed has preserved these stones in their due places for many centuries. The question then arises, for what purpose was so substantial an edifice erected, having a common character with many other monuments in this country, and not without a striking resemblance to others in a land with which the ancient Britons can scarcely be supposed to have held any intercourse? It is maintained that such buildings, called cromlechs, were erected for the fearful purpose of human sacrifice. “For here we find in truth a great stone scaffold raised just high enough for such a horrid exhibition and no higher: and just large enough in all its proportions for the purpose, and not too large, and so contrived as to render the whole visible to the greatest multitude of people; whilst it was so framed and put together, though superstitiously constructed only of unhewn stones in imitation of purer and more primeval usages, that no length of time nor any common efforts of violence could destroy it or throw it down.” This is King’s description of what he believes to have been the terrible use of Kit’s Coty House. The situation of this monument certainly renders it peculiarly fitted for any imposing solemnity, to be performed amidst a great surrounding multitude. But it does appear to us that a stone scaffold, so construicted, was of all forms the most unfitted for the sacrifice of a living victim, to be accomplished by the violence of surrounding priests. Diodorus says of the Druids of Gaul, “Pouring out a libation upon a man as a victim, they smite him with a sword upon the breast in the part near the diaphragm, and on his falling who has been thus smitten, both from the manner of his falling and from the convulsions of his limbs, and still more from the manner of the flowing of his blood, they presage what will come to pass.” King accommodates Kit’s Coty House to this description; arguing that the top of the flat stone was a fitting place for these terrible ceremonies. The notion seems somewhat absurd; the extreme dimensions of the top stone are not more than eleven feet in any direction; a size in itself unsuited enough for such a display of physical force. But this narrow stone is also shelving; it is about nine feet from the ground in front, and seven feet at the back, having a fall of two feet in eleven feet. King says, “And yet the declivity is not such as to occasion the least danger of any slipping or sliding off.” The plain reader may possibly ask, what at any rate is to prevent the victim falling off when he receives the fatal blow; and wonder how the presage described by Diodorus is to be collected from the manner of his falling, when he must infallibly slide down at the instant of his fall. We must in truth receive the Roman accounts of the sacrificial practices of the ancient Druids with some suspicion. Civilized communities have a natural tendency to exaggerate the horrors of superstitious observances amongst remote nations that they call barbarous. The testimony is too strong to admit of a doubt that human sacrifice did obtain amongst the ancient Britons; but it can scarcely be believed that the practice formed so essential a part of their worship as to call for the erection of sacrificial altars throughout the land. Kit’s Coty House is by some called a cromlech (or fiat stone resting upon other stones), by which name is now generally understood an altar of sacrifice; but by others it is called a kist-vaen (or stone-chest), being, as they hold, a sepulchral monument. The Isle of Anglesey, anciently called Mona, was the great stronghold of Druidism, whilst the Romans had still a disturbed possession of the country, Tacitus, describing an attack upon Mona, says that the British Druids “held it right to smear their altars with the