The Church in Welsh History

Celtic Origins

Closeup of Crosses carved on shrine
Closeup of Cross motifs carved on shrine.

In the early Middle Ages, Wales was part of Western Christendom with the Pope in Rome as its head. However, the Welsh Church had a strongly distinctive individual character, influenced by its Celtic origins.

The St Davids of Dewi Sant’s sixth century was part of a hub of western sea routes, along which Celtic monks would often travel. It was into this busy network that the early kingdoms of what became Cymru, Wales, began to be established.

There was no formal hierarchy amongst the Welsh bishops. Yet St Davids monastery emerged as a leading church because of the compelling leadership of St David and his popularity in local memory. The monastery here began to function as the mother-church with responsibility to care for the south-western region.

The Church in Medieval Wales

Corbel of a Norman knight
Corbel of a Norman knight, located in the Nave.

The end of the first millennium was a difficult period for Welsh Christianity. The Welsh Church faced attacks and threats of invasion from Scandinavian, English and Norman forces. In 1067, the invading Normans crossed the river Wye and entered Wales for the first time. In 1115, a new Norman bishop, Bishop Bernard, was installed at St Davids. Previously a layman, King Henry I apparently installed Bernard as a priest the day before he installed him as Bishop.

The political and religious disruption might have led to the cult of St David fading away. But, despite the Normans imposing their style of church on Wales, the story of St David has always remained strong at the core of St Davids.

The Bible in Welsh

The Protestant Bishop of St Davids Richard Davies believed Welsh culture should be the heart of the Reformation in Wales. He contributed to the first translation of the New Testament into Welsh from the original Greek, produced mainly by William Salesbury in 1567 in Abergwili near Carmarthen. In this translation, Bishop Davies translated parts of the New Testament. Thomas Huet, Precentor of St Davids between 1560 and 1591, translated the Book of Revelation.

Over the next 20 years, Bishop William Morgan produced a full Welsh Bible translation. This was published in 1588 under the auspices of Queen Elizabeth I and distributed to every church in Wales as large public books. Beibl William Morgan, the William Morgan Bible, as it was known, played an important role in the preservation of the Welsh language, standardising written Welsh for the first time in a form recognisable in modern Welsh today. 

See below for an interactive copy of the 1588 Willian Morgan translation of the Bible in Welsh.

In 1620, a further edition was revised by Bishop Richard Parry. The 1620 Welsh Bible was the first widely available Welsh language Bible and once again distributed to all Welsh churches. Some of the earlier 1588 Bibles were apparently destroyed when this revision was circulated. The Cathedral holds copies of the 1620 Bishop Parry Bible in its Library collection.

Having access to the Bible in Welsh improved literacy and gradually led to increased religious commitment. By the late nineteenth century this had contributed to the growth of Nonconformity and, in the early twentieth century, to the Disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales from the Church of England.

Dean David Howell (1831-1903)

Disestablishment of the Church in Wales

By the mid-nineteenth century, Wales had not had a Welsh-speaking bishop in over 100 years. It was not long before more people attended Nonconformist churches and chapels than Anglican churches throughout Wales.

After much campaigning, the Welsh Church Act of 1914 was passed by David Lloyd George’s Liberal government and implemented in 1920 after the First World War.

This set up an independent Church in Wales, separate from the Established Church of England and within the worldwide Anglican community. The love created the Disestablished Anglican Church in Wales, to which St Davids Cathedral and Diocese belong.

At this divisive time, the Cathedral was blessed by the leadership of Welsh-speaking Welshman Dean David Howell. He is remembered with great affection for his peacemaking and spiritual passion, and as having ‘prophesied’ just before his death in 1903 the great Welsh religious revival of 1904-05 (Diwygiad 04). Known to many by his bardic name Llawdden, he was an enthusiastic Eisteddfod supporter. He is buried in St Nicholas Chapel at the end of the north choir aisle. Dean Howell was part of a group of Anglicans who worked hard to build bridges between denominations and did much to restore the reputation of the Anglican church.