It’s February, and naturally our thoughts turn to the things of love. The celebration of Valentine’s Day is older than you may think; the first Valentine’s letters were sent in the 15th century and girls were seeking their Valentine in the Cotswolds by the early 17th. All around the region, restaurants and hotels are gearing up for the big night, and many of us will be looking forward to a card from a secret admirer, a bunch of flowers, a meal out – and who knows what more? But if we go back to the folktales of the area, we don’t find such a happy state of affairs. They tell a darker story – of forced marriages, love torn asunder by war, and even murder. This month we’re going to explore the darker side of love in the Cotswolds.


It’s no surprise that war should rend communities apart, but Gloucestershire has had more than its fair share of star-crossed lovers tragically separated. One thing Anthony and I have noticed in gathering tales in the Cotswold region is the mark the Civil War made on the area. So many stories, and broken hearts aplenty! Perhaps the best known is the borderland romance of Royalist Charles Clifford and Parliamentarian officer’s niece Alice Birch. Their love forbidden, they eloped to the safe confines of Goodrich Castle, but the Parliamentarians, led by Alice’s uncle, were hot on their heels to root out the Royalists from that stronghold. You can see Colonel Birch’s cannon, Roaring Meg, still sitting outside the castle. When it became obvious that the defence would fail, and fearing the retribution upon his beloved when her uncle got hold of her, Clifford begged the garrison commander to be allowed to escape. The two sneaked out of the castle under cover of a storm and managed to evade the Parliamentarian troops. But when they came to the Wye they found it swollen and fast. They tried to pick their way to the ford, but by now there were soldiers on their trail and so they decided they had to risk the river … It’s said that that people see the two of them struggling in the swollen waters on the anniversary of their deaths each July.

Great British Life: View across Dover's HillView across Dover's Hill (Image: Kirsty Hartsiotis)


Sometimes the love was all on one side, as was the case at Beverston Castle. It’s said that the Royalist commander of the castle, Colonel Oglethorpe, seduced a young maid at nearby Chavenage so that he might know when Parliament’s Colonel Massey, who was based there, was leading his troops out and about: she put a candle in a window visible from Beverston to mark when Oglethorpe might visit her. The Royalists were able to raid Chavenage time and again – until Massey spotted the girl and put a stop to it. Oglethorpe was defeated, and, like Goodrich, Beverston is now a ruin. But what of the maid? She was turned out without a reference and we don’t know what happened to her. Just a maid, a silly young girl, perhaps, but who knows what hardship she faced with no help from the one she thought had loved her. Her spirit is restless and the light is still sometimes seen in the window.

Even after the war, the shadow of it was a blight upon lovers. They say that on Dover’s Hill on dark nights you can see a woman waving a white cloak. This is the ghost of Beatrice Morris, who fell in love with a highwayman who patrolled the road between Broadway and Stow after the war had ended. He was Sir Roger Northwick, her childhood playmate. Whereas the Morris family had backed the winning, Parliamentarian side, Sir Roger had been a Royalist – and after the war he lost his lands and what remained of his fortune. As youths he and Beatrice had liked each other well enough, but now they were older and amorous thoughts of him swirled in Beatrice’s head until she had to act. One night, she went up the hill and waved her white silk cloak when she saw the masked rider come along the road. Throughout the spring they met, and loved, but her brother found out, he spied on her, and he ambushed Sir Roger. They fought and Morris killed his sister’s lover. Poor Beatrice lost her mind with grief and was kept a prisoner in her uncle’s house until one night she was able to get away. Back up to Dover’s Hill she rode, and she waved her white cloak. They found her cold body the next morning, but her spirit still walks the hill, awaiting her lost lover.

Great British Life: Long barrow near Lodge Park, on the Sherborne EstateLong barrow near Lodge Park, on the Sherborne Estate (Image: Kirsty Hartsiotis)


There’s an old ballad well known in the Cotswolds, ‘The Outlandish Knight’, that deals with love gone wrong with an unusual show of girl power. Polly is enticed from her father’s house by a dashing knight, against the warning of her pet parrot. They ride through the night, but at length they stop by a riverside he tells her to strip and give him all the gold she’s taken from her father’s strongbox. ‘Six pretty maids have I drowned here, and the seventh shall surely be thee.’ But Polly is quick, and when the knight turns around to protect her modesty, she tips him in! Could this story be associated in some way with another 17th-century gent, John Dutton of Lodge Park, near Northleach? There’s a rumour that he murdered his wife and buried her there. Could there be six brides in the mounds on the Sherborne Estate?

Great British Life: Kempsford villageKempsford village (Image: Kirsty Hartsiotis)


In the 1840s an old tale was collected of an Oxford student who murdered his lover, a tradesman’s daughter. The tale goes that she caught him digging a grave for her at their rendezvous on Divinity Walk. She hid in a tree and thus got away that night, but the next night when he came to call she taunted him with the words, ‘My heart did ache to see what hole the fox did make,’ and he plunged a knife into her heart. In Benhall in Cheltenham the same tale plays out – but with a different ending. A young woman, heavy with child, waited by the road to Gloucester, not daring to go into the gnarly wood to meet her lover and run away with him to Leicestershire. A carter returning home to Cheltenham kindly accompanied her to meet him, but when they found him he was digging her grave … The lover fled, the woman fainted, and the shock of it brought on her labour and she gave birth to her child in the carter’s bed that night. But the strange thing was that the carter, a single man, had dreamed of the woman sitting on his bed the night before. Did they make a new future with each other? And did the wily man who’d seduced her get away to seduce – and kill – another day, as in the old fairy tale of ‘Mr Fox’? Much like the Oxford scholar, who is killed in the melee that happens after his lover’s death, Mr Fox is caught and torn apart ‘hair from hair’ by the dogs of the unnamed town in the tale.

But it’s not just in more recent centuries that lovers have been torn asunder. In Kempsford, there are distant memories of an ancient battle: was it a battle between the men of Ambrosius Aurelianus after the Night of the Long Knives on Salisbury Plain, or a battle between the Hwicce of Gloucestershire and the Wiltsaetas of Wiltshire in A.D. 802? In the latter story, Ina, the sister of Hwiccan Oswyn of Kempsford, loves Hengstan, a foreigner from ‘Norroway’. When Oswyn throws him out, Hengstan is sheltered by Wiltshire’s Ealdorman, Weohstan. But when battle comes to Kempsford, Oswyn is killed alongside Weohstan. But this tale has a happier ending than you might think: Hengstan survives the battle, and the lovers are left to live quietly by the banks of the Thames. In the words of local poet Adin Williams, who gave us the tale, ‘plenty o’er the land was poured, as the old gave place to the new’. May that be the case for us all in 2024.


Places to visit: Goodrich Castle and the river Wye; Beverston Castle and Chavenage House; Dover’s Hill; Lodge Park; Oxford; Benhall Park, Cheltenham; Kempsford

Further reading: Gloucestershire Folk Tales by Anthony Nanson; Gloucestershire Ghost Tales and Gloucestershire Folk Tales for Children by Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis; Lays and Legends of Gloucestershire by Adin Williams; The Lore of the Land by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson.


‘The Outlandish Knight’:

‘Mr Fox’:


Kirsty Hartsiotis is based in Stroud and available for hire as a storyteller and speaker. She is an accredited Arts Society lecturer. Her books include Wiltshire Folk Tales and (with Anthony Nanson) Gloucestershire Ghost Tales and Gloucestershire Folk Tales for Children. She is also a curator at Swindon Museums.