blood of their captives, and to consult the will of the gods by the quivering of human flesh.” At Plas Newydd, in the Isle of Anglesey, are two cromlechs (Fig. 40); and it is believed that these remains confirm the account of Tacitus, and that they were the altars upon which the victims were sacrificed. Near Liskeard, in Cornwall, in the parish of St. Clear, is a cromlech called Trevethy Stone, Trevedi being said to signify in the British language a place of graves (Fig. 39). In the neighbourhood of Lambourn, in Berkshire, are many barrows, and amongst them is found the cromlech called Wayland Smith (Fig. 42). The tradition which Scott has so admirably used in his ‘Kenilworth’ that a supernatural smith here dwelt, who would shoe a traveller’s horse for. a “consideration,” is one of the many superstitions that belong to these places of doubtful origin and use, a remnant of the solemn feelings with which they were once regarded. In Cornwall there are many cromlechs and kist-vaens described by Borlase. They axe numerous in Wales, and some are found in Ireland. In the county of Louth there is one which bears the name of the Killing Stone; and this is held by King to be a decisive proof of its original use. But, although we may well believe that the horrid practice of human sacrifice was incidental to the Druidical worship, we are not to collect from the Roman writers that it constituted the chief part of the Druidical system. It is clear that there were many high and abstract doctrines taught under that system; and that the very temples of the worship were symbolical of certain principles of belief. Whether the cromlechs or kist-vaens were used for sacrifice, it has been thought that the stone-chests, at least, were symbolical of one of the great traditions of mankind which was widely diffused; and which therefore exhibited itself in the outward forms of sacred places amongst divers nations. The form of an ark or chest is prevalent in all the ancient religions of the world. A recent writer says, “On careful deliberation, and considering that the first tabernacles and constructed temples are to be taken as commentaries on the stone monuments of more ancient date, we are disposed to find an analogy between the kist-vaen, or stone-chest, and the ark, or sacred chest, which we find as the most holy object in the tabernacle and temple of the Hebrews, as well as in the Egyptian and some other heathen temples.” (Kitto’s ‘Palestine.’) The ark of Noah, the cradle of the post-diluvian races, was thus symbolized. In this point of view we can understand how the same form of building shall be found on the banks of the Jordan and on the banks of the Medway. It is a curious fact that the Bards, who were the direct successors of the Druids, and who continued to preserve some of their mysterious and initiatory rites, after the Druidical worship was suppressed by the Romans, have distinct allusions to the ark, or stone-chest, in which the candidate for admission to the order underwent a probationary penance. The famous Welsh bard, Taliesin, gives a remarkable description of this ceremony, which is thus translated by Davies: “I was first modelled into the form of a pure man, in the hall of Ceridwen, who subjected me to penance. Though small within my chest, and modest in my deportment, I was great. A sanctuary carried me above the surface of the earth. Whilst I was enclosed within its ribs, the sweet Awen rendered me complete: and my law, without audible language, was imparted to me by the old giantess, darkly smiling in her wrath; but her claim was not regretted when she set sail.” Davies adds, “Ceridwen was, what Mr. Bryant pronounces Ceres to have been, the genius of the ark; and her mystic rites represented the memorials of the deluge.”


