The Welsh cathedrals 1066-1300


Institute of Historical Research



M.J. Pearson

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'Introduction: The Welsh cathedrals 1066-1300', Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1066-1300: volume 9: The Welsh cathedrals (Bangor, Llandaff, St Asaph, St Davids) (2003), pp. XIX-XXIV. URL: Date accessed: 16 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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The Church in medieval Wales was created from a fusion of native and AngloNorman reforming ideals and ecclesiastical practice; the cathedrals themselves were small, in comparison to their English and European counterparts. Moreover, during the thirteenth century Bangor and St Asaph suffered severe damage due to English military campaigns.

By the early 1140s four territorial bishoprics had been created or recreated within Wales: in south Wales St Davids and Llandaff; and Bangor and St Asaph in north Wales. The development of the usual ecclesiastical infrastructure - chapters, archdeaconries, rural deaneries and parishes - took, in most cases, rather longer to evolve than European and English examples.

The context of chapter formation was one of violent conquest and intimidation caused by the arrival of the Normans. Fresh from the conquest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, William the Conqueror granted to various Norman lords the opportunity to appropriate lands and influence within the Welsh March. Very soon the earls of Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford were casting predatory eyes on the areas ruled by native Welsh kings: paradoxically, although South Wales was initially the location of intense Norman colonization, by the early 1090s it was the native elites of Gwynedd and Powys that had lost nearly all of their ancestral lands to the newcomers. (fn. 1) The later eleventh and early twelfth centuries witnessed increasing royal interest in Wales as a result of the treachery of the descendants of the Marcher lords favoured in the 1070s, (fn. 2) and the death in 1093 of Rhys ap Tewdwr, coupled with the resurgence of native Welsh power in Gwynedd personified by the career of Gruffudd ap Cynan.

This second phase of Welsh-Norman hostilities also witnessed political settlements between the kings of England and Welsh rulers: Henry I allowed Gruffudd to exercise power in Llyn, Eifionydd, Ardudwy, Arllechwedd and Anglesey, recreating in effect the kingdom of Gwynedd; (fn. 3) and Cadwgan ap Bleddyn was granted dominion in Powys. (fn. 4) Henry, however, invaded Wales twice, in 1114 and 1121, in order to try to curb the ambitions of Gwynedd and Powys. Overall, Henry I's reign witnessed the entrenchment of royal and Marcher power in South Wales, particularly in the south-west; by 1130 the revenues from Pembroke were accounted for at the Westminster exchequer and recorded in the Pipe Rolls. (fn. 5) The disturbed political conditions attending the period of Stephen's attempted governance allowed the Welsh elites greater freedom to regain their independence.

As potent as the military power of the Normans from the 1070s were the ideas and practices introduced into Wales, particularly in the sphere of ecclesiastical affairs; these were adopted and adapted by the native elites. Before the eleventh century Welsh dioceses in the fixed territorial sense were not the norm: a major centre of ecclesiastical power, the clas church or monasterium, exerted influence through daughter-houses, and the area of this influence waxed and waned with the power that the local ruler could exert over his neighbours. The term clas, plural clasau, probably derived from classis, meaning a gathering or group of people, a corpus or collegium. Perhaps of monastic origin, such churches were headed by either a bishop or an abbot, and were usually regarded as mother-churches, although the term could be applied to smaller ecclesiastical institutions. Claswyr, or those clerics who normally lived within the church, were usually styled canons; however, this title is a post-Norman usage which reflects the conditions of that period. It has been argued that the claswyr and the head of the clas/monasteriun each received half of the revenues due to the church, but this evidence also dates from the postNorman period. (fn. 6) In the law-book of Gwynedd, known as Llyfr Iorwerth, a tractate gave detailed descriptions as to who could and could not ask for sanctuary within a clas, its outer limits of protection or nawdd, and compensation for offences committed while in sanctuary; (fn. 7) this concept of nawdd or protection can be found in many sources. (fn. 8) Various other passages in the law-books concerning sacrilege also refer to clasau. (fn. 9)

Before the twelfth century a number of episcopal centres may be identified: Bangor and St Davids exercised undefined episcopal power over their respective areas, and yet Clynnog in the former, and Llanbadarn Fawr in the latter, were sites of equal importance. There must have been churches of reputation in north-east Wales, but that region was too politically disturbed to offer an attractive area for sustained episcopal authority in the tenth and eleventh centuries. In the south-east of the country from the late sixth to the early tenth centuries a bishop was probably based at Welsh Bicknor or Llangynidr; Llandeilo Fawr, in the eighth to ninth centuries, also possessed a bishop. Certainly by the tenth century these cult centres had lost their bishops; and by the early eleventh century were supplanted by the virgin site of Llandaff. (fn. 10)

