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Wales St Davids Cathedral and Bishop's Palace

St Davids with its Cathedral and Ruined Bishop's Palace (#5) is Britain's smallest city. The Cathedral with the shrine of St David, has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries and is still a honey pot destination for visitors today.

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St Davids is the largest and most important medieval diocese in Wales, with property scattered across the south west Wales.


The Cathedral houses the relics of the C6th St David who is the patron saint of Wales and attracted substantial number of pilgrims. So much so, that in the C12th, Pope Calixtus II stated that two pilgrimages to St Davids was equivalent to one pilgrimage to Rome. William I came in 1081 to pray at the shrine of St David. Henry II and Edward I both made pilgrimages. Pilgrims and tourists still arrive in substantial numbers today and it is an important tourist destination.

The Cathedral sits in the valley floor just below the city ands can’t be seen from the sea. It is built of the local purple Cambrian sandstone, which changes colour with the light. At times the cathedral appears plum coloured, other times dark and dour and in bright sunlight can even appear golden.



St David was born near Whitesands Bay, just a short distance away, around 500AD. He founded a monastery along the banks of the River Alun which rapidly became a site of learning. David rapidly became recognised as the most influential clergy man in all Wales during what is known as the 'Age of the Saints'. Celtic and Irish monks were attracted to come and study here. Pilgrims also came attracted by the asceticism connected to David as well as the learning and devotion. Many made gifts of land and wealth.

This wealth attracted Viking attacks from the C9th and at least two Bishops were murdered in the raids. St David’s shrine and precious metals were removed from the church for safe keeping and the site left abandoned.

Henry I appointed Bernard as the first Norman Bishop in 1115. This was an important position as, not only was the Bishop a spiritual leader, he was also responsible for maintaining peace and acting as a military commander if necessary.

Bernard established St Davids as the seat of an archbishopric, with a chapter of canons. He also re-established St Davids a major centre of pilgrimage (although he failed to discover David’s body) with a new cathedral and a shrine in the presbytery close to the High Altar. Nothing is now left of his cathedral which was a simple building with a nave and apse.

Peter de Leia , bishop from 1176-98 with Gerald of Wales who was a canon of St Davids and archdeacon of Brecon, rebuilt and extended the cathedral, using the local purple Cambrian sandstone. It was a simple building with an aisled nave with a wooden roof, low tower over the crossing, transepts and aisled presbytery ending in a flat east end. It was built in the Transitional Norman style with round arches in the nave arcades and pointed arches in the triforium above.


On the death of Peter de Leia, Gerald was a candidate for Bishop, but his intellectual and organisational skills made him feared by Henry II and the then Archbishop of Canterbury who didn’t want an active Welsh Bishop! He took his case to Rome, unsuccessfully, and retired to Lincoln where he died.

In 1220 the tower collapsed and was rebuilt, using paler west of England oolitic limestone. A separate bell tower was built for the bells. There was further earthquake damage in 1247-8. The different arch styles can still be seen in the side aisles.


The Lady Chapel was built at the east end in the late C13th leading off the ambulatory and the Chapel of St Thomas Becket off the north transept.

In 1275 a new shrine to St David was built on the north wall of the presbytery, making easier access to pilgrims. Its ruined base with kneeling niches for pilgrims, is all that survives.


In the C14th Bishop Henry Gower remodelled cathedral in the latest Decorated style and was also responsible for building the Bishop’s Palace (#5) He heightened the nave, side aisles, presbytery and choir inserting larger windows and added another storey to the tower. He added the sedilia and tombs to the Lady Chapel and remodelled St Thomas’s Chapel with a chapter house and treasury above and also built a two storey porch over the south door.

He was responsible for the magnificent stone pulpitium built across the east end of the nave which houses his tomb.

In 1365, Bishop Adam Houghton was responsible for building St Mary’s College, immediately recognisable by its different coloured stone, for the Vicars Choral who were responsible for the services in the Cathedral, along with its cloister on the north side of the Cathedral.



A defensive wall was built round the Cathedral close in the mid C14th with four gateways. Porth y Tŵr was built next to the bell tower and is the only gateway to survive. It formed a a two-tower gatehouse a portcullis and double gate within the central passageway. To the side was a smaller pedestrian gateway. The room beside the central passageway served as the Bishop’s prison with a bottle dungeon below.The room and chamber above were used by the medieval city council and mayor.

