Sometime around 1907 a huge elm in Cheltenham was felled. This tree was a local landmark but was no longer safe to leave standing. The tree was known as Maud’s Elm and was associated with a local legend. The following account of this tale predates the felling by 40 years and was published in ‘Norman’s History of Cheltenham by John Goding (1863)’
THE large number of trees, including almost every known variety, which grow in the parish of Cheltenham, by their beautiful foliage and diversity of form contribute greatly to impart that picturesque character to the Queen of Watering Places for which it has been so long and so justly celebrated. From time immemorial, one of these trees has acquired great notoriety among both visitors and residents, in consequence of its past history being’ interwoven with a tradition of romantic interest. It is called ” Maude’s Elm,” and is so lofty in stature that it forms a prominent object for miles around. It is situate about a quarter of a mile from the road which forms the parish boundary at Swindon, and but a short distance from the centre of the town. The general form of the tree is graceful; and its boughs, ever green and verdant, overspread a considerable distance, whilst its gigantic proportions and towering height impress the beholder with awe and wonder. The trunk of the tree is 21 feet in circumference, and it appears to be in a healthy and solid state. The roots, laid bare by the constant tread of footsteps, extend several yards from the trunk into the public road, and present a novel and remarkable appearance. Swindon, with its old church, displaying a unique Norman tower, and ivy-clad walls, surrounded with its ever solemn grassy graveyard, together with the tasteful drives and plantations of Swindon Hall — has become, from its close proximity to the town, a place of favourite resort. Maude’s Elm is passed on the journey to this sequestered village, and consequently it is located on a spot of increasing public thoroughfare. The rude blast for centuries has raged against this venerable elm, but, excepting a few upper limbs which have been dismantled, it has escaped uninjured. Gilpin, the most eminent describer of the picturesque in nature, in his account of our local scenery, particularly points to Maude’s Elm as one of the finest trees in Cheltenham, It is nearly a century since he recorded the impressions which the wide spreading elm had made upon his sensitive mind ; and, since his time, many thousands of visitors have bent their way to inspect its fine and graceful form. That celebrated character, the Duchess of Devonshire, (mother of the late Duke of Devonshire, of Chatsworth, and the patron of Sir Joseph Paxton), was such an ardent admirer of this noble member of the forest, that she was daily to be seen, during her residence in the town, taking her beat, and reading her favourite authors beneath the shade of its foliage. It was during one of these daily visits, that a little boy who had charge of a horse attracted the Duchess’s attention. Struck with the intelligent expression of countenance in a youth so young and destitute, her Grace accosted him, and presented a donation. The boy, although only nine years of age, in return for this mark of kindness, related what he knew of the origin of Maude’s Elm. The Duchess was so struck at the recital of the narrative, that she adopted the child, educated him, and he became a visitor to Devonshire House ! Her Grace, in after life, gave him capital on several occasions, to enable him to set up in business ; but his eccentric mode of living caused him to pass through many vicissitudes — one week rolling in wealth, and the next in abject poverty. He died at Cheltenham in 1844, This was Miles Watkins, so long known as ” The King of the Cheltenham Royal Family.” In 1840, the Duke of Devonshire, during his visit, had a drawing of the elm executed, as a memento of his mother; and finding that Miles Watkins was still alive, and had attained his 70th year, he gave him pecuniary assistance, to enable him to live comfortably in his declining years. We present two illustrations — one which shows a distant view of the tree with Christ Church in the distance, as seen from Swindon Bridge, and the other the tree upon a nearer approach. We also avail ourselves of extracts from the works of three local poets, who have described in verse the history of Maud’s Elm, and which were published in 1852.
The adjacent village of Swindon retains, unaltered, its rural and ancient character, having escaped the hand of the innovator — a fact, no doubt, attributable to its quiet and retired position. The brook, as in days of yore, denotes the boundary of the village dwellings, and the approach from Cheltenham across the stream is still, as it was anciently, by way of a bridge. At this last-named spot was enacted the tragedy which gave birth to the traditionary history of Maude’s Elm .The inhabitants of Swindon were one night alarmed by the shrieks of an aged and frantic mother, who declared that her only child was lost. The missing fugitive was an industrious daughter, who had been sent to Cheltenham with some spun wool, the joint produce of herself and mother. Her name was Maude Bowen, the pride of the village, who had just attained her majority, and was possessed of great personal attractions. Search was made in vain during the darkness of the night, but at daybreak a sad scene presented itself. In the brook lay the lifeless body of the beautiful Maude, which appeared to have lain there for some time. On the bridge close by, another corpse was discovered. This proved to be Godfrey Bowen, the uncle of Maude. An arrow had penetrated his heart, he grasped with his left hand the hand-rail of the bridge, and in his right hand ware some rent portions of Maude’s dress.
