A HISTORY OF THE CASTLE AND ITS OWNERS

 

The Stradlings of St. Donat's (ca. 1298-1738)

In medieval times it was the custom for the bards to sing long lays to the harp of the glories and ancient lineage of the family who employed them. One of these stories was of Robert Fitzhamon, who invaded Glamorgan in about 1091. He was said to have had twelve Norman knights with him and to have divided the land of the Vale, which he gained from the Welsh Princes, among them. One of these knights was said to have been the ancestor of the Stradlings who received St. Donat's.

Helped by an apparently scholarly book written by the Elizabethan Sir Edward Stradling, the story passed into the accepted histories of Wales. However, in recent times a great deal of it has been shown to be apocryphal and certainly there was no Stradling among the knights who came to Glamorgan then. There is, in fact, no documented reference to St. Donat's until the middle of the thirteenth-century.

The family who then owned this part of the Norman marcher lordship was called de Hawey and they also owned land in Somerset and Dorset. About 1298 a certain Sir Peter de Stratelynge married Joan de Hawey, heiress of the properties, and thus the Stradlings became established at St. Donat's.

The name of the family is taken from Strattligen, near Lake Neuchatel in Savoy, and Sir Peter's father had come from there to serve Edward 1, whose Queen Eleanor was a Savoyard. He had come with his powerful relation, Otto de Grandison, who became Edward I's viceroy in North Wales and was concerned with the building of the great castles of Conway, Harlech and Caernarvon there.

Sir Peter is not recorded as having been in North Wales but is first heard of as Governor of Neath Castle in 1297. His family must by then have been fairly well established in Great Britain as his sisters Matilda and Margaret were at attendance at Court in that year.

Sir Peter, however, does not seem to have lived long after his marriage and it seems more likely to have been his wife's second husband, John de Penbrigg of Herefordshire, or Sir Peter's sons who started the building of the castle. Fear of Welsh raids from the mountains and of pirates from the sea appear to have been the motives in constructing such a heavily fortified building at that time in the early fourteenth century.

There is increasing evidence of the descent and standing of the Stradling family on both sides of the Bristol Channel from the middle of the century onwards. They made a series of very good marriages and increased their estates in England and Wales. Sir Edward Stradling, who attended the Parliament of 1343 as knight of the shire for Somerset, and was Sheriff of Somerset and Dorset for two years, started a tradition of public service which was carried on by many of his family.

Although at this time the family's land and interest were more in England than Wales, Stradling did hold a commission in Glamorgan in 1330 and was a patron of Neath Abbey to which he gave land and the advowson of the church of St. Donat's.

The church had originally been dedicated to the Welsh, St. Gwerydd, but in Norman times the dedication had been changed to St. Donat, or St. Dunwydd, as it is written in Welsh. He was a ninth-century saint who is said to have been born in Ireland and who later became Bishop of Florence. For a long time he was very popular on the north coast of France as a patron saint of sailors. The desirability of his influence on the owners of the castle who had to cross the Bristol Channel so often to visit their lands, as well as on subsequent inhabitants of the castle given to maritime activities, is obvious.

The second Edward Stradling, who succeeded his father in 1394, also held office in Somerset but his interests in Glamorgan were greater than those of his father. He was twice Sheriff of the county and married Gwenllian Berkerolles, eventual heiress of Coity Castle and its estates.

In the time of Edward's son, William, the castle must have been taken for a time by Owain Glyndwr when he overran Glamorgan in 1404. Later in his life William made a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem as did his son and grandson.

His son, the third Edward Stradling, did more than any other member of the family to bring the Stradlings to the fore in society. He married Jane, daughter of Cardinal Beaufort, great uncle of Henry VI, and thus became connected with a powerful circle at Court. This influence brought him administrative posts over large parts of South Wales and he collected a great deal of money for the diminishing Royal Exchequer. A capable soldier, he fought at Agincourt and must have been captured as at the end of the French wars the Stradlings were given a license to ship wool to Brittany to defray his ransom.

A ransom had to be paid nearer home for the life of his son, Sir Harry Stradling, who succeeded his father in 1453. One year "while sailing from his house in Somersetshire to his house in Wales" he was captured by a notorious Breton pirate called Colyn Dolphin. The pirate exacted a large ransom from his captive which necessitated the selling of several manors so that it could be paid. On his return Sir Harry built the watchtower above the valley to the west of the castle, where men were posted to watch for the pirate. Whether by chance or lured by lights, Colyn Dolphin was wrecked on the shore and stories of what happened to him afterwards indicate that he came to a suitable end for a fierce pirate. One version is that he was buried up to his neck in Tresilian Cave and that he was drowned when the tide came up; another is that he was strung up on a gibbet, which may well account for the name of the Gibbet Tower built about this time.

