CHRISTOPHER DELANEY B.Sc.
In April 1996 Chris Delaney was appointed County Museums Officer for Carmarthenshire County Council and he became County Heritage Officer in 1999.
He has responsibility for the County Museum housed in the Bishops Palace, Abergwili; Parc Howard Museum and Gallery, Llanelli; Carmarthen Heritage Centre; The Museum of Speed in Pendine and The Industrial Museum in Kidwelly.
Born in Salford, Lancashire, Chris studied at Cardiff University where he gained a Joint Honours Degree in Archaeology and Zoology. He became the Director of the Urban Research Unit at University College Cardiff before moving to Carmarthen to become the Curator of Carmarthen Museum prior to becoming the County Museums Officer for Dyfed in 1989.
Click here for superb photographs of the museum and plans
of the current layout
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"I was startled to be woken up early one morning before 6.00 am, by a loud banging and then I could hear our farm woman rushing down the passage calling Tân, Tân".
These are the words of Gwenonwy Owen, later Mrs J. T. Davies, the eldest daughter of Bishop John Owen, who has written a dramatic and vivid account of the fire that swept through the Palace in the early morning of 28th April 1903. Although her memoirs provide a delightful insight into the domestic and social life of the Bishop and his family, around the turn of the century, they also provide little details and snippets of the architectural history of the building. From these it is clear that the Palace, prior to the fire, retained much of its medieval atmosphere, despite over six hundred years of adaptation and change. Even in its present form the Palace or indeed the Museum still retains its origins and with an observant eye these can be identified.
In 1280 Thomas Bek became Bishop of St Davids and started a major building programme, which included the Palace at St. Davids, the Castle and Hospital at Llawhaden and in particular the College at Abergwili. The exact date of its construction is a matter of debate, with its earliest foundation date being 1283 and the latest and probably the likeliest date being 1291. The college would have been founded along similar lines to a cathedral chapter, and as a former Chancellor of Oxford University, Bek would have been familiar with college layout and function. The accommodation and offices of the college would have been laid out around a cloistered quadrangle, which today is represented by the museum's central hall.
The college remained in existence until 1541, when a new college was established at Brecon, and Abergwili amalgamated with it to form the new College of Christ. The college at Abergwili was never dissolved during the reformation, but exists today as Christ College, Brecon. It was Bishop Barlow, who was responsible for this move to Brecon, and it was Barlow who transferred the Bishop's Palace from St. Davids to the empty college building at Abergwili. This was part of his grand but doomed scheme to relocate St. Davids Cathedral to Carmarthen. He had the lead stripped off the roof of the Palace at St. Davids, hastening its decline to the ruin we see today and also sold off the lands and palace at Lamphey. Presumably some of the proceeds were used to convert the college into the new Palace at Abergwili. Following other sales and dispersals, Abergwili and the Bishop's House in Brecon became the sole Episcopal residences.
Succeeding bishops repaired, improved and added to the structure but it is difficult to distinguish and date individual adaptations. Amongst the distinguished bishops who have resided at Abergwili, Bishop Richard Davies is worthy of mention, because of his role, in collaboration with William Salesbury, in the first translation the New Testament into Welsh, in 1565. During this period as Bishop, Davies invited to Abergwili scholars, poets and intellectuals of the day and the Palace has been described as a "powerhouse of intellectual and spiritual energy".
The chapel at Abergwili is often referred to as Laud's Chapel, after William Laud, who was Bishop from 1621 until 1626. Laud, who was later executed on Tower Hill, consecrated his chapel at Abergwili in 1625. In his diary he wrote, "I consecrated the Chapel or Oratory, which I had built at my own charge in my house called Abergwili House". Laud's chapel presumably replaced the college chapel or church and may well have been built within the original structure.
When Adam Ottley became Bishop in 1713, he commissioned a dilapidation report on the Palace, which was by then in need of substantial restoration. This document still survives and provides a useful link between the medieval period and the nineteenth century adaptations. The medieval quadrangle is now referred to as the "Green Court" and many of the present rooms can be identified and located on the inventory of work required. He also provided a plan of the chapel, which is shorter in length than the existing chapel.
During the episcopate of Lord George Murray, 1801-1803 the Palace was further repaired and improved. It was probably Murray who added an east wing, now the archaeology gallery, replacing a length of curtain wall or cloister walk, which linked the north and south wings. Murray also placed the main entrance in his new east wing, so that the magnificent sweep of the river could be viewed by visitors arriving at the front door. Unfortunately the river changed course in 1802 and disappeared over to the other side of the valley, where it remains today. He was responsible for adding the bay windows and gothic detail to the building. He appears to have landscaped the grounds and added the ha-ha as part of the improvements. He may well have involved John Nash and Humphrey Repton in the work as both were in the area and working in the diocese.
