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St Davids Cathedral

St Davids, Pembrokeshire, west Wales

Photographs copyright 2007 by Bill Damick

Jeff Thomas 1994; Cadw Guidebook

To understand part of the reason St. Davids is so special, you have to know a little about the history of the area. St. David is the patron saint of Wales. Legend claims he was born around 500 A.D. on the rugged Pembrokeshire coast of southwest Wales. He was the founder of a strict monastic order in the town that bears his name, and was the most influential clergyman in all Wales during the "Age of Saints." His place of birth and the cathedral built in his name became one of the most important shrines of medieval Christendom - two pilgrimages to St. Davids equaling one to Rome. Important sites at St. Davids include the cathedral and ruined Bishop's Palace, along with St. Non's Church and Well. St. Non was St. David's mother.

St Davids is one of the great historic shrines of Christendom. Nowhere in Britain is there a more ancient cathedral settlement, for it reaches back fourteen centuries and survived the plunder of the Norsmen in the 'Dark Ages'. St David chose this wild, beautiful region as the site of his monastery in the 6th century and you will find his shrine in the purple-stoned cathedral, which nestles inconspicuously in a grassy hollow beneath the rooftops of the tiny city.

The large, cruciform cathedral, dating from 1176, is a treasury of fine things. The nave has a breathtaking beauty, embodying three centuries of craftsmanship which now make up a scene of medieval splendor. There are superb examples of the woodcarver's art in St Davids - just gaze upwards at the decorative roof - and the choir stalls date from the late 15th century. Here, note the wit and zest of the medieval mericord carvings (carvings on the hinged seats in the choir stalls); they represent a trend away from the decorative severity of earlier times, and show that even in religion, humor had its part to play.

History fills every crevice of St. Davids Cathedral, but rather than give a description of the cathedral and its history, I'll describe those parts of the cathedral that impressed us the most. The first thing we noticed about St. Davids were the large number of tombs and effigies lining the aisles of the cathedral. Most are the tombs of past Bishops of St. Davids and effigies of notable Welsh figures. The most grand of these is the tomb effigy of Bishop Henry Gower (1328-47) an important builder of both the cathedral and the Bishop's Palace. Not far behind in splendor is the tomb of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, father of King Henry VII, the founder of the Welsh-born Tudor dynasty. His tomb is elaborately decorated with brass figures and heraldic emblems, occupying a place of great honor in the middle of the high alter at St. Davids.

Another marvelous piece of history is the "Abraham Stone," (right) a grave-marker now embedded in an interior wall of the cathedral. The stone is a fine example of 11th century Celtic art, with its Christian cross interwoven with Celtic knot-work and inscriptions. The stone once marked the graves of Hedd and Issac, sons of Bishop Abraham who was killed by the Vikings during a raid in 1080. Another remarkable spot is the original pilgrim's recess in a part of the cathedral known as "Holy Trinity Chapel." The former 12th century exterior wall is now inside the cathedral, and houses an oak casket reportedly containing the bones of both St. David and St. Justin. For centuries this place has been a shrine and site of pilgrimage for Christians of all faiths.

It's difficult to describe the strong impressions St. Davids imparts to those who bother to visit this often overlooked corner of Wales. I guess it's a feeling that you've arrived at the very essence of Welsh history and culture. I had read that St. Davids was a "land of magic," but failed to understand why until spending time there. I think some of the city's mystique comes from the fact that so little is known about the times in which St. David lived. Since St. David is one of the first identifiable figures of Welsh history, he provides an important link to the country's Celtic past. Historians can only guess about life in Wales during the Dark Ages - the "Age of Saints" - and this mystery is part of what makes St. Davids so irresistible. Another piece of the "magic" is the site's importance as a place of religious pilgrimage. This aspect of St. Davids cloaks the city in a special kind of reverence that no other site in Wales can claim. Add to this potent mix of history and reverence, memories of the power wielded by the medieval bishops of St. Davids, commanding their vast estates in Wales from the comfort of the Bishop's Palace and cathedral. Finally, consider all this taking place within the natural beauty of the Pembrokeshire coast. It's not any one element then, but rather a combination of elements that make St. Davids a uniquely special experience. Although throughout the land you can still catch faint echoes of the country's ancient past, the voices at St. Davids positively shout in celebration of Wales' Celtic past.

 

 

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Copyright 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas