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New Library Trustee sheds light on mysterious historical document

May 14th, 2015

A historian and palaeographer has discovered insightful details in a precious 700-year-old parchment document at the National Library of Wales. The document, which is dated 21 May 1328, confirms the election of Master Henry de Gower as Bishop of St David’s.

Recently appointed to the Board of Trustees at the National Library of Wales, Dr Susan J. Davies’ research into the Latin parchment document - penned nearly 700 years ago and purchased by the library at a Bonham’s sale in London in March - has revealed the circumstances surrounding the election of Henry de Gower, an important Welsh historical figure.

Gower founded the hospital of Blessed David at Swansea in 1332; rebuilt many parts of the Cathedral Church at St David’s, and built the magnificent episcopal palace which can be seen at St David’s today.

Following the death of the previous incumbent, Bishop David Martin, in March 1328, 50-year old Gower’s election by the Cathedral Chapter on 21 April was a rare example of a Welshman being elevated to a bishopric in the late medieval period, when royal and papal influence usually resulted in the appointment of external, non-Welsh candidates.

Written in a fine and formal script, typical of the 14th century, the document confirms the election of Master Henry de Gower as Bishop of St David’s on 21 May 1328. But the exact circumstances of it being written have only now come to light as a result of Dr Davies’ research. The piece illustrates the meticulous way that the medieval Church ensured correct procedures were followed in unusual circumstances.

Henry de Gower (1277/9-1347), a native of the Gower peninsula, was already well-known in the diocese of St David’s before his election as bishop. He was an exceptional scholar and served as Chancellor of Oxford University from 1322-5 and, as Archdeacon of St David’s, he already knew the diocese well.

According to established process at that time, Gower’s election by the Chapter at St David’s required ratification by the Archbishop of Canterbury. This formal confirmation was essential before the new bishop could be consecrated at Canterbury and enthroned in his own cathedral.

As the previous archbishop had died, there was no archbishop at Canterbury in Spring 1328. Nevertheless, Gower (as bishop-elect) and the official representative (proctor) of the Chapter at St David’s quickly made the long journey to Canterbury where, a month later, they were formally received by the Prior of the monastic Cathedral Chapter, Henry of Eastry, who by established arrangement could exercise ‘metropolitan authority’ during a vacancy in the Archbishopric.

Dr Davies said: “This confirmation document records that the Prior was satisfied by what he was told that the bishop-elect was fully worthy, the election process was correctly and properly conducted, and no contrary views had been expressed. Following further examination of the bishop-elect in person, the Prior formally confirmed the election ‘in our name and that of our Chapter by the metropolitical authority of our Church’, therefore leaving no doubt about the validity of his own role and authority during the vacancy.

Other sources reveal that Gower was consecrated at Canterbury on 12 June by Stephen Gravesend, Bishop of London, and that the election was later confirmed by Pope John XXII in December 1328, but the timing of his enthronement at St David’s is unclear.”

Gower’s altar tomb and effigy, now sadly mutilated, can be seen in the Cathedral Church at St David’s. It was during his episcopate that the Welsh Life of St David was written by the Anchorite of Llanddewibrefi in 1346, and poet Dafydd ap Gwilym worshiped at the church of Llanbadarn.

Dr Davies believes that this document was probably retained by the Cathedral Priory of the Holy Trinity or Christchurch, Canterbury, and may have been lost following the upheaval of the dissolution of that Benedictine house in 1540. Its whereabouts between then and the 21st century is unknown: it may have been preserved by local antiquaries in Kent.

The Rt Revd Wyn Evans, Bishop of St David’s, visited the National Library to view the document on 28 April, and expressed his delight at the acquisition of an important piece of historical evidence relating to one of his predecessors.

The Library’s Chief Executive, Dr Aled Gruffydd Jones added: “The Library continues to collect important historic records for the Nation as evidenced by this purchase. The remarkable survival of this document underlines the sad paucity of similar records from medieval Welsh dioceses, and the importance of continual investment in the preservation of our documentary heritage, be it on parchment or in digital formats.”

Other monastic survivals may be seen at the National Library of Wales’ exhibition ‘Publisher and plunderer? Sir John Prise and the first Welsh books’ until 27 June 2015.

For further details, please contact Lydia Whitfield on 02920 838 315 or