Christianity has shaped British history. In the view of Ralph Griffiths, St Davids, with its beautiful cathedral, ruined bishops’ palace and delightful medieval city, is ‘one of the most significant sites in the history of Christianity in the British Isles, and one of the earliest’.
According to legend and his later Life, St David was born around 600 in this southwestern extremity of Wales and later died here, having founded his monastery in the interim on the current cathedral site in St Davids. Firm details of his life are scarce. He has come down to us as a Christian prophet and miracle worker, who was involved in the conversion of pagans across Britain in the 6th century. A cult grew up around him after his death, and by the 10th century, he appears to have been viewed as the leading Welsh saint. Indeed, his successors at his church in St Davids were often regarded as archbishops in the early medieval period.
As with other important Christian coastal sites, St Davids was a regular target for Viking attacks from the late 8th century onwards, and, interestingly, King Alfred in Wessex called upon Asser, the Bishop of St Davids, to help him re-establish intellectual life in his kingdom after his Viking trouble in the 9th century. Rulers in England had long recognised the significance of this place. So as well as being a focus for Welsh identity, St Davids was also used in England’s colonisation (both physical and intellectual) of Wales.
The first Norman king in England, William the Conqueror, wisely recognised its importance and came here to pray in 1081. William’s son Henry I encouraged English settlement in South Wales during the early 12th century, so Anglo-Norman influence was pressed west. In the 1120s a new Norman cathedral was built on the site, but that itself was replaced by the present structure, which was begun in 1182.
‘I suppose the Normans regarded it as important to their religion, but they also saw it as a means of helping to exert their control in Wales after the conquest,’ says Griffiths. ‘I think it might have helped. The diocese covers primarily central and southern Wales, where the bulk of the immigrant settlers would have made for. A fair proportion of the bishops of St Davids would have been of English or immigrant stock.’
Those bishops, after the Norman Conquest, were given the status of Marcher Lords, and thus a range of independent powers. While they harboured ambitions to regain their pre-Conquest archbishop status, they did not actually manage it. However, as Marcher Lords, they did have a reasonably free hand in their affairs, as they were afforded substantial concessions by the Anglo-Norman kings in return for their help in imposing, spreading and consolidating their rule over Wales. What you see with the cathedral at St Davids is, in a sense, a demonstration in stone of the spread of influence from England into Wales.
That influence, of course, has not gone unchallenged. Both St David and St Davids have, says Griffiths, ‘become a talisman for Welsh identity and nationhood’. The Welsh leader Owain Glyndŵr, who rebelled against the English king Henry IV, outlined a blueprint for his independent nation against the ‘fury of the barbarous Saxons’ in 1406. This would have had St Davids as the archbishopric of the Welsh Church. He also perhaps had St Davids in mind as the site for one of the two universities that he envisaged for Wales.
Glyndŵr’s rebellion did not free Wales from the English, but St Davids continued to be an important spiritual centre, attracting a steady stream of pilgrims. It is said that back in the 12th century Bishop Bernard, the first Norman bishop of St Davids, secured a papal privilege that meant two pilgrimages to St Davids were equal to a single one to Rome. From then until the break from Rome in the mid 16th century, a steady stream of pilgrims made their way to west Wales, bringing with them money and stature.
You can see evidence of this wealth in the cathedral gatehouse. This would have been part of the 14th-century enclosure of the cathedral city and is the only survivor of the four gatehouses that originally guarded the city walls. In the gatehouse now is a decent exhibition that takes you through the story of St David, the cathedral and the city. On the other side of it, the 13th- and 14th-century Bishops’ Palace, though now ruined following the decline in pilgrims after the Reformation, still demonstrates the power and wealth of the medieval bishops here.
Nothing remains of St David’s early chapels now, but the cathedral itself has some marvellous medieval survivals, now handsomely presented after an extensive conservation project. The nave is a particularly interesting place if you crane your neck upwards beyond the Norman walls to the wooden ceiling. Norman churches tended to have stone-vaulted ceilings, but here the foundations weren’t as deep as they might have been, and a 13th-century earthquake exposed the problem, so a wooden roof was erected instead.
One aspect of the cathedral, which strikes you as you approach, is that it’s in a dip, hidden from view almost until you come upon it at the foot of a valley. Churches tend to be more prominent in the landscape than this, but being so close to the sea, and so handily positioned for Viking raiders to descend upon, made this a sensible position. The medieval settlement that grew up around the cathedral would have blown its cover somewhat, but by then the Vikings were no longer marauding through the Irish Sea.
It would be folly not to make at least a quick trip to the stunningly beautiful Pembrokeshire coast to see from where those Vikings would have approached. Aside from taking in the view, you get a sense of how strategically positioned St Davids was. Although perhaps now it seems a little out of the way, in the medieval period it was on a major land–sea route linking Ireland, Wales and England.
A good place to make for is the nearby headland, where you can see St Non’s Chapel and Well (St Non being St David’s mother). Your peace may be disturbed by drenched and excitable gangs coming up from the cliffs, but do not fear – it’s not the Vikings returning, but rather the local adventure centres bringing back their clients from a spell leaping off the cliffs into the foam below. St Davids has morphed now from religious capital to adrenalin capital of Wales, but its historical and spiritual significance remains.
Nominated by Ralph Griffiths, professor emeritus of history, Swansea University
St Davids Cathedral
This is an extract from the BBC History Magazine book 100 Places that made Britain, by David Musgrove, published on 2 June 2011.