Sir Harry married nobly, with Elizabeth, sister to Sir William Herbert of Raglan, first Earl of Pembroke. Sir Harry fought as a Yorkist against Henry VI and in 1476 he kept alive the family tradition by journeying to Jerusalem and died at Famagusta in Cyprus on his return. Sir Harry wrote many diaries about the places he visited and these included quotations from poems in French, Welsh, Latin and Italian, the last being a language "which, with its books was much respected at St. Donat's at that time" wrote a historian who studied these diaries and other books in the Stradling library in the eighteenth century.

Sir Harry's only son, Thomas, died not long after his father, leaving a widow who subsequently married Sir Rhys ap Thomas, the chief supporter in West Wales of the new Tudor King, Henry VII. This powerful Welshman became the guardian of the young Edward Stradling, heir to St. Donat's.

This Sir Edward Stradling, whose wife died young, was locally most noted for the size and unruliness of his family. A contemporary wrote;

"there were twelve brothers, most of them bastards, and they have no living but by extortion and pilling of the king's subjects".

In general, however, the acccession of the Tudors brought more settled times after a century of warfare from Owain Glyndwr's rebellion to the end of the Wars of the Roses, and this encouraged Edward to carry out a great deal of domestic building in the castle ; he is responsible for the building of the Great Hall and most of the buildings round the courtyard. One of his sisters had married a prominent Welshman, Sir William Griffith of Penrhyn, and this, together with the influence of his guardian, helped to bring the Stradling family, whose interests had previously lain to such a large extent in Somerset and Dorset, nearer to the centre of Welsh life. One of the most famous of the Welsh bards, Lewys Morgannwg, was household bard to Sir Edward in the early part of the sixteenth century and he must have sung his long poems to the harp in the newly completed Great Hall. Sir Edward was the first of the family to die at the castle and he was buried in St. Donat's church in 1535.

His son Thomas, however, spent most of his younger days in other parts of England and only later in life retired to St. Donat's. Through the marriage of a distant cousin to the Earl of Arundel, he became involved in the political intrigues of Edward VI's reign and on account of this spent a short time in the Tower of London in 1551. He later beame M.P. for two Sussex constituencies through his connection with Arundel.

During the reign of Mary, Sir Thomas sat in her Parliament and held the post of Muster Master to the Queen's army ; later on he was a commissioner for the suppression of heretics. When Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne he remained loyal to the Roman Catholic faith and, although he was not at first persecuted for this, a curious incident at St. Donat's in 1559 caused him to suffer for it.

One night in that year a great storm blew down half of an old ash tree in the park of St. Donat's. Some way up in the remaining part of the tree the outline of a distinct cross was seen. This seemed miraculous in the religious atmosphere of the time and although the story of thousands flocking to see it is probably an exaggeration, and the only actual record of people coming to see it is of "certain maidens of Cowbridge", Sir Thomas was greatly impressed by it. He had four pictures of an exact copy of the cross made. One of these he sent as a present to his very devout daughter, Thomasine, then in Spain as companion to the English wife of the Count of Feria. He kept one for himself and sent the other two to friends unspecified. His daughter spread the news of the occurrence widely throughout the continent and the Pope is said to have heard of it.

All this was just at the time when Philip 11 of Spain was taking an active interest in the religious situation in England, and Protestants were greatly alarmed that Elizabeth was about to be reconciled with Rome. "When I saw this Romish influence toward," wrote her minister Cecil, "I thought it necessary to dull the Papists' expectation by punishing mass mongers for the rebating of their humours." Sir Thomas having spread news of apparently miraculous support for the Roman Catholic faith, was one of those selected to have his "humours rebated" and after conviction at Brentwood in Essex in 1561 he was sent to the Tower. He was released in 1563 but he cannot have changed his religious views much-he refused to agree to the Act of Uniformity in 1569-and after that a commission was appointed to look into his religious position. However, when visited he was found to be perpetually confined to his room with gout and he was not persecuted further.

His younger son, David, was a devout Roman Catholic and received a great welcome when he visited Phillip 11. However, the elder son, Edward, who inherited in 1573, conformed to the Protestant religion and perhaps it was he who thought it politic to hide the small picture of Phillip II which was found behind the panelling of one of the rooms in the castle, when it was being altered, at the beginning of the twentieth century.