When night’s last shadow had passed away,
And the crystal drops upon every spray
Heralded in the blushes of day,
A ghastly scene was revealed to the eye,
That caused the blood from the cheek to fly;
For the stoutest villager gasped for breath,
As he wildly gazed on the double death.
On the dimpled bosom of a stream,
That flowed unruffled as life’s young dream,
The Swindon maiden lay cold and dead,
A holy calm o’er her features spread,
As though her spirit in peace had fled.
No midnight murderer’s stab could be traced,
No ruffian blow had her beauty defaced,
So ’twas thought, in the height of mad despair,
She had cast away life and sorrow there.
Old Margaret wept o’er the lifeless clay
Of the budding blossom thus torn away;
But no flood of grief could awaken the dead,—
The silvery voice was for ever fled.
But the heart was pained with another form,
By the murderer’s hand made food for the worm.
On a rustic bridge that spanned the stream,
Whence rose to the heavens Maude’s stifled scream,
Godfrey Bowen was stiffening there.
His clotted blood tainting the morning air;
An arrow shot with unerring aim,
Was buried deep in his heart of shame,
While his right hand grasped with tenaciousness,
A tattered shred of the virgin’s dress.
A mystery clouded the horrible deed,
And heaven alone the truth could read!
For in those days of despotic wrong,
Who dared to wag the insolent tongue?
Who dared to utter in faintest breath
What the living thought of the maiden’s death?
The lip was sealed, and the tongue was tied
By bloated tyranny’s power and pride,
But there was ONE who viewed with a smile
The headman’s axe and the faggot pile;
He breathed his thoughts in the silent shade,
And vowed revenge for the Swindon maid!
Godfrey Bowen to the grave was borne,
With not one neighbour iris fate to mourn;
“Twas known lie was miserly, stern and odd,
And laid not his heart on the altar of God;
‘Twas known he had tortured the widow’s heart,
And play’d to’rds Maude an ungracious part;
‘Twas felt in the sorrow for her that was gone,
The ruin was wrought by his baseness alone.
In those ancient times, it was customary for the lords of the manor of Cheltenham and Swindon to elect their own coroners, who were generally residents, which enabled justice to be locally administered without delay. The lord of the Swindon manor at once summoned his coroner, and a verdict of ” felo-de-se ” was returned against Maude, who it was decided had committed suicide. According to custom, the body of the alleged self-murderess was ordered to be buried in the nearest crossroad, without Christian burial.
Alas, for Maude! a horrible doom,
Denied her body a Christian tomb;
By malice, revenge and terrible hate,
A coroner’s verdict pronounced her fate.
They dug her a grave on the king’s highway,
With no kind lips o’er her corpse to pray ;
They buried her there in the dead of night,
While the torcb.es flashed their lurid light;
No pall, no coffin, no virgin shroud,
No relatives moaning their griefs aloud;
No priest to fulfil his mission just,
Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust:
Was this enough for the vengeful foe,
To the wormy bed unshaven to go?
No, not enough; for a fearful thing
Is revenge when it burns to leave a sting!
Justice was warped and the law defied,
And the” maiden branded a suicide!
A stake was from an elm tree riven,
And through the spotless body driven.
A glance at the map contained in Ogilby’s ” Britannia,” published by government authority, in 1675, from an ordnance survey, will demonstrate that the site of Maude’s Elm must have formed the centre of a spot where four roads branched off — the one through Hard wick to Tewkesbury, and others to Cheltenham, Cleeve, and Gloucester. Here it was that the once fair and beautiful village maid was interred. In accordance with the fashion of the day, an elm stake was driven through her body, which, in process of time, grew to the stately tree which now exists, and which yet retains the name of ” Maude’s Elm.”
In those days it was the custom, when folks killed themselves, to thrust ‘em
In their graves without a coffin, without shroud or winding sheet,
And when midnight winds were blowing, thus they buried fair Maud Bowen,
In the grave which they had digged, where the four cross roads do meet.
O! sad death for village beauty, O! vile grave for one so sweet!
And it seems the elm stake shooted, in the maiden’s body rooted,
And with leaves and tender branches raised its head above the ground;
And so wondrous was its growing, that its noble head was showing
Very shortly as the highest object in the country round.
