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The Cathedrals of Wales


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The four original Welsh sees have a double claim to distinction. In the first place, they are creations of the ancient British Church, whereas all the early English sees, with the single exception of York, are creations either of the Latin mission that was sent over by Gregory the Great in 597 or of the renascent Christianity that spread southward from Iona towards the close of the seventh century. And, in the second place, they rank among the oldest sees in Britain. Canterbury dates only from 597; whereas Bangor was founded traditionally by S. Deiniol (d. ? 584), S. Asaph by S. Kentigern (d. 603), and S. David's by S. David himself (d. ? 601). Thus Bangor almost certainly, and the other three perhaps, had bishops before the landing of S. Augustine.

The four old Welsh cathedrals are on a very minor scale; all of them lie low, with the exception of S. Asaph; and the situation of Bangor is positively mean. Externally, it shares with Wimborne the arresting peculiarity of a central tower, together with a second at the west. The last, however, is of wholly parochial character, whilst the former dates only from 1873. Originally it was planned for two further upper storeys, with the addition of a lofty, leaded spire. Its unfinished state is deplorable, for it would have given the building a dignity that is at present sadly lacking. It would also have corrected its principal defect: the church is far too low for its length. Whether there was originally a central tower is unknown. Bangor, though of merely parochial proportions, was always a church of cathedral mark; and it is hard to believe that its transepts were planned in the late thirteenth century without the usual cathedral adjunct of a central tower.

These transepts, though reconstructed, are the work of Bishop Anian (1267-1305). Though probably a Welshman, he "anglicised" extensively, for he secured and retained the good-will of Gray's "ruthless King." It was he who arranged the famous "Use of Bangor." The cathedral was burnt by the troops of Owen Glendower in 1404; here and elsewhere in Wales-at Cwmhir and at S. Asaph-Welsh patriotism was content to expend its vehemence in the destruction of venerable Welsh monuments. The building perhaps remained in ruin for a century, or longer; the chancel, at any rate, was apparently rebuilt by Bishop Deane (1494-1500), and the nave arcades and transepts by Bishop Skevington (1509-33). The latter also added the stumpy west tower, with its unusual mode of dating: "Anno Partus Virginei 1532." The subsequent story of the building, till past the middle of the nineteenth century, is one of degradation and decay. It suffered, like its compeers, during the Civil War, when its woodwork and glass were destroyed. It suffered even worse from the base repairs of the later Georgian period. When Scott undertook its restoration its condition was a byword: the interior was divided by a wall; the four great arches of the crossing had disappeared; and, "in short, no cathedral in the United Kingdom" was "equal to it in meanness." The crux of the restoration was the problem of the transepts, which were fast becoming ruinous. These were poor Perpendicular work of the early sixteenth century; but on the south face of the south transept remained some Early Decorated buttresses of the time of Bishop Anian that had escaped the fire of 1404, and that included the curious dwarf example, perhaps unique, at the bottom of the present South window. Moreover, on pulling down the walls it was found that they incorporated an immense number of early fragments. From these it was possible to reconstruct-and Scott actually reconstructed- not conjecturally, but with practical certainty, the design of the original transepts. This involved, of course, the deliberate sacrifice of a quantity of poor, but genuine, Tudor work, and is anathema to the rigid archaeologist. The existing transept, at any rate, is the loveliest part of the church-indeed, its only lovely part -and is far removed from mere anachronistic sham. How much is medieval is readily detected at a glance.

S. Asaph, on a low hill between two rivers, in the broad, open Vale of Clwyd, is smaller even than Bangor, yet much more of a cathedral. The church was burnt by the English in 1282, but rebuilding was begun by Bishop Anian (1268-93). It was burnt again, it is said by Glendower, in 1402, and seems to have remained in ruin till the time of Bishop Redman (1471-96).

The top of the low central tower was re-edified in 1715, after its destruction by a storm; and the Choir was barbarously remodelled c. 1780. Two successive renovations by Scott have restored the church to beauty. The Early Decorated Nave and Transepts, though very plain-the piers, for instance, have no capitals-display unusual breadth and spaciousness, and the Clearstory and great curvilinear West window are points of unusual interest. The Choir is partly Early English; some window jambs of this period which had survived the raid of 1282 were retained in rebuilding by Bishop Anian, and again escaped in 1780. The sedilia are contemporary, as well as the entrance, on the north, to the long since vanished Chapter-house. The stalls are partly the work of Redman, to whom is also due the cradle-roof of the choir. When Gerald came here with Archbishop Baldwin in 1188 to preach the Third Crusade, he described the then existing church as "paupercula sedis Lanelvensis ecclesia" -Llanelwy was the ancient name prior to uoo-and the epithet holds to-day. S. Asaph, however, has one distinction: alone in Wales it is cathedral pure and simple, and does not also serve as parish church.

