St Davids’ Disputed Shrine

John Osmond | 15 / 10 / 2020 | Leave a Comment

John Osmond – Excerpt from Real Preseli, published by Seren in 2019.

St Davids Cathedral is built on marshy ground which is why it has such a shaky structure. It has two Latin names and both give you the clue. Vallis Rosina means ‘the valley of the swamp’ (in Welsh Glyn Rhosyn). Meanwhile, Menevia, the name of the wider diocese, means a thicket or brushwood.

St David originally established a monastery on this site during the sixth century. However, the present Cathedral only started to take shape in the 118os. By then the wood and stone huts David established were long gone, destroyed in multiple attacks by seaborne raiders.

The Cathedral is the result of centuries of endeavour, an amalgam of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Victorian architecture. There were periodic disruptions. In 1247 an earthquake caused considerable damage. The Holy Trinity Chapel with its fan vaulted ceiling was built by Bishop Vaughan between 1509-22. A decade later the nave’s magnificent Irish oak ceiling was constructed – the marshy ground wouldn’t support the weight of a stone ceiling.

The Cathedral survived Henry VIII’s reformation, perhaps because it wasn’t a monastery. However, in 1648 Cromwell’s Roundheads ransacked the place. From then on the wind, rain and frost produced constant decay. There was a major restoration in Victorian times, followed by a more recent £5.5million refurbishment in the early 2000s.

The cloisters that had been demolished in 1547 were reconstructed, the West Front rebuilt, the organ renewed, and the thirteenth century octagonal bell tower re-roofed. In addition, St Mary’s Hall that used to be a college for clergy alongside the cathedral, was redeveloped as an architecturally striking two-storey refectory and gallery.

This last was aimed at the more than two-hundred-and-fifty thousand visitors the Cathedral receives every year. Their spending in the refectory and bookshop keeps the body if not the soul of the Cathedral together. As you enter the Cathedral’s main south-facing entrance there is a large box suggesting you contribute £5. Alongside is information that the Cathedral costs £2,250 a day to maintain. That’s £821,250 a year.

This pays for a grounds man and his assistant, a verger and assistant who organise the services, an organist plus assistant, an administrator, together with stone masons and other builders who are called in as required, plus all the sundry costs such as heating (a big bill).

When they first built the Cathedral it was touch and go whether they would have many visitors. For it was a shrine without relics. St David’s bones had long gone, ferried around a good deal after his death. Possibly they had ended up in St Davids, but that was centuries earlier.

In medieval times relics were all important. They provided physical evidence of the spiritual presence of powerful saints capable of intercession in response to prayers. Threat of purgatory was a big thing in those days.

Bishop Bernard consecrated an early Cathedral – not the present one – in 1131. But he had nothing to put in it. Appointed by Henry I in 1115 he spent much of his thirty-three years as Bishop searching in vain for David’s bones. The saint was supposed to have been buried on the site but Viking raiders had demolished all trace.

Bishop Bernard got round the problem with an astute marketing strategy. He persuaded Pope Calixtus II to give St Davids a privilege. Two journeys to the shrine were to be the spiritual equivalent of one journey to Rome – Roma semel quantum: bis dat Menevia tantum. Three journeys were worth a visit to Jerusalem. So began the practice of pilgrimages to St Davids.

In the absence of bodily remains, David’s possessions were at a premium, specifically his bell, book, staff and clothing. Some of these were kept at St Davids, but others were held at various shrines around the country, including Llandewi Brefi in Ceredigion, Glascwm in Powys, and Llangyfelach on the Gower peninsula.

However, bones were still at a premium. The Cathedral had to wait until the 127os to get them. It seems that John de Gamage, Prior of Ewenny in Glamorgan, had a dream telling him to go and dig a precise number of paces from the south door of the Cathedral where he would find the bones of St David. This was done and, lo and behold, bones were dug up. Naturally, they were assumed to be those of St David. They were placed in a casket in the Sanctuary behind the High Altar. Henceforth, pilgrims flocked to St Davids in greater numbers.