The creation of Welsh cathedral chapters generally took place during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, many years after their English and European counterparts. The exception was the chapter at St Davids. There is no doubt that such an institution was constituted by Bernard, the first Norman bishop of St Davids. This energetic royal cleric was ordained bishop in 1115, (fn. 11) and according to Gerald's retrospective account, on arriving at St Davids, Bernard discovered a pre-Norman clas foundation consisting of Glaswir/Claswyr. (fn. 12) These he transformed into a body of secular canons. However, this occurrence might not be attributable to the beginning of Bernard's episcopate: in the De Invectionibus a letter from pope Honorius II (1124-30) describes the elite of the cathedral as a conventus rather than a capitulum. (fn. 13) This could well indicate that the re-organization took place in the mid to late 1120s; in the 1130s and 1140s capitulum is used. (fn. 14) The original number of canons cannot be fixed, but they were probably a mixture of Welsh and Norman; the four archdeaconries were developed during Bernard's time, but the archdeaconry of Cardigan was possibly the last to be instituted. (fn. 15) There was no dean until 1831, and the offices of precentor, chancellor and treasurer appeared during the thirteenth century. (fn. 16)

Territorial prebends were probably not the creation of Bernard: they gradually formed during the second half of the twelfth century, and until then the canons probably relied on their common fund, which was centred on lands surrounding the cathedral. At the beginning of its existence the chapter had no say over episcopal alienation of church lands; as in English, Norman and German cathedrals, control over this aspect of ecclesiastical property was gained slowly. (fn. 17) Prebends appear in the sources from the late twelfth century, mostly in the writings of Gerald of Wales, although it is possible that they had been evolving for some decades. (fn. 18)

Unlike St Davids, Llandaff did not possess a fully constituted chapter until the beginning of the thirteenth century. In the previous century the kin group of the clas of Llancarfan had dominated the familia of Llandaff. (fn. 19) Bishop Henry (1193- 1218) created the chapter: in c. 1214 he started to use a new episcopal seal, with a more sophisticated rendering of the clothes of the bishop, and an addition 'by the grace of God' to the episcopal inscription. (fn. 20) During the same period the chapter received its second seal, and this marks the further development of the familia into a chapter. (fn. 21) This probably occurred in 1212, the year Innocent III lifted the papal interdict against Wales in order to strengthen Llywelyn ab Iorwerth's campaign against king John. (fn. 22) Bishop Henry probably took advantage of this favourable Welsh ecclesiastical situation. The higher offices of the chapter were developed from the 1220s, although archdeacons had been a feature since the eleventh century. (fn. 23)

Territorial prebends evolved at the time of chapter creation: substantial episcopal lands and churches - many of them of pre-Norman origin - were alienated and presented to the new chapter. Only three churches remained in the hands of the bishop. (fn. 24) A history of Llandaff, written in French, and inserted within the Book of Llandaff, records that fourteen prebends were instituted; this was the number in the fourteenth century, the probable date of the composition of the French history. (fn. 25) A further list in the same work notes a prebend for the bishop, precentor, chancellor, treasurer, archdeacon, seven churches - namely seven additional livings and two named canons. (fn. 26) The 1254 Valuation of Norwich lists the four dignities and nine prebendaries, but not their prebends; in 1291, apart from the four dignities, five named prebendaries and their titles are given, one prebendary lacks the title to his living, and there is probably one prebend without the name of the incumbent. (fn. 27)

At Bangor a chapter was developed sometime in the period between 1177 and 1215; certainly by the latter year, when king John requested the chapter to elect as its new bishop the abbot of Whitland. (fn. 28) It is more difficult to narrow down these dates. Institutional changes were taking place during the final decade of the twelfth century and the first years of the thirteenth century: the number of archdeacons rose from three to four, then once more dropped to three; (fn. 29) a fluid organization is generally a indicator of administrative changes. A dean first appears in the sources in 1236, but this is not necessarily the date at which this dignity was created. No further higher offices were created in the thirteenth century. Gerald writes in his De Invectionibus that the totum capitulum had, in 1190, unanimously picked Rotoland, subprior of Aberconwy, as the new bishop of Bangor, and Gerald is one of the better sources for the Welsh church of this period. Finally the religious context of late twelfth-century north-west Wales fits in with capitular development. (fn. 30) There were no prebends in the thirteenth-century chapter: ecclesiastical estates were divided equally between bishop and chapter, as was the common fund. (fn. 31) This was the practice of pre-Norman clas churches. The limited number of canons, eleven in 1291, might well explain the reason for such a low-key financial structure. (fn. 32)

