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St David's, Pembrokeshire, is a village. It is set on a small stream called the Alun, somewhat inland from the sea and the promontory that thrusts its arm between the Irish waters and the reaches of the Severn Sound.
“Once a considerable place,” says Daniel Paterson in 1811, “the Cathedral is a pretty good structure containing several ancient monuments, among which are those of the Father and Grandfather of Henry VII.” This curiously insufficient summary would have been only half accepted by Gerald de Barn, who visited the place with Archbishop Baldwin on their journey through Wales in 1188 to preach the Third Crusade.
The antecedents of the village are bound up with those of its famous Cathedral, and of the man who in the 6th century is said to have made it the principal seat of Christianity in all the West - David, patron saint of Wales. He is better known to the Welsh as Dewi, and the place as Tyddewi (House of David), But Gerald says: “St. David's is the head and in times past was the metropolitan city of Wales, though now, alas, keeping more of the name than the effect”. He adds that the name of the province was Demetia: and of St David's, Menevia. For so. he believed, the Romans named them. But no evidence has yet proved Roman occupation of this point, though the Antonine Itinerary, along the South coast of Wales, does speak of a Menapia, from which one could sail “ad Hibernias”, towards Ireland. The garrulously misconceived Chronicle of Nennius (9th century), in telling us how, after the withdrawal of direct rule by Rome, Cunedda of the North came to Wales and drove out intrusive Irishmen who had seized this coast, echoes the truth - which Bede records - that, for fifty years after Britain became a self-possessed Roman-British state, the House of Powys stabilized the Situation under the imperial emblem of the Tufa, the three ostrich-plumes of sovereignty.
It was then, Gerald believed, that Dubricius, Bishop of Caerleon, resigned the see of the West to David, who may have been the uncle of the Arthur whom, a few years before Gerald wrote, Geoffrey of Monmouth had taken as King once over Britain, Scandinavia. and Rome. David can be safely attributed to that period. But the glory, by Gerald's time, had departed. Menevia, he says, is situated on a remote corner of the land by the Irish Ocean, the soil stony and barren, ever exposed to the winds and to attacks by Flemings on the one side and the Welsh on the other. But he points out that, as to soil and climate, the site was deliberately chosen by its founders: for they preferred to be hermits rather than pastoralists.
Gerald gives the names of twenty-five Bishops who had followed David in control of the see — Welsh names including that of Asser, the great scholar who worked with Alfred of Wessex and of the Morgeneu who was the first Bishop of St David's to eat flesh, and who, in judgment, was killed by pirates there. He appeared that same night as a vision to a brother bishop in Ireland, and confessed that, because he had broken the rule of the Order and had eaten flesh, he had lost his soul's salvation. Gerald proudly recalls how, when the Latin Church converted the Kentish Kings to its interpretation of Christianity, the Celtic Church was summoned by St Augustine to do reverence to Canterbury as the chief Christian seat in Britain. The seven Bishops summoned to meet him noticed how, with “Roman pride”, he did not rise to greet them but remained seated. They therefore returned, feeling that so arrogant a man could not have a better faith than their own.
Gerald's comments on the comparison between St David's and Canterbury in his own day are bitter. In Canterbury there was opulence, learning, and intelligent handling of law; in St David's, poverty, resentment, and a total lack of justice. Gerald's ambition was to save St David's by persuading the English Kings who claimed control of Pembrokeshire to reinstate its independence and so have greater guarantee of Welsh loyalty than force could ever effect.
He makes two further points. First, the spot where the Church of St David stood was in the Glyn Rhosyn (Vale of Roses), where the first sanctuary was set up in the 6th century. No roses could be found there any longer, says Gerald. And the first foundation was dedicated to St Andrew. Indeed, he insists that the church of his day was of Andrew and David together. Several places are suggested as the birthplace of Patrick, both in Wales and Strathclyde, but the case for Caerwent is very strong, because the founders of early Christianity in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland all had their origin in a concerted effort that sprang from the Severn Sea.
The other tale Gerald tells is of the visit made by Henry II after his descent on Ireland to the St David's that, about 1120, had been raised by Pope Calixtus II to the position of a holy place of pilgrimage; two journeys to it would be worth one to St Peter's in Rome itself. So Henry came, clad as a pilgrim, to St David's shrine. But, as he passed over the great stone that served as a bridge over the Alun stream, a woman shouted to him in Welsh. The stone, though cracked, was of beautiful marble, 10 ft long and 6 ft wide. Marble, says Gerald, was a feature of the Valley of Roses. Who had set the stone there none knew, but it had a special sanctity from times before David's; and, at moments of urgency, it would speak aloud. Its name was Llech Lafar (Stone of Speech). It had prophesied that a King of England who attempted to conquer Ireland would try to pass across it and would at once be slain (as Gerald interprets it) by a man with a red hand. When Henry was told what the woman warned him of, he boldly stepped on the stone and passed over it unharmed.
The interest of the story lies in the Welsh woman's belief that some one would come to revenge the loss of the ancient faith and nationhood of Wales, much as the Arthur of legend was expected to do. The title Red Hand was actually applied to the grandson of Llywelyn the Last who went to France in the 14th century, the Owain of Wales who planned a French descent on the coasts to recover what Llywelyn had lost and Owain Glyndwr later tried to regain. Like Arthur, he sleeps in a cave until the summons shall come. But Gerald, learned though he was in Welsh may have erred. The Llawgoch (Red Hand) was more probably Llawchog (Protector); And of the one man who can be said to survive from the old “Arthurian” days that followed Rome in factual record, the Uotiporius who stands not only in the record of Gildas but has his name inscribed upon a memorial stone, the title of Protictor (Protector) also remains. He was ruler of the Demetia in the 6th century.