Margaret Bowen, the mother of Maude, was deprived of the means of existence by the death of her affectionate daughter. The shock which her enfeebled frame suffered at the sudden catastrophe, nearly proved fatal to her; and she never afterwards, except at short intervals, regained her wonted cheerfulness. Her distress was still further heightened by being ejected from her freehold cottage, which was seized by the lord of the manor, who claimed it as an escheat by virtue of the verdict of the coroner’s inquest. Without a home to shelter herself, the distracted mother wandered from house to house in the village, and found among her neighbours many who commiserated her; but the thought of her dear child seemed ever to pervade her whole mind, and she grew more and more melancholy. At different periods she was missing, and then would again mingle with, the inhabitants of her native village, whose sympathy she had won by many acts of kindness. It seemed as if she was a wanderer and outcast upon the earth, and each time that she returned to pay her visits, it was observed that she looked more and more dejected. But, although not a regular visitant in the place of her nativity and among her friends, yet it was ascertained that there was one spot where she was generally to be found, and that was at her daughter’s grave.
The fond mother was daily, in all seasons of the year, however inclement, to be seen, with the affection of a true mother, shedding the tear of grief, watching and watering the elm tree which was growing from the stake which had so barbarously pierced the pallid corpse of her whom she loved most dearly.
One morning, while seated at this place, as was her wont, her attention was arrested by an unusual procession of carriages and horsemen coming from Swindon. It proved to be the lord of the manor and suite on their road to Cleeve Church, to celebrate the christening of a first-born son and heir. The lord appeared annoyed at the position which Margaret occupied, and requested two of his attendants to go forward and to remove her before the cavalcade passed by. But neither threat nor persuasion could move the devoted parent from the last resting-place of her loved one, un-consecrated as it was. At length orders were given to obtain forcible possession of Margaret, but, just as the vassal’s arm was uplifted, an arrow struck him to the heart, and he fell instantly dead. The arrow came from a thick wood, which then grew r on the side of the old Gloucester Road, but upon search, no traces of the archer could be found. By the lord’s order, poor Margaret was seized, bound, and conveyed to Gloucester Gaol, charged with the twofold crime of murder and witchcraft.
What cavalcade comes slowly on,
With plumes and banner, mirth and glee;
The joyous scene will change anon
To one of death and misery!
Sir Robert de Vere, and his lady fair,
Bedecked with silks and jewels rare,
Came forth from the Hall on that sun-lit day,
Attended by knights, in waving plumes,
And beautiful girls, whose choice perfumes
As they passed along, scented the air;
And prancing steeds, with trappings gay,
Garlanded o’er with flowers of May ;
While pages, and vassals of every grade,
Brought up the rear of the cavalcade.
Where is it wending, that gorgeous train,
So lavishly decked with the golden grain!
‘Tis a day of joy, for that lady fair
Hath blessed her lord with a son and heir,
And the sinless babe they are bearing now,
Por baptismal water to lave his brow:
But little they reck of the terrible doom
That will spread around them its pall of gloom,
And change their joy in its hey-day flood,
To bitterest sorrow, and tears of blood.
“What beggar is this that stops my path!”
Sir Robert de Vere exclaimed in wrath,
When he saw the form of the widow wild,
Bent on the grave of her murdered child.
“Hag! Fiend! and Witch ! why art thou there,
To blast my sight with thy hoary hair?
I thought thy bones were rotting ere this —
Do’ st come to shadow ray new-born bliss?
Up, up, and away, and cross no more
My summer path like a stream of gore I”
The form of Margaret moved not an inch,
Not hers the spirit to cower, and flinch.
“Thou bravest me ! but I know thy drift—
Avaunt ! or I’ll have thee caged, and whipt;
Thy mummy skin and marrowless bones
Shall be lashed, ’til thy heart with anguish groans.”
The mandate was heard, but heeded not,
Meg’s crouching form seemed glued to the spot.
“Hubert! advance,” cried the Lord de Vere—
“This wretch is resolved my power to jeer;
Lay hands upon her, and drag her hence,
A dungeon shall be her recompense!”
From the gorgeous train came forth the slave,
To tear old Meg from her daughter’s grave;
When an arrow, shot with unerring aim,
Pierced his heart as he seized the dame.
He staggered, and fell like a heavy stone,
And died without a struggle, or groan.
The Lord of the Manor turned deadly pale,
And his heart for a moment began to quail,
For he thought of the unseen arrow that sped,
And numbered Godfrey among the dead.
