The magnificent Cathedral of St Davids, jewel in the crown of the United Kingdom’s smallest city, began life as little more than a hermit’s cell beside the river Alun in the Valley of Roses.
Nowadays, visitors looking down at the building in its idyllic setting in the green bowl of the Cathedral Close, with the rocky tors of Carn Llidi and Penberry as a backcloth, will find it difficult to believe that this imposing church had such humble beginnings.
It is associated with the St Patrick as well as St David for the 5th century Irish Saint came to this spot before 6th century Dewi, intending to settle and serve God there. But for the alleged intervention of an angel, who told him his mission field should be Ireland, he might have founded the first monastery there, so the Cathedral could have been called St Patrick’s.
David’s humble chapel became a monastery as his reputation spread and a community developed in this tranquil place. Well, it was tranquil for some of the time, for the Vikings attacked and plundered it on numerous occasions over a period of some two centuries, looting it of its gold and silver and even killing two bishops.
The Normans changed everything, William 1st visiting St Davids in 1081, but paying more attention to its strategic position as the closest embarkation point for Ireland. When the last Welsh Bishop, Wilfred, died in 1115, the Normans took over and appointed the first Norman Bishop, Bernard, who re-defined the entire system, with the emphasis on revenue and control for the Norman cause. It was not until the arrival of Bishop Peter de Leia in the 13th century that the actual Cathedral was built, and, after 300 years of growth, the community’s fortunes took another plunge. This was, of course, Henry V111’s doing, when he broke with Rome in 1534, and St Davids’ significance as “the greatest shrine in Christendom,” ended rather abruptly. But the Cathedral survived the Reformation and over the next few centuries St Davids resumed its status as an important place of pilgrimage, two pilgrimages to which were worth one to Rome.
The pilgrims still come, but very few these days tackle the challenge of the well-defined Pilgrims’ Way across the County with its hospices at Tavernspite, Llawhaden and Spittal.
In recent years important projects have enhanced the Cathedral: St Mary’s College, in ruins for centuries, has been re-roofed and completely transformed into a cultural centre and refectory, the long-neglected cloister has been restored to its former glory and St David’s Shrine has recently been thoroughly renovated and re-designed, and was re-consecrated this year, already attracting greater numbers of visitors to see it.
The Queen made her first Royal visit to the Cathedral in 1955 and has since been there several more times, notably in 1982 when she made the first ever Maundy visit to Wales, distributing the coveted bags of coins to Pembrokeshire church people.