The story takes place in the late 17th century and the mid 18th century. Its main characters are a powerful landowner named Sir Matthew Fell and his grandson Sir Richard Fell. In the year 1690, a woman known as Mrs. Mothersole is found guilty of being a witch and condemned to death, largely on the strength of testimony given by Sir Matthew Fell. Shortly afterwards, Sir Matthew dies in mysterious and horrific circumstances. Some fifty years later, Sir Richard inherits his grandfather's former home. He finds that an ash tree in the grounds of the house is causing him problems.
"The Ash-tree" has been adapted to other media, most notably as the fifth TV movie in the BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas.
The action takes place at a large house called Castringham Hall and in nearby locations in Suffolk. Castringham Hall was originally built as a fortress in medieval times. Extensive alterations were made to it in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, It was at that time that an ash tree was planted in the house's grounds. The tree reaches its full height in the year 1690. In that year, Castringham Hall is home to Sir Matthew Fell, the Deputy Sheriff of the district. The branches of the ash tree reach almost to Sir Matthew's bedroom window.
In the year 1690, a number of witch trials take place in the area. A woman named Mrs. Mothersole is convicted of being a witch and hanged on the strength of evidence given by Sir Matthew. Sir Matthew says that, through his bedroom window, on three separate evenings, he saw Mrs. Mothersole high in the branches of his ash tree, using a strange curved knife to cut twigs from it. Sir Matthew tried to stop and capture Mrs. Mothersole but she heard him coming and managed to escape. Sir Matthew did not see her run away but he saw a hare running across his garden towards the village. Sir Matthew is "not specially infected with the witch-finding mania". He takes no pleasure in providing evidence against Mrs. Mothersole or in her death sentence. He only speaks at her trial because he considers it his duty.
Although he finds the whole process repugnant, as Deputy Sheriff, Sir Matthew is obliged to attend Mrs. Mothersole's execution. The execution takes place on a wet day in March. Some six other people are hanged that day. All of the other condemned prisoners are "apathetic or broken down with misery". Mrs. Mothersole's behavior is, however, quite different. Although she makes no attempt to stop the hangman from carrying out his duty, she appears to be extremely angry. Witnesses describe her as looking like a devil and her anger as poisonous. Strangely, the only words that Mrs Mothersole says on the day of her execution are, "There will be guests at the hall." She repeats this seemingly meaningless phrase several times.
A few weeks later, on a warm evening in May while Sir Matthew's wife is away visiting her mother, Sir Matthew is visited by his friend, the local clergyman Dr. Crome. When Dr. Crome is about to leave, Sir Matthew notices something moving in the ash tree. He does not think it is a squirrel. Dr. Crome sees it too. It is impossible to tell what color it is by moonlight but it is unlikely to be a squirrel because it appears to have more than four legs.
The following morning, Sir Matthew is found dead in his bed. His body is twisted in agony, his flesh is bloated and his skin has turned black. Although Sir Matthew left his bedroom window open, there are no signs of an intrusion. A full tankard of ale is found in his room. Although Sir Matthew did not drink from the tankard, its contents are examined and it is found to contain no poison. Some women who are charged with preparing Sir Matthew's body for burial feel a sharp pain in the palms of their hands when they touch him. Soon afterwards, their arms become swollen and they are unable to work for a long time afterwards. Dr. Crome and the local physician examine Sir Matthew's body with a magnifying glass. They find two small puncture wounds. The two men think that the puncture wounds may have been left when poison was injected into Sir Matthew's body.
In search of some comfort, Dr. Crome picks up the small Bible on Sir Matthew's bedside table. Three times, he opens it at random and reads the words to which his finger randomly points. He reads, "Cut it down", "It shall never be inhabited", and, "Her young also suck up blood".
Castringham Hall is inherited by Sir Matthew's son, the second Sir Matthew. The second Sir Matthew finds that a lot of his sheep and cattle die from a mysterious illness. He finds that his animals remain untouched by the disease if he keeps them inside at night. Wild animals and birds that have died of the mysterious sickness continue to be found in the grounds of Castringham Hall.
In 1735, Castringham Hall is inherited by Sir Richard Fell, the second Sir Matthew's son. Sir Richard had traveled in Italy and has Castringham Hall altered to make it look more like an Italian palace. He also has the parish church extended in order to install a new pew for himself and his family. This requires exhuming several bodies from graves in the unhallowed ground north of the church. One of the graves that is disturbed is that of Mrs. Mothersole. When her coffin is opened, it is found to be completely empty. On Sir Richard's orders, the coffin is burned.
