One of the many qualities of St Asaph would have to be its ability to fend off the ambitions of others to remove its status as a cathedral city, removing its influence and power to other towns within north east Wales. In 1578-79, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Baron Denbigh, favourite of Elizabeth I and virtual governor of North Wales ordered a new church to be built in Denbigh, within the walls of Denbigh Castle, with the intention of replacing St Asaph as the cathedral city in north east Wales.
It was to be a magnificent monument to the new Protestant faith that had been established in England through the Reformation instigated by Henry VIII in the 1530s. Dudley was an ardent puritan, a supporter of the faith and those persecuted for its practice, wherever in Europe they may be. He also favoured the Presbyterian faith and its preaching or ‘prophesying’, embedded into the fabric of his new church. Unfortunately, Dudley was also largely despised by those he ruled in north Wales, considered rapacious in his demands and idle in his efforts to promote his north Walian holdings.
The church was never finished, largely due to financial pressures, though Thomas Pennant claims failure was also due to the hatred for him, as well as the unfortunate acquisition of the collected funds by the Earl of Essex, which were never returned.
‘Leicester left off his buildings in Wales by reason of the public hatred he had incurred on account of his tyranny. A sum was afterwards collected in order to complete the work, but it is said that when the earl of Essex passed through Denbigh on his Irish expedition he borrowed money destined for the purpose, which was never repaid, and by that means the church was left unfinished.’
Thomas Pennant ‘Travels through Wales’ Vol 1 (1786-89)
Describing Dudley’s new church as ‘magnificent’ is perhaps a little disingenuous, in that the term lends itself to the notion of beauty. This being a Puritan building, rather than Catholic, its chief power was its raw power. Consider and compare the cathedrals of Liverpool, both Anglican and Roman Catholic, both magnificent and inspiring, but quite different in both size and line. Dudley’s church was to be a large rectangular affair, some 172 feet in length and 72 feet in width. From the outside, the building is Puritan plain, with the only decoration, and you get the sense this was added somewhat reluctantly, being the four corner quoins and some roll mouldings beneath the windows. The windows themselves would have been glazed with clear glass, in order to illuminate the nave and chancel with ‘pure’ light, enabling those within to better follow the service from their prayer books and witness the ‘preaching’ of the vicar from the pulpit rather than the focus being on the altar.
Internally, the church was a simple design, though notably grand. It would have enjoyed a broad central aisle, around 27 feet in width with what would have been much narrower side aisles, all traces of which are now lost. It is thought that the church would have been divided into a nave of seven bays and a chancel of three, arcades of Tuscan columns, though it must be said this is not absolutely certain. It is known that a foundation stone, dated 1578, along with a dedication stone of 1579 survived for nearly 200 years. The first vicar was William Morgan, famed for his translation of the Bible into Welsh and published in 1588. His position was as a sinecure, essentially a role without responsibility since the Church was never finished, laid low by the cost, the lack of support both locally and politically, and perhaps even the lack of interest of Dudley himself with the death of his only son in 1584 and an end to his dynastic ambitions.
Robert Dudley died in 1588, and while his debts were cleared by Elizabeth I, no one seemed interested in finishing the building of this would-be Puritan cathedral. In the years following, it stood as a reminder of Dudley’s ambitions, stark and oddly beautiful. It is said to have been used for cock fighting, perhaps as a convenient open space, but possibly because it was consecrated ground and thus immune to the dark trickery that was thought to be involved in influencing the result of such entertainments. It is possible that it was used for duelling, its long length suitable for such sport. It remains the only new large church built during the Elizabethan era, and the first of the emerging Puritan age built for the purposes of preaching. Others came after, but Leicester’s Church remains the first.
The interior is not currently accessible, though is opened during CADWs Open Doors events in September. Parking is available in the nearby Castle car park and is currently free.