“Drag hither the wretch!” at length he cried,
“Yon slave is not the first who has died
From the sinful force of her potent spell;
She is in league with the fiends of hell;
Away with the witch to the dungeon’s gloom,
The fiery faggot shall be her doom!”
Old Meg was forced from her daughter’s grave,
Unheeded the piercing shrieks she gave;
Her tears and prayers were of no avail —
She lodged, that night, in Gloucester jail!
In a fortnight afterwards, the afflicted mother took her trial; and with the aid of so influential a prosecutor as the lord of the manor, it was not difficult to obtain a verdict of guilty. The judge, in passing sentence, enlarged upon the necessity of severely punishing all who practised witchcraft, and ordered her to be burned to death on the precise spot where the lord’s attendant had been shot, which was none other than her daughter’s grave ! The sentence was carried out to the letter on the following morning. The unfortunate victim of the credulity of a past age, was brought in a rude cart from Gloucester, guarded by officers, and seated upon a bundle of straw, which was to kindle the flames that were to burn her alive. A heap of faggots had been piled, in a circular form; and as Margaret was being led forth to the stake, to be tied up, a murmur of pity and of regret ran through the assembled crowd, as they beheld the wan and emaciated form of one who, in the days of her prosperity, had ever acted with kindness and benevolence towards all. The fire was but just kindled, when the solemn silence was broken by the Lord of the Manor penetrating the assembly, and taunting the dying woman with exercising the art of witchcraft. He had not spoken many words before an arrow, from some invisible hand, penetrated his person, and after uttering several convulsive groans, he fell dead at the feet of the burning Margaret. In a few moments afterwards the blazing pile seemed to have reached it height, the stake was heard to fail, and nothing was to be seen but a heap of mouldering ashes. An event so tragical exercised a great influence over the residents at the time, and the superstitious character of the age gave additional colouring to the affair. Conjecture and speculation were continually at work to clear up the incidents, and the tree daily growing in size seemed to stand forth as a living monument of crime and punishment. The Lord of the Manor having perished, his property passed into the hands of strangers. The house which afforded shelter to Margaret Bowen was unoccupied and unowned. Nearly half a century had elapsed since the tragedy had been enacted at Maude’s Elm, when the villagers were surprised at finding a stranger spending a large portion of the day beneath the elm, and also residing during the night in the decayed dwelling of the reputed witch:
Above the grave of hapless Maude,
The young elm tree began to shew
Limbs, and proportions, strong and broad,
While from the stately bod) grew
Branches, and leaves, that shadowed o’er
The root, so long baptized in gore.
Beneath that fresh-limbed, young elm tree,
The unknown stood, and as he gazed
The scene around, his eye was glazed,
His care-worn spirit seemed to flee
To days long vanished, and his frame
Shook like au aspen, when the wind
Of Autumn blows upon the rind:
Old age was dead, and he became
A living youth again. He threw
His hat and staff upon the ground,
And kneeling near the elm tree, drew
A sight from sorrow’s cell profound.
A tear upon his pale cheeks strayed,
While thus he mourned the Swindon Maid.
When thou wert snatched from earth, my sainted Maude,
All joys were gone ;
I sou, lit the wars, the soldier’s bloody trade,
But still my heart was lone.
Oh, thou hast been a lovely moonlight beam
In saddened hours ;
And I have strewed thy grave in fancy’s dream,
With wreaths of mountain flowers.
Though Time hath laid his hands upon my head,
My heart is young ;
Though I have fainted upon sorrow’s bed,
To thee I still have clung.
E’en when I roamed the hills, a careless boy,
My heart was thine;
I thought thou would’st have been a thing of joy
And hope, in life’s decline.
With bleeding heart, I pluck a young green bough
From that elm tree,
Whose obscure root, some fifty years ago,
Drew the dead blood from thee.
Upon thy lowly grave, sweet love,
I fling My weary bones;
‘Ere long, we both shall meet before the King
Of Kings, and Throne of Thrones.