This Sir Edward Stradling, the fifth of the name, was the personification of a cultured, learned, renaissance gentleman, and has been described as the ablest and most eminent of his house. He was a skilful administrator of his own estates and made many improvements and, as was written at the time, "He became a very useful man in his County ; and was at the charge of such Herculean works for the public good that no man in his time went beyond him". He took as his personal motto, "Vertue's whole praise consisteth in doing", and certainly was a man of great activity.

He was an author and patron of the arts, particularly of Welsh literature. A great number of ancient and valuable manuscripts were collected by him at his library at St. Donat's and these were at the disposal of the scholars of the day, many of whom he numbered among his friends, who were many and various. One of them was the great English antiquary, Camden, and he also knew courtiers like Raleigh and Drake. He is said to have known seven languages.

The only one of Sir Edward's own works which survives is his account of the "Winning of the Lordship of Glamorgan out of the Welshmans' hands". In this he elaborated on the story of Fitzhamon and his knights and traced a detailed Stradling pedigree back to those times. It is now known that the first two hundred years of this pedigree are quite fictitious and many have wondered how Sir Edward, whose scholarly abilities are generally accepted, could have perpetrated this deception. However, the bards had sung lays of an ancestry of this kind for a long time and it seems likely that Sir Edward believed the story himself.

He also honoured his more immediate ancestors and had the remains of his recent predecessors brought to be buried in the newly constructed Lady Chapel, now used as the vestry, of the church. He then had some rather unique paintings done of himself and his wife; his grandfather and grandmother and their children, and his greatgrandfather and his wife and children. These he had hung in the Lady Chapel where they remain to this day. Significantly there is no memorial to his recusant father.

John David Rhys, who wrote the first Welsh Grammar in Latin in order to make the language better known outside Wales, was patronised by Sir Edward who paid for the printing of the grammar in 1592. There is a tradition that Rhys had been Sir Edward's tutor and had accompanied him to Italy after he had been at Oxford. However their greatest bond was said to have been established earlier when Rhys had saved Sir Edward's life. The story is that the boy was cut off by the tide on the shore near St. Donat's and that neither horses nor men would dare to reach him. Rhys appeared and rushed through the waves to rescue his young lord. Unfortunately the evidence of this early association is slight.

Agnes, daughter of Sir Edward Gage of Sussex, was Sir Edward's wife and the person for whom the Lady Anne Tower was first enlarged. A poet of the time described her as one who "increases ever in virtues of the body and of the mind" and many letters pay tribute to the excellence of her hospitality. However, she had no children and the Stradlings adopted Sir Edward's nephew, John, as the future heir. Sir Edward and Lady Stradling also took a great interest in the former's niece, Barbara Gamage of Coity, and she became Sir Edward's ward after her father's death. She was an heiress of considerable wealth and even Queen Elizabeth, herself, took an interest in whom she should marry. There were many powerful suitors and a remarkable amount of intrigue in Glamorgan, Herefordshire and at Court, where Lord Howard of Effingham, a relation of Barbara's, also interested Burghley and Raleigh. However, apparently while visiting Wilton House, near Salisbury, with her uncle and aunt Barbara met and fell in love with Robert Sydney, brother of Philip Sydney, famous Elizabethan poet, ambassador and soldier. The Stradlings encouraged the match against the wishes of those at Court and the couple were finally married at St. Donat's on the 23rd September, 1584. just two hours later messengers arrived from the Queen with a commission to hold up the proceedings.

Sir Edward's nephew, John, succeeded him in 1609. He was educated at Oxford, being first at Brasenose College and then at Magdalene where he was accounted "a miracle for his forwardness in learning and his pregnancy of parts". He travelled much on the continent and during his life published six books of poems, translations and discourses. Sir John, who was one of the first baronets created by King James in 1611, did not however neglect his administrative duties and was twice Sheriff of Glamorgan and was a Member of Parliament on three different occasions. He is most noted locally for having carried out the intention of his uncle in founding the Grammar School at Cowbridge.

Sir Edward, the eldest son of the literary Sir John, dabbled in business affairs. He was a shareholder in the soap monopoly and was a promoter of a scheme for providing London with water. Both of these schemes, however, were financially disastrous and the family's fortunes decreased after the time of Sir John ; the paucity of classical work in the castle bears witness to this.

On the other hand, Sir Edward and his brothers, sons and nephews, all fought bravely on the Royalist side in the Civil War. Sir Edward was captured leading a regiment at the Battle of Edgehill but, although exchanged for a leading Roundhead, he died two years afterwards at Oxford in 1644. He was buried in the Chapel of Jesus College, Oxford, where he had been educated. His eldest son, another Edward, died there also not long after his father.

