St Asaph is the smallest cathedral in the British Isles, and possibly the smallest cathedral city (though it has a rival here in St David’s). It is on a good river crossing and may be the site of the Roman fort of Varae, though no remains of the buildings have been found. The fort is mentioned in the ‘Antonine Itinerary’, a second- or third-century road map of the Roman empire.
According to tradition, the first church here was founded by St Kentigern, son of the Arthurian hero Owain ab Urien, who had been forced to flee from his native Scotland. Kentigern, also known by his Gaelic childhood nickname ‘Mungo’ (‘most dear’), had already founded the first church in Glasgow. A later account of his life here describes how over a thousand monks were inspired by his sanctity to gather here. When he returned to Scotland, he left his Welsh foundation in the care of his pupil Asaph. At that time it was still known by its Welsh name of Llanelwy, ‘the church enclosure by the river Elwy’. There is no evidence that it had a bishop (as we would understand the word) before 1143, though the abbot may have had some authority over the surrounding area. Famous later bishops included William Morgan, whose translation of the Bible into Welsh paved the way for Welsh acceptance of the Protestant Reformation, and William Lloyd, one of the ‘seven bishops’ who were imprisoned for opposing James II.
In 1188, Gerald of Wales described an earlier cathedral here as ‘paupercula sedis Laneluensis ecclesia’, ‘the poor little church of the see of Llanelwy’. St Asaph suffered for its proximity to the main route from England, and this church was burned by Edward I’s soldiers during the invasion of 1282. Edward wanted to remove the cathedral to his new town at Rhuddlan. The bishop, Anian II, had quarrelled with Llywelyn ap Gruffydd over the rights of his diocese and allied himself with Edward I. By 1282, like several of Edward’s other allies (Llywelyn’s brother Dafydd among them), Anian had learned the error of his ways: he opposed Edward and was exiled from his see.But Edward’s archbishop of Canterbury, John Pecham, who had already arranged for the removal of Aberconway Abbey to Maenan, effected a reconciliation between Edward and Anian, and the cathedral remained at St Asaph.
Rebuilding began almost immediately, under Anian’s supervision, and was eventually completed in 1381. St Asaph was attacked by the Welsh during the Glyndwr uprising and the woodwork of the cathedral was burnt, but it was repaired in the late fifteenth century by Bishop Redman. The tower was rebuilt in 1715 after its destruction in a storm, and the whole building was thoroughly modelled by Gilbert Scott in 1867-75.
Inside, the pillars of the 14th-century nave arcade have continuous mouldings uninterrupted by carved capitals, giving an austere but spacious feeling. This severe effect is attributed to the fact that the masons who worked on the post-1282 rebuilding had previously worked on Edward’s castles and were more accustomed to military architecture. The lovely clerestory belongs to the 15th-century restoration; the roof painting and gilding commemorate the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales in 1967.
In the south aisle is the finely-sculptured tomb of a bishop, almost certainly Anian himself. Nearby is the curiously-carved ‘Greyhound Stone’, with its hound, hare, shield and sword, possibly another memorial. Also in this aisle are memorial tablets to the poet Felicia Hemans and to H.M. Stanley, who was brought up in the St Asaph workhouse. The transepts are contemporary with the nave, and some of Bishop Redman’s carved roof has survived. The choir was mostly rebuilt by Scott but contains some surviving fragments from the earlier church which Edward I’s troops destroyed. The elaborately-carved canopied stalls by the high altar were installed by Bishop Redman for the cathedral canons. The bishop’s throne is Victorian and stands over the grave of the most famous bishop, William Morgan. A display of early Bibles in the north transept commemorates Morgan and his collaborators, some of them clergy from St Asaph: they are also remembered by the Translators’ Memorial on the Cathedral Green.
The main street of the old city runs from the cathedral down to the river Elwy. Several of the houses and shops are old but have been hidden by more modern frontages. At the bottom of the hill is the parish church of St Kentigern and St Asaph. This is a late medieval building in the characteristic double-naved style. Both naves have hammer-beam roofs, and the one in the south aisle is adorned with angels. By the altar is an unusual 14th-century double piscina, for washing the communion vessels. The church is open on weekdays by appointment: contact the Deanery for arrangements.