St. David's cathedral is one of the oldest and most significant Christian sites in Wales. A monastic community was first founded at this location by Saint David in the mid 7th Century. The early monastic community suffered heavily from Viking raids during the first few centuries of its existence, being looted and destroyed on numerous occasions. It's status, however, is reflected by the fact that King Alfred sought the monks' assistance in his efforts to further the intellectual fabric of Wessex during the 9th Century. Furthermore, in 1081AD, William the Conqueror visited St. David's to give his devotions.
When the Normans fully extended their control to the region in 1115AD, Henry I appointed Bishop Bernard as Bishop of St David's. In 1123AD, Pope Calixtus II granted St. David's a papal "privilege", decreeing that two visits to St. David's were equal to one visit to Rome, and three visits equal to one visit to Jerusalem. This made it an extremely important centre of pilgrimage for the western Christian world. Accordingly, work soon began on the construction of a new cathedral, which was dedicated in 1131AD.
The rise in prominence (and most likely revenues) resulted in the need for a grander cathedral. Work began around 1176AD, and was completed in a relatively short space of time. However, it was beset by problems, with the tower collapsing in 1220AD and further damage being suffered as the result of an earthquake in 1247AD.
Despite these setbacks, St. David's continued to prosper and expand throughout the following centuries. Further buildings were added, including the extensive bishop's palace.
As a cathedral, St. David's wasn't subject to dissolution under Henry VIII, but nevertheless felt the impact of the English Reformation. In 1538AD, Bishop Barlow stripped St David's shrine of its jewels and confiscated the relics of St. David and St. Justinian in order to counteract the "superstitious" catholic practice of venerating the remains of saints. The cathedral suffered further during the civil war, when Cromwell's troops inflicted heavy damage upon the building in 1648AD.
It wasn't until the late 18th Century that work on restoring the cathedral began. The Welsh architect, John Nash, was commissioned to restore the west front in 1793AD. His repairs became unstable, and the entire building was subsequently restored under the supervision of George Gilbert Scott between 1862-1870AD.
During the 20th and early 21st Centuries, St. David's gradually clawed its way back to prominence, with subsequent deans and benefactors investing heavily in the building. The west front was again restored, a visitor centre and cafe constructed, and the town of St. David's re-instated as a city.
Today, St. David's cathedral is a bustling centre of Christian activity, tucked away in a remote corner of south west Wales. The church nestles in a wooded hollow beneath the tiny city that bears the same name. Despite the high numbers of tourists that it attracts, it still feels utterly remote, located on the very edge of civilisation. History is palpable all around, and it's easy to get a real sense of how early Christian pilgrims must have felt upon arriving here after an arduous journey through hostile countryside or across rough seas.
Inside, the church has an atmosphere of profound serenity. Despite the ornate decoration, the rough stone fabric helps St. David's retain an earthy simplicity, very much in keeping with its history as a centre of pilgrimage located on the Celtic fringes. It is a place that demands quiet introspection.
The city of of St. David's (more a village, in reality) reflects the modest stature of the cathedral. It is a simple place, full of character, defined by ancient buildings and winding, narrow streets. Combined with the church, this is a magical corner of Wales to visit, where the modern world seems far away, and history hangs heavy in the air.
Update (25.01.2011): Gallery updated with additional images. St. David's Bishop's Palace split out into a separate site guide.