The Ash Tree
by Montague Rhodes James
Everyone who has travelled over Eastern England knows the smaller
country-houses with which it is studded—the rather dank little
buildings, usually in the Italian style, surrounded with parks of some
eighty to a hundred acres. For me they have always had a very strong
attraction, with the grey paling of split oak, the noble trees, the
meres with their reed-beds, and the line of distant woods. Then, I like
the pillared portico—perhaps stuck on to a red-brick Queen Anne house
which has been faced with stucco to bring it into line with the
'Grecian' taste of the end of the eighteenth century; the hall inside,
going up to the roof, which hall ought always to be provided with a
gallery and a small organ. I like the library, too, where you may find
anything from a Psalter of the thirteenth century to a Shakespeare
quarto. I like the pictures, of course; and perhaps most of all I like
fancying what life in such a house was when it was first built, and in
the piping times of landlords' prosperity, and not least now, when, if
money is not so plentiful, taste is more varied and life quite as
interesting. I wish to have one of these houses, and enough money to
keep it together and entertain my friends in it modestly.
But this is a digression. I have to tell you of a curious series of
events which happened in such a house as I have tried to describe. It
is Castringham Hall in Suffolk. I think a good deal has been done to
the building since the period of my story, but the essential features I
have sketched are still there—Italian portico, square block of white
house, older inside than out, park with fringe of woods, and mere. The
one feature that marked out the house from a score of others is gone.
As you looked at it from the park, you saw on the right a great old
ash-tree growing within half a dozen yards of the wall, and almost or
quite touching the building with its branches. I suppose it had stood
there ever since Castringham ceased to be a fortified place, and since
the moat was filled in and the Elizabethan dwelling-house built. At any
rate, it had well-nigh attained its full dimensions in the year 1690.
In that year the district in which the Hall is situated was the
scene of a number of witch-trials. It will be long, I think, before we
arrive at a just estimate of the amount of solid reason—if there was
any—which lay at the root of the universal fear of witches in old
times. Whether the persons accused of this offence really did imagine
that they were possessed of unusual power of any kind; or whether they
had the will at least, if not the power, of doing mischief to their
neighbours; or whether all the confessions, of which there are so many,
were extorted by the cruelty of the witch-finders—these are questions
which are not, I fancy, yet solved. And the present narrative gives me
pause. I cannot altogether sweep it away as mere invention. The reader
must judge for himself.
Castringham contributed a victim to the auto-da-fe. Mrs
Mothersole was her name, and she differed from the ordinary run of
village witches only in being rather better off and in a more
influential position. Efforts were made to save her by several
reputable farmers of the parish. They did their best to testify to her
character, and showed considerable anxiety as to the verdict of the
But what seems to have been fatal to the woman was the evidence of
the then proprietor of Castringham Hall—Sir Matthew Fell. He deposed
to having watched her on three different occasions from his window, at
the full of the moon, gathering sprigs 'from the ash-tree near my
house'. She had climbed into the branches, clad only in her shift, and
was cutting off small twigs with a peculiarly curved knife, and as she
did so she seemed to be talking to herself. On each occasion Sir
Matthew had done his best to capture the woman, but she had always
taken alarm at some accidental noise he had made, and all he could see
when he got down to the garden was a hare running across the path in
the direction of the village.
On the third night he had been at the pains to follow at his best
speed, and had gone straight to Mrs Mothersole's house; but he had had
to wait a quarter of an hour battering at her door, and then she had
come out very cross, and apparently very sleepy, as if just out of bed;
and he had no good explanation to offer of his visit.
Mainly on this evidence, though there was much more of a less
striking and unusual kind from other parishioners, Mrs Mothersole was
found guilty and condemned to die. She was hanged a week after the
trial, with five or six more unhappy creatures, at Bury St Edmunds.
Sir Matthew Fell, then Deputy-Sheriff, was present at the execution.
