The Talbot Curse
Lady Gwendoline and the Legend of the Chained Oak
The Chained Oak of Alton may be a unique piece of British folklore, but its creation story suffers from such a swathe of supposition that many have come to assume there is no genuine historical basis for the legend at all. Yet in the tragic history of the family who sit at the heart of the piece we may well find that the tale is indeed rooted in reality, as we look to uncover why an ancient oak tree has been wrapped in iron chains for the better part of the past 200 years.
Designs of Grandeur
There is a village in the Staffordshire Moorlands that has found its name known around the world. This is mostly due to the fact that it is home to one of Europe's most popular entertainment attractions, where each year more than 2 million visitors escape the hum-drum of daily life in a world of themed roller coasters, water parks, and luxury accommodation. I am of course referring to the village of Alton and its world-famous theme park, Alton Towers.
Outside of the feverish adventures to be had inside the park itself, however, there is a lot more to the village of Alton than most of its visitors will likely have chance to realise. With more than 50 listed buildings dotting its roads and lanes, ranging from the twelfth century St Peters Church to the village lock-up built in 1819, the village is home to an enviable architectural collection that vividly conveys the changing nature of its rich history. It is a classic juxtaposition of English rural charm and the subtle embellishments brought by industrialisation-era wealth.
Of all the buildings and monuments that have come to find themselves in the village, it is the oldest which is perhaps the least understood. Alton Castle finds its structural origins in the early twelfth century as part of the great building project undertaken by the incoming Norman lords following their conquest of 1066, but many of its features that first appear to of that period, actually stem from its nineteenth century remodelling, when the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury commissioned the revered architect Augustus Pugin to revamp the site in the style of a Teutonic stronghold. This refurbishment saw the previous building, which was heavily damaged during the English Civil War, rebuilt complete with hospital and presbytery in a truly grand design.
The 16th Earl, John Talbot, was clearly a fan of such projects. The castle wasn't even his official residence. Talbot was perfectly happy with his life at the nearby Alton Towers estate that had been built by his uncle Charles in the early 1800s; the grounds of which made for one of the largest formal landscaped gardens in the whole of Britain.
Yet for all of this construction, evident wealth and influence, it is not his mock- medieval castle complex that he is primarily remembered for. Nor in fact, is it the Alton Towers site that is so famous today. Rather, it is the solemn, ancient oak tree that stands half a mile away from his former home, bound up in rusty iron chains.
The Chained Oak
The tree known as ‘The Chained Oak’ stands amongst the woodland beside a Bed and Breakfast establishment of the same name, acting as a beacon of curiosity and puzzlement for all who pass by in its shadow. It is a tangible, living testament to a folk tale that is quite unlike anything else found in the British Isles.
Local legend tells us that it was at this spot, sometime in the mid-1800s, that the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, John Talbot, was passing by on his way home to the nearby Alton Towers when his carriage was stopped by an old beggar woman. The beggar, recognising the figure of the Earl, asked if he could spare some coins but found herself rebuked. Aggrieved, she reached out from her rags and pointed up to an oak tree on the slopes beside the trackway. From that night forth she said, for every branch that fell from the oak, a member of the Earl's family would die. That very same night, a storm broke across the valley and duly caused a branch to break free from the oak, and the following morning, the Earl woke up to the news that a member of his family had suddenly passed away in the night.
Vowing that the curse of the beggar woman would take no one else from his family, he is then said to have set out for the oak, ordering its branches be bound in iron chains to ensure that none could ever again fall to the ground.
You may have noticed from the story of the Earl and the curse, that in comparison to many other instances of legend and lore, the story of the chained oak is rather sparse of supporting detail. There are no definitive dates or names. Nor is there an attempt to contextualise the events surrounding the encounter. But, far from hampering its popularity, this streamlining of narrative simply acts to create a story that can be retold and understood easily. It is snappy. It is scary. It is the kind of folklore that spreads and survives.
That said, it is odd that the legend lacks a place within the local folklore collections that were so in vogue during the Victorian period that followed the time in which the encounter was said to have taken place. There is not a single reference to it, and yet there is no question that the chained oak existed during the period in Alton.
Over time, it is this lack of record that has contributed to a view that the whole thing may well be the result of a hoax. But enquiries into the context of the story and events in the history of the area, at the time in which the legend is reputed to have come into being, could well yet secure a genuine origin for the tale. That's the thing with curses. Whilst many may view the idea of a curse to be little more than outdated superstition, there can be little doubt as to the very real power they can wield within the mind of those who believe themselves to be cursed.
