20 May 2013

Truth and Legend..

Oakamoors’ fabled Chained Oak has fascinated me for a great number of years. One of only two chained trees in existence (the second is a chained Fictus tree located in Wayanad, India,) I often wondered whom would decide to take up heavy hand forged chains and bind the Oak, and more importantly what possessed them to do so?

The tree itself is one of the oldest in the area. The size of its exposed roots, the thickness of its trunk and the length of its branches indicate a large number of years of growth. I have read estimates that age it at almost one thousand years old. Whilst I am no expert in ageing trees, it clearly is a few hundred or so years older than anything in the vicinity. It is important to note at this time that during the 18th and 19th century the area was logged extensively. This tree chained or not at the time must have commanded a certain degree of respect for it remained untouched.

The popular version of the Legend runs thus:

In 1830 on one stormy night, the 15th Earl of Shrewsbury (Charles Talbot) was returning to Alton Towers from a visit to St Giles RC Church (which is located in nearby Cheadle) when he was stopped in his tracks by an old woman, who was standing in the middle of the path.

She begged the Earl for coin, to which he cruelly refused her. Angered she uttered the now infamous words:

For every branch of the old Oak that falls, a member of the house will die

The Earl sought refuge within the Tower walls as the storm raged on. A stray bolt of lightning severed a branch from the old Oak and sure enough, that night a member of the Earls family suddenly and mysteriously died.

To prevent further anguish he ordered the same Oak chained tight, hoping this would secure any further damage to the tree and therefore keep the curse at bay.

Indeed, it is a fantastic story, and during my investigations it was deemed necessary to try and find the origins and truth (if any) that this story contained.

The legend itself has existed for a great many years, yet its origin is still unknown. Through personal correspondence I can confirm it was popular amongst the locals since at least the 1970’s but I suspect it dates much earlier than this.

My research however has found a few flaws with this popular version of the tale. For one, Charles Talbot (the 15th Earl) on whom this version is based died in 1827. Therefore he could not have encountered the woman or chained the tree in the year given (1830.) Secondly, the path was oft spoken of as used to visit St Giles RC Church. The church itself was commissioned by the 16th Earl (John Talbot) and was not completed until 1845. So even if the story is based on the wrong Earl, the dates quoted and the reason for travel still do not tie in.

There is a second version of events that is somewhat lesser known. The story is that in 1821, whilst again travelling back towards the Towers, the Earls son (which earl is not specified) was struck upon the head by a falling Oak branch and killed. Hence the Earl ordered said tree to be chained to prevent further accident.

The main issue with this version is that Charles Talbot had no children, and John Talbot had only two daughters. From a practical point of view, anyone who has visited the site will note that the Oak itself is set far back and high above the riding track. If indeed any branch would fall it would more than likely roll down towards the pathway, and not fall directly onto a passer-by. It is simply set to far back.

However, there is a recorded incident that did indeed occur on that very pathway in 1821, though no details were reported other than it was a “riding accident.”

My research has shown clear differences between fact and tale, yet still the Oak stands, draped in worn iron with secrets yet to yield.


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