A similar picture emerges at St Asaph: chapter formation appears to have occurred during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The first clear reference to a chapter is in 1233. (fn. 33) The office of dean was probably instituted in the first quarter of the thirteenth century and, as at Bangor, institutional experimentation was an indication of chapter evolution. The dignities of precentor and chancellor were also the products of the first quarter or so of the thirteenth century (the former perhaps a little later); the treasurer appeared only towards the end of the century. Overall, chapter formation can be broadly dated to the episcopate of Reiner (1186-1224), but cannot be pinpointed more precisely. (fn. 34)

It appears that two archdeacons, rather than one, operated within the boundaries of the bishopric: archdeacons of St Asaph appear in the sources from the 1160s, but a native Welsh family, based at the pre-Norman church of Meifod, also acted for a time, describing themselves as archdeacons when attesting charters. This family group undoubtedly existed in the early twelfth century, but most of their careers can be dated using charters of the later twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. (fn. 35)

The financial structure of the chapter at St Asaph was more complex than that of Bangor. It is uncertain when territorial prebends were introduced, all that can be stated for certain is that it was during the thirteenth century. Six prebends were in existence in the 1290s: one each for the dean, precentor, chancellor, and treasurer, and an additional prebend split into two portions. In addition to this framework a number of separate portions, based on four churches, plus additionally derived portions, were used to provide livings for the canons. Moreover, the revenue from fifteen townships was divided between bishop and chapter; three additional townships were the sole preserve of the canons. The minor canons obtained their income from the prebend of Gwyddelwern. (fn. 36)

Chapter formation in Wales was slow in comparison to English and European models. Why was this? One important reason for the late institution of Welsh chapters was the initial lack of a diocesan system, in marked contrast to England and France. A major component in the evolution of Welsh chapters was the assimilation of new forms of church government. This ecclesiastical renewal was carried from its northern-French heartland to the rest of western Europe in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries. These ideas only started to develop in the ecclesiastical framework of Wales from the second half of the twelfth century; and it is no coincidence that the first Welsh cathedral to endow a chapter, St Davids, was located in one of the areas most influenced by the invader. However, southernWelsh experience of chapter formation, as known in Llandaff, vividly illustrates the influence of a familia in the adoption of chapters in Wales.

Llandaff was dominated by its familia, and its members probably wished to maintain such arrangements in order to preserve their influence. Once a chapter was formed this family very soon lost its influential position, so clearly it had been right to fear the approach of a chapter. Moreover, the main political influence within the dioceses came from the Marcher lords, and perhaps, unlike the crown, they were not interested in the appearance of a cathedral chapter, and left the running of the cathedral to the familia. It is obvious that native Welsh reformers were just as influential in the timing of the appearance of chapters. This interplay is well illustrated by Bangor. Northern-French religious practices were increasingly making their presence felt during the final quarter of the twelfth century; contemporaneously there were vigorous native ecclesiastics like Alexander the archdeacon and Gwion the bishop of Bangor. (fn. 37)

The role of Welsh rulers in this process is more difficult to determine. The princes of north-west Wales wished to keep their churches independent of Canterbury. Perhaps they were averse to substituting older practices which served them well for new forms of church governance whose representatives could well be influenced by, and become supporters of, the king of England and his archbishop. The events of the 1270s, when the chapters of Bangor and St Asaph turned against Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, illustrated that such fears were not misplaced. However, for most of the thirteenth century the cathedral chapters of north Wales remained loyal to the princes, and individual canons acted as administrators and diplomats for their native princes. It could be argued that the rulers of Gwynedd preferred chapters because they were susceptible to the patronage of princes; whereas the familia of a particular cathedral was a closed and self-perpetuating society into which Welsh rulers would have found it difficult to intrude favoured candidates. The constitutional role of the bishops of Welsh dioceses in the development of chapters needs to be emphasised. A familia could well have been interested in providing itself with a chapter, but in Wales the dynamic force leading to capitular evolution was supplied by the bishops: Bernard in St Davids; Henry at Llandaff; Gwion, or perhaps Robert, in Bangor; and Reiner at St Asaph.

Overall a Celtic pattern of chapter formation emerges from a comparative examination. Most of the Irish and Scottish chapters appeared during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The reasons for these developments are very similar to those proposed for Welsh chapters; and such an analysis provides a fruitful line for further research.


