The Forgotten Legend of Maud’s Elm
The urban environment may be built on top of our history and folklore but as long as the stories are still told – the places still hold their atmosphere. Cheltenham is one such town and along the old Swindon Road that leads to the famous racecourse there is a crossroads – barely noticed today as motorists negotiate its mini-roundabout – that was once the location of a tragic tale of murder and witchcraft.
A huge tree once stood here known as Maud's Elm but it was unfortunately felled when it became too diseased to support itself. How did it come by this name? Maud Bowen was a young girl who lived in a tied cottage along the Swindon road with her mother who was a spinner. One day Maud was sent to Cheltenham market to sell her mother's work, she was young but old enough in those days to manage the journey and hold her own in the market. When nightfall came and she still hadn't returned home her mother became understandably anxious and went outside to wait for her. As the night wore on there was still no sign of the girl and so a search party was formed to go out and look for her.
Maud was found at first light, lying dead in a stream, and stranger still a man also lay dead nearby, crumpled on a bridge that spanned the water. An arrow had pierced his heart, and poor Maud appeared to have been drowned. The man was her uncle, a Geoffrey, and fragments of Maud's dress were discovered in his hand. The Lord of the Manor ordered an investigation that very quickly returned a verdict of murder and suicide – with Maud as the antagonist! To make matters even worse the lord insisted that the custom of the day be adhered to where a suicide should be buried at a crossroads, not on consecrated ground, and to poor Margaret Bowen's agony this was carried out, complete with an elm stake being driven through her body.
The lord even enacted the law of taking back the home and land of a suicide, even though Maud's mother had done nothing wrong. Margaret was turfed out and survived on the kindness of the community but she spent much of her days at the crossroads grave of her daughter, where the sapling of an elm tree had sprouted. One day the lord set out on a journey to Cleeve church for the Christening of his first son and as usual Margaret was sitting at the crossroads. The route went past Maud's Elm and as the convoy of carriages approached the lord sent a pair of his men to move the old lady from the area and out of his sight. She refused and, despite being picked up and physically moved, Margaret went back to the crossroads. One of the men drew a horsewhip and was about to strike her when he stopped still, clutched his chest and fell. An arrow had pierced his chest. Despite a search of the nearby woods no archer was found, but Margaret was arrested and carted off to Gloucester Gaol.
The Lord, the magistrates and even the clergy decided that Margaret Bowen must have manifested the arrow shot by sorcery or magic so she was charged with both murder and witchcraft! The trial went ahead in short order with the poor woman sentenced to death by burning at the stake, with the place of execution to be – the crossroads where her daughter lay. The day came and though a large crowd had gathered they were quiet and sombre, with clear hostility towards the lord who took a front row seat in front of the pyre, and as Margaret was chained to the post he took great delight in mocking her. As the fire was lit and the lord shouted out his taunts, another arrow struck – the wicked lord fell down dead. The fire suddenly blazed to a phenomenal height and collapsed in on itself. Pandemonium broke out as people ran in all directions but as the flames of the pyre subsided one thing became clear...Margaret Bowen was nowhere to be found – not a trace of her remained.
With the lord dead and his son still a child it wasn't long before his lands fell into the hands of others and so the cottage that Margaret and Maud had lived in stood empty for decades. An old man began to come to the crossroads and sit at Maud's Elm and it wasn't long before he began to sleep in the old dilapidated cottage. The locals left him alone at first but as curiosity took hold people began to gather at his new home to find out what was going on here, and so the old man told his tale. His name was Walter, and as a young man he had loved Maud Bowen more than anything in the world. He had seen her heading home from market through the woods but also saw her uncle with the Lord of the Manor, both men trying to drag the girl away. Unable to get to her, Walter fired a shot from his bow that took down her uncle but the lord fled the scene. It turned out that Maud's uncle had tried to actually propose marriage to the girl in order to obtain the house for himself but he was rebuffed. Having escaped this dreadful ordeal Maud was then harassed by the Lord of the Manor who wanted to install her as his mistress, to use her as and when he liked. Again she fought him off, so the two men hatched a plot to both have their way with her then leave her dead.
It was Walter who shot the footman when he tried to strike Margaret, and he who had slain the lord. He had rushed into the fire to drag the woman out and she had lived quietly under Walter's protection until her death, prompting his return to to Maud's Elm. From that time on it was customary for locals to leave a wreath on Maud's Elm once a year and it became a landmark of Cheltenham, visible for miles.
A few problems with the story though! The two candidates for this lord are a Robert De Vere, 19th Earl of Oxford, and a Lord Clifford. De Veere was a Dutchman who while holding lands in England, including Swindon Hall, died in 1637 in battle on the continent. Henry Clifford, Second Earl of Cumberland, died at a castle in Cumbria in 1570. Looking at the size of the elm he would be the more likely candidate if the legend was accurate. Another big point – witches were not burned in England, they were hanged.
Today a derelict farmhouse still bears the name of Maud's Elm, keeping the memory alive, but it is for sale and it wont be long before redevelopment takes place there. The crossroads is still discernible and if any of the tale is true, how many motorists driving through know that they are passing over the tragic grave of Maud Bowen?
If you liked this story you'll love my book The Mystery Of Mercia, available at this link -
The name is still preserved…just
The crossroads at Maud’s Elm today
Maud’s Elm today
The only known photograph of Maud’s Elm before it was felled