St David’s Cathedral (in Welsh: Eglwys Gadeiriol Tyddewi) is in Pembrokeshire county, the most westerly point of Wales. The cathedral was built a beautiful spot, lying low in a valley near the ocean, and is an historic place. Most consider it the finest cathedral in Wales and if you’re in the area, it’s certainly worth visiting.
A Brief history of St. David’s Cathedral:
A monastic community was founded at this site by St. David, who was its Abbott, and there’s been a church here since the 6th century AD. St. David died in 589 AD, but his community and the church he started live on, despite many hardships. St. David is very dear to the Welsh — he’s their patron saint, and his relics are kept in this cathedral (in a casket, of course).
The church was repeatedly attacked in its early years, especially by Vikings, who killed many of the monks and church leaders. The church has a lower roof than many churches of its time because its leaders wanted to make it more difficult for Viking raiders to spot St. David’s as they sailed past these shores. I don’t believe that worked too well, as the site was plundered at least 7 times by the Norsemen.
In 1081, William the Conqueror visited St. David’s to pray and in so doing added a stamp or “respectability” to the site. In 1123, Pope Calixtus II granted a Papal privilege upon St David’s, thereby beginning its tradition as a site of pilgrimage. The Pope decreed that two pilgrimages to St Davids was is equal to one to Rome, and three pilgrimages to one to Jerusalem. King Henry II of England, of the House of Plantagenet, visited St. David’s in 1171.
Under Norman rule improvements to the church were made. Construction on a new Cathedral began in 1181 and was completed not long after. Problems beset the new building with the collapse of the tower in 1220, and earthquake damage was sustained in 1248 but this was patched up.
Oliver Cromwell’s forces significantly damaged the Cathedral and the Bishop’s Palace, the Palace building still in ruins. The Church was in disrepair for some time, though still used as a site of worship. Restoration and repair on the church began in the late 18th century and, as with all ancient structures, continues on and off to this day.
Visiting St. David’s Cathedral:
Hundreds of thousands of tourists and pilgrims visit each year, so you won’t be alone. We visited on a weekday in mid-June, before the local school holidays, and only a few other folks were visiting at the time so we could explore at leisure and not feel part of a crowd. I’m sure it’s much busier in the summer.
Because it lacks the tall walls of most cathedrals, I didn’t notice the church until nearly on top of it. After I parked our rental car and approached it on foot, as millions had before me, I was impressed by how old it seemed, what a beautiful setting it was in, and how low the roof was. As mentioned, we were told this low roof was intended to make it harder to spot the church from sea and to hide it from Vikings.
Visitors are welcome to stroll through the church, which is really quite beautiful! It’s simple, yet elegant. The roof is Romanesque, the detail work on wood and stone of very fine quality, and numerous crypts are found throughout. The ceiling in the nave is beautiful carved oak which you can appreciate in the above photo, and was installed in the 16th century. The floor has a slight slope to it and some of the pillars are tilted slightly as a result of the 13th century earthquake; for me these minor imperfections just made the place more interesting. Admission is free/donations gratefully accepted
While at the church, stop by the nice Treasury exhibit, opened in 2006, displaying items from the 1500 year history of the church, many ancient and very valuable (like rings, chalices and bishop’s crosiers). Also walk around the church grounds, visiting the small cemetery on the hill and the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace nearby. The Palace ruins are quite extensive and the site is now used in the summer for artistic performances. There’s lots of others things you can do in the St. David’s region of Wales; the interested reader is referred to the tourism website.