1 J. E. Lloyd. 'Wales and the coming of the Normans (1039-1093)', Cymmrodorion (1899-1900) 122-79, at pp. 146-64.
2 R. R. Davies, Conquest, Coexistence, and Change: Wales 1063-1415 (Oxford, 1987) pp. 35-6.
3 The History of Gruffydd ap Cynan, ed. A. Jones (Manchester, 1910) p. 151; Historia Gruffud vab Kenan, ed. D. S. Evans (Cardiff, 1977) p. 28; C. P. Lewis, 'Gruffudd ap Cynan and the Normans', Gruffudd ap Cynan: a Collaborative Biography, ed. K. L. Maund (Woodbridge, 1996) pp. 61-77.
4 Brut Peniarth Text pp. 28b-29a; Brut Peniarth Transl. p. 21.
5 Pipe Roll 31 Henry I, ed. J. Hunter (1833) pp. 136-7.
6 Gir. Cambr. III 153; Llyfr Iorwerth: a Critical Text of the Venodotian Code of Medieval Welsh Law mainly from B. M. Cotton Titus D. ii, ed. A. R. Wiliam (Cardiff, 1960) pp. 43-4; N. Edwards and A. Lane, 'The archaeology of the early Welsh Church in Wales: an introduction', The Early Church in Wales and the West, ed. N. Edwards and A. Lane (Oxbow Monograph xvi, 1992) pp. 1-10, at p. 3; J. W. Evans, 'The survival of the clas as an institution in medieval Wales: some observations on Llanbadarn Fawr', ibid. pp. 33-40, at pp. 33, 36; Lloyd, History of Wales I 205; H. Pryce, 'Pastoral care in early medieval Wales', Pastoral Care before the Parish, ed. J. Blair and R. Sharpe (Leicester, 1992) pp. 41-62, at pp. 48-50; Pearson, 'Bangor chapter' pp. 168-9; Pryce, Native Law pp. 165-74, 191-2.
7 Llyfr Iorwerth pp. 81-3; Pryce, Native Law pp. 193-4.
8 Rhigyfarch's Life of St David, ed. J. W. James (Cardiff, 1967) pp. 24-5; Pryce, Native Law p. 168; The History of Gruffydd p. 115; Historia Gruffud p. 8.
9 Llyfr Iorwerth p. 23; The Latin Texts of the Welsh Laws, ed. H. D. Emanuel (Cardiff, 1967) p. 290; Pryce, Native Law pp. 179-80.
10 W. Davies, Wales in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester, 1982) pp. 158-60; idem, 'The consecration of bishops of Llandaff in the tenth and eleventh centuries', BBCS xxvi (1974) 53-73, at pp. 69-70; T. Charles-Edwards, 'The seven bishop-houses of Dyfed', ibid. xxiv (1970-2) 247-62.
11 List 34.
12 Gir. Cambr. III 153-4.
13 De Invectionibus p. 143; W. S. Davies, 'Materials for the life of Bishop Bernard of St Davids', Arch. Camb., 3rd ser xix (1919) 299-322, at pp. 301-2 n.1.
14 De Invectionibus pp. 139, 148.
15 St Davids Acta p. 29; Lloyd, History of Wales II 558 n. 115.
16 Lists 35-7.
17 Gir. Cambr. I 220, III 154; M. Richter, 'A new edition of the so-called Vita Davidis Secundi', BBCS xxii (1967) 245-9, at p. 248; J. Barrow, 'Cathedrals, provosts and prebends: a comparison of twelfth-century German and English practice', Journal of Ecclesiastical History xxxvii (1986) 536- 64, at pp. 541-2.
18 Lists 43-5.
19 Lists 10, 19.
20 Llandaff Acta p. xxxi, no. 45; Williams, 'Episcopal seals' p. 117.
21 Llandaff Acta no. 53.
22 Brut Peniarth Transl. p. 87; R. F. Treharne, 'The Franco-Welsh treaty of alliance in 1212', BBCS xviii (1958) 60-75, at p. 64.
23 Lists 10-13.
24 Llandaff Acta p. xxxi.
25 LL pp. 314-15.
26 Ibid. p. 326.
27 Below, p. 000.
28 Rot. Litt. Pat. p. 130b.
29 Lists 3-7.
30 De Invectionibus p. 95; Pearson, 'Bangor chapter' pp. 170-8.
31 Registrum vulgariter nuncupatum 'The Record of Caernarvon', (ed. H. Ellis] (Record Commission, 1838) pp. 231-7.
32 Taxatio p. 290a-b.
33 CPR 1232-47 p. 10.
34 Pearson, 'St Asaph chapter' pp. 39-42; below, lists 21-4.
35 Lists 25-6.
36 Taxatio p. 288b.
37 List 1, 3.