The History of St Davids
Today as for more than a millennium the Welsh city of St David’s (or St Davids, the apostrophe apparently in this case a matter of choice) enjoys far greater religious than economic or political significance, thanks of course to its links with the patron saint of Wales. The history of the tiny city whose population remains well below 2000 even now is for once the history of its cathedral and its clerics far more than any tale of industry or martial deeds.
The settlement’s history began long before it became St David’s. Its strategic position on St Bride’s Bay, and at the extreme western edge of Wales and thus a natural departure point for trade with Ireland, meant it was probably settled well before written records began, remains of druidical practices found in the area. Its early Welsh name was Mynyw, alternatively Menyw or Manyw, widely if not universally thought to denote ‘small yews’ which then abounded.
A Roman station was built either where modern St David’s stands, or rather closer to the sea which has allowed the sands to bury traces of the site. For the Romans this was Menapia or Menevia, the name used in the formal description of the city’s bishops still.
St David himself is said to have been born a little south of the city, his mother’s name – St Non – transferred to the spot. His precise date of birth, like that of his death, is unclear, but it is accepted as around AD500 (the earliest date AD462, latest AD512), his death sometime between AD589 and AD601.
David in the 6th century (possibly about AD550) founded a very ascetic monastic order based in Mynyw, where eventually a cathedral would follow the monastery. The monastery thrived and grew, but given its remote location and its treasures became a regular target for raiders, whose attacks began in around AD645 and continued until the late 11th century, the Norsemen whose raids on Wales began in AD850 found it a particularly enticing place to plunder, returning often including in 1021, 1077, 1079, and (probably) 1089, when the relics of St David and the precious metals containing them were looted. In AD999 and again in 1080 the bishops of the day (respectively Morgenau and Abraham) were murdered by the Vikings during raids.
The monastery early on gained a reputation not just for piety and strict observance, but for learning, its famous library a contemporary manifestation of the spirit that guided the monks in its scriptorium in the so-called Dark Ages. This learning became a weapon in Alfred the Great ’s fight against the Norsemen, for he looked to Asser, a monk of St David’s, to rekindle the intellectual life of Wessex that wave after wave of Viking raids had nearly extinguished.
Saxon links with the religious life of St David’s were not all positive – in 872 when the Welsh bishop Einion died a Saxon, Hubert, followed, perhaps not wholly welcomed.
The Normans conquered England in the 1060s, but did not add Wales to their territory for some considerable time. William the Conqueror visited St David’s in 1081 ostensibly to pray at what was already a significant pilgrimage site, though his tour of South Wales doubtless helped him assess its strengths and value. In 1089 William Rufus ejected Joseph, the then bishop, replacing him with his choice, Wilfrid.
The greatest days of St David’s as a place of pilgrimage came after Pope Calixtus II in 1123 supposedly ruled that two trips to St David’s were the equivalent of one to Rome, a great financial boon for the cathedral commenced at that time. Large numbers of pilgrims brought increased wealth and to a certain extent power, reflected in another royal visit, by Henry II in 1171, and by the commencement of work on the current cathedral in 1180. Edward I and his Queen followed in Henry’s footsteps in 1284.
Viking depredations may have ended long before, but an even greater force of nature, an earthquake, damaged much of the building in 1247. Nevertheless aggrandizement continued: in about 1300 a 15’ wall was built around the cathedral, with four gates, one of which still stands. Bishop Thomas Bek who held the post from 1280 to 1293 was a major contributor to the new round of building, though the later bishop Henry de Gower (1328 – 1347) who built the Great Hall was perhaps the most significant such figure.
In spite of the efforts of such men the cathedral was not completed until 1572, by which time the tide had begun to turn against the site: in 1538 the jewels of St David’s shrine were confiscated along with that saint’s relics and those of St Justinian. Greater damage was done in 1648 by Roundhead soldiers .
It was not until the late 18th century that the tide can be seen to have once again turned in favour of the shrine: in 1793 Nash rebuilt the frontage; George Gilbert Scott was involved in major restoration work from 1862 to 1877; and the Edwardian era saw the Lady Chapel and other chapels restored. In our own period (2004 – 2007) new cloisters have been added.
The population of St David’s, our smallest city, remains tiny – about 1800 souls – but its importance as a spiritual symbol for and of Wales remains great.