In the South Transept, which is used as chapterhouse and library, is the recumbent effigy of an early bishop. Chief among the books is Bishop Morgan's Welsh Bible (1588). To Morgan and his coadjutors there is a monument to the north of the cathedral, in the trimly kept churchyard. Other famous bishops are Lloyd (1680-92), one of the celebrated " Seven " in 1688, and Horsley (1802-6), the opponent of Dr. Priestley.

Llandaff, though almost within sight and hearing. of the huge and bustling town of Cardiff, is yet secluded in the depth of a rustic hollow, and dignifies, though it does not dominate, a "city" that is really a village. In certain peculiarities, and in its astonishing vicissitudes, this is in some respects, though less imposing than S. David's, the most notable church in Wales. Of the Norman cathedral begun by Bishop Urban c. 1120 there are still substantial remains. Although, unlike Bangor and S. Asaph, it was convulsed by no violent catastrophe. an effort was still made to rebuild it-it was prob ably too small-during the course of the thirteenth century. This included the complete remodelling of the Norman Nave, and the addition of a Chapterhouse and two west towers. Later came the Lady Chapel, perhaps by Bishop De Braose (1266-87); whilst the Choir was refashioned, and the outer walls of the Aisles reconstructed, during the early half of the fourteenth century. The North-West tower was rebuilt by Jasper Tudor, uncle of Henry VII. The medieval history of the church is thus on fairly normal lines; but it is now dislocated by an astonishing event. Like other British cathedrals, and especially in Wales, it was allowed to sink into neglect and disrepair. None suffered worse than Llandaff, where, by the middle of the "soulless" eighteenth century, battlements had fallen, roofs had largely vanished, and the Nave was a picturesque ruin. But worse was still to come. About 1732 the famous Wood of Bath was called in to aid. Gothic architecture was then in high disdain, and no attempt was made at mere repair. On the contrary, a kind of "Italian Temple" was erected inside the ancient shell, which probably only escaped by an ace the fate of complete demolition. This wretched caricature survived till 1843. In spite of all this cataclysm, the existing cathedral, though greatly renewed, is essentially a medieval monument. Only the South-West tower, with its spire-all very French in character-is modern substitution. The original thirteenth-century steeple, or the little that remained, was finally swept away in 1859.

Chief among the peculiarities of Llandaff is the utter lack of Transepts. This is paralleled at Bourges, but at no cathedral in Britain. Internally the long continuous arcades, of clustered piers, gain immensely thus in apparent length and dignity. Another striking point is the omission of the Triforium, which is unexpected in the thirteenth-century period. Llandaff justifies itself as a church of specific type. The low Lady Chapel, projecting beyond the East end of the Presbytery, like the Lady Chapel at S. David's, links the cathedral with an English school of planning that extends from Chichester, in the south-east, to Chester, in the north-west, but is never found in north or east England. The lovely Norman arch by which it opens to the Choir is, of course, a waif from the earlier building. For some inexplicable reason the fourteenth-century Reredos-as rare as it is beautiful-has been shifted from its original position. On the south of the Presbytery is the reputed tomb of S. Teilo-the second founder of the See-with an Early Decorated recumbent figure; and opposite was once the contemporary effigy of S. Dubricius- if indeed it be really his-that is now in the North Aisle. S. Teilo was originally buried in the church; but S. Dubricius was translated from Bardsey, the "Isle of Saints," by Bishop Urban. In the Lady Chapel is the putative, semi-effigial monument of its probable founder.

Of the Episcopal Palace, sacked by the ubiquitous Glendower in 1402, there remains a fourteenth-century gateway. Llandaff is the "church-enclosure on the Taff," which shallow stream flows on to Cardiff, through a string of pleasant public parks. S. David's is unique: with S. Andrew's, in Scotland, and S. Pol-de-Leon, in Finistere, it has points of contact, but no real likeness. A dozen miles from the nearest railway, closely adjacent to a grandly rocky coast, and situated on a treeless and windswept plateau that is broken here and there by craggy hills which, in all but scale, are mountains, it remains, in a land of mist and legend, the remotest site in Britain. Here, as at Llandaff, the cathedral is in a hole: only the balustrade d early sixteenth-century summit of its gaunt, top-heavy-looking central tower-notice the curiously small windows - is seen from the village street. Just as Bangor, in its Tudor Nave and Choir, exhibits the latest cathedral building in Wales, so S. David's, in its late twelfth-century core, exhibits some of the earliest. This was erected by Bishop Peter de Leia (1176-98); but the Choir was destroyed, and the Transepts largely wrecked, by the fall of the central tower-as so many Norman central towers fell-in 1220. The reconstructed Presbytery, however, though introducing the pointed arch, is otherwise closely based on its Transition predecessor--as remarkable an example of architectural assimilation as we find in the Nave of Beverley.

