Named for the patron saint of Wales, St. David’s Cathedral has been the site of Christian worship for more than 1,500 years.
St. David’s Cathedral is beautiful both for its architecture and for its picturesque setting nestled into a valley of the River Alun on the spectacular Pembrokeshire coast. It’s one of the loveliest of all British cathedrals.
The cathedral is named for the patron saint of Wales, who is known in Welsh as Dewi Sant. Legend says that St. David was born here around the year 500. His mother was St. Non and his grandfather was Ceredig ap Cunedda, King of Ceredigion.
A man of great holiness and renowned preaching ability, St. David established monastic settlements and churches in Wales, Brittany and southwest England as well as in his home on the Pembrokeshire coast. Here he served as an abbot and bishop, and when he died in 589, his monastery was said to have been “filled with angels as Christ received his soul.”
In the twelfth century, Pope Calixtus II declared St. David’s burial site and shrine to be a place of pilgrimage. Two pilgrimages to this cathedral were counted as the equivalent of two to Rome, and during the Middle Ages it rivaled Spain’s Santiago de Compostela in popularity.
The present cathedral was begun in 1181 and stands on the site of the monastery founded by St. David. Its original architectural style was Transitional Norman, with walls of purple Cambrian sandstone. Renovations and additions were made between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, and another major restoration was done 1863-1901.
As the seat of the bishop of St. David’s, today the cathedral is part of the Anglican Church of Wales. The cathedral has a full calendar of services open to all, including Choral Eucharist on Sundays and choral evensong most days.
As you tour St. David’s, take special note of its carved Nave ceiling, a masterpiece of Renaissance artistry, and its beautiful Rose Window. Directly behind the high altar is the Holy Trinity Chapel, which dates from the sixteenth century. Another serene worship space is the Lady Chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. And in the treasury, you can tour exhibits that explore the cathedral’s history.
Near the cathedral are the Gothic ruins of the Bishop’s Palace, which once sheltered royal pilgrims and other distinguished guests. In its heyday it rivaled the cathedral in magnificence, while today its atmospheric ruins contribute to the charm of the cathedral complex.
After touring the cathedral area, walk up the hill to explore the city of St. David’s. Don’t be surprised by its modest size: the term “city” refers to St. David’s status as home to a cathedral and not to its size. It’s actually home to about 1,600 residents, which makes it the smallest city in Britain.
St. Non’s Chapel
A short drive (or a 15-minute walk) from the cathedral is another spot well worth visiting: the thirteenth-century ruins of St. Non’s Chapel, which are located on a quiet spot overlooking St. Non’s Bay.
According to tradition, St. Non gave birth to St. David at this very spot. As she labored alone amid a thunder storm, she gripped the rocks so hard that she left her finger marks behind. The rock split in two in sympathy, and a holy spring welled up for the baby’s baptism.
While the chapel is in ruins, the holy well still exists—an appropriate place to end your visit to this region that is permeated with the spirit of St. David.
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Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of books that include Holy Rover, Near the Exit, The Soul of the Family Tree, and Every Step Is Home. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.