Figure 41
41.—Constantine Tolman, Cornwall
Figure 46
46.—Kilmarth Rocks, as seen from the South East.
Figure 47
47.—The Cheesewring, as seen from the North-west.
Figure 48
48.—Hugh Lloyd's Pulpit

There are remains of the more ancient times of Britain whose uses no antiquarian writers have attempted, by the aid of tradition or imagination, satisfactorily to explain. They are, to a certain extent, works of art; they exhibit evidences of design; but it would appear as if the art worked as an adjunct to nature. The object of the great Druidical monuments, speaking generally, without reference to their superstitious uses, was to impress the mind with something like a feeling of the infinite, by the erection of works of such large proportions that in these after ages we still feel that they are sublime, without paying respect to the associations which once surrounded them. So it would appear that those who once governed the popular mind sought to impart a more than natural grandeur to some grand work of nature, by connecting it with some effort of ingenuity which was under the direction of their rude science. Such are the remains which have been called Tolmen; a Tolman being explained to be an immense mass of rock placed aloft on two subjacent rocks which admit of a free passage between them. Such is the remarkable remain in the parish of Constantine in Cornwall. “It is one vast egg-like stone thirty-three feet in length, eighteen feet in width, and fourteen feet and a half in thickness, placed on the points of two natural rocks, so that a man may creep under it.” (Fig. 41.) There appears to be little doubt that this is a work of art, as far as regards the placing of the huge mass (which is held to weigh seven hundred and fifty tons), upon the points of its natural supporters. If the Constantine Tolman be a work of art, it furnishes a most remarkable example of the skill which the early inhabitants of England had attained in the application of some great power, such as the lever, to the aid of man’s co-operative strength. But there are some remains which have the appearance of works of art, which are, probably, nothing but irregular products of nature,—masses of stone thrown on a plane surface by some great convulsion, and wrought into fantastic shapes by agencies of dripping water and driving wind, which in the course of ages work as effectually in the changes of bodies as the chisel and the hammer. Such is probably the extraordinary pile of granite in Cornwall called the Cheesewring, a mass of eight stones rising to the height of thirty-two feet, whose name is derived from the form of an ancient cheese-press (Fig. 47). It is held, however, that some art may have been employed in clearing the base from circumjacent stones. Such is also a remarkable pile upon a lofty range called the Kilmarth Rocks, which is twenty-eight feet in height, and overhangs more than twelve feet towards the north (Fig. 46). The group of stones at Festiniog in Merionethshire, called Hugh Lloyd’s pulpit (Fig. 48), is also a natural production. But there are other remains which the antiquaries call Logan, or Rocking-stones, in the construction of which some art appears decidedly to have been exercised. Cornwall is remarkable for these rocking-stones. Whether they were the productions of art, or wholly of nature, the ancient writers seem to have been impressed with a due sense of the wonder which attached to such curiosities. Pliny tells of a rock near Harpasa which might be moved with a finger (placed no doubt in a particular position) but would not stir with a thrust of the whole body. Ptolemy, with an expression in the highest degree poetical, speaks of the Gygonian rock, which might be stirred with the stalk of an asphodel, but could not be removed by any force. There is a rock-ing-stone in Pembrokeshire, which is described in Gibson’s edition of Camden’s ‘Britannia,’ from a manuscript account by Mr. Owen: “This shaking stone may be seen on a sea-cliff within half a mile of St. David’s. It is so vast that I presume it may exceed the draught of an hundred oxen, and it is altogether rude and unpolished. The occasion of the name (Y maen sigl, or the Rocking-stone) is for that being mounted upon divers other stones about a yard in height it is so equally poised that a man may shake it with one finger so that five or six men sitting on it shall perceive themselves moved thereby.” There is a stone of this sort at Golcar Hill, near Halifax in Yorkshire, which mainly lost its rocking power through the labours of some masons, who wanting to discover the principle by which so large a weight was made so easily to move, hewed and hacked at it until they destroyed its equilibrium. In the same manner the soldiers in the civil wars rendered the rocking-stone of Pembrokeshire immoveable after Mr. Owen had described it; but their object was not quite so laudable as that of the masons, who sought to discover the mystery of the stone of Golcar Hill. The soldiers upset its equipoise upon the same principle that they broke painted glass and destroyed monumental brasses; they held that it was an encouragement to superstition. In the same way the soldiers of Cromwell threw down a famous stone called Men-amber, in the parish of Sithney, in Cornwall, which a little child might move; and it is recorded that the destruction required immense labour and pains. Some few years ago one of these famous rocking-stones, on the coast of Cornwall, was upset by a ship’s crew for a freak of their officers; but the people, who had a just veneration for their antiquities, insisted upon the rocking-stone being restored to its place; it was restored; but the trouble and expense were so serious, that the disturbers went away with a due sense of the skill of those who had first poised these mighty masses, as if to assert the permanency of their art, and to show that all that is gone before us is not wholly barbarous. It is a curious fact that the tackle which was used for the restoration of this rock-ing-stone, and which was applied by military engineers, broke under the weight of the mass which our rude forefathers had set up. The rocking-stones which are found throughout the country are too numerous here to be particularly described. They are in many places distinctly surrounded by Druidical remains, and have been considered as adjuncts to the system of divination by which the priesthood maintained their influence over the people.