The building was in ruins by the C20th and was restored in 1929 with funding from anonymous donor.


Major work during the C15th and C16th included relaying the sanctuary with encaustic tiles, which can still be seen in front of teh high altar.


The choir stalls were replaced with beautifully carved misericords.


The painted ceilings of the presbytery and tower lantern date from then.



The Holy Trinity Chapel with its fan vaulting is early C16th and was built between the presbytery and Lady Chapel by by Bishop Vaughan, who is buried in it.

The north nave arcade was beginning to lean outwards and needed massive external props with flying buttresses to the outside.


The nave roof was lowered to reduce the pressure on the walls and replaced by an oak ceiling suspended from tie beams.


At the time of the reformation, Bishop Barlow was a strong protestant supporter and determined to make a break from the Catholism of the past. He dismantled the shrine of St David, stripping it of its jewels and confiscating the relicts of David and Justinian. The rood loft was removed along with the chantry chapels and the medieval service books were destroyed.

The Cathedral was no longer a place of pilgrimage. Bishop Barlow deemed it unsuitable as the centre of administration for the diocese and moved his chief residence to Abergwili just outside Carmarthen. He is reputed to have been responsible for the removal of the lead on the roof of the Bishop’s Palace. The tomb of Edmund Tudor, father of Henry VII survived and was moved to present position in front of high altar, after the Dissolution of Greyfriars at Carmarthen.

Parliamentary soldiers removed lead from Cathedral roof in 1648 and the east end of cathedral left roofless for 200 years. They destroyed the library, smashed the stained glass windows, organ and bells. Brasses were removed from tombs.

By end of the C18th, there was increasing concern about condition of west front, which had already moved almost 3’ from the vertical and was still moving, due to slope of land. Major work began in C19th and in 1862, Sir George Gilbert Scott was commissioned to survey and report on the state of the building, particularly the tower which was in imminent danger of collapse. Work began on a complete restoration and refurbishment. Remarkably he was able to rebuild and stabilise the tower without demolishing it. The west front was rebuilt. The C15th presbytery roof was restored and repainted, new stained glass was put in the windows and the brass on the tomb Edmund Tudor replaced. Tiles on the cathedral floor were replaced apart from those in front of the high altar. Mosaics were placed in the three blocked windows in the east wall of the presbytery


After Scott’s death, his son John Oldrid Scott oversaw the restoration of the Lady Chapel to its original Perpendicular form. St Edward Chapel at the end of the south aisle was restored with an alabaster altar and reredos and contains the tomb and memorial to the Countess of Maidstone who paid for the restoration.

The C20th saw the replacement of the rood cross. St Thomas a Becket chapel wasrestored with the cathedral library above (replacing the medieval chapter house and treasury). The organ was rebuilt and new heating and lighting systems installed.

The newly restored shrine of St David on north wall of the presbytery was unveiled in 2012. The niches at the base of the shrine contain two reliquaries, reputed to contain the remains of St David and St Justinian.


This plan of the cathedral is taken from the Medieval Heritage website for St Davids Cathedral .

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St Davids Cathedral cont...

The Cathedral is entered through the south porch and the first impression is the size of the nave with its sturdy pillars with carved arches, and the massive pulpitum with the organ above. It has an impressive wood roof with hanging bosses and a modern rood cross suspended from the ceiling.


The side aisles are quite plain in comparison. The font is at the back of the south aisle and the different roof and window lines can be seen in the stonework of the walls.



In the south aisle is the tomb of Bishop Morgan who made the first full translation of the Bible into Welsh in the C16th with copies distributed to every church in Wales.


In the north aisle is the tomb of John Hiot, who was Archdeacon from 1400-1419.


The pulpitum across the end of the nave is one of the highlights of the Cathedral, with its carving of saints.


It was built by Bishop Gower in the C14th to house his tomb.


In a small niche in the wall beside Bishop Gower’s tomb is a lovely carving of the Virgin and Child.


On the left of the central passageway is another (unidentified ) tomb. The records of who is buried in that tomb have been lost over the centuries. It is thought it may hold the bodies of two people, both priests at the Cathedral at the same time as Bishop Henry Gower .


