Legends of the Three Shires

A collection of myths and legends from Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire

The Roodee: The Island of the Cross


The town of Hawarden in North Wales, just across the Dee Estuary from Chester, was once beset by a drought. The church housed a statue of the Virgin Mary holding a large cross, or rood, and the people prayed to it for rain. One of those to pray was Lady Trawst, the wife of the governor of Hawarden Castle. Unfortunately for her the statue fell from its place in the rood loft and killed her. The people of Hawarden tried it for murder, and found it guilty. Unwilling to destroy a sacred object, they decided to leave it on the shore of the Dee to be drowned, and it was carried away by the tide. It landed on the low-lying area of land formed by a curve in the river on the opposite shore that lay below the walls of Chester, where it was found by the inhabitants. They celebrated this discovery by naming the place Rood Eye – the Island of the Cross – and to this day it is called The Roodee in memory of the event.


The Roodee is remarkable for being the place of interment of the image of the Virgin Mary, with a very large cross, in the year 946. The place of the residence of this pious lady was in a Christian temple at Hawarden, in Flintshire, where, in those days of superstition, they used to offer up their orisons to this idol. To her they applied for relief in all their afflictions; till at last it happened, while they were on their knees invoking her for assistance, that she fell on the head of the governor of the castle’s wife, lady Trawst, and killed her. For this offence the goddess was banished the place, and thrown on the sands of the river; whence she was carried by the tide, and found the next day near the place called the Roodee; on which the idol was interred, with all due pomp, by the inhabitants of Chester; and a large stone erected over the grave, a vestige of which still remains as a memento of the ignorance of those days.

T. Crane, An History and Description of the City of Chester, J. Hemingway, Chester, 1808, p 19

“In the sixth year of the reign of Conan, King of North Wales, there was in the Christian Temple at a place called Harden, in the Kingdom of North Wales, a Roodloft, in which was placed an image of the Virgin Mary, with a very large cross, which was in the hands of the image, called Holy Rood. About this time there happened a very hot and dry summer; so dry that there was not grass for the cattle; upon which most of the inhabitants went and prayed to the image or Holy Rood, that it would cause it to rain, but to no purpose. Among the rest, the Lady Trawst (whose husband’s name was Sytsylht, a nobleman and governor of Harden Castle) went to pray to the said Holy Rood, and she praying earnestly and long, the image or Holy Rood fell down upon her head and killed her; upon which a great uproar was raised, and it was concluded and resolved upon to try the said image for the murder of the said Lady Trawst, and a jury was summoned for this purpose, whose names were as follows:—

Hincot 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.”

The Jury—so continues the story—found the Holy Rood guilty of wilful murder, and the sentence was proposed that she should be hanged. This was opposed by Span, who suggested that, as they wanted rain, it would be best to drown her. This, again, was objected to by Corbin, who advised to lay her on the sands of the river and see what became of her. This was done, with the result that the image was carried by the tide to some low land near the wall of Caerleon—(supposed to be Chester)—where it was found by the Cestrians drowned and dead, and by them buried at the gate where found, with this inscription:—

The Jews their God did crucify,
The Hardeners theirs did drown,
’Cos, with their wants she’d not comply,
And lies under this cold stone.

Hence the said low land, or island, as it may have been, is supposed to have got the name of the Rood-Eye, or Roodee as at present.

The Harwarden Visitors’ Hand-book, Phillipson & Golder, Chester, 1883, pp 4–5

A curious tale is associated with the Roodee, the present racecourse. In the tenth century there was a drought, and Lady Trawst, wife of the Governor of Hawarden, went to pray for rain to a statue of Our Lady. Her prayers were answered, for a terrific thunderstorm broke out, and loosened the statue, which fell on her and killed her. The statue was solemnly tried by jury and condemned to be hanged for murder. The executioners were faced with a difficulty, for a statue cannot, in the nature of things, be hanged, and burning a sacred image was a sacrilege to which no one felt inclined. It was therefore decided to drown it. It was bound to a cross and left on the banks of the Dee. The tide carried it to Chester and deposited it beneath the Walls, where it was found and carried with great respect to St. John’s Church. Such a statue did exist in St. John’s at the time of the Reformation, though it may not have been the same one. It was thrown down as a relic of popery and converted into a whipping-block for unruly scholars. Finally, it was burnt.

Christina Hole, Traditions and Customs of Cheshire, Williams and Norgate, London, 1937, pp 188–89


This story provides a nice reason for the naming of the Roodee, which is popularly supposed to be ‘the Island of the Cross’ (from Rood Eye, one of the many variant spellings), while getting in a dig at the Welsh at the same time.

There is further confusion here however, thanks to the two possible meanings of ‘eye’ in such a context; it could either be island or water-meadow (ie a field next to a stream, or an island in it). This sort of confusion applied even in the 14th century, when it is recorded as oculus crucis. Needless to say ‘Meadow at a cross’ is deemed the more likely explanation in The Place Names of Cheshire. The book adds the following notes:

‘This was originally a water-meadow in the crook of the river Dee outside the south-west and west wall of the city, in this, St Martin’s and St Mary’s parishes, with a cross on it of which the pedestal remains. There is folklore about the origin of the cross, washed up here miraculously by a flood of the river Dee.’