The exact origins of the church are shrouded in legend, but the first church is said to have been built around 500AD by Gwynllyw, a local Lord. He fell in love with Gwladys, daughter of the King Brychan (modern Brecon) but, having been refused her hand in marriage, he abducted her. Evidently she still married him and, over time, Gwynllyw was converted to Christianity both by Gwladys and their pious son Cadog (later St Cadog). Gwynllyw then built a religious settlement or Clas on the site of the present cathedral - chosen, again according to legend, after an angel in a dream told him to build a church where he found a white ox with a black spot on its head.
This original 6th century building would have been made of wood and wattle-and-daub, but the site was revered sufficiently for the Saxons to build a later stone church on the site of the present St Mary’s Chapel, possibly in the 10th century. The remains of this church constitute the oldest part of the present building.
In 1080 a new church with a nave and lean-to aisles was built by the Normans, immediately east of the Saxon building. The earlier church was probably by this time a ruin, as the Norman west door pierced its east wall. Around 1200, the Saxon chapel was restored and the walls raised, with narrow lancet windows inserted above arched tomb niches.
The church was badly damaged in 1402 by the forces of Owain Glyndŵr, but later in the 1400s substantially enlarged and repaired, mostly by Jasper Tudor, uncle of Henry VII. The north aisle was enlarged and fine Perpendicular Gothic windows were inserted, followed later on by a similar enlargement of the south aisle, and a double-height south porch with a priest’s house on the first floor. Finally, the tower was added towards the end of the 15th century, and included a statue of Jasper Tudor, as Governor of Newport 1485-95.
The church’s history then shows a period of steady decline: much damaged during the Civil War, by the early 19th century St Mary’s Chapel had become a charnel house, and the nave had effectively become a chapel, with a singing gallery on the site of the rood screen, cutting off the nave from the chancel.
Restoration began in 1818 with the repair of St Mary’s Chapel, which then became the main entrance of the church. An extensive further restoration in 1853 replaced the south porch and the two 15th century south aisle windows with three new ones; restored the Norman font and 15th century chancel; and removed the singing gallery and inserted a new chancel arch.
The next phase of building resulted from the decision in 1921 to create a new Diocese of Monmouth. After much deliberation, St Woolos was chosen to be the new Cathedral, a process finally completed in 1949. However, it was clear that the original chancel was too small for its function as cathedral, so an new East End was built in 1961-2 by the eminent architect ADR Caroe, decorated with a mural and new rose window designed by the artist John Piper.
The church is today entered through the 15th century tower, into the 13th century St Mary’s chapel. This includes the restored Norman font, with green men on each corner. The effigies in the tomb recesses are unfortunately horribly mutilated and decayed (and, sadly, rather fenced off by modern central heating pipes), although that of Sir John Morgan (d. 1491) and his wife Janet has some better preserved elements. The low window on the right has a mediaeval rose inserted into what is probably an original Saxon window. Stonework on the lower left and right sides also remains from the pre-Conquest church.
Eyes are, however, drawn forwards to the Norman door, one of the Cathedral’s treasures. The columns are very unusual, and are likely to be Roman, sourced from the settlement at Caerleon. The capitals are also unusual; they are of Composite design, but incorporate Norman humanistic sculpture (depicting praying men and birds). The capitals may therefore have been Roman, with the Norman work carved into them when the church was built. The arch itself has bands of bold zig-zag, billet and chevron decoration.
The nave is instantly recognisable as Norman work, with five bays of rounded arches on round piers with scalloped cushion capitals. Both arcades have empty windows which once formed the clerestory, but became internal when the aisles were raised. On the left by the chancel arch, the door to the long-vanished rood-loft can be seen.
The north aisle is bright and wide, the Tudor windows filled with clear glass; the south aisle is narrower, and a line of corbels indicates the height of the original aisle. At the east end, a tall modern Gothic arch leads onto St Luke’s chapel, a modern addition despite its appearance. At the west end is the impressive classical-style tomb of Sir Walter Herbert of St Julians, (d. 1568), albeit with the effigy badly mutilated. It is a rare Renaissance survivor in Wales.
Beyond the chancel arch, the modern chancel provides a literally bright contrast, with its clean lines and modern wooden furnishings, although some of the windows – including the small ‘Leper’s Window’ on the north side - were kept from the original chancel. The eye is drawn to Piper’s huge bold mural, which depicts the creation, its outline recalling the Norman architecture elsewhere. Critics vary on how well the old and new fuse, but it certainly adds a new and bold dimension to a building which already reflected a variety of historical styles.
Before you leave, it is also worth looking down, for the floor is paved with interesting memorial stones, dating from 1653 onwards.
The church is a 10 minute walk up Stow Hill from Newport City Centre, and is open most days for private prayer and visitors. As well as being a cathedral, it has a large and populous parish, and services are held daily – see website for details. The church has a small shop in the south porch.
On my visit, I was made very welcome indeed by a small group of very friendly and helpful ladies, with wonderful organ music playing in the background.