Of the thirty five pre-Norman religious foundations known to exist in Wales, only three reside in the area of north east Wales within the purvey of this site. St Asaph (Llanelwy) is one of two in Denbighshire, the other being Llangollen, while Bangor-on-Dee (Bangor-Is-y-Coed) is in Wrexham County. St Asaph was formally raised to the status of a city on 1st June 2012, though of course the presence of the Cathedral meant that for many years it had been considered a city, though the traditional means of assigning city status had fallen away somewhat.
The City gained its Welsh name, 'Llanelwy', from its site on the River Elwy which runs through it, and of course from the ‘Llan’ which identifies it as a religious foundation. It is thought that a monastery or clas, a mother church was founded here in around 560 AD by St Kentigern, an exiled Strathclyde Briton. On a change of leadership in his homeland, St Kentigern was invited back to Strathclyde and his favoured pupil, St Asaph was elected as his replacement. On Kentigern’s departure, we are told in ‘A life of Kentigern’ by Bishop Jocelin that Asaph was left with 300 brethren after taking 665 with him. The fact that this passage would suggest that the monastery at Llanelwy had 965 monks would suggest that either the monastery was one of the largest foundations in the British Isles or that Jocelin was, perhaps, a little prone to exaggeration.
St Asaph first enters reliable written history in 1143 with the bishopric of ‘Lanelvensis Ecclesiae’ being recorded while in the great Norman reorganisation of the church in England and Wales, while the first mention of its subsequent name of St Asaph is made in 1291 with the Pope Nicholas taxation recording the place as, ‘Ecclesia Cathedralis de Sancto Asaph’.
While the history of St Asaph seems to be inextricably linked to its importance as a religious foundation, we can push back the history of the site much further. The much battered chambered tomb of Tyddyn Bleiddyn takes us back to the Neolithic, and not much further away is the much older Pontnewydd Caves, taking us back to the time of the early-Neanderthal. St Asaph is the site favoured by historians for the location of the Roman fort of Varis, known to exist but never found. Possibly on the site of the Cathedral, HM Stanley Hospital, or even Bryn Polyn, the network of roads known to exist suggest a considerable Roman presence in St Asaph.
St Asaph was attacked by Owain Glyndwr in 1402, as was much in area in the first few years of Glyndwr’s rage, and the cathedral was destroyed. In his 1607 work, Britannia, Camden says of St Asaph, ‘Neither is the towne for any beauty it hath, nor for the Church for building or braverie memorable, yet some thing would bee said of it in regard of antiquity’
John Speed’s 1611 plan of St Asaph shows a small settlement, its building scattered amongst a small network of streets, while his idiosyncratic map shows that the Elwy seems to flow much closer to the settlement at that time, and that the bridge across the river was further north than today. By the time of Richard Colt-Hoare’s journey through Wales in 1801, St Asaph was not much bigger, agreeing with Gerald of Wales in describing it as, ‘paupercula’.
The historical heart of Christian St Asaph is not, in truth the Cathedral, but probably the Church of St Kentigern and St Asaph. Sited at the end of High Street, close to the River Elwy and its mills, it probably represents the site of the original clas. While much altered since the 6th century, it does boast a sundial which could well be 6th century in origin, contemporary to the arrival of Kentigern.
Many of the buildings in St Asaph are of 16th and 17th century. The current bridge across the Elwy was built in 1770, and as mentioned seems to have replaced a bridge a little further downstream, thought to have been a timber structure, or perhaps a ford. About half a mile to the north east of the city and across the modern expressway, there is the remains of Pont Dafydd, once crossing the River Clwyd, and now abandoned by both the river and the road. It is believed to be of the 1630s. Perhaps one of the most wonderful sights in St Asaph is the stand of the very rare Black Poplars in the Roe Plas beside the bridge. Close by is the memorial to the controversial explorer Henry Morton Stanley, born in Denbigh but raised in the St Asaph workhouse, which became the now closed H.M. Stanley Hospital. St Asaph is also the birth place of Felix and George Powell, brothers who became famous for writing the First World War morale boosting song, ‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile’ and described as, ‘perhaps the most optimistic song ever written’ by the National Theatre. George also went by the rather wonderful name, ‘George Asaf’.