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The Miracle of St Donats

The stone cross on the road between Llantwit Major and St Donats marking the site of the ‘miracle’

I was recently contacted by someone living in Australia who was trying to retrace their roots growing up in the Vale of Glamorgan. She was asking about stories she had heard as a child of a supposed miracle in the coastal village of Marcross between Llantwit Major and Wick and wanted to know if I knew any details. As it turns out, I do. Thanks to some rather wonderful local folklore on the subject. In fact, the name of the village; Marcross tells a bit of the tale in itself as it is an abbreviation of ‘Mark-of-the cross’.

The legend goes that a traveller was walking along the road to Wick. His journey had been uneventful until he was just a few yards from St Donats Castle. There he was inextricably struck down to his knees by the sight of an apparition of Christ on the cross on the bow of a tree. When the vision had subsided, he ran to tell the villagers what he had seen. They ridiculed him and laughed at his story, so he took them back to the spot where he claimed it had happened. To everyone’s amazement the crucifixion scene he had described had been indelibly burned on to the fabric of the tree.

Gasps all-round, I’m sure.

Stories like these generally originate from the medieval period. Or older than that again. This one however is quite unusual as it originates from 1559. And in its day, it caused quite a storm.

The time in question was during the reign of Elizabeth I when Britain had for some years been a protestant country. The Stradlings of St Donats Castle however were openly Catholic and when this story surfaced Sir Thomas Stradling sailed dangerously close to the wind when he declared it ‘a miracle’. He then made matters worse for himself when he ordered effigies of this crucifixion scene be made from the wood of this tree and that they be sold to pilgrims. Elizabeth, I had spies everywhere – in fact in the Vale of Glamorgan she must have had Catholics spying on other Catholics as it was Thomas Carne of Ewenny who dobbed him in.

He was arrested and incarcerated in the Tower of London while the remains of his tree were dragged to London and destroyed. But not before a team of esteemed clerics had very vocally debunked any possibilities that there was anything miraculous about it. He would undoubtedly have faced execution as a heretic if not for a very swift and emphatic retraction and apology from Sir Thomas. The queen showed him lenience and agreed to release him if he agreed to pay a fine of £1,000 marks. Which he did.

He can’t have been quite as remorseful as he claimed to be however. Shortly after his release he erected a plinth of dressed stone with a crucifix on it, at the point on the wall around his estate where the ‘miracle’ had supposedly happened. Clearly a man who liked to live dangerously.

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