The occupant of the long closed cottage was one whose appearance bespoke that he was verging upon fourscore years. This remarkable circumstance soon arrested attention, and upon giving his reason for desiring to end his days in that humble dwelling, the new comer was allowed uninterrupted possession. The narrative of his life he would often tell until it became familiar as ” household words ” to every villager. It was conveyed from father to son, and thus orally, the traditional history of *• Maude’s Elm” has descended down to our own day. The tale was published at Tewkesbury about a century since, under the title of ” A true Relation of Maude’s Elm,” but the work is now rarely to be met with, except in the library of the antiquarian. The occupier of Margaret Bowen’s cottage was, in fact, the hero of most of the remarkable events connected with her history. He was enabled to clear up all that appeared shrouded in mystery. His name was Walter, and his birthplace was Swindon. From his earliest years he had loved Maude Bowen, and was most ardently beloved by her. He was so skilled in the use of the bow and arrow, as to be called ” Walter the Archer.” Godfrey Bowen, the uncle of Maude, who was found shot on the bridge, was a most avaricious man, and in order to obtain possession of the freehold house which would revert to his niece at the mother’s death, offered marriage to Maude. The girl indignantly refused the offer. No sooner had poor Maude escaped from this trial than she had to encounter one of a severer nature. The Lord of the Manor, having been struck with her great personal attractions, at once sought to make her his mistress. Maude repelled him with that moral firmness which ever shields and strengthens the virtuous from the attack of the seducer. Finding all persuasion useless, the Lord employed the uncle Godfrey to aid him to gain his unlawful end. This man, animated with the two-fold desire of acquiring gold for his unholy services for the present, and the future prospect of being possessed of the family freehold, became a ready tool. On the night when Maude was missing, Walter, her affianced, upon hearing of the affair, immediately sallied forth with his bow and arrows. He searched every thicket, and had almost despaired of finding her whom he loved, when the sudden shrieks of a female arrested his attention. It was dark, but he could discern the form of his Maude struggling with her uncle Godfrey, and the Lord of the Manor standing by. He drew his bow and shot Godfrey dead on the end of the bridge where his body was found. Thus at liberty, Maude fled, and Walter hoped that she had reached her house in safety, but alas! her foot must have stumbled, and she found a watery grave. The Lord was observed to decamp in an opposite direction.
Fearing prosecution for murder, if discovered, and knowing the revengeful character of the Lord, Walter fled, and no traces of him were found until he came once more to take up his abode amid the scenes of his early youth. He, however, lived not far off. On the main road to Gloucester, which then passed not far from the present ” House in the Tree,” under an assumed name, he kept an inn, where he lived in the fondly cherished hope of one day seeing the guilty punished. The locality of his residence enabled him to soon learn all that was going on at Swindon. She who by right ought to have been his mother-in- law, found at Walter’s inn a ready asylum, and there it was she spent those intervals of time when she was absent from her native village. Walter entered ardently into all her plans, and watched and guarded her from the thicket when she was seated on her daughter’s grave. He it was who shot forth the arrows which killed both the Lord and his attendant, and thus he avenged on those who had deprived him of one whom he had hoped to have fondly called his own. Thus Walter had lived to see the author of his woes come to an untimely end.
The wish was granted; Walter Gray
In Swindon lived for many a day:
And oft the tear would cloud his eye,
And oft his breast would heave and sigh,
When he recounted perils o’er
That girt him on a distant shore;
When he the saddened tale would tell
Of what the Swindon maid befell.
Wealth when united to a title often exercises an undue influence in localities, and Might too often overcomes Eight. But Providence generally orders and overrules the best laid scheme of the most accomplished villain. The Lord, finding that so long as the mother of Maude was living, he could have no peace for his guilty conscience, resolved upon her death, and resorted to the plea of witchcraft to accomplish his purpose. He succeeded, but the same hour that his innocent victim perished in the flames, also witnessed his own most cruel death. He had buried, but a short time previously, his wife, and also his only son and heir. He was the last of his race, and with him died the family title, and the manorial estate soon passed into the hands of strangers. Many generations have come and gone since he met with his well merited death. His name and pedigree, as if by way of retribution, perished with him. Cheltenham, then an obscure village, has become a large and populous town. New roads have been formed, and changes so great have been effected, that scarcely a relic of the past can be found. But amidst all the revolutions which modern improvements have effected, Maude’s Elm to this day occupies its original position it stands a majestic monument to the memory of injured innocence.
Each year, the Swindon Maidens bound
A votive wreath the grave around,
And ever on the First of May,
The sad recurrent of the day,
When Margaret, and Mand were both
Made martyrs unto fiendish wrath,
They met, and sang this simple lay:
Twine a wreath for the dead
In her lowly bed.
Gather the fairest flowers that bloom,
To weave a garland of rich perfume,
And solemnly let the token be laid
On the hallowed grave of the Swindon Maid.
The Snowdrop bring,
Wan herald of Spring,
The Pimpernel, and the Thistle down,
Lustrous gems of every hue,
Glistening with morning dew,
Cull to embellish our Floral Crown-
Twine a wreath for the dead!