On the banks of the River Elwy is a small city. It has a population of 3,355 souls. Now how on earth can such a small place be called a city. Surely this is nothing more than a village? Well St Asaph, Llanelwy, is a city, and an old one at that. But Wales seems to have a tendency towards small cities. Llanelwy, the Welshname for St Asaph, means the sacred religious enclosure on the banks of the River Elwy.
Legend and tradition are confusingly mixed regarding the origination of the settlement and there is no archaeological evidence or written record before the twelfth century. The legend of the founding of the church and monastery between the year c.560 and c.573 is to be found in ‘The life of St Kentigern’ written by Jocelyn, a monk of Furness Abbey c.1180. St Kentigern was the bishop of Strathclyde but he was driven into exile and founded a monastery at Llanelwy. 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 St Asaph replaced him as abbot-bishop until he died in 596.
The Cathedral is small and it is only 182 feet long, smaller for example than the church of Valle Crucis. It could be argued that geographically this was not the best place to build a major place of religion because St Asaph has suffered from its proximity to the main invasion route into North Wales. During the turbulent period after 1066 when the Normans repeatedly invaded Wales trying to gain control the town was hit time and again. The present building was begun in about 1239, but was destroyed by Henry II troops in 1245. It was attacked and burnt by Edward I’s English soldiers in 1282; substantially rebuilt between 1284 and 1381. Then in 1402 it was the Welsh who burnt it down, during by Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion. Two hundred and fifty years later, during the Civil War period the building was used to house farm animals – pigs, cattle and horses. Although repaired in the late 15th century what we see today is essentially only the shell from this period because the building was remodelled by the Victorian architect Gilbert Scott in 1867 -75.
A handsome memorial stands in the Cathedral grounds dedicated to those instrumental in translating the Bible into Welsh during the 16th century. Today all Welsh schoolchildren will know about William Morgan (later to become Bishop of St. Asaph from 1601 to 1604) who took a crucial part in ensuring the survival of the written Welsh language. In 1563 an Act of Parliament was passed allowing the translation of the Bible and the Book of Prayer into Welsh “because the English tongue is not understood of the most and greatest number of all her majesty’s most living and obedient subject inhabiting Wales”. This shows that it was the vitality of the Welsh language, not its weakness which called for a Welsh Bible. The New Testament and Book of Common Prayer had been translated and published by Bishop Richard Davies and Williams Salesbury had translated and published the New Testament and Book of Common Prayer. However, by 1578, Davies and Salesbury had fallen out over their work and William Morgan, by now Rector of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant in the Tanat Valley, was encouraged to undertake the work by the Bishops of St. Asaph and Bangor. In 1587 he went to London to supervise the printing of the first Welsh Bible. This consisted of his own translation of the Old Testament and a revised version of Salesbury’s New Testament. The cost of publishing was paid for by Archbishop Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
St Asaph was the birth place of two brothers Felix and George Powell who wrote the words and tune of the popular First World War song Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-bag. After finishing school the brothers formed a band with their wives and others and toured the music halls. In 1915 the brothers entered a music publisher’s song competition. Their song, Pack Up Your Troubles, won in the category for marching songs and rapidly became a morale-booster sung by troops. The band broke up when Felix formed a new group to tour trenches on the Western Front. George, a pacifist, declined to go. The brothers re-united as performers between the wars in Sussex, where Felix joined the Home Guard in the Second World War. He deliberately shot himself in 1942 and soon died in hospital in Brighton.
Down by the river is an intriguing metal sculpture dedicated to Henry Stanley of Dr Livingstone fame. Stanley was born as John Rowlands to unmarried parents in Denbigh in 1841 and was raised at the Union Workhouse in St Asaph. The workhouse building, by Upper Denbigh Road, still stands. It was the HM Stanley Hospital for many decades. John Rowlands travelled to the USA in 1859, where a merchant called Henry Stanley helped him find his feet. Rowlands took has friend’s name, and later served – on both sides – in the American Civil War. He had been working as the New York Herald’s special correspondent for two years when, in 1869, the editor dispatched him to Africa to interview the Scottish missionary David Livingstone, who had not communicated with the outside world for two years. In November 1871 Stanley met him near Lake Tanganyika. On finding him, looking pale and “wearied”, Stanley claimed simply to have lifted his hat and uttered the words: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”. His next adventure by today’s standards was perhaps not the most ethical. He continued to explore the continent and hatched a plan to exploit the Congo’s natural resources. He enlisted Belgium’s support and began constructing roads, using forced labour. He was said at the time to shoot African people “as if they were monkeys”.
It’s a great little town with more going on than meets the eye on first look. I’ve driven past it so many times over the years, but never visited. However, like many small towns the road now bypassed it and business seems to be suffering somewhat. All the banks are closed and in various states of disrepair. But it is still worth a visit.