St. David's Cathedral in Wales, one of Britain's oldest cathedrals, stands on the site of a 6th-century monastery founded by Dewi (David), a Celtic Christian monk.
Considered the holiest site in Wales due to its relics of St. David, the cathedral was a major pilgrimage destination throughout the Middle Ages. It remains a thriving church today.
History of St. David's Cathedral
The city of St. Davids is in such a remote area of Britain that the visitor might well wonder why the site was chosen for a cathedral. The answer is that it all began with a monk, who chose the site for its seclusion.
In the 6th century, a monk named Dewi (David is the Normanized form of his name) founded a monastery in the once-deserted area where St. David's Cathedral now stands. As he spread Christianity in the area, he might be considered the Welsh version of St. Patrick.
The Celtic saint soon became famous for his learned preaching, devotion to God, and extreme asceticism (he ate only bread and herbs, drank only water, and regularly stood in cold water for long periods). He was nicknamed Dewi Ddyfrwr, David the Water Drinker.
Many wonderful legends have circulated about David, including one alleging that King Arthur was his uncle and that among the "prophecies of Merlin" was a prediction that St. David would found a bishopric in Wales.
In another legend, St. Gildas (born c.500 AD) foretold David's birth when a pregnant woman came into the church as he was preaching. He was struck dumb, and on regaining his power of speech, predicted that she would give birth to a son "with a greater proportion of the divine spirit than has ever fallen to the share of a preacher."
It is said that during a speech at a 6th-century synod a dove descended on David's shoulder, signifying his eloquence and guidance by the Holy Spirit. The statue of St. David in the cathedral includes the dove.
David died in old age on March 1 in either 589 or 602 AD. His last words are reported to have been, "Brothers and sisters, be joyful and keep the faith and do the little things which you heard and saw with me."
Life in the monastic community that formed under David's leadership was a simple one of prayer, study, and hard labor. Soon a bishopric was established at the site (according to tradition, David was the first bishop), making the monastic church a cathedral. In the centuries that followed, St. David's Cathedral suffered more than a dozen attacks by Vikings and other marauders. Bishops of St. David's were killed in 999 and 1080.
In 1081, William the Conquerer visited St. Davids to pray and, probably, to explore its strategic benefits due to its proximity to Ireland. The cathedral was safe under Norman rule, but at the cost of its original Welsh character. The Normans regarded their own form of Christianity as superior to the Celtic way, and soon set out to reform it. This was probably the motivation behind the Latin Life of David written by a bishop's son in 1090, which reports that David visited Jerusalem and was consecrated bishop by the patriarch.
In 1115, King Henry I appointed the first Norman bishop of St. Davids, Bernard, who designated himself an archbishop of the surrounding area. He also appears to have been instrumental in making St. Davids a major place of pilgrimage. It was around this period that two pilgrimages to St. Davids was declared equivalent to one to Rome.
Bernard also dedicated a new cathedral (1131) to accommodate and impress the visitors, but this was rebuilt by the end of the century. The new cathedral was built in a Transitional Norman style, with a combination of rounded arches (Norman) in the nave and pointed arches (Gothic) in the triforium. The plan of this building can still be seen in today's cathedral. In 1220 the new tower collapsed, and other repairs had to be made due to the inadequacy of the cathedral's foundations (still seen today in the arcades' outward lean).
The 13th century saw the additions of the Chapel of St. Thomas Becket, the Lady Chapel, the bell tower, and a new shrine of St. David (1275). The ruined base of this shrine can still be seen in its original position today.
In the mid-14th century, the cathedral and the adjacent Bishop's Palace were transformed by Bishop Henry Gower, a former fellow of Merton College, Oxford. Gower's accomplishments included adding an arched parapet walk to the Palace, embellishing and remodeling the cathedral interior, and building a wall around the cathedral area with four gates. The only gate that survives today is Porth y Twr (The Gate of the Tower), which was built up against the cathedral's octagonal bell tower. The bishop's throne seen in the cathedral also dates from this period.
Edward Vaughan was bishop from 1509 to 1522; his statue stands in the Holy Trinity Chapel he commissioned. The nave roof and ceiling were rebuilt by 1540.
The first Protestant bishop of St. Davids was William Barlow (r.1536-48). Attacking what he saw as superstition, he stripped David's shrine of its jewels, confiscated its relics, and attempted (unsuccessfully) to have the seat of the bishopric moved to Carmarthen.
In 1550, Bishop Farrer burnt the remaining medieval service books as remnants of the old order. (He was later burned at the stake by the Catholic Queen Mary I.) In 1571, the pulpit was constructed by Thomas Huett, who was one of the translators of the Welsh New Testament (1567).
The cathedral suffered remarkably little damage due to the Reformation, but it was not so lucky a century later. In 1648, the cathedral was heavily damaged by Parliamentary soldiers dispatched to collect lead from its roof. The organ and bells were destroyed, brass tomb decorations were torn up, and all the stained glass windows were smashed. The east end, stripped of its lead, fell into decay and remained unroofed for over two centuries.
Major restorations were carried out on St. David's Cathedral between the late 18th century and the early 20th century. The west front was given its present form by Sir George Gilbert Scott between 1862 and 1878. The medieval gate was re-roofed in 2001, and now houses a small museum of exhibitions relating to the cathedral.
