The folktale of Maude’s elm is a story of cruelty and injustice. Time has blurred the edges of reality and as the story was passed mostly by word of mouth gaining a degree of exaggeration and embellishment along the way. Norman’s History of Cheltenham, by John Goding is one of the earliest and best narratives of the legend and Tony McKormack also provides a very good more recent account.
The Darling of the Village
In the village of Swindon not far from the town of Cheltenham there a lived a young girl called Maude. She was regarded by everyone as the belle of the village and very much loved by all the villagers. Her mother’s name was Margret Bowen. She and her daughter lived in a cottage, now known as Maude’s Cottage, with Margret’s brother, Godfrey Bowen. Maude and her mother earned their living by spinning wool which was sold in the nearby town of Cheltenham.
Maude Goes Missing
One morning Maude had set off to sell some spun wool in Cheltenham but failed to return by nightfall. Her worried mother, frantic with fear, raised the alarm amongst the villagers who formed a search party. It was a black night and the villagers finding no trace of Maude in the darkness were forced to give up. At dawn the search party resumed the hunt for the girl.
Her Body Is Found
Sadly, the lifeless body of the young girl was found lying face down in a stream of water known locally as Wyman’s Brook. The body was naked and from the signs the villagers concluded she had been raped. Nearby on a bridge that crossed the water they found the body of her uncle, Godfrey Bowen. In his hand was a ripped part of Maude’s dress. Mysteriously, he had been shot through the heart by an arrow.
An inquest was convened and headed by the Lord of the Manor. He concluded that Maude had been raped by Godfrey Bowen and overcome with shame had drowned herself in the brook. He also declared that God had killed Godfrey Bowen for raping his own niece.
Buried At The Crossroads
In those days people who committed suicide were not allowed to be buried in hallowed ground. Instead her body was taken to the crossroads that were nearest to her place of death. There a stake of living wood was driven through her heart pinning her dead body to the ground. This was believed to prevent her soul from rising and wandering the land. Godfrey Bowen was given the full rites of a Christian burial.
An Elm Tree Grows From Maude’s Heart
The stake of wood that had been driven though Maude’s heart slowly took root and began to grow into an elm tree. Maud’s mother had been devastated by her daughter’s death and she took to tending the tree into her old age. Because Maude’s death had been declared a suicide the Lord of the Manor claimed her cottage as his own and evicted her.
Her Mother’s Madness
Poor Margret Bowen, now homeless and destitute became a beggar surviving only on the charity of the villagers and her old friends. In her grief she was overcome by madness and wept constantly and pitifully over Maude’s grave, so much so, it was said her bitter tears fed and nourished the young tree causing it to grow tall and strong.
Margret is Arrested
Years later the Lord of the Manor while taking his son to be baptised in Cheltenham had to pass the crossroads where Maude was buried. Seeing Margret weeping over the elm made him angry so he ordered his men to move the old woman. Margret refused to move so he commanded his men to drag her away.
An Arrow From the Forest
As the first man was about to lay a hand on her an arrow flew out of the forest and pierced his heart killing him instantly. Although they searched the forest they could find no trace of the archer and the Lord of the Manor ordered his men to arrest the old woman.
Burnt To Death
Margret was charged with witchcraft and murder and sent to the infamous Gloucester Gaol to await her trial. The judge accepted the Lord of the Manor’s evidence without question and she was sentenced to be burnt to death at the exact place where the alleged offense took place.
Margret was transported from Gloucester Gaol in a cart to the elm at the crossroads where Maude was buried. There she was tied to the tree while faggots of wood were piled around her
An Arrow From The Trees
The Lord of the Manor had been drinking and such was his state of drunkenness that he moved towards the fire to jeer and taunt her to her face. Suddenly an arrow sped from the trees piercing his heart and he fell dead on to the fire at Margret’s feet.
The flames instantly burst into blazing inferno consuming both him and Margret Bowen in minutes. As suddenly as they had blazed the flames disappeared leaving no trace of the dead bodies of Margret Bowen, or the Lord of the Manor. Somehow the elm had survived the inferno and eventually grew to height of over eighty feet.
Walter The Archer
With the death of the Lord of the Manor the cottage that he had claimed from Margret was now ownerless and remained unoccupied for around half a century.Eventually the villagers noticed that a very old man had moved into the empty cottage.
He spent his days sitting under the elm and slept in the cottage at night. The villagers discovered his name was Walter the Archer (Walter Gray, or Baldwin in some versions of the legend) and he had been born in the village but had left many years ago. On his death bed he revealed the true events that led to Maude’s death and explained the other mysterious circumstance around the tragedy.
Walter Reveals The Truth
Walter told the villagers that he and Maude had been in love and they had wanted to marry. He explained that Godfrey Bowen was a man of great greed and had wanted ownership of the cottage. His sister, Margret, was the rightful owner, but should she die then Maude would inherit. In the hope that he would gain control of the cottage Godfrey has asked Maude to marry him. Maude refused which made him furious.
To make matters even worse, Maude had caught the eye of the Lord of the Manor who greatly desired to make her one of his mistresses. Although Maude had rejected all his approaches the Lord of the Manor was determined.
An Evil Bargain
To achieve his desire he made a bargain with Godfrey Bowen where they would both rape Maude and then murder her. Bowen would then be heir to the cottage and the Lord of the Manor would have his way with Maude. Walter had learnt of the plot determined to protect her. Even so, he knew he could not openly challenge the powerful Lord of the Manor and he did not want to alarm Maude so he took to secretly following her.
On the day that Maude had gone to Cheltenham he had followed her at a distance while keeping out of sight in the woods. Sadly, he had been too far away to save her when the two attacked.
Walter told the villagers that the Lord of the Manor and Godfrey Bowen had attacked her near the bridge, stripping the clothes from her and taking turns at raping her. Walter arrived on the scene to witness Bowen in the act while the Lord of the Manor stood watching.
Walter Kills Bowen And Goes Into Hiding
Walter had quickly fitted an arrow to his bow and shot Bowen through the heart killing him instantly. The Lord of the Manor escaped into the woods. Maude, traumatized, fell into the brook and drowned before he could reach her.
Fearing the vengeance of the Lord of the Manor and that he would be put on trial for the murder of Godfrey Bowen, Walter had fled the village. He took a false name and lived at an inn near the main Gloucester road called ‘The House in the Tree’ which still existed at the time of writing.
He would often be visited at the inn by Margret Bowen who he would help the best he could. Margret the only person alive who knew he and Maude had been sweethearts and he took to secretly guarding her. It had been he who fired the arrows that killed the Lord of the Manor and his men.
A Famous Landmark
Maude’s elm grew to become a famous landmark and visitor attraction and survived until 1907 when it was struck by lightning and then felled for safety.
Rest In Peace
Although it is difficult to verify how authentic the story is there are still parts of it that exist today. Maude’s Cottage, The House in the Tree Inn can still be seen. Maude’s elm was cut down but the existence of an elm at the crossroads can be verified although most likely was not the same one that grew from Maude. Nevertheless, it is a sad and brutal story and if true, we can only hope that poor Maude and her mother now rest in peace.
References and Attributions Norman’s History of Cheltenham – by John Goding Tony McCormack cheltenham4u.co.uk - Swindon Village, Wyman's Brook and Surrounding Areas Maude’s Cottage The House in the Tree Maude’s elm Image of Maudes elm