enquiries@tywigateway.org.uk Parc a Gerddi yr Esgob, Abergwili, Sir Caerfyrddin SA31 2JG

The Abergwili Bishops

The history of the Abergwili Bishops is intriguing- and goes back over 700 years to the founding of a church college by Bishop Thomas Bek in the late thirteenth century.  It was Bek’s college that would eventually become the Bishop’s Palace in the mid sixteenth century, when successive Bishops were major figures in Welsh and UK culture and history, including two former bishops who found themselves at odds with those who ran the country and were executed, one for treason!  In this article we explore the fascinating stories of the Abergwili Bishops.  

42 Bishops at Abergwili

There have been forty-two Bishops of St Davids between the time Abergwili became the home to the Bishop’s Palace, though over the centuries not all chose to live there, and the construction of the new Bishop’s Residence in the early 1970’s.  The stories of some of the more famous, infamous and interesting are told below.

William Barlow; Bishop of St Davids 1536 -1548

An Augustan friar from Norfolk he rose to be Bishop of four diocese – St Asaph, St Davids, Bath and Wells, and Chichester.

A protestant reformer he was involved in the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII and was a member of the court that surrounded Anne Boleyn.  When the catholic Mary became queen he fled to Germany and Poland to escape prosecution for his faith before returning home under the rule of Elizabeth I.

It was Bishop Barlow who finding St David’s too remote, moved the Bishop’s Palace to Abergwili.

Robert Ferrar, Bishop of St Davids 1549 – 1554

Appointed Bishop of St Davids by Edward VI, Ferrar was another protestant reformer.  He was not however popular with the canons at St David’s who brought charges against him.  Whilst in London to defend himself, the catholic Queen Mary came to the throne and he was sent to prison.  He was removed as Bishop in 1554 and was burnt at the stake in Market (now Notts) Square in Carmarthen on the 30th March 1555.

In 1970, the future poet laureate, Ted Hughes who was related to Bishop Ferrar published a poem called ‘The Martyrdom of Bishops Ferrar’.

Robert Ferrar, Bishop of St Davids 1549-1554

Richard Davies, Bishop of St Davids 1561 -1581

Both protestant bishop and scholar he sort refuge in Geneva during the reign of the catholic Queen Mary. He returned to Britain after Elizabeth’s coronation, becoming Bishop of St. Asaph in north Wales in 1560.

When he became Bishop of St Davids in 1561 he turned the palace into the the home of the Welsh Renaissance. Artists, writers and poets came to Abergwili including William Salesbury, the leading Welsh scholar of the Renaissance. Whilst staying in Abergwili and working with Bishop Davies he produced the first welsh translations of both the New Testament and the Book of Common Prayer.

Around 1572 Bishop Davies was involved in revising the 1568 Bishops’ Bible, the official English translation of the bible. He worked on the Book of Deuteronomy, and the second Book of Samuel. This bible became the basis of the famous King James I Bible, still today regarded as a masterpiece of the English language.

He died in November 1581, and was buried in Abergwili church.

William Laud, Bishop of St Davids 1621 – 1627

Bishop under James I, Laud was a close friend of the kings’ favourite George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.  He only visited Abergwili twice – on his last visit consecrating what is still known as Laud’s Chapel.

Heavily involved in court politics under Charles I he became Bishop of London and then Archbishop of Canterbury. Unpopular, during the time of the English Civil War in 1640, he was accused of treason by Parliament and imprisoned in the Tower of London.  He was put on trial in 1644 and was beheaded on Tower Hill, London on the 19th January 1645.

William Laud, Bishop of St Davids 1621 – 1627

Laud was a small man, something he didn’t like people mentioning. In a famous pun by Archibald Armstrong, King Charles I court jester, that both highlights his size and unpopularity – it was said of him ‘give praise to the Lord, and little Laud to the devil’.

Thomas Watson, Bishop of St Davids 1687 – 1699

The son of a Hull seaman, Watson was a supporter of King James II. He was opposed to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that saw James flee Britain and William become king. However it was not his politics that got him into trouble – he was suspended in 1694 and finally removed as Bishop of St Davids in 1699 for selling church offices and roles.

Lord George Murray, Bishop of St Davids 1801 -1803

Whilst he was only in office for a short time under his management the palace and grounds changed a lot. The palace was redesigned in the Gothick style whilst it was said that ‘under his management the grounds were brought into a state of high cultivation and beauty, though in the simplest taste…’

Estate Map of 1811

Before becoming bishop he was famous for developing Britain’s first optical telegraph. It was the success of his design that led to his introduction to King George III and his appointment as bishop.

In 1795 he had proposed a system to the British Admiralty which would help spread news of any possible invasion or attack from Revolutionary France. The first message sent between stations in London and Deal on the Kent coast took just sixty seconds to travel the 82 miles. Over sixty sites were eventually developed but they were all shut down by the Admiralty in 1816 following the end of the Napoleonic War.

Murray died in 1803 whilst still in office.  He caught a chill while waiting for his carriage outside the House of Lords and never recovered.

John Jenkinson, Bishop of St Davids 1825 – 1840

Only a few years after Murray’s rebuild in 1825 when John Jenkinson became bishop the palace was again in a state of near ruin. At his own expense, Bishop Jenkinson had the building almost completely rebuilt in the Elizabethan Style. After the works had been completed the palace was described as being ‘a noble mansion with a handsome Elizabethan aspect’ and ‘elegant and spacious’.

Whilst the works on the palace were being undertaken he also had the grounds remodelled in a picturesque fashion with viewpoints through the trees across and up the valley. In the 1840s an author noted that he had ‘added much to the beauty of the pleasure grounds by judicious improvements’.

Estate Map of 1843

Whilst he was bishop, Jenkinson maintained a school in Carmarthen for the children of poor families. He died at Great Malvern and is buried in Worcester Cathedral.

Connop Thirlwall, Bishop of St Davids 1840 – 1874

One of the longest serving bishops as well as a church scholar he was a renowned historian writing on Roman and especially Greek History.  His most famous work being an eight-volume History of Greece published between 1835 and 1847. Though born in London he quickly learnt welsh so he could preach to the people of his diocese in their native language.

The famous philosopher and economist, John Stuart Mill described him as being the greatest speaker he had heard. He resigned as Bishop in 1874, retiring to live in Bath where he died a year later. He is buried in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey.