I have often found that to tell the story of little places one has to tell the story of the world around it in its entirety. With larger places chances are it’s taking part if not entirely dictating the story of the world as you walk through it. Yet while walking around St. David’s cathedral in Pembrokeshire neither fits. Unlike many of the early Celtic monastic and cathedral sites I’ve visited, it simply feels like it sits on the border of our world almost completely separate. It’s a place that still communicates its story clearly whether your trying to listen or not though.
When this site was founded in the 6th century Christianity on these shores was a different creature to the what it was throughout the rest of Western Europe. Slave markets where alive and well, brutal warfare between tribes and kings was constant, and the local population toiled hard at husbandry of land and animal. The world was dark and filled with everything from malicious spirits to rapacious warriors. Christianity itself had taken on more of an animist meets gnostic form and it carried a bold message. That even something like your master or king did not own his own resources. These were still for god to give, whether it was to the kings slaves or tribesman. In an age where we have extreme focus on things like equality or human rights, it’s easy to forget how a message like this was truly revolutionary in its time.
St. David was a child of his age. His mother St. Non was raped by a prince named Sant and David was the product of that unwilling union. The site here was once called Glyn Rhosyn (Rose Vale) and at one point St. Patrick wanted to found a monastery here, but was told not to as it was reserved by god for another.
There is always something rather meaty to the actions of the early Gaelic saints that I’m rather fond of. St. Patrick chased snakes among many other miracles, St. Columba engaged in wartime diplomacy, spied on enemies, could conjure storms to sink ships... one was so distinctly Irish in his craftiness, the other so distinctly Scottish in his iron. St. David on the other hand was none of these. His main miracle was he raised a hill... a bit superfluous really given how hilly Wales already happened to be. His plant was the leek, he tended bees, fed the poor, and despite his origin story being so filled with the normal rich symbolism found in Celtic mythology... he led a humble life.
The settlement he founded eventually gave way to becoming a monastery and a cathedral site. The Vikings toppled the first one built here in the 11th century, but by then it’s importance in the spiritual and cultural landscape was already well established. In fact in true Holy Roman Empire fashion the church decreed that two pilgrimages to St. David’s made you catholic.... guess it’s one way to boost numbers. We can safely chance a guess that Rome was trying to get ahead of something here; as the site was clearly favoured by saints before St. David and said to have significance in the local spiritual/cultural landscape.
By the 11th century the area where the cathedral and bishops palace sits became the home to England’s marcher lords. Their duty was to protect the border between England and Wales. The story behind the palace attached to the cathedral is just as important as the cathedral itself. The ruins that remain today are not the original palace though. Over the centuries it suffered ransacking and by the time King Henry the VIII finished with it there was very little left of its former majesty. In fact today despite efforts to upkeep it, the site has become both a tourist attraction and home to local wildlife. I kept finding bats in the underground areas.
However one does get the impression of what it once was with a little imagination. I had the site to myself as it’s winter, so the normal flood of loud Americans and Australian expats I encountered last time were thankfully absent.
It was a quite day. The city of St David’s (smallest city in Britain) today is an odd place that sees a boom of tourist in the summer and is a ghost town in the winter. But the place has its roots in the small. What began as a tiny monastic community would later become one of the most strategically important points in the UK due to its proximity to Ireland and the borderlands. Yet it never really projected the same power as Scotland despite the commonalities. It doesn’t tell a story of a place that ever wanted to be big, despite the many chances it had to be so throughout history. Scotland today has a parliament that can set agendas, has put Scottish blood on the throne, hosts our nukes. Wales on the other hand is almost always threatening fade away. There’s a quiet and a humility to it.
The time spent here was worthwhile. If your paying attention you see the story of a place that rises humbly in a time of tribal turmoil and border disputes. Then as the world grew increasingly big around it, a place that adapted as it had to but did its level best to stay small. When used for games of power it was only barely a willing participant. Once those games where over it returned back to as close to it’s original form as it could. St. David is known as the saint who said “Do the little things.” The area definitely projects that feel. It’s a special place that certainly feels as if it’s stayed close to those who founded it.
Well guys this was just a quick write up on my travels. If you made it this far thanks for reading. I’ll be doing some more posts covering Wales and various areas throughout the UK in the near future. Looking forward to all your posts and projects. Keep on Steeming.
And giphy at the end. Giphy.com
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