The Bishop's Palace stands in imposing ruins next to St. David's Cathedral in the tiny city of St Davids in Wales. The building's enduring grandeur even after centuries of neglect testifies to the great power and wealth of the church based at St Davids in the Middle Ages.
History of the Bishop's Palace
St Davids was the largest and most important medieval diocese in Wales. The cathedral housed the relics of the sixth-century saint David — patron saint of Wales — and attracted substantial numbers of pilgrims, including King William I (the Conquerer).
Before the appointment of Bishop Henry Gower (1328-47), it is uncertain where or in what kind of accommodation the bishops lived. The episcopal residence would have been near the cathedral, and was probably on this site — the west range dates from as early as the end of the 12th century. The remaining buildings, however, are testament to the wealth, power and inspiration of Bishop Gower.
Gower erected two separate ranges of rooms, one for his own private use and a second suitable for ceremonial occasions — where he could entertain important guests and distinguished pilgrims to St Davids. Both sets of chambers were built at first-floor level above vaulted undercrofts and entered by elaborate porches. The crowning glory, however, was the distinctive arcaded parapet, which still has the effect of unifying the group of buildings.
Little in the way of new building work seems to have been done after Gower's death in 1347. Increasingly, the bishops stayed less at St Davids and by the middle of the 16th century, the chief episcopal residence was at Abergwili, Carmarthen. Around the same time, rumors circulated that the first Protestant bishop of St Davids had stripped the palace's lead roof to pay for his daughter's dowry.
In 1616, Bishop Milbourne applied for a licence to demolish some of the buildings. Although the plan was not carried out, the buildings must have been in poor condition by then. By 1678, when St Davids was ransacked by Parliamentary soldiers, the palace was beyond repair. For more details on the history of the Bishop's Palace, see our St Davids Timeline.
What to See at the Bishop's Palace
The main structure of the palace and many of the walls survive intact, giving a good sense of what the palace was like for Gower and his successors. Visitors are allowed free roam of the ruins. You can explore down in the dark undercrofts or climb death-defying medieval stairs to get a good view from a second or third floor. Each room is well signposted with good descriptions and cutaway diagrams of what the room used to look like.
After you buy your ticket from a small cathedral shop, entrance to the site is by the gatehouse, which was the entrance in Gower's time as well. The gatehouse opens into a grassy courtyard, around which the main buildings are grouped.
Crowning many of the walls of the palace, the arcaded parapet is the trademark of Henry Gower. Much of it is decorated with a checkerboard pattern and over 150 carved corbels. On a practical level, the parapet supported wall-walks and channeled rainwater off the roofs.
To your left as you emerge from the gatehouse into the courtyard is the east range of the palace. This was mainly for the private use of the bishop and his retinue.
In the eastern corner next to the gatehouse is the bishop's chapel, identified as such by its east-west orientation, fully glazed windows, and lack of a chimney. The external stair (your entrance to the chapel from the courtyard) indicates its use by the bishop's servant and retinue. An elegant wooden ceiling would have been carried on the alternating small and large carved-head corbels.
Next to the chapel is the bishop's solar, a handsome chamber that functioned as a private sitting room. Here the bishop would have entertained his closest friends and taken his informal meals.
Jutting off on the cathedral side is the east wing, which was probably the bishop's parlor or bedchamber - it was equipped with a latrine and a large fireplace.
Next door to the bishop's solar is the large bishop's hall, used by the bishop when he was in residence here. The dais and high table were at the northern end of the hall with a screen creating a passage at the opposite end. Corbels carved with serene human heads supported the wooden roof trusses and contrast with the sculpture on the exterior of the building. In one corner is a very narrow stairway that will take you up to the parapet for a good view.
Inside, you'll first pass the kitchen, a large open room with a base in the middle where a huge pillar once anchored. Here meals were prepared for diners in the bishop's hall and in the great hall; servants carried the meals along the first-floor passageway that connects the kitchen with both halls.
From the kitchen, a porch with an arched doorway and stairs leads back down into the courtyard. Take a left and head towards the larger arched stairway, noticing the carved corbels that overlook the courtyard along the way.
Opposite the courtyard from the gatehouse entrance is the south range, a more public area where the bishop entertained distinguished guests. Entrance is by the great hall porch, a ceremonial doorway designed to impress visitors and screen the steps and doorway into the great hall. It is the most highly decorated feature of the palace, and once had two large statues above it.
The great hall porch leads to the great hall, the most impressive chamber in the palace. Here, distinguished guests who had come on pilgrimage to St. Davids would be accommodated and entertained. Its fine architectural features include a beautiful wheel window (perhaps inspired by Merton College in Oxford, where Bishop Gower had been a fellow) and carved corbels on the exterior parapet.
At the end of the great hall is the great chamber, to which the bishop and his guests could withdraw after meals. It was separated from the great hall by a wall (no longer standing) behind the dais and high table. An extension at the rear of the great chamber is a latrine block, a small chamber containing a latrine and a stair providing access to a small turret.
The great chapel, on the southwest side of the complex, was approached only through a passage from the great chamber. Thus only those guests important enough to have entered the great hall and chamber could use the chapel. The belfry with broached spirelet once contained two bells; inside the chapel a beautifully carved piscina survives.
The earliest surviving part of the palace is the west range, dating from the late 12th century or early 13th century. It was originally a single-storey building but was modified in the 14th century when the undercrofts (for storing beer, wine, and food) were inserted and two dormitory-style chambers were created above.
Before you leave, walk through the passageway in the southeast corner of the courtyard onto the south lawns, from where you can have nice views of the east and south exteriors of the palace. The area to the south of the palace may have been laid out as formal ornamental gardens.
Quick Facts on the Bishop's Palace
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.882334° N, 5.270165° W|
St Davids, Wales
|Hours:||Easter-May & Oct: Daily 9:30-5|
Nov-Mar: Mon-Sat 9:30-4, Sun 11-4
|Lodging:||View hotels near the Bishop's Palace|
- Personal visit (February 11, 2006).
- J. Wyn Evans and Rick Turner, St Davids Bishop's Palace, 3rd ed. (CADW, 2005).
Map of the Bishop's Palace, St Davids
Below is a location map and aerial view of the Bishop's Palace. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.