It was a damp, drizzly March morning when the cart made its way up the
rough grass hill outside Northgate, where the gallows stood. The other
victims were apathetic or broken down with misery; but Mrs Mothersole
was, as in life so in death, of a very different temper. Her 'poysonous
Rage', as a reporter of the time puts it, 'did so work upon the
Bystanders—yea, even upon the Hangman—that it was constantly affirmed
of all that saw her that she presented the living Aspect of a mad
Divell. Yet she offer'd no Resistance to the Officers of the Law; onely
she looked upon those that laid Hands upon her with so direfull and
venomous an Aspect that—as one of them afterwards assured me—the meer
Thought of it preyed inwardly upon his Mind for six Months after.'
However, all that she is reported to have said were the seemingly
meaningless words: 'There will be guests at the Hall.' Which she
repeated more than once in an undertone.
Sir Matthew Fell was not unimpressed by the bearing of the woman. He
had some talk upon the matter with the Vicar of his parish, with whom
he travelled home after the assize business was over. His evidence at
the trial had not been very willingly given; he was not specially
infected with the witch-finding mania, but he declared, then and
afterwards, that he could not give any other account of the matter than
that he had given, and that he could not possibly have been mistaken as
to what he saw. The whole transaction had been repugnant to him, for he
was a man who liked to be on pleasant terms with those about him; but
he saw a duty to be done in this business, and he had done it. That
seems to have been the gist of his sentiments, and the Vicar applauded
it, as any reasonable man must have done.
A few weeks after, when the moon of May was at the full, Vicar and
Squire met again in the park, and walked to the Hall together. Lady
Fell was with her mother, who was dangerously ill, and Sir Matthew was
alone at home; so the Vicar, Mr Crome, was easily persuaded to take a
late supper at the Hall.
Sir Matthew was not very good company this evening. The talk ran
chiefly on family and parish matters, and, as luck would have it, Sir
Matthew made a memorandum in writing of certain wishes or intentions of
his regarding his estates, which afterwards proved exceedingly useful.
When Mr Crome thought of starting for home, about half past nine
o'clock, Sir Matthew and he took a preliminary turn on the gravelled
walk at the back of the house. The only incident that struck Mr Crome
was this: they were in sight of the ash-tree which I described as
growing near the windows of the building, when Sir Matthew stopped and
'What is that that runs up and down the stem of the ash? It is never
a squirrel? They will all be in their nests by now.'
The Vicar looked and saw the moving creature, but he could make
nothing of its colour in the moonlight. The sharp outline, however,
seen for an instant, was imprinted on his brain, and he could have
sworn, he said, though it sounded foolish, that, squirrel or not, it
had more than four legs.
Still, not much was to be made of the momentary vision, and the two
men parted. They may have met since then, but it was not for a score of
Next day Sir Matthew Fell was not downstairs at six in the morning,
as was his custom, nor at seven, nor yet at eight. Hereupon the
servants went and knocked at his chamber door. I need not prolong the
description of their anxious listenings and renewed batterings on the
panels. The door was opened at last from the outside, and they found
their master dead and black. So much you have guessed. That there were
any marks of violence did not at the moment appear; but the window was
One of the men went to fetch the parson, and then by his directions
rode on to give notice to the coroner. Mr Crome himself went as quick
as he might to the Hall, and was shown to the room where the dead man
lay. He has left some notes among his papers which show how genuine a
respect and sorrow was felt for Sir Matthew, and there is also this
passage, which I transcribe for the sake of the light it throws upon
the course of events, and also upon the common beliefs of the time:
'There was not any the least Trace of an Entrance having been forc'd
to the Chamber: but the Casement stood open, as my poor Friend would
always have it in this Season. He had his Evening Drink of small Ale in
a silver vessel of about a pint measure, and tonight had not drunk it
out. This Drink was examined by the Physician from Bury, a Mr Hodgkins,
who could not, however, as he afterwards declar'd upon his Oath, before
the Coroner's quest, discover that any matter of a venomous kind was
present in it. For, as was natural, in the great Swelling and Blackness
of the Corpse, there was talk made among the Neighbours of Poyson. The
Body was very much Disorder'd as it laid in the Bed, being twisted
after so extream a sort as gave too probable Conjecture that my worthy
Friend and Patron had expir'd in great Pain and Agony. And what is as
yet unexplain'd, and to myself the Argument of some Horrid and Artfull
Designe in the Perpetrators of this Barbarous Murther, was this, that
the Women which were entrusted with the laying-out of the Corpse and
washing it, being both sad Pearsons and very well Respected in their
Mournfull Profession, came to me in a great Pain and Distress both of
Mind and Body, saying, what was indeed confirmed upon the first View,
that they had no sooner touch'd the Breast of the Corpse with their
naked Hands than they were sensible of a more than ordinary violent
Smart and Acheing in their Palms, which, with their whole Forearms, in
no long time swell'd so immoderately, the Pain still continuing, that,
as afterwards proved, during many weeks they were forc'd to lay by the
exercise of their Calling; and yet no mark seen on the Skin.