Following Murray's reign, the building was once again left to gradually fall into a state of disrepair, so that by the time John Banks Jenkinson became Bishop in 1825, it was in need of substantial investment. Jenkinson's work was the last major adaptation before the fire of 1903. He returned the front entrance to the west wing and added a porch and the projecting Dutch gables. The third floor was added to the wing at the same time, together with Elizabethan details and Jacobean chimney stacks. He also added the palace outbuildings, which are used by the museum as large object stores. Photographs of the building taken in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, show the building in substantially the same state as it is today, with the exception of a small campanile tower, which was not rebuilt after the fire. The improvements undertaken after 1903 were essentially internal modifications and the addition of services.
Gwenonwy Owen confirmed the photographic evidence, when she states "The outside walls were not so damaged that they could not be used again, so the shape of the outside of the Palace was the same. Indoors however, things were rather different". She goes on to say "Instead of having long corridors both upstairs and downstairs, Mr Caroe designed the very pleasant central hall, with a dome sort of roof with windows to give light. In the Palace was a small yard in the middle of the building". This 'small yard' is the present central hall, Ottley's 'Green Court' and the original courtyard or quadrangle of Bishop Bek's College of c.1290. The 'passages' are cloistered walkways at ground and first floor levels' which still survive intact particularly at first floor level where they are best represented by the ceramic corridor display, adjacent to the chapel. Examination of the present first floor plan of the building shows the medieval passage or cloister still in existence and it is still possible to circuit the quadrangle at this level. The internal wall of the chapel is very thick, indicating its medieval origins as an exterior wall of the chapel facing inwards towards the cloister passage.
On the ground floor the passages are less obvious having been incorporated into the central hall. A good section still survives along the north wing, adjacent to the old kitchen and servants hall and leads down into the wine and beer cellars. The new domestic arrangements, following the fire, placed the dining room in what is now the archaeology gallery. Originally it was in the dairy and portrait galleries. Mrs Davies describes how satisfactory this arrangement was, as it was closer to the kitchen and meals could come across the hall rather than follow the longer route down and along the passages. Some Friends may recall the visit to Tredegar House where a similar domestic arrangement to Abergwili, pre-fire, still exists. Even with the dining room in its new position, the old kitchen was a considerable distance away. It is not surprising therefore that by the 1930s it was relocated into the room that is now the temporary exhibition gallery. The older kitchen is still remarkably intact, with its twin ranges, which replaced an earlier open fire. The high ceiling in part of the kitchen, is evidence of this, in that it allowed smoke to disperse or space for a dog wheel or clockwork mechanism to drive the cooking spits. We hope, with lottery support, to have the kitchen area open to the public.
Both the library and the chapel were destroyed by the fire. The library, with its fitted bookcases and elaborate overmantle, was rebuilt with the financial assistance of the laity of the diocese. The chapel was also rebuilt with ornately carved oak pews, laid out in choir arrangement, and a fine altar piece. Mrs Davies states that the chapel was enlarged into the adjacent drawing room, leaving a smaller room, the costume gallery, as a 'boudoir for Mamma'. She tantalisingly mentions that the 'painted ceiling of Bishop Laud's Chapel' was replaced by the present wooden barrel vaulted ceiling. Whether this painted ceiling was Laud's work or a later adaptation, is impossible to say, but she does confirm the link between the existing chapel and at least the seventeenth century chapel.
The adaptations after the fire brought the palace from the medieval period into the twentieth century. No longer did servants have to pump water from the well and carry it around the house. There were now three bathrooms and a boiler providing hot water for the central heating system. The flagged floors disappeared to be replaced by block floors and candles and oil lamps were replaced by 'acetylene gas installed after the fire'. We have yet to establish when electricity arrived! Mrs Davies also remarks that the new hall was panelled with an 'unusual American wood, light in colour'. She was rather 'shocked', when she some time later visited the Palace, to find that the 'Bishop had had this wood stained a dark colour'.
The former palace is a building that hides its age remarkably well. However, it can be demonstrated, that the core fabric of the building is over seven hundred years old and it is itself an important and significant historic artefact. It is a building that resonates with many aspect of Welsh history and is therefore a more than suitable location for the County Museum of Carmarthenshire.
An acknowledgement is made to an article by Terry James in the Carmarthen Antiquary 1980 entitled The Bishop's Palace and Collegiate Church, Abergwili.