St Asaph, the tiny ‘cathedral city’ of North East Wales, has very ancient origins. Whether or not the Roman fort of ‘Varae’ really stood here, the site was certainly settled in about 560 by St. Kentigern, a son of the Arthurian hero Owain ab Urien who was forced to flee his native Scotland.
Nearly a thousand monks (it is said) gathered round this charismatic figure, also known by his childhood nickname ‘Mungo’ (‘most dear’) as patron saint of Glasgow. When he returned there, he consigned his Welsh monastery to his favourite pupil, a local man named Asaph. In time Llanelwy - ‘the church by the river Elwy’, still its Welsh name - became known as St. Asaph: its continuous history as a bishopric dates from 1143.
St. Asaph Cathedral
The smallest ancient cathedral in Wales or England - it is only 182 feet long, smaller for example than the church of Valle Crucis - St Asaph suffered from its proximity to the main invasion route into North Wales. Begun in about 1239, it was disastrously burnt by Edward I’s English soldiers in 1282; substantially rebuilt between 1284 and 1381; but burnt again by Owain Glyndwr’s Welsh troops in 1402; repaired in the late 15th century; and thoroughly remodelled by the Victorian architect Gilbert Scott in 1867 -75.
What now remains is a largely 14th century shell with many Victorian alterations. The most striking medieval features within are the unusual pillars and arches of the spacious nave, flowing into each other uninterrupted by ‘capitals’ (heads) on the pillars. The somewhat severe effect produced is attributed to masons from Caernarfon Castle, and accustomed to military architecture: it contributes much to the ‘dignity and grandeur’ (Dr. Johnson) of this ‘strong and grave Welsh cathedral church’ (Hubbard).
The canons’ stalls by the high altar - the only medieval canopied stalls in North Wales - are by contrast elaborately decorated and carved. They date from the late 15th century, when local woodcarving reached a peak of excellence. Finely sculptured, too, is the tomb of Bishop Anian II, who began the great rebuilding of the cathedral in 1284. The tomb lies in the south nave aisle, near the ‘Greyhound Stone’ with its hound, hare, shield and sword, a knightly memorial of c 1330. Two and a half centuries later, in Queen Elizabeth’s reign, St. Asaph became a focus of an enterprise crucial to the survival of the Welsh language - the translation into Welsh of the Bible and Prayer Book. The translators, including Bishop William Morgan and other St. Asaph clergy, are remembered in the north transept by a display of early Welsh editions, and again by the prominent ‘Translators Memorial’ on the Cathedral Green.
The main street of old St. Asaph city runs downhill from the cathedral to the river Elwy, past several old houses largely disguised by later frontages. At the bottom is the parish church of St. Kentigern and St. Asaph, a late medieval double-naved building with an attractive interior. Separated by slender pillars, the two naves have very different east windows, but both have fine hammer-beam roofs, decked with angels in the older south aisle. By the altar there is a rare 14th century double piscina sink for washing sacred vessels.
Cathedral usually open daily 7.30 am - 6.00 pm; closes at 4.30 pm in winter. St. Kentigern’s open weekdays by appointment.
Contact the Deanery (01745 583597)
Parish Church of St. Kentigern and St. Asaph
Willaim Morgan, Translators' Memorial St. Asaph Cathedral
Engraving of St. Asaph, dated 1860: Denbighshire Record Office