WHO IS THE MAN BEHIND THE NAME? Our Very Own St David
by Wendy Hughes
Photographs by Conrad Hughes
Whether you are in Wales or elsewhere, every Welsh person will be celebrating Dewi Sant or St David’s Day on 1 March in their own special way. Welsh pride will be evident by the singing of traditional folk songs, reciting poems, dancing, services and concerts. These will be followed with family and friends gathering to eat cawl (leek broth), bara brith (fruited bread) and Teisen Lap (a moist cake baked on a dinner plate). School girls will dress in traditional Welsh costume wearing a pais a betgwn – a petticoat and overcoat, made of Welsh flannel and a tall hat, worn over a frilled white bonnet. In bygone days the boys would have worn a white shirt with a central frill on the shirt as well as on the cuffs, a Welsh flannel waistcoat, black breeches and black shoes. Nowadays the boys settle for wearing a raw leek, which they eat during the course of the day. Most schools stage their own eisteddfod, with prizes awarded for competitions
But who is St David, and why is he so important to the Welsh? Dewi Sant, as he is known in the Welsh language, was a Celtic monk, who lived in the 6th century. During his life, he became archbishop of Wales and was one of the saints that helped to spread Christianity amongst Celtic tribes of Britain. Little wonder he is remembered to this day.
No Contemporary Records Available
Unfortunately no contemporary records survive of his life, so we have to rely on the writings of two people, his biographer, Rhygyfarch, who wrote Buchedd Dewi (the life of David) in the 11th century, and Gilaldus Cambrenis or Gerald of Wales, who wrote a book about his travels through Wales in the 12th century, which also provides us with some information about Dewi’s early life. As St David died in the 6th century, 500 years had elapsed between his death and the first manuscript to record his life, so most of the stories had to rely on oral tradition handed down verbally from one generation to another. Therefore it is impossible to separate fact from fiction. What we do know is that Dewi Sant was so well respected that medieval pilgrims believed that two pilgrimages to St David in Pembrokeshire were worth one pilgrimage to Rome. In south Wales alone there are over fifty churches that bear his name, not to mention those in America and other the Welsh communities throughout the world. He was a very gentle, kind man who lived a frugal existence, mainly on bread and herbs – probably watercress, and despite his diet was apparently tall and very strong. We also know that Dewi is still the only pure Welsh Saint formally enrolled in the Calendars of the Western Church.
The first story relating to Dewi Sant began some thirty years before his birth when legend informs us that St Patrick, Patron Saint of Ireland, who could well have been a Pembrokeshire man himself, came to the tiny place of St David’s and stood on the very place where the Cathedral now stands. Looking around him St Patrick decided that this was the perfect place for him to serve his God. Suddenly a heavenly angel appeared and told him that the place had been reserved for another person to be born in thirty years time. Deeply disappointed, St Patrick went down to Whitesands Bay and set sail for Ireland, to serve his God from the other side of the water.
David is said to have descended from royal lineage. His father, Sant, was the son of Ceredig, prince of Ceredigion, and his mother, Non was the daughter of a local chieftain. Legend informs us that she was also a niece of King Arthur. There are many stories surrounding the birth of Dewi Sant, one of which describes the moment of birth when a spring of the purest water burst from the earth to salute the child. Today the well, which is about a kilometre from the smallest city, St David’s, is guarded by a statuette of Our Lady in a niche opposite.
Dewi was baptised by a blind monk at Porth Clais, and it is said that he was cured of his blindness by the water that was used for the baptism. Dewi spent his early years in Ceredigion, and it was at Hen Fynyw, a few miles from Aberaeron, that he received some of his education. It was also where he established his first missionary. Around this time the people of Wales were deeply divided between Christians and non-Christians, but under Dewi’s strong leadership Christianity was extended to all as he founded twelve or more monasteries. These small communities lived a very simple, but austere way of life. Dewi became known as Dewi Ddyfrwr or David the water-drinker, the first recorded teetotaller in Welsh history, and it is claimed that as a penance, he would stand up to his neck in cold water, reciting scripture.
He was also a strict vegetarian, preferring fish to flesh, and enjoyed leeks, the emblem of Wales. It is said that leeks were the first vegetable to be cultivated in Wales, and formed part of every Welsh diet. There is a story about a battle between the Saxon invaders and the Welsh. At the height of the battle, as they two sides fought, covered in mud, it became very difficult to tell who was on which side as both sides wore similar clothing. St David could see that this was becoming a problem, and came up with the idea of the Welshmen wearing something to distinguish them from the Saxons. He bent down and grabbing a handful of leeks told the soldiers to wear them pinned to their clothes, so that they would know that any man who did not wear a leek, was the enemy. The leek is still worn today, and is one of the emblems of Wales.
When not in prayer the monks worked on the land, pulling the plough, and using the fruits of their hard labour to feed and clothe the poor and needy of the community. The monks also fed many of the pilgrims and travellers who needed lodgings as they journeyed around the countryside. But despite all his good deeds Dewi encountered opposition from the Irish Chieftain Boia, whose settlement bordered onto where the monks lived. It appears that one day Boia was annoyed at the smoke arising from Dewi’s settlement and, encouraged by Boia’s wife, set out with a band of his men to kill the monks.
On their way they were struck down with a mysterious fever and had to turn back. Even the cattle became ill and died, and in the end Boia sent for Dewi, and said, ‘The land shall be yours forever.’
Dewi felt sorry for the man and brought his cattle back to life, but Boia’s wife was furious and ordered the maidens to lead the monks astray by stripping naked, dancing in front of them, and using coarse language. The maidens did their best to distract the monks, but Dewi and his monks remained strong, toiling with their hands, and keeping their heads bent so they could not be led into temptation.
David is reputed to have been a very old man; some claim he was 147 when he died. All we know is that he died on March 1st 589AD, a day he predicted a week earlier. His last words to his followers were in a sermon on the previous Sunday, which when translated is ‘be joyful and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do. I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.’ Interestingly the saying ‘Gwenwch y pethau bychain – do the little things – is still a well known Welsh expression today.
It is also claimed that when he died, the monastery was ‘filled with angels’ as Christ received his soul. St David was buried at St David’s cathedral were his shrine became a popular place of pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages. During the 10th and 11th centuries Wales came under attack from the Vikings, who, it is said removed the shrine from the church and stripped it of its precious metal adornments. In 1275 a new shrine was constructed, the ruined base of which remains to this day, which was originally surrounded by a wooden canopy with murals of St David, St Patrick and St Denis of France. St David is buried in the Cathedral and his relics are currently located in a niche in the Holy Trinity Chapel. Since its foundation in 1932 the Friends of St David’s Cathedral has consistently supported the work of the Dean and Chapter in maintaining, restoring and enhancing the Cathedral. The Friends raised £150,000 to restore the Shrine of St David, and it was unveiled and re-dedicated by The Right Reverend Wyn Evans, Bishop of St Davids, at a Choral Eucharist on St David’s Day 2012.
The Dean of St Davids, The Very Reverend Jonathan Lean, in his sermon said: ‘This shrine honours St David and his life and let us remember his last words to his followers: “Be joyful, keep the faith and do the little things” and let us pray that today will mark the beginning of our great mission to turn visitors into pilgrims.’
It is impossible to discover the whole truth about Dewi Sant, but what is certain is that he was a very caring compassionate man, who was not afraid of hard work and enjoyed the simple things in life. I am sure you will agree an excellent example for any Welsh person to follow today.
The story of Pembrokeshire by Wendy Hughes is available from Amazon: