St Davids Cathedral, with the ruins of the 12th century Bishops Palace to the left.
Superb painted interior panelling inside the tower of St Davids Cathedral, in the design of an equi-armed cross.
Revered as one of the major places of the Western World for over 1200 years, St Davids Cathedral is situated in a sheltered valley close to the south-west tip of the Pembrokeshire coast of west Wales. To the first-time pilgrim it is an awesome sight, standing as it does against a backdrop of open fields and countryside in such a rural setting.
The original monastery of Menevia which was founded by St David himself in the 6th century, has long disappeared. Viking raiders are known to have pillaged it several times during its history. The magnificent cathedral we see today was built c.1180AD, and has had various additions made to it over the centuries.
St David was born close to this site, probably at the place where St Non’s healing well now stands. St Non was St David’s mother, and they both travelled extensively, visiting Brittany and Ireland as well as many other more remote locations. He was know to be a very ascetic Celtic monk, and encouraged others on this path. One of his nicknames was ‘the water man’ – some say due to has sparse intake of food, but this name could equally have referred to his frequent missionary travels by boat to distant places. His untimely end came when he was killed by Viking raiders.The exact date of this unfortunate event is not known, but it ocurred around the end of the 6th century. It is of interest that his death was seen by some of the more austere Celtic Chrsitian community as being retribution for eating meat, as vegetarianism was one of the principles of the Celtic priesthood, and he as the first Bishop to break this rule.
The earliest reference to St David is in an 8th century book written at Tallaght in Ireland, which states that they ‘kept the feast day of David of Cille Muni’ (the cell or church of Menevia) on March 1st. Pope Calixtus 11 (1119-1124AD) canonised St David and declared that ‘two pilgrimages to Menevia were equal to one pilgrimage to Rome’, thus ensuring the saint’s popularity with medieval pilgrims. The shrine of St David remains in the cathedral today in the beautiful and peaceful Trinity Chapel, the focal point for the Celtic pilgrim.
Today a pilgrimage to St Davids is a truly exhilarating experience. The whole area has a very ancient feel to it, with the ruins of the 6th century chapel of St Non, its powerful incised Celtic slab cross within, and most unusually set within a prehistoric stone circle, just two miles away. The small coves and bays nearby were the landing-places of the early pilgrims from Ireland, as well as those from Brittany and even further afield.
Visiting the cathedral at a quiet time of day there is a very strong sense of past times, and it is easy to imagine the early and more basic structure of the original monastery of Menevia being here prior to the present building. The carved wooden suspended ceiling in the cathedral is the finest of its kind in existence, and the painted wooden vaulting beneath the tower is truly magnificent.
Almost everything about this uniquely-located Celtic cathedral is remarkable, and it is hardly surprising that some enthusiastic pilgrims have described it as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’.
The shrine of St David behind the great altar is a fine place to meditate and add one’s appreciation for the inspiration and beauty of this magnificent building, joining the thousands of others who have made their pilgrimages here over the centuries.
There are some fine ancient stone Celtic cross slabs set into the altar of the Trinity Chapel, and in a side chapel to the east is another fine 9th/10th century Celtic slab cross set into the wall. This stone goes by the name of ‘The stone of the sons of Bishop Abraham’. Close to this is another inset stone fragment of early Celtic knotwork – all powerful reminders of the early monastery of Menevia.
To conclude, St Davids cathedral must surely be one of the focal points of our Celtic heritage, and once visited, never forgotten.
- © David James