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Some notes on St David of Wales

March 1st is the feast of St David, the great patron saint of Wales and the Welsh – otherwise known as the ancient Britons. He is known in Welsh as Dewi Sant, Sant Dafydd, and also as Dewi Ddyfrwr (David the Waterman). This latter title alludes to both his ascetic monasticism, which only allowed the drinking of water, and also to his missionary zeal which led to his baptising of many souls. Rhigyfarch (also spelt, Rhygyfarch) wrote a detailed account of this holy man’s life in his Buchedd Dewi Sant / Vita Sancti Davidi (which was written in Welsh and Latin) and we also have extra details concerning the saint from the hand of the famous travel-writer and medieval social commentator, Gerald of Wales. Both these men used ancient sources and texts when penning St David’s story, and were very concerned that Rome recognise him as a fully canonised saint of the Catholic Church, a legitimate Archbishop of the pre-Augustinian Church in Britain, and a Patron to the ancient British peoples, y Cymry. Their campaign, along with that of many other men such as Bishop Bernard of St David’s, was successful, and in 1120 Pope Callixtus II canonised David – naming him patron of the Welsh. Amongst the four patron saints of the modern-day nations that inhabit the British Isles, St David is the only one to have emerged from his own people. St George (England) was from Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and lived on this earth centuries before England came into being; St Andrew (Scotland) was a disciple of Our Lord Jesus Christ, born in Galilee; and St Patrick (Ireland) was an ancient Briton (Welsh) who showed heroic virtue in saving the savages who had enslaved him. Seeing that all these nations have excellent saints, born and bred amongst them, it seems rather strange that they cling to the patronage of men from other shores.

David was born sometime in the late 5th Century. It is probably correct to assume that this would have been around the year 489 – as he is said to have lived to be a hundred and died in 589. He was both born and died on March 1st. According to Rhigyfarch, David was born of a violent union between Sandde (or Sant), younger son of Ceredig, Patriarch and King of Ceredigion, and the Lady, St Nonn, a holy woman and nun who was founder of several shrines and holy wells within the kingdom. Having said this, Rhigyfarch also claimed that David was a direct descendant of the Virgin Mary’s sister. His biography starts with this genealogy presented here in the original Middle Welsh: –

“Dafyd vab Sant, vab Kredic, vab Kuneda, vab Edyrn, vab Padarn beisrud, vab Deil, ab Gordeil, vab Dwfyn, vab Gordwfyn, vab, Amgnod, vab Amweryc, vab Omyt, vab Peru, vab Dubun, vab Ongen, vab Avallach vab Eugen, vab Eirdolen, vab chwaer Veir Wyry, mam Iessu Grist.”

It is claimed that when Sandde, walking alone near a spot where St Patrick had once set off for Ireland, set his eyes upon the chaste Nonn he was unable to resist the temptation to rape her (“ymauael a hi, a dwyn treis arni”). As ever, God shows that out of tragedy and pain, out of evil, He can bring about great good and acts of charity.

St David’s Life reads very much like a gospel, in that the birth narrative echoes the early part of Luke’s Gospel. In fact, similar to Christ’s ability to perform wonders in the womb, David himself was able to bring about prophecies whilst yet unborn. Rhigyfarch tells us that when St Nonn went to hear St Gildas preach at a local church the holy and learned man was dumb-struck. Eventually, he managed to ask whether there were any women with child in the congregation. Nonn announced herself, telling him that she was in such a condition. Gildas then asked her to go out and leave the church. The moment she left the saint was able to preach clearly and loudly (“yn eglur, ac yn uchel”). After his sermon, and after Mass, the people asked him what had happened to make him unable to speak. Calling Nonn to himself Gildas said that the child in her womb was destined for greater things than he, and that God had given David the privilege of being the everlasting chief saint of the Welsh, and also would be given authority over all peoples on the Island (Britain): –

“rodes Duw breint a phennaduryaeth seint Kymry yndragwydawl…yr hwnn a rodes Duw idaw pennaduryaeth ar bawb o’r ynys honn.”

For this reason, St Gildas said, it would have been better for him to leave for another land than disrespect the child in Nonn’s womb by preaching to him.

David was born during a violent storm, whilst Nonn sought shelter near the edge of a cliff. God granted her this, making radiant and peaceful the spot where she delivered – and the site is now, and has been ever since that time, a place of pilgrimage, known as the Chapel of St Nonn.