Today in Tyddewi the ancient cross, its head-circle renewed, stands in the middle of the small town at the top of a street of pebbles known as the Poppies. Beyond it rises the present Cathedral; to reach it, you leave the cross for the Tower Gate, which has in its flank a bell-tower, eight-sided and the relic of an earlier structure. The gate and the walls enclosing the precincts of 18 acres was the work of Gower, Bishop from 1328 to 1347. The Cathedral is at least the third to stand on this site, and in 1188 Gerald saw the work that had been started to replace the older one eight years before. The Cathedral, the ruined Palace that Gower built, and the equally ruined St Mary's College lie together in the Vale of Roses, so that the tower, seen on approaching the town, shows only its head. Thirty-nine steps drop from the gate to the door of the Cathedral.
The original foundation was destroyed by raiders along the coast, and rebuilding undertaken in 1180 was not finally concluded until 1522. It was begun by Bishop Peter de Leia, a Norman who has left a nave mainly of his design. Outwardly, the Cathedral of sandstone from Caerfai is dull by day, but under the glimpses of the moon takes on a silver beauty. Inside, the decoration is unusually elaborate. The contrast, they say, was deliberate. The tower hides below the hills so that no other attackers from the sea should know it was there; art and wealth to make it a thing of splendour were reserved for the interior. The austerity of the solid Norman nave is balanced with the warmth of the stone used. But, despite the skill of the builders, the foundations of the North side of the nave had to be buttressed in the 16th century to prevent collapse. No such device, however, could prevent the fall of the first tower in 1220; and in 1248 an earthquake demolished large parts of the structure, so that the choir, transepts, and presbytery were set up again, following the design of the nave but moderated into a style the 13th century would accept, with pointed arches and no triforium.
Gower took the Lady Chapel of 1300 and added windows, a porch, and a new tower; his work was completed by his successor, Vaughan, in 1520. Nevertheless, the Cathedral suffered considerable neglect during the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1775 the Palace was portrayed by Wynne and Sandby as a romantic ruin; in 1797 the Cathedral roof was stripped of its lead, so that Yeomanry and Fencibles in Pembrokeshire might have bullets to defend the coast from the French fleet that landed invading troops at Llanwnda. These matters were largely remedied by a restoration in 1800 under the direction of John Nash, and Gilbert Scott in 1862 went further with a restoration of the West front as conjectured from what could be discovered of the original design.
The Norman structure of the nave is more intricate than anything attempted elsewhere in the period. The ground beneath it dictated that the floor should slope upwards to the altar in a 3-ft rise. The columns, alternating the customary Norman circular girth with octagonal shaping, are built to suit the eye with a perspective inclination. The same artistry that sculptured the figures standing high overhead in the entrances of Britain's great cathedrals was used here for the pillars. The roof, of the black oak of Ireland, dates from 1500. Where the screen separates the nave from the choir, the tomb of Gower who erected it is set.
Below the tower is the space where twenty-eight choir-stalls of about 1470 have, under their seats, the carved medieval “babooneries” of daily life; for the Church of those days felt that laughter was the best weapon against the Devil. On the left is all that remains of the shrine of St David himself; the stone base was begun in 1275. Not far away are the tombs of Edmund Tudor, the Earl of Richmond who fathered Henry VII; of the Lord Rhys son of Gruffydd, master of the South at the end of the 12th century; and possibly the tomb of Gerald de Barn, lover of St David's, who was twice nominated for the bishopric and twice found by royal authority to love it too much to be allowed to have it. But, if the shrine of David is now nothing but a bare foundation, behind the altar is what may be a more direct memorial to him. In 1866, in the recess now disclosed, human bones were found. They are preserved in a casket, for they would have no reason to be so placed unless they belonged to the first House of David. Two skeleton remains were in that place, of St David and of his teacher, St Justinian. The Andrew who shared the original dedication with David is presumed to have been interred elsewhere.
Of the neighbouring structures, St Mary's College, a tall-towered battlement set to the winds, was founded in 1365 with a chapel in the Perpendicular style preserved since 1934 with help from the Pilgrim Fund. The Palace of 1342 was remarkable in its day and is still magnificent. Very much a fortress, standing over its vaults with an arcaded parapet, a great hall and doorway, and rose-windows of considered beauty, it withstood everything except perhaps the attentions of its last incumbent, Bishop Barlow (in office 1536-48), who is said to have stripped off the leaden roof when he removed from St David's to Abergwili near Carmarthen. According to slanderous report, this was done to provide dowries for his five daughters, for whose successful marrying-off he would naturally make any sacrifice. He was rewarded — if they all married bishops, as the tale goes.
The tale of St David's reaches back to the days when the fleets of Rome had their base in the Severn Sea. The South East promontory of Pembroke was a headland of first importance for them, as it had been for the builders of Stonehenge in their traffic with the westernmost limit of things. On the same course went the founders of a new purpose for men, using the skills of the Celtic Mediterranean to spread it wide. Andrew, David, and Patrick are real persons not because of their physical identities but because of the partnership of peoples that they represent.
Nearby towns: Fishguard, Haverfordwest, Milford Haven, Newport
Nearby villages: Abercastle, Abereiddy, Brawdy, Broad Haven, Croes-Goch, Granston, Granstone, Haroldston West, Hasguard, Hayscastle, Hayscastle Cross, Little Haven, Llandeloy, Llanreithan, Llanrian, Mathry, Middle Mill, Newgale, Nolton, Penycwm, Porthgain, Roch, Saint Brides, Saint Nicholas, Solva, Talbenny, Trefin, Walton West, Whitchurch
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