'Upon hearing this, I sent for the Physician, who was still in the
House, and we made as carefull a Proof as we were able by the Help of a
small Magnifying Lens of Crystal of the condition of the Skinn on this
Part of the Body: but could not detect with the Instrument we had any
Matter of Importance beyond a couple of small Punctures or Pricks,
which we then concluded were the Spotts by which the Poyson might be
introduced, remembering that Ring of Pope Borgia, with other
known Specimens of the Horrid Art of the Italian Poysoners of the last
'So much is to be said of the Symptoms seen on the Corpse. As to
what I am to add, it is meerly my own Experiment, and to be left to
Posterity to judge whether there be anything of Value therein. There
was on the Table by the Beddside a Bible of the small size, in which my
Friend—punctuall as in Matters of less Moment, so in this more weighty
one—used nightly, and upon his First Rising, to read a sett Portion.
And I taking it up—not without a Tear duly paid to him wich from the
Study of this poorer Adumbration was now pass'd to the contemplation of
its great Originall—it came into my Thoughts, as at such moments of
Helplessness we are prone to catch at any the least Glimmer that makes
promise of Light, to make trial of that old and by many accounted
Superstitious Practice of drawing the Sortes; of which a
Principall Instance, in the case of his late Sacred Majesty the Blessed
Martyr King Charles and my Lord Falkland, was now much
talked of. I must needs admit that by my Trial not much Assistance was
afforded me: yet, as the Cause and Origin of these Dreadfull Events may
hereafter be search'd out, I set down the Results, in the case it may
be found that they pointed the true Quarter of the Mischief to a
quicker Intelligence than my own.
'I made, then, three trials, opening the Book and placing my Finger
upon certain Words: which gave in the first these words, from Luke
xiii. 7, Cut it down; in the second, Isaiah xiii. 20, It
shall never be inhabited; and upon the third Experiment, Job xxxix.
30, Her young ones also suck up blood.'
This is all that need be quoted from Mr Crome's papers. Sir Matthew
Fell was duly coffined and laid into the earth, and his funeral sermon,
preached by Mr Crome on the following Sunday, has been printed under
the title of 'The Unsearchable Way; or, England's Danger and the
Malicious Dealings of Antichrist', it being the Vicar's view, as well
as that most commonly held in the neighbourhood, that the Squire was
the victim of a recrudescence of the Popish Plot.
His son, Sir Matthew the second, succeeded to the title and estates.
And so ends the first act of the Castringham tragedy. It is to be
mentioned, though the fact is not surprising, that the new Baronet did
not occupy the room in which his father had died. Nor, indeed, was it
slept in by anyone but an occasional visitor during the whole of his
occupation. He died in 1735, and I do not find that anything particular
marked his reign, save a curiously constant mortality among his cattle
and live-stock in general, which showed a tendency to increase slightly
as time went on.
Those who are interested in the details will find a statistical
account in a letter to the Gentleman's Magazine of 1772, which
draws the facts from the Baronet's own papers. He put an end to it at
last by a very simple expedient, that of shutting up all his beasts in
sheds at night, and keeping no sheep in his park. For he had noticed
that nothing was ever attacked that spent the night indoors. After that
the disorder confined itself to wild birds, and beasts of chase. But as
we have no good account of the symptoms, and as all-night watching was
quite unproductive of any clue, I do not dwell on what the Suffolk
farmers called the 'Castringham sickness'.