Timeline of a Curse
Although the particulars of the legend have resulted in a truly unique piece of lore, the manner of its creation is born out of a much older tradition.
We know from the record that the time in which Talbot was a figure in the Alton area is relatively short. Despite some retellings stating a date of 1821, there is no plausible evidence of John Talbot residing in-situ at Alton until 1831. He had inherited his title of Earl of Shrewsbury in 1827 upon the death of his uncle Charles Talbot, who had himself built the new family seat at the site of Alton Towers. Upon his death, John may have inherited the property, but he was already perfectly comfortable in his own residence at Heythrop in Oxfordshire and only saw cause to move to Alton when Heythrop burned down in a fire of 1831. He would stay at Alton until he died in 1852, a period of just over twenty years in which the events that lead to the creation of the legend could have possibly taken place.
The mid-ninetieth century is rather late in the day when it comes to the idea of rural curses. Although not unheard of, they are far more commonly found in association with the witch craze of the early 1600s than they are in post-industrial Britain. Similar curses and incantations are mentioned in dozens of trial records from the period of the witch craze; a particularly illuminating example of which can be found at the heart of that most infamous episode that we remember today as the story of the Pendle Witches.
Recounted in his book The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, Lancaster Assizes clerk Thomas Pott details a series of trials that took in the town during August 1612 that would ultimately lead to no less than eleven people from Pendle being hanged for witchcraft.
Of particular interest in this work is the testimony around Alizon Device, who was said to have encountered a pedlar by the name of John Law out in meadows of Trawden Forest. She asked Law for some pins (handmade pins being relatively expensive in the early seventeenth century) only to be dismissed. At this dismissal, the court heard, Alizon uttered a curse upon Law, which, likely to the amazement of Alizon herself as much as anyone else, then immediately seemed to take effect, striking down Law where he stood.
A modern day interpretation of this event concludes that Law likely suffered a stroke, but the idea that a curse could be uttered in such circumstances with real effect was one that travelled well and was ripe for recasting in local lore throughout England.
At times, it is this depth of cursing-tradition, when placed alongside Earl John Talbot's reputation as a champion of the poor (he is commonly remembered to history as ‘Good Earl John’) and an apparent absence of actual cursed victims in the historical record, which has pointed to the conclusion that the whole affair is likely as a work of ale-house fiction.
Even if this were indeed the case, the questions remain of why and how did the chains come to be added to the oak tree at the centre of the story? Not only this, but the tree is accessed via a series of twenty stone steps that lead up to it’s base atop the slopes beside the footpath. These steps are worn too, depressed by feet much in the same way as we find with the surrounds of ancient butter crosses. If there really was to be nothing more than folly to the story of the legend, what on earth was the site created for?
It is perhaps no more than a strange coincidence, but the area of Alton and its surrounding settlements were renowned across the north of England throughout the Middle Ages - and right up into the industrial period - for one material above all others; the output of its iron forges.
The earliest evidence for this is found in a document from 1290 known as The Secunda Carta of Cheadle, essentially a letter of itinerary, listing gifts made to the nearby Croxden Abbey from the powerful local Santcheveral family, and we know that the industry continued to boom through to the 1800s at various sites in the area. Iron chains, therefore, would be widely and readily available. How they came to be hung from the oak, in this view, is perhaps a ripe opportunity for a far more prosaic explanation; whilst this local abundance of iron working would provide Earl John with plenty of opportunities for fast procurement, as he attempted to stem the evil of the curse, it is not impossible that they were simply tossed up there by local children
However, the matter of the steps is not so open to chance creation. In all likelihood, they were placed in their current site following removal from some other, secured against the earth in order to frame the oak as a place of importance. There is no doubt Earl John would have ample access and means to undertake such a move, especially given that both Alton Towers and Alton Castle were undergoing various construction projects throughout this period. Other than the steps being added much more recently, we should perhaps accept the idea of Earl John placing them in their current location as the most likely means by which the steps reached the site of the oak. And so it is at this point that we find ourselves with a critical choice to make; the Earl was clearly a passionate builder, and as we have seen from the Teutonic design of Alton Castle, a man whose passion contained within it a vast capacity for imagination. Either, this extended to the deliberate creation of the chained oak itself, or he had a genuine desire to care for, and perhaps commemorate, the site at which he was cursed.
I have come to believe there could well be a case made for the latter, as it would seem the night of the curse could well have directly proceeded a period of deep tragedy for the Talbot family.