Meanwhile, Lady Stradling carried on as best she could at St. Donat's although she apparently did not escape housekeeping problems. On the 26th November, 1645, she wrote to a friend complaining that she had not been able to get a good price for her fat stock and that "I do yeat buy both my mutton, beef and bread corne, and otes, which (in private to your lady only) doth almost undoe me, considering my great family and resorte."

One of her most important visitors at this time was the scholar, Archbishop Usher, who took refuge at St. Donat's shortly after the Battle of Naseby, as did other friends of Charles I throughout the Civil War. The Archbishop made good use of the library at St. Donat's and continued to live and work there for two years. It is possible that the room in the north range, known as the Priest's room, was his.

Although Cromwell's army must have passed very near St. Donat's when they marched to Swansea in 1648, no traces of destruction in the castle or in the church, or of the fourteenth century calvary outside it, are recorded as occurring then or at any other time. It has been said that Lady Stradling allowed some of Cromwell's soldiers, who were without shelter for the night, to stay in the castle and thus gained their protection. The other traditional story is that she stood in a window, near the entrance to the castle, clutching her baby to her breast and that the soldiers took pity on her and went away. One of these stories possibly accounts for the name Cromwell Tower sometimes given to the tower, usually called the Mansell Tower, on the left of the entrance to the courtyard.

The lives of the last Stradlings were not so distinguished as those of their forebears and not so much is known about them. There is a memorial in the vestry of the church to the Sir Edward, who died in 1685, and the parish records show that he and his wife, daughter of Sir Anthony Hungerford of Black Bourton, had the tragic experience of seeing their three eldest sons all die under the age of seven in what appears to have been an epidemic. However, there was a younger son who survived to carry on the family, albeit not for long. This last Sir Edward, who married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Edward Mansell of Margam, outlived his elder son, Edward, who died in 1726 and is buried in the large tomb in the vestry. When he finally died in 1735 his younger son, Thomas, inherited.

Sir Thomas was apparently a fairly wild youth. He had been to Oxford and in 1738 set off on a grand tour of Europe with a college friend, Sir John Tyrrwhit. When they set off the two friends made an agreement that whosoever died first the other would inherit his estates. Shortly afterwards Sir Thomas was killed in a duel at Montpellier in France, almost certainly at the hand of Sir John. In due course the body was brought home and lay in state in the Great Hall. Candles around the coffin are said to have set fire to some of the funeral trappings and caused some damage to the castle. Portraits of five generations of the young Sir Thomas's ancestors lining the walls are said to have perished in the fire and with Sir Thomas's burial in his brother's tomb the Stradling line at St. Donat's came to an end.

 

 

Owners of the Castle after 1738

When the young Sir Thomas Stradling was killed in the fatal duel at Montpellier, his estates did not pass at once to his travelling companion, Sir John Tyrrwhitt, but to his cousin, Bussey, fourth Baron Mansell of Margam. At Bussey Mansell's death there was so much dispute about the inheritance and so much litigation that when the estates were finally divided into four parts, one of the best manors, that of St. Athan, had to be sold to pay the lawyers.

The quarter of the total estates that included St. Donat's did go to Sir John Tyrrwhitt in 1755 and then passed to a relation of his, Thomas Drake Tyrrwhitt Drake, in 1760. For the next century there was no resident lord and although inhabited by various families the castle was neglected and gradually became partly ruined. In 1862, Dr. J. W. Nicholl Carne, claiming to be the closest descendant of the Stradlings, bought the castle, lived in it and partly restored it as well as the church.

In 1901 it was bought by Mr. Morgan Stuart Williams of Aberpergwm, who removed many of the Victorian additions of Dr. Carne and with the help of two excellent architects, Bodley and Garner, carried out extensive and careful restoration and improvement of the buildings. Mr. Morgan Williams had a very fine collection of armour and period furniture which was very well displayed in the castle he also took good care of the estate.

Mr. Morgan Williams died at the castle in 1909 and was succeeded by his son Godfrey. It was during his ownership that the castle is said to have been so disturbed by ghostly apparitions and noises that he put it up for sale. These manifestations included : a panther repeatedly seen in the corridors ; a bright light, like a glaring eye, appearing nightly in one of the bedrooms ; a hag of horrible appearance in the armoury and continual piano playing by invisible hands even when the piano was closed. However, an exorcist was persuaded to visit the castle and after he had prayed in one of the rooms a great gust of wind is said to have blown from the room, swept down the staircase, and all but carried the owner of the castle into the garden. The exorcism appears to have been completely successful.

