The Legend of Maude's Elm

By Tony McKormack


Now here is a tale, a story to be told
Of a young girl, but fifteen years old
Impaled as a vampire, her mother burned as a witch
These were the crimes, the crimes of the rich.


The Incubus Succubus track "The Rape of Maude Bowen" from the album "WYTCHES" is in fact based on real events that took place in Cheltenham and in the nearby village of Swindon in the medieval times. The story has, through time, without doubt suffered from some embellishment, but on the whole the story related here is as near to the truth as is possible,the main source being "Norman's History of Cheltenham" by John Goding, published in 1863. There are other sources, but to some extent these have greatly warped the actual facts, and have turned what is a tale of misery, misfortune and social injustice, into a folk legend of supernatural evil.

In 1922, on May Eve, there was a violent electrical storm over the West of England. During the course of this storm the legendary tree that was known as Maude's Elm was struck by lightning and exploded into thousands of pieces. The rest of the tree was cut down in the days that followed. All that now remains of the legendary tree is a circle in the road on the outskirts of Cheltenham. The Elm had been held in awe, for it was not only a great tree, but it had grown from the stake that had impaled a young girl at the cross-roads. A young girl who had been condemned as a suicide, and was therefore staked at midnight as it was commonly believed that suicides returned as vampires, to take revenge on the living, for the misfortune of the miserable lives.

The story begins in the village Swindon. It was where Margaret Bowen and her young daughter Maude lived with Godfrey Bowen, brother to Margaret. It seems reasonable to make the assumption that Maude was illegitimate, and furthermore it has to be said that it is not out of the question that Godfrey could have been her father. Maude Bowen was the 'Star' of Swindon village. She was a beautiful young girl, with pleasant mannerisms and it was believed that she was also a virgin. Maude and her mother spun wool for a living, and it was whilst delivering spun wood to the nearby town of Cheltenham that Maude Bowen met her death.

Young Maude had gone to sell spun wool in Cheltenham early in the day, but by night she had not returned. Her mother became anxious and her frantic crying soon provoked the rest of the villagers to form a search party. However, due to the darkness, the party found nothing, and had to retire until the break of dawn. It was then that they found the lifeless body of young Maude Bowen. The girl was lying face down in the stream known as Wyman's Brook. She had been stripped naked and had obviously been raped. As the villagers looked for clues they came across a further body. This time it was the corpse of Godfrey Bowen, The girl's Uncle. He had the remnants of Maude's clothing around him and his hand still gripped part of her dress. They found him on the bridge that crosses the brook, slain by an arrow that had pierced his heart.

The Lord of the Manor called an inquest and it was declared that Maude Bowen had been raped by her uncle. Then in a fit of shame and sorrow she had killed herself, flinging herself into the brook. Of Godfrey Bowen it was assumed that as he had raped his own niece God had slain him. As was the custom and practice of the day, Maude Bowen was taken to the nearest cross-roads to where she had died, impaled with a stake of living wood and buried, lest she return as a vampire. Godfrey Bowen was given a Christian burial. The stake that had impaled the Swindon Maid's innocent heart gradually grew into a tree, nurtured and cared for by Maude's ageing mother. Margaret Bowen had been devastated by the death of her only daughter. The Lord of the Manor had evicted her from her freehold cottage, as was usual with the families of condemned suicides, and had claimed the Bowen estate as his own. Margaret Bowen became a vagrant, living off the charity of old friends. She eventually went mad and took to constant weeping at the grave of young Maude. It was said at the time that it was the tears of Old Meg that fed the Elm, and ensured that it survived its early years.

Then one Spring morning the Lord of Swindon Manor was travelling in procession towards Cheltenham. His first son and heir had just been born, and the child was being taken to the parish church in Cheltenham to be christened. As he reached the cross-roads, he was annoyed to see Old Mother Bowen sobbing at the Elm. He ordered his men to move the old woman. She refused to be moved, and so the Lord ordered his men to drag her from the grave. But as they did, an arrow shot out of the thick woodlands and killed one of the Squire's henchmen.

The old woman was arrested and charged with murder by witchcraft. For two weeks she was imprisoned in the notorious Gloucester Gaol before going to trial. The trial was said to have been a mockery of justice. Old Meg Bowen was weak with hunger, and torture, furthermore she was completely insane and incapable of answering the charges brought against her. Nevertheless due to the evidence of the Squire of Swindon Manor, she was found guilty, and was sentenced to be burnt at the very spot where alleged crime had been committed: at the tree at the cross-roads.

It is often said that no one was ever burnt for the crime of witchcraft in England, and this may well be true in general. However there were many burnings in the County of Gloucestershire around the same time that Margaret Bowen met her fate. The Legend of Maude's Elm does vary slightly from source to source, but each version states that Margaret Bowen was consigned to the flames. It therefore seems likely that she probably was burned, and not hanged, as was usual.

