St David’s, Pembrokeshire

   Posted by: Isolde Martyn   in Ricardian Places

The following article  was originally published in The Plantagent Chronicle, newsletter of the Plantagenet Society of Australia, Vol.12, No.4, August 2010.  You can find out more about Isolde Martyn here.

St David’s Cathedral (© Isolde Martyn)

Some of you may have recently seen the Terry Jones TV documentary series on a seventeenth century road map which showed a route through Wales to Holywell via the village of St David’s. We had the opportunity to visit St David’s in the English spring this year and discovered it to be a very picturesque area, steeped in history and as pretty as Cornwall but without the hordes of tourists. But for me, there were three surprises, which I’ll share with you shortly.

St David’s in Pembrokeshire is about as far west as you can go in South Wales. In medieval times, the Pope decreed that two pilgrimages to St David’s Shrine equalled one to Rome! Situated in one of Britain’s national parks, the village lies tucked behind the rugged ‘heritage’ coastline with Ramsey Island shielding it from too much of a weather battering from the westerlies. In springtime, the local cliffs are dappled with wildflowers – candytufts, thrifts and blue comfrey, and the flanking fields are cropped by vanners – Romany horses. You can hike for miles with a lunch of local, creamy Brie and Taffy cider to keep you going. The most popular walk is to St Non’s, where St David was born in the 6th century, and you can play the modern pilgrim and cast a coin into St Non’s well.

If you are approaching St David’s from the main road, it is worth calling in at the visitors’ centre first. It’s an excellent piece of architecture; the modern colonnades and landscaping hint at what the district offers for the tourist – a blend of cloisters and ancient English.

The village has cafes, pubs and stores for locals and day visitors, but go through the C13th archway, beyond the crossroads, and you will be quite awed. The ground falls steeply away. Below you is the cathedral and just beyond it, the massive ruins of a fourteenth century bishop’s palace. It is quite breathtaking.

St David’s Cathedral

The cathedral-abbey housed the shrine of the patron saint and hero-king of Wales, St David, so this was a very important place of pilgrimage. It was built in the 1180s and replaced an older monastery. The masons used Cambrian sandstone and must have built soundly because the structure survived an earthquake in the thirteenth century.

Look down the nave towards the west door and you’ll suddenly notice that the floor slopes and the pillars do not share a vertical alignment. Apparently there is a difference of four metres height from east to west.

We were puzzled as to why this remote cathedral abbey did not suffer the fate of many of the religious houses in Yorkshire and end up as a romantic ruin. The answer was to provide another surprise.

The Reformation

Because of its importance as a place of pilgrimage, St David’s prospered throughout the Middle Ages. However, the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Thomas Cromwell saw the ‘nationalisation’ of church property. Everywhere in England religious communities were disbanded, their precious moveables seized, and bands of iconoclasts with official sanction wreaked terror, smashing the faces of the stone angels and saints. Generally, it was the more isolated religious houses, which fared the least well. Lead was stripped from the roofs, and the local landowners readily pilfered the stones. What made matters worse for St David’s was that William Barlow, the bishop nominated to the see in 1536, was a fanatical Protestant.

Barlow (1536-47) detested shrines. He described the sacred relics of St David’s Cathedral as ‘two rotten heads of silver plate, enclosing rotten skulls stuffed with putrefied clouts; two arm bones; and a worm-eaten book covered with silver plate’ and he ordered them to be destroyed. This would have horrified the abbey canons and the local people, both spiritually and in a material sense, too. Barlow had destroyed their major source of income. There would be no more pilgrims.

The canons must have wondered when the king’s soldiers would arrive with their hooks and mallets. But they had one great advantage; because of its geographical isolation, their cathedral would be one of the last to be vandalised. Their first thought was mistakenly to upgrade the buildings to show their devotion to St David. They also lobbied powerful laymen such as Richard Devereux, the sub-Justice of Wales. But Bishop Barlow also had friends. He was high in Thomas Cromwell’s esteem.

The canons needed something more subtle and cunning to save their abbey. Their prayers were answered. In August 1538 the Greyfriars monastery at Carmarthen, which contained the tomb of King Henry VII’s father, Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, was dissolved so there was no one to continue the upkeep. This news gave St David’s canons their opportunity. They asked if the earl’s remains could be moved to St David’s and Bishop Barlow could not refuse permission.

Edmund Tudor was Henry VIII’s grandfather and the first husband of Lady Margaret Beaufort. Henry had never known Grandfather Edmund, but Lady Margaret had been the most powerful granny in England when he was growing up. The canons reckoned that the king would certainly forbid the destruction of a cathedral once Edmund Tudor had been interred there. The ploy worked.

Today Edmund’s tomb upstages the memorial monument to St David’s shine and grandly reads: ‘Father and brother to kings’.

The Bishop’s Palace

People’s dislike of Barlow fanned slanders about him. He is reputed to have stripped the lead from the roof of the palace to pay for the dowries of his five daughters and he is supposed to have demoted St David’s by shifting his chief residence to Abergwili outside Carmarthen. However, an article by Carmarthen historian, W. Arwyn Prie, argues that these tales are only partly true. The daughters were not yet born when the roof was stripped, and if Barlow used Abergwili, it was without official permission. What is certain is that because of the cost of upkeep and deliberate neglect over the next century, the splendid palace at St David’s was gradually allowed to crumble. The arcaded parapet, the grand steps and large courtyard still provide some idea of how magnificent it must have been.  The site is now maintained by Cadw, the historic environment division of the Welsh Assembly Government.

Twenty-First Century

Despite shifting foundations, the onslaught by parliamentary soldiers in the Civil War and various renovations and repairs over the last several hundred years, St David’s cathedral is thriving. A group of African Christians were guests of the Anglican community when we were visiting. Such an event would have astounded the medieval monks but how thrilled they would have been to know that their cathedral can draw such distant pilgrims.

And the village that has depended so much upon the cathedral as its lifeblood now has a population of about 2000. In 1994 it was granted city status by Queen Elizabeth II. And that was the third surprise that St David’s gave us. It is the smallest ‘city’ in the United Kingdom.

NB:  In 1997 many of the bones from Carmarthen Greyfriars were washed and reinterred at St Mary’s Carmarthen.


Glanmor Williams, ‘The crisis of the Sixteenth Century’, St David of Wales: Cult, Church and Nation, ed. J. Wyn Evans and Jonathan Wooding, Studies in Celtic History, (Boydell Press, 2007).

Edna Dale-Jones,  ‘Washing Skeletons’, Friends of Carmarthen Museum, 2003.

W. Arwyn Prie, ‘Saint or Sinner?’ Friends of Carmarthen Museum

St David’s Cathedral

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  1. Richard III Society of NSW » Blog Archive » He contents the people where he goes…    Dec 01 2010 / 9am:

    […] May 1483 the Bishop of St David’s, Richard Martin, died and Richard as protector suggested Thomas Langton for the vacancy.  He must […]

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