In 1922 the castle was sold to an American, Mr. Richard Pennoyer, whose wife was the Dowager Countess of Shrewsbury, but it was shortly sold to another American who had a far greater effect on it.

Mr. William Randolph Hearst, owner of the vast Hearst newspaper empire in America, was looking for an antique castle. While crossing the Atlantic he is said to have met the Pennoyers and certainly saw some photographs of St.Donat's in Country Life. When he heard from his agent, Miss Alice Head, editor of his newly-started British edition of Good Housekeeping, that it was for sale, he immediately cabled "Buy, St. Donat's Castle". This was in 1925 and although Hearst took great pleasure in the ownership of this small castle in Wales-he had begun his fantastic, enormous castle at San Simeon in California in 1918 and also had a "medieval" castle on Long Island-he did not visit it for three years. When he did, he took with him the most expensive and able architect he could find. This was Sir Charles Allom who had recently won a knighthood for his redecoration of Buckingham Palace for George V.

Hearst first came to the castle, with his architect, in July, 1928, and gave elaborate instructions for the alteration of the castle and the incorporation of medieval structures from elsewhere. Hearst was a great collector of silver, pictures, statues, furniture, china and all sorts of antiquities, as well as animals. He assembled a large collection of si 'Iver and armour at St. Donat's, but he did not keep giraffes, which were one of his specialities at San Simeon, but only a great number of dogs, many of which had kennels in the moat.

As well as his extensive additions, Hearst had all the existing rooms of the castle done up and brought to a suitable standard of comfort for rich Americans. Central heating was installed and the castle connected to the main water supply, which was certainly necessary as the number of bathrooms was increased from 3 to 35 ! Three tennis courts were also built as well as the heated swimming pool.

Although it may be difficult to realize for those who know only of his public life, Hearst was an extremely generous and thoughtful host. When he visited St. Donat's for a month or so in the summer he was invariably accompanied by a large party. Marion Davies was always with him and then a very varied group of people he knew from the film, business and newspaper world. The American party was often joined by other notabilities from England and Europe. People who worked in the castle in those days say that Hearst himself drank very little, but many of his visitors obviously took advantage of his hospitality and indulged in a certain amount of fairly riotous living. Chefs and butlers were supplied by Claridges and the Savoy, who were also helpful in obtaining rare wines and food. Altogether the standard of living was very luxurious, and perhaps is remembered as even more so than it really was, in contrast to the life of the ordinary people on the surrounding countryside in those depressed times in South Wales.

He came to St. Donat's again in 1930 and then went on to Europe. However, he had to return to the U.S.A. more speedily than he had intended as he was banished from France because of premature publication of the text of an Anglo-French Treaty. In 1934, before coming to St. Donat's, he went to visit Hitler.

David Lloyd George, that great Welshman from North Wales stayed at St. Donat's when he was given the freedom of Cowbridge in 1930. Hearst also lent the castle to him at a later date for the entertainment of the Bards of the Eisteddfod. All were in their robes, there were trumpeters on the castle walls and the Bards had to claim their admittance, to which Lloyd George, as Lord of the Manor, replied in Norman French. There were harpists and jesters, a choir singing old Welsh songs and a tremendous dinner in the banqueting hall of John Dory, venison and sucking pig.

From 1936 onwards times were financially difficult for Hearst and St. Donat's was put on the market in 1938 after Hearst had occupied it for a bare four months in all. He had spent an enormous amount on the castle, all of which, including the great variety of valuable silver, armour and other things he had in the castle was bought out of the proceeds of his English magazines, primarily, Good Housekeeping. However, war broke out before there was a sale and the castle was requisitioned as an officers' training centre. After the war, it continued to be looked after by the manging director of Hearst's National Magazine Company, in the name of which it had originally been bought.

There were various potential purchasers. Possible future uses included a project for turning the castle into a domestic training college for girls and the last idea was for an extensive caravan holiday camp. Planning permission for this was refused by the Cowbridge Rural District Council and at about the same time the headmaster designate, Rear Admiral D. J. Hoare, visited the castle and saw what a wonderful site it would be for the first Atlantic College. His Council agreed and Monsieur Antonin Besse very kindly bought it for the Atlantic College in 1960.

After its long history during which its owners have had many and varied contacts with different parts of the world, ranging from Sir Harry Stradling's hazardous journey to Jerusalem to William Randolph Hearst's daily contact with California, St. Donat's Castle has become the first Atlantic College where boys of many nationalities come to study and adventure together in this most beautiful part of Wales.