Old Meg Bowen was taken to the Elm from Gloucester in a goods cart. She was tied to the tree that had grown from Maude's heart and faggots were placed round her. It was a double punishment; not only would she be burnt to death, but the Elm too would be destroyed. In front of a large but silent crowd the faggots were lit. For a while there was no sound except for the cracking of the dry twigs and the choking of the old woman. The crowd were too filled sadness at the sight of the frail old woman, a shadow of her former self, who had once been a joyful and happy person, meet her death in such a terrible way and after such a series of tragic events. The silence was broken by the Lord of the Manor who, being in a state of drunkenness, began to taunt and jeer Margaret Bowen. He urged his men to join in, which they did. However the laughing did not last long. As the Squire advanced towards the choking, crying victim an arrow appeared from nowhere, striking him in the heart. He stumbled and fell on the burning faggots at Margaret's feet. Then the fire suddenly exploded, turning into a raging inferno within seconds. Then suddenly the fire was gone, and so were the bodies of both Old Meg and the Lord of the Manor.

The Elm survived the fire and went on to grow to be eighty feet tall. To the inhabitants of Swindon it became a living monument of crime and punishment. The Squire's family however did not survive. His wife and son were struck down by a mysterious sickness, as were his brothers. The estate of Swindon Manor fell into the hands of strangers, and the cottage where the Bowen family lived became unowned, and uninhabited.

More than fifty years passed since the tragic events that had been enacted at Maude's Elm. Then the inhabitants of Swindon Village began to notice that a stranger had taken to living in the dwelling that had been home to Maude Bowen. The stranger was a very old man, and upon questioning revealed that he was in fact native to Swindon Village, and had returned after a long absence to end his days in the now derelict and decaying dwelling. His name was Walter Gray, and as time passed he came to tell villagers of the true story behind the terrible events that had taken place more than half a century earlier.

Walter had been sweetheart to Maude Bowen and it was assumed that the two would be wed. However Godfrey Bowen (a most avaricious man) had, in order that he would gain possession of the Bowen household in the event of the death of Margaret, offered marriage to Maude, who was the heir of the property. Maude had refused the offer and this had infuriated Godfrey Bowen. Then to make matters worse, the Lord of the Manor decided that he was going to take Maude Bowen as one of his mistresses. She refused his lustful advances, but the Squire was determined to have his way with her. The Squire met with Godfrey Bowen, and between the two of them, they decided to raped the girl and then murder her. However Walter, who was a skilled archer, learned of their plans and sought to protect the young maid. However he knew that he could not challenge Squire so he went into hiding in the woods, but keeping a careful eye on his sweetheart Maude. Then on the fateful night that Maude Bowen travelled to Cheltenham, she was attacked by the Squire and her uncle. They dragged her into the woods, near the Swindon bridge, stripped her and raped her. Walter arrived at the scene too late. He saw Godfrey Bowen in the act with the Squire standing by. Walter drew his bow and shot Godfrey Bowen dead with a single arrow to the heart. At this point both the Lord of the Manor and young Maude Bowen fled. The Squire returned home, but alas not young Maude. She was still in a state of shock from the violent rape she had endured and she stumbled and fell into the brook, where she met her watery end.

Walter Gray fled Swindon Village, fearing prosecution for the murder of Godfrey Bowen and also the wrath of the Squire. He took to living under an assumed name, at an inn known as "The House in the Tree"(this inn is still in existence) close to the main road to Gloucester. Walter always dreamed that one day he would be able to avenge the rape of his sweetheart, and kill the Lord of Swindon Manor. But he was at that moment in time, unable to do anything about it. Margaret Bowen often sought asylum at the 'House in the Tree'. She and she alone knew what had become of Maude's sweetheart. Walter took to watching over Margaret Bowen, and it was he who killed the Squire and his henchman.

The tragic tale of Maude Bowen, her mother, and of Walter Gray are sadly not unique. Often in the past squires, lords and bishops raped young peasant girls, dispossessed lone women of their homes , and ruined the lives of ordinary people, safe in the knowledge that they had the backing of the Law, the Crown and the Church. The only defence that the ordinary people had against these monsters were often the spells of the local wise man or woman and the bravery and courage of people like Walter Gray.

The Legend of Maude's Elm is these days, more or less forgotten, but the circle in the road still marks the spot where Maude Bowen's raped and impaled body still lies, the same spot where her Mother was burned as a witch, and where the Squire and the Squire's henchman met their deaths, at the hands of the 'Avenging Angel' Walter Gray.

First published in Pagan Voice Aug' 1995.
Reproduced with permission of Tony McKormack.


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