Above the pulpitum is the organ.


In the crossing behind the pulpitum is the choir with its carved choir stalls with misericords and the Bishop’s throne. Above is the lovely painted ceiling of the tower.







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St David's Cathedral cont...

Beyond the choir is the presbytery with its painted ceiling. The windows were blocked when the Holy Trinity Chapel was built in the early C16th. They are now filled with glorious C19th mosaics.


On the right is a lovely sedilia,


On the left beside the altar is a large tomb of Thomas Lloyd, who died in 1612. He was treasurer of the Cathedral and brother in law of Bishop Marmaduke Middleton (1582-94). The tomb was erected by Thomas Lloyd's son.


The tomb of Edmund Tudor, father of Henry VIII is in pride of place in front of the high altar, having been brought here from Greyfriar’s Priory in Carmarthen which was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.


On the north wall is the restored shrine to St David, which is painted in Medieval colours .


The niches below contain two reliquaries reputed to contain the bones of St David and St Justinian. Between them is a replica of a Celtic ‘bangu’ bell ( a small portable bell, associated with saints).




The back of the shrine can be seen in the north aisle and has the original niches used by pilgrims to pray


Above are modern icons of his friend St Justinian, who lived as a hermit on Ramsey Island, and his mother St Non.


It was a great honour to be buried near the presbytery and there are many tombs to the side of it. In the south choir aisle are the tombs of Bishop Iowerth (1215-1231) and his successor Bishop Anselm (1231-1247.


Near them is the reputed tomb of Gerald of Wales, who helped Bishop Peter de Leia rebuild and extend the cathedral in the late C12th. Although the Chapter nominated him as Bishop after the death of Peter, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the king refused him.


There is also a tomb to the Welsh Prince, Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd, although it dates from 200 years after his death.


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St Davids Cathedral cont...

The Holy Trinity Chapel is early C16th and was the work of Bishop Vaughan, who is buried in it. It filled in the empty space between the presbytery and Lady Chapel and has a lovely stone vaulted ceiling.



The altar and reredos were pieced together from medieval fragments found during restoration work in the early C20th. The statue on the left is Bishop Vaughan. Gerald of Wales is on the right.

The niche on the west wall is in what was originally the outside wall of the C12th Cathedral directly behind the high altar. Theories vary about its original function. It now contains glass flasks containing holy oils. Older photographs show it containing a reliquary box thought to contain the bones of St David. However, these were carbon dated in the 1990s and found to be from the C12th - C14th.


The Lady Chapel was added in the C13th but was altered by Bishop Gower who added the added the sedillia and tombs. It was restored to its present form by John Oldrid Scott. The lovely iron screen dates from 1973.


The tomb to the left of the altar is that of Bishop Owen who died in 1926.


In a tomb niche on the opposite wall is a statue of the Virgin and Child.


At the end of the South quire aisle is the Chapel of St Edward the Confessor.


This had fallen into disrepair after Parliamentary soldiers had stripped the lead from the roof. Its restoration was paid for by a legacy from the Countess of Maidstone who was granddaughter of Bishop John Banks Jenkinson. It has a beautiful alabaster altar and reredos as well as the tomb of the Countess.

The carved Biblical scenes on the reredos are from the Book of Revelation.


At the end of the north choir aisle is the Chapel of St Nicholas which is very simple.


The Treasury is in the north transept.


It displays objects found in the graves of four early Bishops and reflects the power and status of the Bishops of St Davids. Displays include rings, croziers and communion plate.





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Bishop's Palace


The ruins of the Bishop’s Palace lie on the opposite bank of River Alun from Cathedral.

Thomas Bek who had served Edward I loyally in his first Welsh War was appointed Bishop in 1280 by Edward who wanted a person he could trust in this position of considerable authority in Wales. Bishop Bek became very much a champion for his See as well as a builder of some note. He was responsible for the construction of a wall around the cathedral close and began work began on constructing a palace on a meadow next to the Cathedral.

Bishop Gower (1328-47 was probably the greatest of the Medieval Bishops and, as well as his improvements to the cathedral, was also responsible for building the Bishop Palace we see today. He wanted a Palace to reflect the importance of St Davids.


