St. David, or Dewi Sant in Welsh, was one of the original saints of Wales in the 6th century, along with St. Kentigern and Gwenffrewi.
St. David’s Cathedral has always been Norman, but it stands on the site of a monastery Dewi Sant founded around 500 AD. Like the other saints we talked about earlier in this season of videos, he was known for miracles, the most famous of which was the rising up of a hill on the spot where he was preaching. His symbol is the leek, which is why Welsh soldiers in the middle ages were known to go into battle with a leek pinned to their clothing and the leek remains a national symbol of Wales.
Such was the renown of the monastic community, even hundreds of years after David’s death, that King Alfred is said to have called upon the monks to rebuild the intellectual life of the people of Wessex. The monastery was also sacked at least ten times by Norse raiders—culminating in the arrival of the Normans themselves in 1081, when William the Conqueror himself visited St. David’s. Very shortly thereafter, this area of Wales, known as Pembroke, came under Norman control. At that point, King Henry I appointed the first Norman bishop, and began construction of a cathedral. In 1123, the pope bestowed on the community the status of ‘papal privilege’ making it a place of pilgrimage throughout the western world.
All the while, of course, as we have come to expect when the Normans conquer any place, the cathedral and the diocese were controlled by Normans, with little place for the Welsh who lived in the region and whose saint David had been. Rather than a monastery of Welsh monks, St. David’s became the lavish seat of a bishop.
In 1284, King Edward I visited St David’s on a pilgrimage, after which the bishop at the time began construction of a massive palace for himself. The work was continued by subsequent holders of the office, with most of what we can see today being the work of Bishop Henry de Gower in the early 14th century. He had major work done on the cathedral itself, and built the Great Hall, the arcaded parapet, and the porch. In addition, he is also responsible for the construction of two great ranges: the east range – which is the simpler of the two –and the much grander south range built for entertaining. All this was intended to set up the bishop of St. David as the equivalent of any lord.
Throughout the next many hundreds of years, though the saint for whom the church was named was Welsh, the Normans maintained control of the church and the palace until, like all the churches in Wales, the reformation when the Protestant bishop in 1536 stripped the lead from the roof, resulting in the ruin of the building. The church was converted to the Church of England, and still has services today.
Next week we’ll be talking about a subject which is probably long overdue: monastic orders in the Middle Ages.