The second Sir Matthew died in 1735, as I said, and was duly
succeeded by his son, Sir Richard. It was in his time that the great
family pew was built out on the north side of the parish church. So
large were the Squire's ideas that several of the graves on that
unhallowed side of the building had to be disturbed to satisfy his
requirements. Among them was that of Mrs Mothersole, the position of
which was accurately known, thanks to a note on a plan of the church
and yard, both made by Mr Crome.
A certain amount of interest was excited in the village when it was
known that the famous witch, who was still remembered by a few, was to
be exhumed. And the feeling of surprise, and indeed disquiet, was very
strong when it was found that, though her coffin was fairly sound and
unbroken, there was no trace whatever inside it of body, bones, or
dust. Indeed, it is a curious phenomenon, for at the time of her
burying no such things were dreamt of as resurrection-men, and it is
difficult to conceive any rational motive for stealing a body otherwise
than for the uses of the dissecting-room.
The incident revived for a time all the stories of witch-trials and
of the exploits of the witches, dormant for forty years, and Sir
Richard's orders that the coffin should be burnt were thought by a good
many to be rather foolhardy, though they were duly carried out.
Sir Richard was a pestilent innovator, it is certain. Before his
time the Hall had been a fine block of the mellowest red brick; but Sir
Richard had travelled in Italy and become infected with the Italian
taste, and, having more money than his predecessors, he determined to
leave an Italian palace where he had found an English house. So stucco
and ashlar masked the brick; some indifferent Roman marbles were
planted about in the entrance-hall and gardens; a reproduction of the
Sibyl's temple at Tivoli was erected on the opposite bank of the mere;
and Castringham took on an entirely new, and, I must say, a less
engaging, aspect. But it was much admired, and served as a model to a
good many of the neighbouring gentry in after-years.
* * * * *
One morning (it was in 1754) Sir Richard woke after a night of
discomfort. It had been windy, and his chimney had smoked persistently,
and yet it was so cold that he must keep up a fire. Also something had
so rattled about the window that no man could get a moment's peace.
Further, there was the prospect of several guests of position arriving
in the course of the day, who would expect sport of some kind, and the
inroads of the distemper (which continued among his game) had been
lately so serious that he was afraid for his reputation as a
game-preserver. But what really touched him most nearly was the other
matter of his sleepless night. He could certainly not sleep in that
That was the chief subject of his meditations at breakfast, and
after it he began a systematic examination of the rooms to see which
would suit his notions best. It was long before he found one. This had
a window with an eastern aspect and that with a northern; this door the
servants would be always passing, and he did not like the bedstead in
that. No, he must have a room with a western look-out, so that the sun
could not wake him early, and it must be out of the way of the business
of the house. The housekeeper was at the end of her resources.
'Well, Sir Richard,' she said, 'you know that there is but the one
room like that in the house.'
'Which may that be?' said Sir Richard.
'And that is Sir Matthew's—the West Chamber.'
'Well, put me in there, for there I'll lie tonight,' said her
master. 'Which way is it? Here, to be sure'; and he hurried off.
'Oh, Sir Richard, but no one has slept there these forty years. The
air has hardly been changed since Sir Matthew died there.'
Thus she spoke, and rustled after him.
'Come, open the door, Mrs Chiddock. I'll see the chamber, at least.'
So it was opened, and, indeed, the smell was very close and earthy.
Sir Richard crossed to the window, and, impatiently, as was his wont,
threw the shutters back, and flung open the casement. For this end of
the house was one which the alterations had barely touched, grown up as
it was with the great ash-tree, and being otherwise concealed from
'Air it, Mrs Chiddock, all today, and move my bed-furniture in in
the afternoon. Put the Bishop of Kilmore in my old room.'
'Pray, Sir Richard,' said a new voice, breaking in on this speech,
'might I have the favour of a moment's interview?'
Sir Richard turned round and saw a man in black in the doorway, who
'I must ask your indulgence for this intrusion, Sir Richard. You
will, perhaps, hardly remember me. My name is William Crome, and my
grandfather was Vicar in your grandfather's time.'