In the wake of his conquest of Wales in 1282, Edward I made a pilgrimage to St Davids. That was in 1284 and he came away with the skull and some other bones of the saint. A few months later he went on a procession with the relics from the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey. There they were placed on the high altar.

There was a strategic purpose behind this despoilation. According to the historian R.R. Davies, Edward’s removal of the relics ‘was a calculated attempt to obliterate the symbols of independence and communal memory and thereby appropriate to himself and his dynasty the exclusive claim to be ruler of Britain.’ As Davies g0es on to say, robbery of this kind undermines the cultural autonomy of your enemies.

Nonetheless, there were enough bones left at St Davids to make them worthy of continued pilgrimage. And all was well for three centuries until Henry VIII’s split from Rome in the 1530s. William Barlow, Bishop St Davids from 1536-48, a staunch Protestant, recorded his dismay that the misguided faithful continued their ‘abominable idolatry, popish pilgrimages and deceitful pardons.’ In 1538 he threw out the relics to counteract ‘superstition’. Despite this he could not prevent the people from ‘wilfully solemnising’ the saint’s feast day. The cult of St David ran deep.

Barlow also wanted to move the Cathedral to Carmarthen, a location nearer the centre of a diocese that stretched as far as the Welsh border. Hence, throwing out the relics had an additional motivation. Their removal downgraded the Cathedral’s importance. This was somewhat offset two years later. Henry VIII commanded that the tomb of his grandfather Henry Tudor, be moved to the Cathedral from the recently dissolved Greyfriars priory in Carmarthen. In any event, pilgrimages to the Cathedral dwindled.

Three hundred years went by. Then, during a restoration in 1865 a cache of bones was discovered behind the High Altar in the Holy Trinity Chapel. At the time they were not thought to be important and were reburied in the floor. However, in the 1920s Dean William Williams took it into his head that they were indeed the bones of St David. It is said that for a time he kept them in a box under his bed. Eventually he had them put in a casket, a gift of the patriarchs of the Orthodox Church, and in 1925 replaced them in the niche in the wall where they had been originally found.

And there they remain though they’re not St David’s bones. They’ve been carbon dated which showed they’re from the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

All was not lost, however. In 2010 an appeal was launched to raise £150,000 to restore the shrine. Artist Sarah Crisp, a specialist in medieval-style paintings, was commissioned to paint five icons. These have been installed within the existing front and rear niches of the shrine. Made on lime wood panels using classic Byzantine styles and materials, they depict St David and other saints associated with the Cathedral. In a commentary Canon Patrick Thomas, Vicar of Carmarthen’s Christ Church, says:

‘The vision for the Shrine was to make it a clear focus for visitors so they in turn could become the New Pilgrims. Rather than an ‘old bloke with a beard’ the vision of the artist Sarah Crisp (whose family have had a long connection with the cathedral) was to create a new and young monk, with the tonsure and garb of the Celtic Monk he was – with the choice of colourful icons reflecting how the cathedral would have looked in the Middle Ages… filled with bright colours.’

In the painting St David has a dove fluttering down towards his right shoulder. This recalls the celebrated incident during his life when he went to address a synod of Bishops at Llanddewi Brefi in the Teifi valley. There was such a large crowd that few could hear him. The legend has it that when a boy put a handkerchief on the ground in front of him, David stepped on to it and the ground around him rose into a small hill so everyone could hear him. Moreover, he spoke so eloquently that a dove representing the holy spirit flew down to rest on his shoulder.

It is a myth, of course. Much of the story of St Davids Cathedral is compiled of myths. But a defeated people depend on myths to give them something to believe in, to cling on to.

This is an excerpt from John Osmond’s Real Preseli, published by Seren in 2019.

1. R. R. Davies (Ed.), The British Isles 1100 – 1150: Comparisons, Contrasts and Connections, John Donald, Edinburgh, 1988.

2. Canon Patrick Thomas, St Davids Cathedral Shrine and Armenian Memorial, St Davids and Dewisland Historical Society, July 2016,

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