Sacred Places of Wales

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St. David's (Ty Dewi: Tee Dewee) and St. Non's Well

St. David's Cathedral Wales
In the medieval kingdom of Dyfed, we find the largest church in Wales and the shrine of St. David situated in the smallest city in the British Isles. Wales did not adopt St. David as its patron saint until the 18th century. The reputed date of his death March 1st was chosen as the day of a national festival, but very little is known about him for certain except that he lived in the sixth century and probably died in 589. Information concerning his life comes from Latin "The Life of St. David" written in the late 11th century by Rhygyfarch but supplemented by Geraldus Cambrensis around 1200.

There are many legends concerning Dewi, as the saint is known in Welsh. In his "Life", it is claimed that he was the son of mother Non and father Sandde, whose father, in turn, was the King of Ceredigion. Non later became a nun in Britanny where she is buried. Tradition has David's birth at St. Non's Bay (where some believe that St. Patrick was also born). Because of his frugal diet of bread and water, Dewi was known as Aquaticus (Water man). One story is that, while he was preaching at the Synod of Llanddewibrefi (Thlan Dewee Brevee), the ground rose up beneath him so that all present could see and hear him.

The humble cleric's fame as a missionary reached Ireland and Brittany, and from the early 12th century the church named for him at Ty Dewi (Tee Dewee) became a place of pilgrimage. In 1120 he was officially recognized as a Catholic saint by Pope Calixtus who declared that two pilgrimages to St. David's equaled in merit to one visit to Rome. Three visits to St. David's equaled one to Jerusalem. In 1398, Archbishop Arundel ordained that March 1st, Dewi's feast day, be kept by every church in the Province of Canterbury. Signified by the wearing of a leek (some deign to wear a daffodil), it is solemnly celebrated by Welsh people all over the world.

For many centuries, the tiny settlement of St. David's remained one of the most important and most visited sacred places in all of the British Isles. Even the Norman overlord of the whole of Britain, William the Conqueror, came here to worship. The shrine of St. David also attracted Geraldus Cambrensis, who sought the bishopric and who made three unsuccessful appeals to Rome to get it. His appeals were denied by a Pope not anxious to see a Welsh Church independent of Canterbury.

Other noteworthy visitors were Bishop Houghton, Lord Chancellor to King Edward III, who earned his fame by being excommunicated by the Pope whom he in turn excommunicated from the cathedral steps; Henry II who prayed there for victory on his way to Ireland and returned to give thanks for his successes; Bishop Ferrar who was burned at the stake during the reign of Mary and Bishop Davies, who procured the first Welsh translation of the Bible.

Like its counterpart at Llandaff, St. David's has also suffered the ravages of time and human folly. The cathedral building itself, the largest and most impressive among its Welsh counterparts, sits in a hollow, Glyn Rhosyn (Glinn Hrossin) through which runs the river Alun (Alin). It is believed by many that the cathedral was placed here to hide it from Viking raids because it cannot be seen from the sea. But the founding of the religious settlement dates back much farther than the time of the Norsemen.

In 1088, despite the secluded, half-hidden situation, the little settlement suffered the indignity of being sacked by Vikings, raiding up and down the Welsh coast at will. At various times in later years she also suffered grievous damage from earthquakes. No traces remain from the early founding, however, much of the present church which dates back to 1180 exists.

Less than 40 years later the central tower collapsed, destroying the transepts and choir, but these were soon rebuilt. Bishop Gower (1328-42), the remains of whose magnificent palace can be visited on the Cathedral grounds, added much to the church, including decorated windows and part of the restored central tower. He is also responsible for the magnificent Rood Screen and is buried inside the church.

During the English Civil War, Cromwell's troops were busy in their usual iconoclastic manner destroying much of the cathedral and its contents. Necessary rebuilding programs were undertaken by John Nash in the late 18th century and by Sir Gilbert Scott in the 19th.

Neither architect was able to do much about the slope in the floor which rises 14 feet from the West door up to the high altar (local legend says the slope was deliberately planned to get the congregation nearer to heaven). You enter the cathedral through an impressive, ruined gateway and walk down a steep flight of stone steps known locally as the 39 Articles.

There is much to see and ponder over at St. David's, a guidebook is essential. The cathedral contains the shrines of St. Caradog and St. Justinian as well as St. David (though the latter may not actually be buried there according to recent scientific tests of the bones). It also houses one of the only surviving medieval Bishop's thrones in Britain. Edmund Tudor, father of Henry VII is also commemorated here by an impressive altar tomb.

In addition to the remains of Bishop Gower's opulent residence, the cathedral grounds also contain the ruins of St. Mary's College, for secular priests, which John of Gaunt helped found in 1377. Bishop Gower built his palace in 1340; two hundred years later, another bishop had the lead from the roof slowly stripped away to provide dowries for his five daughters - all of whom married later bishops!

Non's Well and Chapel
St. Non's Well & ChapelBefore leaving the area of the cathedral, we should visit the ruined chapel and holy well of St. Non, reputed to be David's mother. To get there, we must travel about a mile up a narrow lane to the very edge of the steep cliffs skirted by the pathway that is part of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. Here, just down the hill from an ugly gray building that serves as a religious retreat, in a field usually full of cattle or horses, are the scanty remains of the ancient chapel. Nearby, almost hidden in the undergrowth is St. Non's Well. Not visited by many these days, and often full of muddy, brackish water, the well was an important place of pilgrimage for many centuries; its supposed healing powers were second only to those at St. Winifred's at Holywell in North Wales.

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