The picture below is taken from the Medieval Heritage website for the Bishop's palace. The palace was enclosed by the wall built round the Cathedral and Cathedral Close and would have been surrounded by gardens and orchards. The Palace would have very much been self sufficient for food. He also made sure the cathedral canons had houses fit for them to live in.

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Three ranges surrounded a spacious courtyard with a huge gatehouse and an enclosure wall to the north. The east range contained the episcopal apartments for the Bishop's own personal use. The south range was for ceremonial occasions entertaining important guests or distinguished pilgrims. It had a had great hall, parlour and chapel. Both sets of apartments were on the first floor, reached by a ceremonial staircase. The west range was much less impressive and was probably used for servants and animals.

All the ranges had undercrofts and cellars below. As well as providing storage, they also allowed easy access to the floor above, removing the need for long connecting corridors and covered passageways.

Little new building work was carried out after Bishop Gowe's time, although there was some repair work to the close wall and gates in the mid C14th. By now, the Bishops spent less time at St Davids, coming here mainly for great feasts during Easter and other major holidays. The palace was still kept in a good state of repair and staffed with servants.

By the time of the Reformation in the mid C15th, Bishop Barlow had moved his residence to Abergwili near Carmarthen, as it was more central to the diocese. The decline of pilgrimage resulted in financial difficulties meaning he was unable to afford to keep more remote properties maintained. He is reputed to have been responsible for the removal of the lead on the roof, although there are records that subsequent Bishops continued to use parts of the Palace when they came to St Davids.

In 1616, Bishop Milburn applied for a license to demolish some of the buildings, and Bishop William Thomas applied again in 1678. Although demolition was incomplete, the remaining buildings were considered irreparable and remained as a permanent ruin.

Today the Bishop's Palace is in the care of CADW.



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Bishop's Palace cont...

The ruins of the Bishop’s Palace are just across the River Alun from the Cathedral.


They are still partially surrounded by the defensive close wall.


Entry is through the three storey gatehouse into the central courtyard


On the left is the west range, a long low building that was probably used by lower status guests or servants The northern end of the range may have been used for stabling.


Below it are the undercroft and cellars.


Directly opposite the gateway is the south range, which was used to entertain important guests and designed to impress them. There is evidence this was originally rendered and painted red. Along the top of the walls is an arcaded parapet with a chequerboard pattern of yellow and purple stones above.


On the right is the Great Chapel reached up a flight of stone stairs which were a later addition, suggesting the chapel may have remained in use after the Bishops had moved out. It was originally only accessible from the Great Chamber.


The Great Chamber was used as a withdrawing room by the Bishop and his guests and may also have been used as a bedchamber for the more important guests. Off it was a latrine. A spiral staircase gives access to a small turret for views across the Bishop’s Palace to the Cathedral.

The Great Chamber would originally have been separated from the Great Hall by a wall. This is still the most impressive and largest of the rooms in the Palace with its beautiful wheel window on the end wall, probably filled with stained glass. Smaller windows would have been glazed above with wooden shutters below. There are no fireplaces and it would have been heated from a central hearth as shown by the pebble square in the floor. It was old fashioned by the C14th but has been suggested this may have increased the atmosphere of feasting in an ancient hall. The. Bishop and most distinguished guests would have sat on a raised dais with the remaining guests at tables down the length of the room.


The Great Hall is reached up a flight of stone stairs from the courtyard and through an impressive doorway.

On the left is the east Range, which was used by the Bishop as his private quarters. This is also reached by a flight of stone stairs, through a less impressive doorway into a porch. This leads directly into the Bishop’s Hall with a corridor to the kitchens and south range.



At one end is the kitchens with their open fires and ovens. It would have had a central octagonal pillar supporting a vaulted roof. There were serving hatches and passageways connecting them to the Bishop’s Hall or the Great Hall.


At the other end was the Bishop’s Solar which was used to entertain the Bishop’s closest friends. It had a massive fireplace and a private latrine. Leading off it is the smaller and lower east wing, which contained the Bishop’s bedchamber, fireplace and latrine. It lacks the parapet and decorated arcade of the rest of the buildings, as can be seen in the building at the bottom right.


Next to the solar is what is described as the Bishop’s Chapel. This was originally entered from an external staircase. It is plainer than the Great Chapel in the opposite corner and may have been used by servants and the Bishop’s immediate retinue

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