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Gerald of Wales.

Gerald arrived in Rome with letters from the cathedral chapter, declaring that he had been unanimously elected as bishop (following the death of the previous bishop in 1198) and appealing to Pope Innocent III to consecrate him. Yet, Gerald was seeking more than just the bishopric of St Davids. At the instruction of the cathedral chapter, he was to persuade the pope to 'restore' the metropolitan authority of St Davids over all of Wales.

This would make St Davids an archbishopric and bring the other three episcopal sees in Wales Llandaff, Bangor and St Asaph under its ecclesiastical jurisdiction rather than that of Canterbury.

The first person to assert the metropolitan status of St Davids was, perhaps surprisingly, not a Welshman. It was Bernard, the first Norman bishop (1115-48), but he had been influenced by Welsh traditions that St Davids had been an archbishopric independent of Canterbury. Bernard's successors, David fitz Gerald (1148-76) and Peter de Leia (1176-98), willingly acknowledged Canterbury's authority, but the cathedral chapter continued to maintain that St Davids was once a metropolitan see.

The >in around when Since a metropolitan St Davids threatened to withdraw the Welsh churches from Canterbury, the reigning archbishop, Hubert Walter, strenuously opposed Gerald. The result was a polemical battle that would last until 1203.

Archbishop Walter could show that Bishop Bernard and his two successors had been consecrated by archbishops of Canterbury. He also demonstrated that Bishops David and Peter had taken oaths not to promote the metropolitan standing of St Davids. And he warned the pope that if Gerald succeeded, the result would be perpetual dissension between the Welsh and English.

Gerald responded by citing what he believed were the ancient privileges of St Davids and diligently sought further evidence to support his case. As the dispute wore on Gerald increasingly identified with the Welsh. When he arrived in Rome, he proudly proclaimed his descent from the Welsh princes as well as from the English barons who fought to defend Wales for the king. Later, however, he would emphasise the degeneration and vices of the English and dismiss English bishops in Wales as "dumb dogs that cannot bark" since they could not talk to the people in their own language. Moreover, he condemned those bishops for their readiness to excommunicate the Welsh when they took up arms to defend their lives and liberties against the violence of the English.

According to Gerald he deftly countered every argument of his adversaries, but, nonetheless, the contest was a decidedly unequal one. Gerald was bishop-elect of a Welsh see that was rich in dignity, but little else. Hubert Walter could command the resources and influence of the archbishopric of Canterbury, and, as King John's chancellor, enlist royal power to aid his cause.

While Gerald pursued the case in Rome, his position was gradually eroded at home. Through threats and persuasion, the cathedral chapter of St Davids was induced to abandon its support for Gerald. Eventually, it elected two further claimants for the bishop's throne. In the later stages of the conflict, almost his only support came from the Welsh princes a relationship that made Gerald increasingly suspect to the king and his officers. In 1202 he was even declared an enemy of the king after he was accused of trying to unite the Welsh leaders in revolt.

Even in Rome, where Gerald seems to have been encouraged and favoured by Pope Innocent III, he could not, in the end, counter the archbishop's stratagems. Gerald believed that Hubert Walter's massive bribes had finally swayed the papal court. In reality, the potential impact of Gerald's consecration on papal relations with England may have been a decisive factor in the pope's final judgement.

On April 16, 1203, the pope quashed Gerald's election as bishop of St Davids. He was bitterly disappointed, but he did not immediately abandon his campaign for the metropolitan rights of St David. Innocent III appeased him by agreeing to further investigation of the status of the church of St Davids.

begun bishopric Government Throughout the dispute, Gerald had shown remarkable courage and tenacity, but, by the end of 1203, he had struggled enough. In a change of heart that startled Hubert Walter, Gerald consented to the election of a new bishop for St Davids. Since he no longer had confidence in the papal court, he also quietly let the issue of the rights of St Davids drop.

Gerald lived for another 20 years and spent the rest of his days studying and writing. In one of the works produced during that long retirement, Gerald returned to the question of the rights of St Davids and his efforts to vindicate them. According to Gerald, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, prince of Gwynedd, reflected on his heroic, if ultimately unsuccessful, exertions.

"I say that it were far better and far more glorious for the Elect to have vindicated the rights of St David against such mighty adversaries and against all England, even though the victory be not his. For as long as Wales shall stand, this one man's noble deed shall for all time be noised abroad with worthy praise and honour...' Nor, it would seem, was Gerald's "noble deed" forgotten. The great historian of the Welsh medieval church, Glanmor Williams, detected the echo of Gerald's heroic undertaking in Owain Glyndwr's plans for an independent Welsh church with St Davids at its head. Wales would, in fact, have to wait until 1920 to receive an archbishop of its own.

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The Romanesque nave of St Davids Cathedral, begun <Bin around 1182, would have been nearing completion when Gerald of Wales set out his claim for the bishopric (c) Crown Copyright Cadw, Welsh Government

A modern sculpture of Gerald in the Holy Trinity Chapel in St Davids <B Cathedral. The bishop's mitre at his feet is an apt reminder of his courageous, but ultimately fruitless, efforts to be consecrated by Pope Innocent III in Rome By kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of St Davids Cathedral
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Oct 19, 2015
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