In various parts of England, in Wales, in Ireland, and in the Western Islands of Scotland, there are found large single stones, firmly fixed in the earth, which have remained in their places from time immemorial, and which are generally regarded with some sort of reverence, if not superstition, by the people who live near them. They are in all likelihood monuments which were erected in memory of some remarkable event, or of some eminent person. They have survived their uses. Written memorials alone shine with a faint light through the darkness of early ages. The associations that once made these memorials of stone solemn things no longer surround them. When Jack Cade struck his sword upon London Stone, the act was meant to give a solemn assurance to the people of his rude fidelity. The stone still stands; and we now look upon it simply with curiosity, as one of the few remains of Roman London. Some hold that it had “a more ancient and peculiar designation than that of having been a Roman Milliary, even if it ever were used for that purpose afterwards. It was fixed deep in the ground; and is mentioned so early as the time of Æthelstan, king of the West Saxons, without any particular reference to its having been considered as a Roman Milliary stone.” (King.) If this stone, which few indeed of the busy throngs of Cannon-street cast a look upon, were only a boundary stone, such stones were held as sacred things even in the times of the patriarchs: “And Laban said to Jacob, Behold this heap, and behold this pillar, which I have cast betwixt me and thee; this heap be witness, and this pillar be witness, that I will not pass over this heap to thee, and that thou shalt not pass over this heap and this pillar unto me, for harm.” (Genesis, c. xxxi., v. 51, 52.) In the parish of Sancred, in Cornwall, is a remarkable stone called the Hare Stone (hare or hoar meaning literally border or boundary), with a heap of stones lying around it (Fig. 44). It is held that these stones are precisely similar to the heap and the pillar which were collected and set up at the covenant between Jacob and Laban, recorded in the scriptures with such interesting minuteness. It is stated by Rowland, the author of ‘Mona Antiqua,’ that wherever there are heaps of stones of great apparent antiquity, stone pillars are also found near them. This is probably too strong an assertion; but the existence of such memorials, which King says, “are, like the pyramids of Egypt, records of the highest antiquity in a dead language,” compared with the clear descriptions of them in the sacred writings, leaves little doubt of the universality of the principle which led to their erection. A heap of stones and a single pillar was not, however, the only form of these stones of memorial. At Trelech, in Monmouthshire, are three remarkable stones, one of which is fourteen feet above the ground, and which evidently formed no part of any Druidical circle. These are called Harold’s Stones (Fig. 43). Near Boroughbridge, in Yorkshire, are some remarkable stones of a similar character, called the Devil’s Arrows. The magnitude of these stones of memorial was probably sometimes regulated by the importance of the event which they were intended to celebrate; but their sacred character in many cases did not depend upon their size, and their form is sometimes unsuited to the notion that they were boundary-stones, or even monumental pillars. The celebrated stone which now forms the seat of the coronation chair of the sovereigns of England is a flat stone, nearly square. It formerly stood in Argyleshire, according to Buchanan; who also says that King Kenneth, in the ninth century, transferred it to Scone, and enclosed it in a wooden chair. The monkish tradition was, that it was the identical stone which formed Jacob’s pillow. The more credible legend of Scotland is, that it was the ancient inauguration-stone of the kings of Ireland. “This fatal stone was said to have been brought from Ireland by Fergus, the son of Eric, who led the Dalriads to the shores of Argyleshire. Its virtues are preserved in the celebrated leonine verse:—

Ni fallat fatum, Scoti, quocunque locatum

Invenient lapidem, regnare tenentur ibidem.

Which may be rendered thus:—

“Unless the Fates are faithless found,

And Prophet’s voice be vain,

Where’er this monument be found

The Scottish race shall reign.”


Figure 45
45.—Coronation Chair

Sir Walter Scott, in his graceful style, gives us this version of his country’s legend. The stone, as the youngest reader of English history knows, was removed to Westminster from Scone by Edward I.; and here it remains, as an old antiquarian has described it, “the ancientest respected monument in the world; for, although some others may be more antient as to duration, yet thus superstitiously regarded are they not.” (Fig. 45.) The antiquity of this stone is undoubted, however it may be questioned whether it be the same stone on which the ancient kings of Ireland were inaugurated on the hill of Tara. This tradition is a little shaken by the fact that stone of the same quality is not uncommon in Scotland. The history of its removal from Scone by Edward I. admits of no doubt. A record exists of the expenses attending its removal; and this is the best evidence of the reverence which attached to this rude seat of the ancient kings of Scotland, who standing on it in the sight of assembled thousands, had sworn to reverence the laws, and to do justice to the people. *

* The Coronation Chair, the seat of which rests upon this stone of destiny, is also represented in the illuminated engraving which accompanies this portion of our work. It is a fac-simile of a highly finished architectural drawing, and is printed in oil colours from twelve separate plates, so united in the printing as to produce a perfect outline, and to give all the various tints of the original.