The Caerbwdy slate of which the cathedral is built, though of a singularly hard purple when new-cut, softens to the most delicious hues. Nothing is more beautiful-not the tender red of Chester, the warm brown tint of Lincoln, or the creamy whiteness of Brou. If the exterior is severe, it is, after all, in keeping with surroundings that themselves have much austerity. Very impressive, on the north, are the huge buttresses of the Nave, and the curious, virtually detached pile-it actually overtops the chancel roof-of which S. Thomas's Chapel forms the base. The West front, which had been barbarised by Nash in 1793, has been restored to some extent in conformity to its original design.

Internally, the late Transition Nave, with its low, circular-headed arches, with its massive, shafted piers, with capitals of bent scallop-a typical west country detail-alternately octagonal and round, as though planned for sexpartite vaulting, and with its wealth of chevron ornament, is the richest example of its period in the kingdom. The strange combination of Triforium and Clearstory--though the Tri-forium is strongly marked-gives practically a two-storied elevation, and is unique at so early a date. Also unique, and very splendid, is the wonderful wooden roof, with its endless pendants and fretted arches-meretricious, no doubt, in construction, yet still a piece of magnificent carpentry--with which the Nave was ceiled by Treasurer Owen Pole (1472-1509). Notable, too, are the wooden sedilia; and the tomb of Edmund Tudor (d. 1456), father of Henry VII, which was brought from the Grey Friars at Carmarthen. Many a bigger church-for instance, York-has less to show in points of special interest. Yet perhaps the chief distinction, matched only at S. Albans, is the possession of two shrine-pedestals -the actual shrines, of course, have vanished-of S. David and S. Caradoc. Each exhibits the pierced quatrefoils that were probably intended for the insertion of withered limbs, in hope of a miraculous cure. It is possible that the relics of the two saints were hidden at the Reformation in the curious niche at the back of the High Altar. At any rate, when opened, it was found to be full of bones.

Immediately west of the cathedral-the little Alan flows between-is the immense Episcopal Palace, built by Gower c. 1340. Certainly no English prelate was ever lodged more proudly-not even the "Prince-Bishops" of Durham, whose lodging, after all, was half "castle 'gainst the Scot." Similarly this vast court, it has been suggested, was partly meant as a guest-house for pilgrims to the shrines. The apparition of this huge ruin in this lost corner of the world, and in immediate touch with a cathedral of such relative humility, certainly "strikes a man more dead," as Touchstone says, "than a great reckoning in a little room." All building done by Gower-and he has been dubbed the "Menevian Wykeham" - is stamped, like Wykeham's work, with strong individuality.

Since the Welsh Church was disestablished in 1920, two new sees have been created, of Newport, and Swansea and Brecon. The double title of the latter, like S. Edmundsbury and Ipswich, is a compromise between powerful civic ambitions and strong archaeological claims. Of S. Woollos's church at Newport there needs little to be said. Its one conspicuous point is the strange thirteenth-century chapel between the Norman Nave, with its remarkable West doorway, and the Perpendicular West tower. Brecon Priory, on the contrary, in this land of small cathedrals, justifies its new cathedral status. Founded by Bernard Newmarch towards the close of the eleventh century as a cell to the Benedictine Battle Abbey, it was gradually extended and rebuilt, the Chancel and Transepts in 1200-50, and the Aisles, Transeptal chapels, and Tower during the fourteenth century.

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Pictures for The Cathedrals of Wales

S. David's Shrine, North Aisle of Choir
S. David's Shrine, North Aisle of Choir >>>>
Llandaff West Front: a Cathedral without Transepts
Llandaff West Front: a Cathedral without Transepts >>>>
S. Davids Cathedral: South Corner of Screen
S. Davids Cathedral: South Corner of Screen >>>>
S. Asaph, in the Vale of Clwyd
S. Asaph, in the Vale of Clwyd >>>>
Bangor, the Foundation of S. Deiniol
Bangor, the Foundation of S. Deiniol >>>>
A Priory, now the Cathedral of Swansea and Brecon
A Priory, now the Cathedral of Swansea and Brecon >>>>
Interior of Newport Cathedral
Interior of Newport Cathedral >>>>
S. Woolloss Church, Cathedral of Newport
S. Woolloss Church, Cathedral of Newport >>>>
King Richards Well and Market Bosworth
King Richards Well and Market Bosworth >>>>

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