One night in 1754, shortly before a large number of guests are due to arrive at Castringham Hall, Sir Richard is unable to sleep because something keeps rattling against his bedroom window. The following morning, he decides to move to a different bedroom. Of the many empty rooms available, he finds that the former bedroom of the first Sir Matthew, unused for over forty years, is the only one that suits his needs. The bedroom window has to be opened to let some fresh air into the stuffy room. Sir Richard admits that the proximity of the ash tree to the bedroom might make it damp.
On the same day, Sir Richard is visited by William Crome, the grandson of Dr. Crome. William Crome shows Sir Richard the account that his grandfather wrote of the first Sir Matthew's death. Sir Richard is much amused by Dr. Crome's attempt to learn something by opening a Bible pointing to words in it at random. He thinks, however, that "Cut it down" is good advice if it refers too the diseased old ash tree. Finding the first Sir Matthew's old Bible, Sir Richard jokingly attempts to do what Dr. Crome did before him. He reads the words, "Thou shalt seek me in the morning and I shall not be."
The following day, Sir Richard is talking to one of his guests, the Bishop of Kilmore, an episcopal see in Ireland. The bishop notices a bedroom window which is very near to the branches of the ash tree. He says that none of his parishioners would sleep there because, according to Irish folklore, it is considered highly unlucky to sleep near to an ash tree. Sir Richard says that the bedroom is his and that he did not sleep well the night before because the ash trees branches were scratching against his window. The bishop points out that is impossible because the nearest branch on the tree is a foot away from the bedroom window. The bishop says that the scratching noise must have been made by something else.
That night, Sir Richard's bedroom is visited by several "round and brownish" creatures. One of them, "drops off the bed with a soft plump like a kitten and is out of the window with a flash'.
The following morning, Sir Richard is found dead in his bed. Exactly like the first Sir Matthew before him, his body is twisted in agony, his flesh is swollen and his skin has turned black. While the other guests are discussing how and why Sir Richard might have been murdered, the Bishop of Kilmore looks to the ash tree. A cat peers into a hole in the hollow tree. It falls in the hole and then lets out a horrible cry. It is decided that the tree must be examined at once.
A gardener with a lantern climbs a ladder and looks into the hollow tree. What he sees makes him drop his lantern in fright. The broken lantern starts a fire which sets the ash tree alight. Several gigantic spiders, as large as a man's head, come out of the burning tree. The tree continues to burn for the rest of the day. Several people stay near to the tree and kill the enormous spiders as they emerge from it. When no more spiders have appeared for some time, the burned remains of the hollow tree are examined. A few more dead spiders are found inside, along with a body which can only be that of Mrs. Mothersole.
"The Ash-tree" was adapted as the fifth TV movie in the BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas The film was first shown on British television on December 23, 1975. It stars Edward Petherbridge as both the first Sir Matthew and Sir Richard and Barbara Ewing as Anne Mothersole (as the character is called in the adaptation). In the film, Sir Richard is not the grandson of the first Sir Matthew. Sir Richard inherits Castringham Hall from his uncle, the second Sir Matthew, who had inherited it from his uncle, the first Sir Matthew. On the day of her execution, Anne Mothersole curses the first Sir Matthew so that he will have no direct descendants. Instead of saying, "There will be guests at the hall", she says, "Mine shall inherit", referring to her spider-like children. The film opens with the arrival of Sir Richard at Castringham Hall. Soon after his arrival, he begins to experience visions of life in the first Sir Matthew's time. The last of those visions is one of the execution of Anne Mothersole.
Abridged versions of "The Ash-tree" have been read on British television by Robert Powell (in the second episode of Classic Ghost Stories, first shown on BBC 2 on December 26, 1986) and Christopher Lee (in the second episode of Christopher Lee's Ghost Stories for Christmas, first shown on BBC 2 on December 26, 2000).
"The Ash-tree" was faithfully adapted as an episode of the American radio series The Black Mass which first aired on the listener funded stations KPFA (Berkley) and KPFK (Los Angeles) in 1963.
- The BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas is made up of fourteen TV movies that were first shown on British television between 1971 and 2019. Of the other thirteen films in the series, three are original stories. The rest are adaptations of the short stories "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral', "A Warning to the Curious", "Lost Hearts", "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas", "A View from a Hill", "Number 13", "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad", "The Tractate Middoth" and "Martin's Close" by M.R. James and the short story "The Signalman" by Charles Dickens.
- In the five-part BBC TV mini-series Classic Ghost Stories from December 1986, actor Robert Powell reads a different short story by M.R. James in each episode. The other stories read in the series are "The Mezzotint", "Wailing Well", "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" and "The Rose Garden".
- In the four-part BBC TV mini-series Christopher Lee's Ghost Stories for Christmas, first shown on British television in December 2000, Christopher Lee plays M.R. James, telling his ghost stories by candlelight to friends and students at King's College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve. The other stories told in the series are "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral", "Number 13' and "A Warning to the Curious"