'Well, sir,' said Sir Richard, 'the name of Crome is always a
passport to Castringham. I am glad to renew a friendship of two
generations' standing. In what can I serve you? for your hour of
calling—and, if I do not mistake you, your bearing—shows you to be in
'That is no more than the truth, sir. I am riding from Norwich to
Bury St Edmunds with what haste I can make, and I have called in on my
way to leave with you some papers which we have but just come upon in
looking over what my grandfather left at his death. It is thought you
may find some matters of family interest in them.'
'You are mighty obliging, Mr Crome, and, if you will be so good as
to follow me to the parlour, and drink a glass of wine, we will take a
first look at these same papers together. And you, Mrs Chiddock, as I
said, be about airing this chamber.... Yes, it is here my grandfather
died.... Yes, the tree, perhaps, does make the place a little
dampish.... No; I do not wish to listen to any more. Make no
difficulties, I beg. You have your orders—go. Will you follow me,
They went to the study. The packet which young Mr Crome had
brought—he was then just become a Fellow of Clare Hall in Cambridge, I
may say, and subsequently brought out a respectable edition of
Polyaenus—contained among other things the notes which the old Vicar
had made upon the occasion of Sir Matthew Fell's death. And for the
first time Sir Richard was confronted with the enigmatical Sortes
Biblicae which you have heard. They amused him a good deal.
'Well,' he said, 'my grandfather's Bible gave one prudent piece of
advice—Cut it down. If that stands for the ash-tree, he may
rest assured I shall not neglect it. Such a nest of catarrhs and agues
was never seen.'
The parlour contained the family books, which, pending the arrival
of a collection which Sir Richard had made in Italy, and the building
of a proper room to receive them, were not many in number.
Sir Richard looked up from the paper to the bookcase.
'I wonder,' says he, 'whether the old prophet is there yet? I fancy
I see him.'
Crossing the room, he took out a dumpy Bible, which, sure enough,
bore on the flyleaf the inscription: 'To Matthew Fell, from his Loving
Godmother, Anne Aldous, 2 September 1659.'
'It would be no bad plan to test him again, Mr Crome. I will wager
we get a couple of names in the Chronicles. H'm! what have we here?
“Thou shalt seek me in the morning, and I shall not be.” Well, well!
Your grandfather would have made a fine omen of that, hey? No more
prophets for me! They are all in a tale. And now, Mr Crome, I am
infinitely obliged to you for your packet. You will, I fear, be
impatient to get on. Pray allow me—another glass.'
So with offers of hospitality, which were genuinely meant (for Sir
Richard thought well of the young man's address and manner), they
In the afternoon came the guests—the Bishop of Kilmore, Lady Mary
Hervey, Sir William Kentfield, etc. Dinner at five, wine, cards,
supper, and dispersal to bed.
Next morning Sir Richard is disinclined to take his gun with the
rest. He talks with the Bishop of Kilmore. This prelate, unlike a good
many of the Irish Bishops of his day, had visited his see, and, indeed,
resided there, for some considerable time. This morning, as the two
were walking along the terrace and talking over the alterations and
improvements in the house, the Bishop said, pointing to the window of
the West Room:
'You could never get one of my Irish flock to occupy that room, Sir
'Why is that, my lord? It is, in fact, my own.'
'Well, our Irish peasantry will always have it that it brings the
worst of luck to sleep near an ash-tree, and you have a fine growth of
ash not two yards from your chamber window. Perhaps,' the Bishop went
on, with a smile, 'it has given you a touch of its quality already, for
you do not seem, if I may say it, so much the fresher for your night's
rest as your friends would like to see you.'
'That, or something else, it is true, cost me my sleep from twelve
to four, my lord. But the tree is to come down tomorrow, so I shall not
hear much more from it.'
'I applaud your determination. It can hardly be wholesome to have
the air you breathe strained, as it were, through all that leafage.'
'Your lordship is right there, I think. But I had not my window open
last night. It was rather the noise that went on—no doubt from the
twigs sweeping the glass—that kept me open-eyed.'
'I think that can hardly be, Sir Richard. Here—you see it from this
point. None of these nearest branches even can touch your casement
unless there were a gale, and there was none of that last night. They
miss the panes by a foot.'
'No, sir, true. What, then, will it be, I wonder, that scratched and
rustled so—ay, and covered the dust on my sill with lines and marks?'
At last they agreed that the rats must have come up through the ivy.
