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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Clover

The Bishop's Palace in St Davids

Recently I launched a video series on The Maid of Gascony youtube channel called The Medieval Minute. My hope is to offer readers a new way to connect with me and learn more about what has influenced my work in The Maid of Gascony Series. With the feast of St David being celebrated on the 1st of March every year, and St David being the patron saint of Wales, I couldn’t imagine a better time or location to begin this series.

I first learned about St Davids when I was a graduate student at Oxford. I had come across references to the Itinerarium Cambriae and Descriptio Cambriae and became intrigued by the life of the author, Gerald of Wales or as he is known in Latin, Giraldus Cambrensis.

Gerald of Wales Monument in St Davids Cathedral

Now, Gerald was a fascinating figure for his time. Described as a tall and handsome man in his 30s, he was born into a noble Welsh-Norman family and educated with other Benedictine monks at St Peter’s Abbey in Gloucester, England, in the setting that we know today as Gloucester cathedral. In my early years as a medievalist I recall wondering why so few people had heard of him. Afterall here was an individual who entered into monastic life, traveled away from home to be educated, in fact, traveled as far as Paris for his education, then returned to St Davids where he desperately wanted to become Bishop - so much so that he even turned down offers of four other bishoprics holding out hope that he would be made Bishop of St Davids. A man wise to the political nature of faith, Gerald even served briefly as court chaplain to the English king Henry II as the king traveled through Wales in 1184 and Gerald acted as a neutral liaison in the king’s dealings with Rhys ap Gruffydd, the Welsh ruler. Gerald later survived traveling across the continent to Rome and back twice in his 50s and 60s between 1199 and 1203, and making a final trip there as a pilgrim in or around 1207.

But his efforts were stymied by the king and those in Rome and Canterbury who felt that appointing him as Bishop of St Davids would only increase his desire to turn the cathedral and diocese into a metropolitan see. If this had happened, it would have put St Davids on equal footing to that already enjoyed by the archbishoprics of Canterbury and York. St Davids would have been the seat of its own province and could have therefore set and followed its own governance and administration, no longer falling under the scrutiny of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Most of Gerald’s adult life was spent traveling and campaigning for what he felt was his rightful appointment as bishop; sadly for him, it was never granted. St Davids was not made a metropolitan see, and Gerald eventually left Pembrokeshire. The once tall and handsome priest lived out his final years in Canterbury, keeping himself busy with his writings (he authored 17 books in his lifetime) far from his familial surroundings and the church he felt ready to die for, much as Thomas Becket had done in 1170 in Canterbury. Gerald died in 1223.

So how does the life of Gerald, who lived 250 years prior to my main character Isa, factor into The Maid of Gascony narrative? The link comes from two of Gerald’s written works I mentioned earlier, his Descriptio and Itinerarium Cambriae. After reading about the route Gerald took to travel to St Davids from England I knew that I wanted to make the pilgrimage myself one day and retrace his path. A few years after I graduated I came back to the UK and made my first journey out to the Bishop’s Palace, and from that moment on, I knew it was where my story would be set.

Today when visiting St Davids it is possible to access the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace, and in doing so, to see the layout of the palace as Isa and her chaplain would have known it in 1453, the year they travel there. If you enter from the city centre you would pass through the medieval gatehouse which stands alongside the 13th century belltower, before descending down the hill into the close, passing the cathedral which I describe in book one as “like that of a glorious monarch reigning nobly over the serene setting that lay about her foundation.” Continuing over a narrow stone bridge that crosses the tiny river Alun you are just a few steps away from the entrance to the Bishop’s Palace, and once inside the courtyard, you can marvel at the scale of this magnificent place. What you see around you was largely the work of Bishop Henry de Gower and actually dates to his tenure in the mid-14th century. By the 15th century those appointed as Bishop of St Davids tended to stay in Llawhaden castle, which became the administrative seat of the diocese, and the Bishop’s Palace in neighboring Lamphey (another location featured in Queen of Heaven). By the end of the 15th century the use of St Davids as an active residence was coming to a close, and by the Protesstant Reformation in the 16th century St Davids was no longer a prominent place of pilgrimage. It was likely in the 16th century that the lead roofs were removed, possibly from the great hall, state apartments and the south range of buildings. The era of the palace’s grandeur had officially come to a close.

The Courtyard of the Bishop's Palace in St Davids

As a medievalist I look for evidence in a building program that gives clues indicating what level of comfort was applied to the location. This can be seen in everything from carved bosses that feature human or zoomorphic heads, plants or animals; stained glass or ornate window openings, often set in a niche with stone seats; painted tiles; newel staircases; grand exterior stone staircases, varied coloured stonework and ashlar stonework in a facade and arcaded parapets: all of which are evident in some form or another in the Bishop’s Palace.

The next time you are in search of a place to find peace and quiet, far from the bustle and strains of life, I recommend you do as Gerald did, and seek out the remote beauty that is found in Britain’s smallest city, St Davids.


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