Now Britain’s smallest city, St Davids has been a site of pilgrimage for centuries. It is one of those ironies of history that one of the highlights a visit today is the medieval bishop’s palace.
The original monastic community established in the 6th century by the Welsh patron saint lived an extremely simple life. According to the 11th century scholar Rhigyfarch, who is the source of most of the information we have about St David, the monks dressed in animal skins and existed on the barest necessities. The death of a later bishop of St Davids at the hands of Vikings in the late 10th century was said to have been retribution for his abandoning the traditions of the community by eating meat.
Nothing remains now of that original foundation. The current cathedral building, on the site of the earlier monastic site) dates from the 12th century and the adjacent bishop’s palace was the work of Henry de Gower who was bishop of St Davids from 1328-47. Henry de Gower’s building was very grand and lavishly decorated. It included two separate ranges of rooms – one for his own private use and the other for entertaining distinguished visitors, along with a chapel. Whilst the building today is a ruin, enough survives to show how impressive it must once have been.
The first thing visitors see when entering the courtyard is the elaborate porch leading to the great hall, topped with an arcaded parapet. It is still striking in its current state, but must have appeared magnificent in its heyday when rendered and painted red.
No other surviving medieval domestic building is adorned with so much sculpture. The majority take the form of corbels, with mythical and exotic creatures on the arcaded parapet of the chapel, and human faces on the bishop’s own apartments. It is a far cry from the ascetism of the original monks.
If you want a feel for the early simplicity, the nearby ruins of St Non’s Chapel is worth a visit. St Non said to be the mother of St David and there is an ancient tradition that the site was the birthplace of the saint. Whilst the date of the surviving ruins is uncertain and the earliest written reference to the chapel is from 1335, there is some evidence of use of the site at a much earlier date. A stone slab bearing the inscription of a ring cross inscribed may date from the 7th or 8th centuries.
Whatever the truth of it, this is a special place.