That was the Bishop's idea, and Sir Richard jumped at it.
So the day passed quietly, and night came, and the party dispersed
to their rooms, and wished Sir Richard a better night.
And now we are in his bedroom, with the light out and the Squire in
bed. The room is over the kitchen, and the night outside still and
warm, so the window stands open.
There is very little light about the bedstead, but there is a
strange movement there; it seems as if Sir Richard were moving his head
rapidly to and fro with only the slightest possible sound. And now you
would guess, so deceptive is the half-darkness, that he had several
heads, round and brownish, which move back and forward, even as low as
his chest. It is a horrible illusion. Is it nothing more? There!
something drops off the bed with a soft plump, like a kitten, and is
out of the window in a flash; another—four—and after that there is
Thou shall seek me in the morning, and I shall not be.
As with Sir Matthew, so with Sir Richard—dead and black in his bed!
A pale and silent party of guests and servants gathered under the
window when the news was known. Italian poisoners, Popish emissaries,
infected air—all these and more guesses were hazarded, and the Bishop
of Kilmore looked at the tree, in the fork of whose lower boughs a
white tom-cat was crouching, looking down the hollow which years had
gnawed in the trunk. It was watching something inside the tree with
Suddenly it got up and craned over the hole. Then a bit of the edge
on which it stood gave way, and it went slithering in. Everyone looked
up at the noise of the fall.
It is known to most of us that a cat can cry; but few of us have
heard, I hope, such a yell as came out of the trunk of the great ash.
Two or three screams there were—the witnesses are not sure which—and
then a slight and muffled noise of some commotion or struggling was all
that came. But Lady Mary Hervey fainted outright, and the housekeeper
stopped her ears and fled till she fell on the terrace.
The Bishop of Kilmore and Sir William Kentfield stayed. Yet even
they were daunted, though it was only at the cry of a cat; and Sir
William swallowed once or twice before he could say:
'There is something more than we know of in that tree, my lord. I am
for an instant search.'
And this was agreed upon. A ladder was brought, and one of the
gardeners went up, and, looking down the hollow, could detect nothing
but a few dim indications of something moving. They got a lantern, and
let it down by a rope.
'We must get at the bottom of this. My life upon it, my lord, but
the secret of these terrible deaths is there.'
Up went the gardener again with the lantern, and let it down the
hole cautiously. They saw the yellow light upon his face as he bent
over, and saw his face struck with an incredulous terror and loathing
before he cried out in a dreadful voice and fell back from the
ladder—where, happily, he was caught by two of the men—letting the
lantern fall inside the tree.
He was in a dead faint, and it was some time before any word could
be got from him.
By then they had something else to look at. The lantern must have
broken at the bottom, and the light in it caught upon dry leaves and
rubbish that lay there for in a few minutes a dense smoke began to come
up, and then flame; and, to be short, the tree was in a blaze.
The bystanders made a ring at some yards' distance, and Sir William
and the Bishop sent men to get what weapons and tools they could; for,
clearly, whatever might be using the tree as its lair would be forced
out by the fire.
So it was. First, at the fork, they saw a round body covered with
fire—the size of a man's head—appear very suddenly, then seem to
collapse and fall back. This, five or six times; then a similar ball
leapt into the air and fell on the grass, where after a moment it lay
still. The Bishop went as near as he dared to it, and saw—what but the
remains of an enormous spider, veinous and seared! And, as the fire
burned lower down, more terrible bodies like this began to break out
from the trunk, and it was seen that these were covered with greyish
All that day the ash burned, and until it fell to pieces the men
stood about it, and from time to time killed the brutes as they darted
out. At last there was a long interval when none appeared, and they
cautiously closed in and examined the roots of the tree.
'They found,' says the Bishop of Kilmore, 'below it a rounded hollow
place in the earth, wherein were two or three bodies of these creatures
that had plainly been smothered by the smoke; and, what is to me more
curious, at the side of this den, against the wall, was crouching the
anatomy or skeleton of a human being, with the skin dried upon the
bones, having some remains of black hair, which was pronounced by those
that examined it to be undoubtedly the body of a woman, and clearly
dead for a period of fifty years.'