Bangor Cathedral has been a place of worship and prayer for almost fifteen centuries. Indeed, it is the oldest cathedral foundation in Britain; founded circa 525AD on the site of a Celtic clas and dedicated to St Deiniol ca 546 AD. Deiniol was a man of noble birth and having been given land, probably by Maelgwn, King of Gwynedd, he enclosed it with a fence constructed by driving poles into the ground and weaving branches in between them. The native term for this type of fence was 'bangor'. Within this enclosure Deiniol built his church.
There is no trace of the original church, which is not surprising considering it would probably have been no more than a hut of wattle and daub. The present church can be dated back to early 12th Century when the church had an eastern apse and probably an aisle-less nave. Today it may still be small by comparison with many other cathedrals in these islands, but its natural charm and simplicity make its own appeal.
It may be old, but it is no anachronism; it has much that is historic, but it is no museum. (On the day of my visit in 2010, a Thursday in October, the church was alive with a mix of schoolchildren, clergy and visitors such as myself).
The oldest part of the cathedral is in the south wall of the chancel close to the south transept. It consists of a (now built up) window and a buttress of Norman construction. The church was destroyed several times during its troubled life, being attacked more times than many castles, with attacks from the English, the Normans and the Welsh. The Normans vented their anger in 1071, King John of England in 1211, the central tower was burned to the ground in 1309, and Owain Glyndwr the leader of a Welsh rebellion attacked in 1402. In 1480 rebuilding began in earnest and the early 16th Century saw the building of the present arcade and clerestory. By 1532 the western tower was completed.
Much of what we see today belongs to the period from the 13th to early 16th Centuries, with further alterations by the Victorian architect Sir Gilbert Scott. Works continued into the 20th Century with the crenelations (battlements) and pyramidical roof to the Central tower being added as late as 1966.
In the chancel, on the left side of the altar, can be found the tomb of Grufydd ab Cynan, King of North Wales. This is not obvious and I will have to pay another visit to find it myself. Set into the former arched opening to the medieval Lady Chapel a tomb recess traditionally contains the body of Owain Gwynedd, the grandfather of Llywelyn Fawr.
The flooring of the chancel and transepts have their own story. A number of medieval tiles were found during the 19th Century renovation of Bangor Cathedral that took place under the supervision of Sir Gilbert Scott. The decorations on these floor tiles included primitive line drawings of animals and birds, the designs of which were probably taken from The Bestiary. The Bestiary was a medieval book which explained the significance of beasts in terms of Christian teaching. (This led to all those weird and wonderful stone carvings we are fortunate to find on many churches and cathedrals)
The Victorian builders copied the 14th Century designs and relayed parts of the cathedral floor, including the Choir, Chancel, and Transepts, using the replica medieval tiles.
The two-headed eagle repeated throughout the church flooring symbolises the two natures of Christ, the human and the divine. The rabbit with a bow and arrow is based on the theme, popular in the Middle Ages, of the hunted hunting the hunter. Another (not shown) depicts the Caladrius, a bird that would perch on the bed of a sick person. If the bird faced the person he or she would recover. If the Caladrius looked away the person would die. This symbolised Christ’s healing powers.
A section of the original medieval tiles are to be found underneath the carpet in the cathedral shop.
Also within the cathedral shop can be found the Eva Stone, a medieval gravestone from 1380 AD. The gravestone is believed to commemorate Eva, the mother of Gruffud ap Gwilym and sister of Gwenllian ferch Madog. The slab shows a woman wearing a wimple and a square 14th Century headdress. The intricate carving includes eighty five buttons and button holes. She holds a set of praying beads and lies with her head on a pillow with flowers strewn around her.
In the south aisle, close to the West Tower, is the “Museum Corner” where a small exhibition of early stonework displays historic items including the lower end of a sandstone effigy of a priest with feet resting on a lion. Stone fragments show 10th Century fret decoration and pieces of crosses and other monuments.
Close by can be seen one of Bangor Cathedral’s most important artifacts, the Mostyn Christ. The Mostyn Christ, said to be dated 1518, is a rare survival of a pre-Reformation “Bound Rood”. It is believed to have come from Rhuddlan Priory and was preserved by a catholic family before passing to Lord Mostyn.
The Chapter Stalls include coats of arms of several important figures in Welsh history including Owain Gwynedd, Prince of North Wales, and Owen Tudor, grandfather of Henry V11.
Review Bangor Cathedral.