Bishops Palace St Davids

The imposing Bishop’s Palace at St Davids, which has been a ruin since the 17th century, somehow escaped the radical changes made to palaces in use, and as a result is regarded by experts as the most intact medieval palace in Britain.

Although the present structure was the work of Henry de Gower, Bishop from 1328-47, there was a palace on the site before his time, the proof lying in the fact that Henry 11 dined there in 1171 and 1172 and Archbishop Baldwin in 1188, during his tour of Wales drumming up support for the Crusades. Inexplicably there is no reference to a palace in a survey of 1327.

Bishop Gower’s stamp is on the building. There can be no confusion about his trademark decorative arcaded parapet which is also prominently present on Swansea Castle ruins in the City centre and at Lamphey Palace near Pembroke.

King Henry stopped off on his way to Ireland in 1172 and took the opportunity of visiting Ramsey Island, where he released one of his Norway Goshawks at a local Peregrine Falcon. To the King’s astonishment the Peregrine evaded the larger Goshawk’s attack and knocked it down at the King’s feet. Henry was so impressed that from that day on the King sent annually to Ramsey for Peregrine eyasses.

The buildings comprise two main ranges at right angles, a duplicated suite of private and state apartments and an east range, and they are all raised on vaulted undercrofts. The east range and rear wing were built first and contain the Bishop’s Hall and solar, while the south range followed, accommodating the Great Hall, Chamber and Chapel. Built later were the kitchen at the south end of the Bishop’s Hall, the porch and lower connecting corridor and the Bishop’s Chapel at the north end of the east range, linked to the earlier formerly detached three-storey battlemented Gatehouse. The chequered effect of alternate purple Caerbwdy stone and yellow Somerset stone is charmingly decorative and would have stood out far more prominently when the surrounding walls were rendered with lime wash. The most elaborate and eye-catching single feature of the palace is the ornate raised porch affording entry into the south range from the court.

The Bishops were regarded in medieval times as Princes of the Church and enjoyed a royal lifestyle, the Cathedral owning the nearby farm at Penlan and the Mill at Merryvale, which provided meat and corn, while to the west of the Palace are the remains of the fishpond or vivarium, the orchards and dovecote, which most palaces and monasteries maintained to vary the diet.

With its greensward court, the palace is a perfect setting for theatrical performances and parades and Shakespeare plays and other dramatic events are regularly held there. “Murder in the Cathedral” has been performed there on several occasions down the years, and at one memorable performance of “The Tempest” a sudden thunder storm provided an extremely dramatic and alarming accompaniment to the story.

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