In, ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ there is a conversation between the King of Swamp Castle and his son, Prince Herbert, in which the father explains the history of his castle.
‘Listen, lad. I built this kingdom up from nothing. When I started here, all there was was swamp. Other kings said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show 'em. It sank into the swamp. So, I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So, I built a third one. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp, but the fourth one... stayed up! And that's what you're gonna get, lad: the strongest castle in these islands.’
‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ (Terry Jones, Terry Gillam 1975)
The history of St Asaph Cathedral reminds one of that conversation, to some extent. Since its foundation in the 12th century, the smallest Anglican cathedral in Britain has been vandalised, burnt down, repaired and extended, burnt down again and repaired, partly blown down, repaired and extended again and finally ‘restored’ in that great frantic paroxysm of restoration in the 19th century. Of course, other cathedrals have suffered such dedicated damage, but given its diminutive stature, St Asaph seems to have suffered more than most…
St Asaph as a cathedral can trace its past back to St Kentigern, a 6th century Strathclyde Briton exiled to North East Wales and founding a monastery on the banks of the River Elwy. Returning to Strathclyde, he left his foundation in the hands of his devoted disciple, Asaph. Nothing remains of that 6th century building, which is no real surprise, given the Norman’s penchant of reducing a past that did not include them to a salt-sown memory. However, the 12th century cathedral has also been obliterated from a masonry record. Apparently, after some considerable vandalization by English forces in 1245, the forces of William de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick accidently burnt the cathedral to the ground during Edward I’s campaign against the Gruffudd brothers near forty years later in 1282. This despite Anian, Bishop of St Asaph strongly supporting Edward I in his endeavours to subdue this intransigent part of Wales. In a tremendous fit of pique, and perhaps in one of the most staggering examples of ill-advised petulance, Anian retaliated for this conflagration by refusing to excommunicate the Welsh rebels, the only Bishop to so refuse, and by leaving the smouldering ruins of his Cathedral for parts elsewhere. Edward ordered the confiscation of Anian’s goods and even after North Wales was finally subdued, refused to allow the Bishop to return. A rapprochement was negotiated through the tired efforts of Archbishop Pecham, but Anian was required to pay 500 marks to the king and doff his cap to every whim of Edward’s relating to the diocese. Edward in turn paid a derisory sum of 100 marks in compensation for the damage to the Cathedral.
The years 1284 – 1392 were ones of rebuilding and expansion. Local sandstones, both the yellow of Talacre and the red of the Rhuddlan were used extensively on the exterior. The free tenants of the Dean and chapter were expected to provide labour to work the ‘red rock’ every day but Sundays and holy days (of which, it is interesting to note, there were far more than the bank holidays enjoyed today). Anian apparently paid for these works by encouraging pilgrims to visit the tomb of St Asaph and make offerings to the fabric of the Cathedral. It is possible that the Cathedral might well have benefited from those travelling to St Winefride’s Well at Holywell. Anian was succeeded by Llywelyn of Bromfield, the works continuing through a reorganisation of the administration of the tithes payable to the diocese. It would seem that during these years, the nave arcades, the crossing and the upper parts of the west front were rebuilt, a new west doorway also being created. Aisle walls were repaired, cusped windows added and lastly, the great transepts added between 1315 and 1320. Much money was raised from a bequest of Llewelyn ap Madoc, the Bishop of St Asaph (1357-1375), and this seems to have spurred more work on the Cathedral, funding the building of the bell-tower by Robert Fagan of Chester between 1391 – 1392.
That bell-tower lasted all of ten years before being destroyed, along with the rest of the Cathedral by Owain Glyndwr in 1402. Browne Willis writing in his, ‘Survey of St Asaph’ (1747) describes how the Cathedral lay in ruins for eighty years, ‘with only the walls standing’. Owain Glyndwr clearly felt the Cathedral was a symbol of English control perhaps remembering the deeds of Anian and the removal of St Asaph into English influence, even though its Bishop John Trevor had allied himself with the Welsh prince. The Cathedral was once again repaired, the transepts finally being roofed over during the bishopric of Richard Redman (1471-95).
A happy two a half centuries followed in which nothing was vandalised or burnt down. In 1601-04 William Morgan was Bishop of St Asaph. This learned man of Ty Mawr Wybrnant had translated the Old Testament into Welsh (and revised the Welsh translation of the New Testament undertaken by William Salesbury in 1567) while parish priest at Llanrhaeadr yr Mochnant. It is rare to come across an individual who so entirely influenced their nation for the better. The Welsh translation of the Old Testament was not used solely for the religious betterment of the people of Wales, but in fact sustained the Welsh language for centuries to come. It is believed that as a direct consequence of the translation of the Bible into Welsh, perhaps the only book available to many people, during the 17th and 18th centuries Wales was one of the most literate nations in Europe. Stick that in your PISA pipe and smoke it. Morgan is buried at St Asaph where there is a Bible Translators Memorial, celebrating the efforts of seven other Welsh men who played a part in the translation of the Bible into Welsh, including Gabriel Goodman of Ruthin who assisted Morgan at his work. It should be remembered that it was an Act of Parliament on Elizabeth I’s instigation which authorised the translation,
‘because the English tongue is not understood of the most and greatest number of all her majesty's most living and obedient subjects inhabiting Wales’.
The Cathedral was damaged in the English Civil War, and was repaired under the care of Bishop Griffith (1660 – 69) while in 1715 the bell tower was destroyed and was of course replaced. The ubiquitous Turners of Chester remodeled the choir in 1778-90 and undertook repairs and furnished the choir at the beginning of the 19th century. Sir George Gilbert Scott undertook a huge restoration in the years 1867-75, and further restoration took place in 1929-32 by C.M. Oldrid Scott, a grandson of Sir Gilbert Scott.
St Asaph might well be the smallest cathedral in England and Wales, but it does not lack for beauty or, as Dr. Johnson claimed, ‘something of dignity and grandeur’. It has certainly played a hugely important role in the history of Wales, and though often battered by the vicissitudes of Anglo-Welsh conflict, Civil War and sheer bad luck, it remains stoically, stubbornly present.