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St David's Cathedral, Wales

Updated on May 8, 2019
John Welford profile image

John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.

St David

Legend has it that David (Dewi in Welsh) was born (in about the year 500) on a clifftop during a wild storm. His mother, Non, is also recognised as a saint and the bay below the supposed birth site is known as St Non’s Bay.

David founded several monasteries in Wales and further afield, including Brittany. St David’s Cathedral, in Pembrokeshire, stands on the site of one of his monastic foundations.

David insisted that his monks should live as simply as possible, refraining from meat and beer, and having no personal possessions. He had a particular liking for leeks, which is why the leek is one of the symbols of Wales.

He died in his monastery at what is now St David’s. The year of his death is disputed, although it was probably around the year 590, which would have meant that he was about 90 years old. The tradition is that he died on 1st March, which has been recognized for centuries as St David’s Day.

David was venerated as a saint by Pope Calixtus II in 1120. He ruled that two pilgrimages to the shrine of St David were equivalent to one pilgrimage in Rome, in terms of the spiritual reward that would accrue to the pilgrim. David has long been recognised as the patron saint of Wales.

St David
St David

The Cathedral

The Cathedral dates from 1181, having been funded by donations from pilgrims. The current building contains work carried out in most centuries since that date, but the additions have been made in keeping with the original style.

Despite its size, the building is not particularly prominent due to its location in a hollow, this being the valley of the small River Alun.

Visitors cannot help but notice the slope in the Norman nave, which is 14 feet (4 metres) higher at the high altar than at the west end. Also impressive is the bishop’s throne, which dates from 1500 and is almost 30 feet (10 metres) high.

In front of the high altar is the tomb of Edmund Tudor, the father of Henry who defeated the English King Richard III to become King Henry VII and the founder of the Tudor line of monarchs.

During the 19th century restoration by Sir George Gilbert Scott, bones were found in a recess behind the high altar that were widely believed to be those of St David (and at least one other person). It is possible that the contents of the original shrine were hidden here at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century.

St David's Cathedral
St David's Cathedral

The Bishop's Palace

The ruins of the Bishop’s Palace are on the other side of the River Alun. This suite of buildings, set round a large quadrangle, occupies a site that is similar in size to that of the Cathedral itself and would clearly have been very impressive when complete and a testament to the wealth of the medieval church.

The building was abandoned in the 16th century due to the fact that Bishop Barlow had five daughters. These all needed large dowries in order to make good marriages and the bishop raised the money by gradually stripping the lead off the roof of his palace and selling it. After the fifth daughter had been suitably provided for, the building was uninhabitable.

All the daughters married bishops! The fact that the five husbands all demanded substantial dowries from Bishop Barlow, as well as the size of the original palace, says something about how the Church in Wales had changed since the time of St David.

The Bishop's Palace
The Bishop's Palace

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    • profile image

      Carl Fisher 

      3 months ago from Dubrovnik, 20226, Croatia

      This is indeed one of the beautiful church. There is something about the medieval churches that makes them literally beautiful and amazing. I have come across many beautiful churches while my trip in Croatia and some of them churches were made by Romans. Visit us @ https://www.island-mljet.com/

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      12 months ago from Chicago

      I have been there! It is a beautiful place rich with history. Thank you for this excellent piece.

    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 

      12 months ago from Pacific Northwest

      I never thought about it but you're right.

    • John Welford profile imageAUTHOR

      John Welford 

      12 months ago from Barlestone, Leicestershire

      As I recall, saints were a Christian invention, so the OT did not produce any!

    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 

      12 months ago from Pacific Northwest

      I thought this was going to be about David from the Old Testament. This was fascinating. I had never heard of this David or this Cathedral. A very informative piece. Thank you John.

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