The earliest recorded version of this wholly curious tale seems to date from 1822 in a work by Richard Willett - a churchwarden of St Deiniol’s. Many have taken it up since, but the story has remained much the same since first printed at the beginning of the 19th century. Willett claims he found the tale in a Saxon manuscript, which if true no longer exists. The story as told is apparently a translation of this lost work.
It would seem that in the sixth year of the reign of, ‘Conan (ap Elis ap Anarawd) King of North Wales’, dated by Willett as about AD 946, there was at Hawarden a ‘Christian Temple’. This is problematic, of course, since in around 946, Hywel Dda was the effective ruler of Gwynedd and North Wales, having usurped the sons of Idwal Foel. Who Conan was is something of a mystery. It seems likely that there was, however, a church at Hawarden in the 8th century, since St Deiniol’s is said to have been founded in the 6th century. The Governor of Hawarden Castle (possibly, just possibly referring to what was probably the remains of a hillfort and Saxon administrative centre at this time) was Sytsylht, a nobleman, who was married to the Lady Trawst.
Willett claims that the summer of 946 was a very dry one, so much so that there was ‘not grass for the cattle.’ In desperation, the villagers of Hawarden bent themselves to fervent prayer in St Deiniol’s, within which at the time was a very large cross, held in the hands of an image of the Virgin Mary, high in the rood loft - this was known as the Holy Rood. The villagers were seeking God’s intercession and rainfall. However, no rain fell and the drought continued.
Lady Trawst would not give up, however, and whilst in especially fervent prayer within the Church, the Holy Rood fell from the loft and struck her upon the head, killing her instantly. There followed uproar within the village of Hawarden, who, determined to seek justice, placed the Holy Rood on trial for the murder of Lady Trawst. It is said a jury was summoned from the community, which would be a very early example of a jury trial, if true. The names of the jury were, according to Willett, the following:
‘Hincott of Hancot, Span of Mancot,
Leech and Leach, and Cumberbeach;
Peet and Pate, with Corbin of the Gate,
Milling and Hughet, with Gill and Pughet.’
R. Willett, Memoir of Hawarden Parish, (1822) p. 3
Having examined the evidence, the jury found the Holy Rood guilty of murder, while also finding the cross guilty in, ‘not answering the many petitioners’ - presumably in not granting rain, despite their fervent pleas. The punishment seems to have caused some considerable debate.
The Rood was initially to be hanged, but Span of Mancot was against said punishment, believing it would be better to drown the Rood in the River Dee, given that rain was needed. This was opposed by Corbin of the Gate, who believed they had no right to kill ‘Her’, but instead suggested that the Rood be left upon the sands of the River Dee, effectively giving over the punishment of the Rood to God’s will.
The River Dee swept in and took the Holy Rood into its waters, carrying the cross to ‘Caer Leon’, supposed by Willett to be Chester. Here it fetched up outside the walls of the City, whence it was found by the inhabitants. This area has since been known as the Roodee, a derivative of Rood Eye - Island of the Cross.
The people of Chester buried the Holy Rood near to where it was found, and raised a monument and inscription to it.
‘The Jews their God did crucify,
The Hardeners their’s did drown;
‘Cause with their wants she’d not comply,
And lies under this cold stone.’
R. Willett, Memoir of Hawarden Parish, (1822), p.4
Today, the worn and weathered remains of a cross can be found upon the Roodee, within Chester Racecourse. This is the cross said to mark the burial place of the Holy Rood of Hawarden.
There remains a troubling passage in Fenton, which in mentioning the Holy Rood of Hawarden, suggests that the cross was sold for money at the very beginning of the Reformation.
R. Fenton, Tours in Wales (1804-1813), ed. J. Fisher, London, (1917)
W. H. Gladstone, The Hawarden Visitors Hand-Book, Chester, (1890)
R. Willett, A Memoir of Hawarden Parish, Chester, (1822)