Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 24, 2003
In search of St. David
Ancient Vikings wrote destruction on the Cathedral of St. Davids
St. David - Feast Day - March 1
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
St. Davids, Wales
Far out on the westernmost edge of Great Britain, the spiritual heart of Wales resides in the ancient Cathedral of St. Davids. This is where the saint was born and from where his successors directed the Celtic church in Wales. The cathedral honours sixth century David (Dewi Sant) son of King Sant of South Wales and St. Non.
He's the patron saint of Wales and was elected as primate of the Welsh Church after displaying remarkable eloquence at a synod in 550. And he's honoured today in the name of the little town of Saint Davids - Tyddewi, or "David's House."
David founded the monastery of Menevia here. It soon became noted for its learning and aestheticism. Residents lived under a harsh regimen, providing everything for their own sustenance, farming and clothed in animal skins.
Gifts of lands and goods helped support the community and, after David's death, it became a popular pilgrimage destination. Locating the centre in a valley to make it less obvious to sea-borne marauders didn't protect Menevia from repeated assaults by Viking raiders however, with great loss of life.
Later on, noted Welsh scholar Bishop Sulien entertained England's new king, William the Conqueror in 1081, visiting St. David's, curious to view more of his new territories.
Then, as befitted the largest, richest diocese in Wales, Bernard, appointed in 1115 by Henry I as St. Davids' first Norman bishop, soon undertook the construction of a substantial new cathedral. Dedicated in 1131, no trace of his great church remains today.
Much of what is known about medieval St. Davids, Wales and Ireland comes via a colourful local writer and traveller. Born Geraldus de Barri in 1146 not far from the cathedral, he was educated as a youth and influenced to choose the religious life by his uncle David Fitzgerald, bishop of St. Davids.
He hoped to succeed David, determined to head a Welsh church independent of Norman Canterbury and with more direct ties to Rome. Gerald witnessed events at St. Davids that would shape the future of the British Isles.
For example, chieftain Dermot MacMurrough, unable to enlist the aid of Henry II in a power struggle to control his Irish homeland, stopped at St. Davids in 1167 where, as a guest of the bishop, he met with David's brother Maurice Fitzgerald.
And, within two years, Norman-Welsh adventurers, under the leadership of Robert Fitzstephen, another of Gerald's uncles, landed in Ireland as allies of Dermot, followed closely by Maurice.
Henry visited St. Davids in 1171, partly to atone at the shrine for his murder of Thomas Becket the previous year and to investigate the Irish situation.
In 1176, Bishop David died, Gerald was denied the succession personally by Henry ("too Welsh") and Norman Peter de Leia inherited the see. Gerald and Peter then undertook the construction of a large, new cathedral in 1181. Only the nave remains today, oldest part of a newer building, but noteworthy for its Norman-Romanesque arches and pillars.
Gerald himself travelled to Ireland in 1183 as an advisor to Maurice and the next year with Henry, who was anxious to rein in his overly independent Norman vassals.
Gerald published several books on Wales and Ireland as Geraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) and is honoured in the cathedral as the foremost historian of his time.
Since the Reformation, Saint Davids has been the seat of a diocese of the Anglican Church.
And recently, a bishop from Wales, Rowan Williams, has been installed as primate of that Church of Canterbury.