In the late 6th century St David established a monastery here on the south-western tip of the Pembrokeshire peninsula. Over the following centuries, David’s monastery was a centre for training missionary monks, who travelled throughout Wales, Ireland, and south-west England. After David’s death, his shrine became a popular place of pilgrimage. By the eleventh century, St David’s had grown into a very important place of worship and scholarship centre, despite being plundered repeatedly by Viking invasions. Prior to the arrival of the Normans in the 11th century, the original monastery built earlier in the 6th century had been ransacked on over 10 different occasions but Norse raiders. But the most serious threat to the monastery was not from the Norse, but from the Norman invaders who came by land following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The Normans gradually conquered southern Wales and established their own bishops to replace the Welsh.
The bishops established a grand residence immediately beside the cathedral. But the Normans were no fools; they realised that St David’s was vulnerable to attack by sea. They built a motte and bailey fortification on the site, but this was later abandoned in favour of an encircling stone wall around the cathedral and bishop’s palace.
The Bishop of St. David’s was also a Lord Marcher, responsible for keeping the peace and acting as a military leader if the need ever arose. Lord Marchers were trusted allies of the English monarch and in return for their military role they were given surprising powers in their regions so The Bishop had the right to hold weekly markets and annual fairs on his estates, these tolls from these markets and fairs were a major source of income and funded the palace.
Around 1280 Bishop Thomas Bek began an ambitious program of building beside the cathedral. Though Bishop Bek greatly enhanced the early Norman palace, it was down to a later Bishop, Henry de Gower who created the great palace we see today.
Gower added a grand great hall to the site, it’s most impressive and notable piece of work was the circular rose window set to the east. His work included building a chapel and a private suite of apartments. He also created the grand entrance gate that is one of the more striking features of the palace.
Bishops only really visited St. David’s on special occasions, to celebrate important religious feasts, such as Easter and Christmas, other times they would more than likely meet at Lamphey Bishops palace around 20 miles away from here, the bishops had also sat in the house of lords in London so they regularly spent time in the capital too.
As we walked up the beautiful staircase, we entered into the great chapel on the first floor, directly ahead in the southern range and beyond the elaborate porch. This is one of two chapels on the site, but this great chapel was more used for important guests, whereas the bishop and the staff were able to use the bishops chapel held next to the gatehouse.
A single ingeniously designed kitchen was built by Bishop Gower that served both parts of this double palace that was created. A huge fireplace, sluice and bread oven can be seen , as well as access to the storage rooms below. Its right next to the great hall which of course is a perfect placement for the kitchen to be. The east wing was were the bishop slept when he stayed here and was almost the only place in the entire complex that he could enjoy some privacy without being hassled.
We wondered inside the great chamber, which would have once served as a bedroom and a sitting room mainly for your more important guests, incredibly sized and alongside the grand great hall with Gowers beautiful and ornate rose window, it’s so impressive that it has stood the test of time and looks immaculate still. This south range was built mainly for entertaining guests where feasting was a powerful symbol of wealth and status. Musicians were also drawn in and they were essential to a medieval feast and could earn a honest and decent living by travelling from place to place.
The hall was more than likely heated by a fireplace, with the smoke escaping through a vent in the roof, the long windowless wall was ideal for decorated tapestries. and just to the side a large privy is housed before we climbed the steep staircase with wonderful views over the palace and the great chamber; it’s really beautiful to see. Why the need for the battlements overlooking the great hall and chamber is unknown but it’s a really cool feature that was built there. Both sets of chambers were built at first floor level above vaulted under crofts and entered by elaborate porches. The crowning glory, however, was still the distinctive chequered arcaded fortifications, which, although faded, still has the effect of unifying the group of buildings.
One of the first buildings and earliest surviving rooms on the site is the west range, dated back to around the early thirteenth century, it is long, dark and narrow with tall gable ends, it was later modified by Henry Gower to provide lodgings.
What remains are full sections of the walls of pre-gothic Romanesque arches and gargoyles, with unique checkerboard patterns outlining the great hall, the Bishops’ Solar and the quite impressively massive Bishop’s bedroom looking out on the cathedral. The under crofts hold a display of the palace’s construction and history of the bishops. They were mainly used for storage spaces in this massive palace but also possibly would have provided accommodation for servants. We’ve not filmed under so that it gives you a chance to go and visit for yourself and experience and take in all the history in the palace.
Inside the Bishops hall would have been where the bishop would have spent a lot of time, with his many official duties that had to be sorted and between running his own estates the bishops needed help from other important officials known as the Bailiff and the summoner, The bailiff was responsible for collecting taxes and kept up-to-date with the estate accounts, whereas the summoner worked for a court, he could impose fines for bad behaviours and issue a summons to appear before the bishop.
All of the stones that were used to build the palace were obtained locally, the walls are built with rubble stone, from the nearby quarry and the cliffs too. They were originally covered with a lime render which provided a smooth finish and most importantly protected the stone from erosion. But over time the render has fallen away, leaving it vulnerable to weathering, the wealth of the decorative stonework too was vulnerable which is why some of the surfaces are flaky or destroyed. There are around 150 decorated corbels at roof level which show off animals and human faces as well as elaborate carvings surrounding the main doorways, these are always fantastic to try and look for.
The site is now in the care of CADW, and its often used for open air performances, and I can definitely see why, it would be wonderful to watch a show here, but the combination of the cathedral and the palace really do make St. David’s a wonderful historic treat to get lost in.
St. David’s is actually the smallest city in Britain with a population of just 1600 residents, it’s absolutely lovely to have a wander around, with the beautiful cathedral attached to the palace and the pastel painted cottages and pubs that surround it.
Till next time!