The curious and rather wonderful Maes-y-Groes cross stone is something of a mystery. A gatepost now, as many of these stones are, likely removed from the original setting and reused, it can be found within the courtyard of Maes-y-Groes house, a 17th century ‘two-unit storeyed house’ on the back road between Loggerheads and Cilcain.
The small Latin cross, just four inches across and 5 inches long, has been cut into the top of a 4ft 8in high stone. A little more than a foot below the cross, a date of 1795 (possibly 1725) has been loudly cut into the stone, and beneath this, but now largely buried beneath the gravel of the pathway, is a very curious shovel shaped figure, along with what appears to be the stub of a handle,
‘and in this figure near its extremity is incised a semi-circle, or rather a semi-ellipse, with a portion of its diameter proceeding from left to right, and about the centre of this semi-ellipse is a single dot.’
Elias Owen, ‘Old Stone Crosses of the Vale of Clwyd’ (1886)
Elias Owen's original drawing of the stone, showing the now largely hidden 'shovel' figure.
Crosses found in the countryside have been given a variety of purposes over the last century or so. The truth, as with all crosses, is that the original reason has most likely changed to suit the needs, the interests and cultural concerns of the communities they exist within. The original siting of the stone and the cross upon it is unknown, but it's unlikely to have been moved far. Its likely original purpose was as a wayside cross, a marker upon a route from one place to another. There was a suggestion that it was a monastic cross, possibly a pilgrim route, marking a route between the abbies of Basingwerk and Valle Crucis, but this would be an extremely rare find in Wales, and a first in north east Wales.
In a study of medieval crosses and crossheads in 2010, Silvester and Hankinson make plain their belief that the Latin cross upon the stone is likely contemporary to the date inscribed, largely based on the presence of drilled holes and the belief that the carving of the date and the cross seem similar. Writing over a century earlier, Elias Owen believed the cross to be older than the date. The truth would obviously have a considerable bearing on the original purpose of the stone, but I rather feel the inclination to side with Owen, here - the reuse of crosses was extremely common, and it’s entirely possible that the stone, with the Latin cross upon it, was originally a wayside marker, possibly in the lane leading down to the Alyn, and moved to its current position as a gatepost, commemorated with an inscribed date. As for the shovel, speculation is all we have to play with, but I’m mindful of the use of crosses as gathering places for labourers looking for work - the shovel would be a handy and convenient motif indicating this use, with the Latin cross a guarantee of the terms of employment. Wishful thinking on my part, perhaps.
The Maes-y-Groes Latin cross - a mystery.
However, Elias Owen tells of a tradition he was told by a local of nearby Llanferres regarding Maes-y-Groes. It was said locally that a Saxon army crossed the Alyn on their way to battle at Mold by way of a ford a little along the lane running down to the River, and that the spot was ever known from thence as, Maes-y-Groes, since its was rendered down from, ‘Y maes Ile y darfufiddynt groesi’ - The field where they crossed.
This tradition is interesting for a number of reasons, not least because it seemingly entirely removes the stone and its cross and shovel from the story. The use of the word, ‘groes’ in place names is often seen as a recognition of a lost cross - and Lord knows many have been lost. But, the word can also indicate a crossroads or a crossing of sorts (though not necessarily a ford, since this would be named as rhyd). In this instance then, the stone and Latin cross at Maes-y-Groes is something of a scalp scratching conundrum. If the name came from a memory of an ancient army crossing the river, we must ask ourselves where the stone and Latin cross actually came from and why it was placed here. And the answers to that question would be fairly legion, of course - and likely pointless.
Owen is fairly dismissive of the tradition, ‘for it appears more like an attempt to account for a name than anything else’, while willing to keep an open mind on the matter, at least to some extent. Because there is, of course, the matter of the 5th century Alleluia Battle at Maes Garmon on the outskirts of Mold, a conflict said to have been between a native British force led by the saints, Germanus and Lupus and an invading horde of Saxons and Picts. And the route to Maes Garmon from Maes-y-Groes is entirely feasible, if one gives credence to the possibility of a Saxon and Pict force invading from the west, and at a time when the Saxons had barely drawn breath on British soil. Of course, it’s possible that the tradition of the Alyn crossing has been folded into the local tradition of the Alleluia Battle. It’s entirely possible that the tradition remembers a different battle, a different foe.
So, as is often the case, the truth evades us, remains wispishly ethereal and vague. But there is happiness to be had in the mental tootling along of consideration. The Maes-y-Groes cross is a mystery wrapped in myth and tradition - a wonder, and if one is happy to accept the mystery, a joy to find.
1. E. Hubbard, 1986, The Buildings of Wales: Clwyd, University of Wales, p338
2. Silvester. R.J. and R. Hankinson, 2010, Medieval Crosses and Crossheads, CPAT, p26
3 - 5. E. Owen, 1886, Old Stone Crosses of the Vale of Clwyd, Woodall, Minshull and Co. p15