So Just Who Was St David Anyway?

Folklore / Thursday, December 7th, 2017

For a nun, his mother seems to have put it about rather a lot!  St David’s father is variously said to have been Sant, prince of Ceredigion; or Sandde, prince of Powys; or King Arthur; depending which tradition you refer to, but they’re all agreed that his mother was Non.  He was born at Capel Non, in Pembrokeshire, during a thunder storm, though no record seems to exist explaining why a heavily pregnant nun was hanging around on a clifftop during inclement weather.

St Non’s Chapel, Carmarthenshire

His birth was supposedly foreseen by St Patrick, who was from the same area.  His date of birth is uncertain, but is thought to have been about 520 AD.  Some say he was educated at the nearby monastery of Hen Fynyw, where he miraculously restored the sight of blind St Paulinus.  Others say that he was attended the rather more-distant abbey at Llantwit Major (Llanilltud Fawr), under the tutelage of St Illtud himself.

As you may have realised already, not much is known for certain about the patron saint of Wales.  Most is drawn from the Buchedd Dewi (“The Life of Dewi”) written four hundred years after St David’s death by Rhygyfarch, who claimed to have based it on archived documents contained in St Davids Cathedral.  Given the frequency with which St Davids was raided by Vikings, it is not surprising that these archived documents appear not to exist today.  St David was a renowned teacher and preacher, and such an eloquent critic of the Pelagian heresy that he was elected archbishop of the city that would be named St David’s in his memory.  He travelled widely for the time, founding monasteries and churches in Wales, south-western England and across the English Channel in Brittany, which to this day has place names that evoke him: Saint-Divy, Saint-Yvi, and Landivy.  St David’s Cathedral and the ruins of its bishops palace are thought to have built on the site of another monastery that he founded.  It is thought he also made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

St David’s Day parade, Cardiff, 2015

He was also known in Latin as Davidus Aquaticus, and in Welsh as Dewi Dyfrwr, or “David the Water-Drinker.”  An ascetic, he ruled that his monks must drink only water and eat only bread.  They were to plough their fields using only their own labour, not draft animals. They were to spend their evenings in prayer, reading and writing.  No personal possessions were permitted, and even saying “my book” was frowned upon.  Aquaticus could also refer to his penchant for standing neck-deep in icy stream for hours on end, reciting scripture, as a self-imposed penance.  In other words, he was what the Welsh today would call “a nutter.”

His best-known miracle is supposed to have taken place at Llanddewi Brefi (well known more recently for being the home of a comedy character, “Dafydd Thomas, the only gay in the village,” to the point that the village has ceased erecting name signs beside the road, because they keep getting stolen!),  St David was supposedly preaching a sermon to a crowd that grew so large that the people at the back couldn’t see or hear him.  So a dove landed on St David’s shoulder and the ground upon which his feet stood rose up into a hill, lifting him to the point that all around could see and hear him perfectly.  As miracles go, a hill in west Wales is not especially remarkable, but a chapel stands at the summit of the hill.  Another miracle attributed to St David involved bringing a boy back to life after his tears splashed upon the boy’s face.

St David’s Day parade, 2009

Thought to have died in either 589 or 601 AD, traditionally on March 1st, at the monastery in St David’s.  Legend has it that the abbey was filled with the angels as Christ received his soul.  His shrine, topped by a casket containing his bones, was richly adorned with gold and gems.  The Vikings had all that, so a new shrine was constructed for the bones in 1275 (by which time, more than sixty churches in Wales had been dedicated to him).  Edward I found time in his hectic schedule of conquering and castle-building to visit in 1284, although his veneration certainly didn’t stop him removing St David’s head and arm and carrying them back to London with him.  Although the second shrine was destroyed, and the bones removed during the Protestant reformation, it was restored and re-opened to the public in 2012.

A lot of sentiment in Wales advocates making March 1st, St David’s Day, a public holiday, but it isn’t.  Notwithstanding, most schools encourage their children to wear traditional dress or Wales rugby shirts.  People wear daffodils and leeks, and share Welsh cakes, floury roundels of dough and raisins, and bara brith, somewhere between a bread and a fruit cake, flavoured with tea.

So why is he the patron saint of Wales?  Among the miracles performed, there was supposedly a battle between the Welsh and the Anglo-Saxons, taking place in a leek field.  Covered in mud, the two sides were unable to distinguish one from the other.  Happily, St David appeared in vision and commanded the Welsh to pull up leeks from the field and stick them in their hats.  Able finally to distinguish the enemy, the Welsh triumphed.

However, nobody has a clue which battle this might have been, or when or where it took place, or why the Saxons never paused to ask themselves why all these people were running about the field with leeks in the hats.  Although there certainly was no lack of battles in the early middle ages between the Welsh and the Anglo-Saxons!