The History of the Cathedral

Establishing St Davids

The Cathedral is the result of centuries of unbroken community and worship, from Dewi Sant’s day to the present. The enduring presence of this place in the face of history’s challenges is testament to its power as a centre of faith and hope.

The Medieval Cathedral

View of the Cathedral and its nave

The Cathedral as it stands today was begun by Norman Bishop Peter de Leia in 1181, and, adds twelfth-century author Gerald of Wales, was home to some friendly jackdaws.
The central tower collapsed twice over the next century. In the fourteenth century, Welsh Bishop Henry Gower had it repaired and extended in his remodelling programme, which included the nave, the choir and the major stone screen. This ornately carved Gothic screen is located in the nave and houses his tomb effigy. Some of the bishops’ croziers from this period, and earlier, also remain and are displayed in the Cathedral Treasury.
Bishop Gower was a remarkable character and a rare example of a Welshman as bishop in the Norman period. He became Bishop of St Davids in 1328 after a lengthy education at the University of Oxford and serving as the University’s Chancellor.
A great medieval builder, he also commissioned the impressive Bishop’s Palace, home to the Bishop of St Davids until the Reformation of the sixteenth century. He strengthened the fortifications of the wall surrounding the Close. Porth-y-Tŵr (The Gate of the Tower) built up against the Cathedral's octagonal bell tower is the only surviving gateway from this fortification.

The Cathedral and the Reformation

Religious reformers of the sixteenth century, known as Protestants, resented the excesses of wealth and corruption they saw in the Church. They also demanded the Bible be available in commonly spoken languages, rather than the Latin used by the clergy and scholars.
Protestant Bishop William Barlow was appointed Bishop of St Davids in 1536. He stayed until he was moved to be Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1547. Determined to make a complete break with St Davids’ medieval past, he did away with the shrine of St David. He removed and destroyed or dispersed all the relics and treasures held by the Cathedral, including the contents of the monastic library. Today we can only hear about the Cathedral’s medieval collections from the medieval scholars who used them. Only a very few fragments survived and are scattered in other collections around the world.


Cathedral wooden ceiling
St Davids Cathedral nave ceiling

Despite all this, Barlow’s lifetime also saw the installation of the magnificent nave timber ceiling. With its hanging ornately carved pendants, it is the only cathedral ceiling of its kind in Britain. It is made mostly of oak panels, below which hang twenty-two ornate carved pendants each is 1.5 metres in height and just over 1 metre wide. The sides and corners of the nave roof are also adorned with half- and quarter-pendants.
Barlow also wanted to move the Bishops of St Davids out of the Bishop’s Palace. This was partially practical, as he wanted to move the Bishop’s headquarters out of St Davids to a more central location in the diocese, such as Carmarthen. But he also disapproved of the splendour of the living quarters of the Bishop’s Palace at St Davids. Bishop Barlow did not manage to change the location of the bishop’s seat from St Davids. However, he did move the bishops out of the Bishop’s Palace. His successors never returned to live permanently next to the Cathedral, living in Abergwili, just outside Carmarthen, ever since.

Bishops Palace Exterior
Bishops Palace exterior today

Today, the Bishop’s Palace is a striking ruin just outside the Cathedral grounds, managed by CADW, the Welsh Government’s heritage service. Bishop Barlow and the Reformation saw the wealth of the palace and the lead from its roofs thoroughly stripped down, speeding its decay.
The following century was one of devastation for the Cathedral. Commonwealth troops of the Civil War were ordered to strip the Cathedral of its lead. They caused further damage by smashing stained-glass windows, breaking the tower to steal the bells, and damaging the organ beyond repair. Most of the eastern parts of the Cathedral were left unroofed. Open to the elements, they, too, fell into ruin.


Tower ceiling
St Davids Cathedral central tower vault, inserted by George Gilbert Scott

Despite eighteenth-century restoration, the Cathedral needed extensive repairs in the nineteenth century. Responding to these challenges, Bishop Thirlwall appointed famous church architect George Gilbert Scott in 1861 to conduct a survey. This was completed and presented to the Cathedral the following year. Scott’s report of 1862 showed that the Cathedral tower was cracked, and water seeped inside from the River Alun.
Scott restored most of the Cathedral, bracing the tower with tie rods, as it remains today. He also moved the tower's internal roof (vault) upwards from its initial position, which cut across some of the main tower windows, to its current location now above the windows. This allowed more light to be let inside, and the painted result can be seen in the Cathedral today.  
A generation later, Dean Howell led an appeal to restore the Lady Chapel. Marking its completion in October 1901, special service was held at the Cathedral. The Bishop of Exeter preached the sermon on ‘The House that Fell not.’
The idea for restoring St Davids Cathedral had been planted much earlier, in the 1780s and 1790s during the Gothic revival. The Gothic revival ideal was that a place of worship should be either built in the Gothic style or restored to its medieval appearance.
At the time, the Cathedral appointed John Nash in the 1790s to rebuild the West Front, which was pulling away from the building! However, his stylish new wall was not practical as it was attached to the existing nave walls, which were also sloping west under pressure from the leaning tower. When Scott arrived in the 1860s, it was once again leaning dangerously, and total restoration was needed.
Scott’s Victorian period saw widespread church restoration. In his time, St Davids received generous public donations and a restoration campaign was headed by future Bishop William Basil Jones and historian Edward A. Freeman. Together in 1856 they published The History and Antiquities of St David. Its extensive subscribers list shows that this inspired interest in the Cathedral.

Cathedral western wall following George Gilbert Scott's design