What to See at St. David's Cathedral
The following description follows the same general order as the St. David's Cathedral Photo Gallery.
St. David's Cathedral was built down in a hollow in order to avoid the attentions of invaders from the sea, so only its tower can be seen until you come right up on it. Once you do, it is quite a spectacular sight, especially in light of its remote location in a small town.
You must descend 39 steps through the hillside cemetery to the cathedral (unless you come from the car park and approach the southwest side).
The cathedral is mainly Late Norman (late 12th century), but 14th-century rebuilding has given the exterior a Decorated aspect. The outside of the cathedral, made of local stone, is relatively plain and austere, but the inside is beautifully decorated and evokes a medieval atmosphere.
Entrance to the cathedral is by the south door, which opens into the south aisle of the nave. Stand at the back of the nave and notice the significant outward lean of the arcades — this problem has plagued cathedral architects for centuries. It is caused by several factors, including the heaviness of the tower, inadequate foundations, and the sloping and marshy site. An earthquake in 1248 didn't help, either. You can feel the sloping lean towards the back of the cathedral as well.
From this vantage point you can admire the finely-carved stone screen or pulpitum (built by Bishop Gower), which includes a statue of St. David, in the front of the nave.
Note the beautiful wooden ceiling, carved of Irish oak in the early 16th century and embellished with carved pendants. The carved wooden crucifix or rood suspended from the ceiling is a 20th-century replacement of a medieval version. Over your right shoulder above the baptismal font is a nice little rose window, installed in the 1950s.
Walking around the stone screen to the right, along the south aisle, you can see the battered tomb of Bishop Gower, who contributed so much to the cathedral and the surrounding area. An effigy of the bishop lies on top of the tomb and the sides feature carvings of apostles.
Next to Edmund's tomb is the entrance to the beautiful 15th and 16th-century choir, famed for its large collection of decorated misericords. Each seat, designed out of mercy (Latin misericordia) to support the weight of priests standing throughout services, is carved from a single block of oak.
The hidden position of the misericords released the craftsmen from the forms of traditional ecclesiastical art to create an often irreverent form of folk art. The images are highly symbolic satires on the lives of laity and clergy and moral lessons. The words painted above the seats are the names and offices of those using them at the time.
Also in the choir is the cathedra, or bishop's throne, which dates from the 14th century. Its position is unusual; normally the Dean sits on this side of the choir. The trumpeting angels on the organ are 20th century additions. High above the choir is the beautiful decorated tower lantern.
What's left of the Shrine of St. David (1275) stands in its original position in the Presbytery. The shrine was destroyed during the Reformation and is empty; his relics are believed to be in the reliquary in the nearby Holy Trinity Chapel. The beautiful golden mosaics behind the high altar in the Presbytery are by Salviati and were added in the late 1800s.
The freestanding tomb near the David shrine is that of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond and father of Henry VII. It was transferred here from Carmarthen in the 16th century.
The Holy Trinity Chapel, built by Bishop Vaughn (r.1509-22) as his chantry chapel, is in the Perpendicular style. A statue of him stands in his chapel. The statue of Giraldus Cambrensis (1146-1227) in this chapel is modern. Note the mitre lying at his feet instead of on his head — despite his many qualifications, he was never made bishop, due to the Archbishop of Canterbury's fears about the growing power of the Welsh church.
The chapel's small stone altar is reconstructed from medieval framents, and the fan vaulting of the ceiling includes the coat of arms of Henry VII. The window allowed the chantry priest celebrating in this chapel to monitor the progress of the simultaneous masses taking place in the other chapels.
The Holy Trinity Chapel also contains the reliquary believed to hold the bones of St. David and other saints. These were discovered in 1866, buried under the floor of the chapel, then moved into their present oak casket behind an iron grille in 1920. In 1996, carbon-dating of the bones showed they dated from the 12th through 14th centuries.
Next to the north transept is the St. Thomas Becket Chapel, which includes a stained glass portrait of St. David. The Eucharistic elements are also kept here.
In the southeast end of the cathedral is the pink-hued marble Chapel of St. Edward the Confessor. The tomb is that of the Countess of Maidstone, granddaugther of Bishop Jenkinson (1825-40). From here an ambulatory leads to the Lady Chapel, restored in 1901.
On the wall in the south transept is a fine 17th-century Cretan icon of Elijah being fed by ravens, a rare Eastern Orthodox touch to a western cathedral.
Throughout the cathedral's aisles are tombs and effigies of various medieval priests and knights.
Quick Facts on St. David's Cathedral
|Names:||St. David's Cathedral|
|Categories:||cathedrals; scenic settings|
|Dedication:||St. David (Dewi)|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.882018° N, 5.268213° W|
St Davids, Wales
|Hours:||Daily, from end of morning prayer to end of evening prayer.|
|Lodging:||View hotels near St. David's Cathedral|
- Personal visit (February 12, 2006).
- Very Revd J. Wyn Evans, St Davids Cathedral: The Pitkin Guide (2001) (official guidebook of the cathedral).
- Nona Rees, The Misericords of St. Davids Cathedral (1997) (official guidebook of the cathedral).
- St David's Cathedral - official website
- Photos of St. David's Cathedral - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of St. David's Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of St. David's Cathedral. 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.