During his baptism St David managed to perform two miracles. First, a spring appeared at an appointed site, so that he could be baptised; secondly, the priest who held him during the sacrament was blind, but when David was re-born in the waters of new life the priest recovered his sight. A similar wonder occurred when the Saint went to Whitland to be schooled for the priesthood by Saint Paulinus (St Paul Aurelian). The holy teacher was beginning to lose his sight and asked the saintly boy to bless his eyes – and upon doing so Paulinus was able to see clearly once more. In thanksgiving the elderly teacher blessed David with every blessing found in both the old and new laws of the holy scriptures: –

“…heb ef wrth y mab, “dyro dy law ar vy wyneb i, a bendicka ve llygeit, a mi avydaf holl iach.” A phan rodes Dauyd y law ar ei lygeit ef ybuant holl iach, Ac yno bendigawd Paulinus Dauyd o bop bendith a geifft yn ysgrifennedic yn y dedyf hen ac yn y newid.”

Soon after his education David went off to found the Abbey at Glastonbury. In the Middle Ages the abbots at Glastonbury disputed this version of events – as they had claimed that it was Our Lord himself who had founded the monastery, and dedicated it to his own Mother. Having said that, they did not want to deny themselves a link to an important Saint (Pope Callixtus II had decreed that two pilgrimages to St David’s, Menevia, were worth one to Rome), so the Abbots agreed that a portion of the Abbey had indeed been built by the holy Welshman and it seems that Henry VIII stole St David’s altar during the Reformation. Rhigyfarch gives a list of the many churches and holy wells that St David established during his early ministry, including many in Wales, the West Country, and Brittany. He also established one holy place of which he claimed an angel had told him that anyone buried there, who had died in the true faith, would not descend into Hell. Obviously, this churchyard became a popular place for burial!

During his missionary activity, and his reconfirming and revitalising of the faith of his people, St David had gathered about him a community of disciples – men from the town and villages he had preached in. These men included, “Aedan, …Eluid (Teilo), [and] Ysmael”. After discerning the will of God they were led to a place, called “Glyn Rosyn”, in order to found a monastery. Unfortunately there was an Irish chieftain living in the area, one of the many who had plundered Britain after the fall of Rome in 410. He was a man called Bwya (Boya), and had a lascivious wife and many beautiful maidservants. Not wanting to be disturbed by a bunch of “holy men”, Bwya sent his wife and servant girls to tempt the monks into sin – but, needless to say, these men of God were having none of it! They were men who would recite the psalms in the cold sea and never gave in to anything stronger than water to drink – so it wasn’t very likely that the women’s charms would lead them away from God, rather, the opposite happened! Eventually the Irish warlord, angry at having his life of debauchery disturbed, decided to kill St David and his monks. On the day that Bwya had set apart for the murder, in the early hours, as he lay asleep, God sent a fire from heaven to dispatch the Irish Chief and his whole household and followers! As the flames consumed these evil men, St David began his work of establishing a permanent monastery – which is now, of course, St David’s Cathedral.

As David’s monastery flourished a rule was established – which was similar the types of monastic rule found in the desert, such as those set by Pachomius. It could be said, though, that this British form of monasticism was much harsher than that found amongst the Desert Fathers. The monks, who lived only on bread and herbs for sustenance, consumed no alcohol. They weren’t allowed draught animals, such as oxen, and pulled the plough themselves. They bathed in cold water, so as to keep their bodies free from passions. The practice of mortification and penance adopted by the brothers was harsher than that used by St Bernard at Clairvaux (which resulted in the deaths of many novices in his time). St David’s fame as a spiritual leader became widespread and many people came to hear him preach, or to seek guidance and advice in the Christian life – including St Constantine, former King of Dumnonia (who joined the monastic community). It is at this time that the Saint began to be known as David Aquaticus (David the Waterman), mainly for his ideal of temperance during a time when drinking mead and getting drunk seemed a daily obligation for so many men. Like another monastic founder, St Benedict, David was nearly poisoned as his fame grew – but was saved thanks to one of his disciples, by then a founder a monastery in Ireland, who wrote to him warning of the plot. David allowed his food to be poisoned and then fed the fatal bread to a crow, which immediately fell off its perch. Not content with this grace, though, St David went on to eat the rest of the poisoned food, after blessing it, to show his disciples that all is for the good for those who love God.

After spending years confirming the faith of the Welsh St David decided to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the early 540s, with Ss Teilo and Padarn*. All three were consecrated bishops by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, John III. Some chroniclers, though, claim that they were consecrated by the Pope, whilst travelling through Rome – it might be that David was ordained to the episcopacy in Jerusalem, whilst Teilo and Padarn were ordained by the Bishop of Rome. Just as the three holy men returned home the British Church was in the midst of a crisis. One of the leading clerics of the Church, Pelagius, had been preaching heresy – and this false doctrine of his (known as Pelagianism) was causing discord and disunity. The Bishops of Britain, including St Deiniol of Bangor, and Archbishop Dyfrig of Ergyng, invited St David to address an emergency Synod at Llanddewi Brefi. During this meeting the Saint spoke so eloquently that the ground he was standing on rose to form a small hill, so that the crowds could hear his teaching. Archbishop Dyfrig resigned his See and the Synod appointed David as Archbishop. He in turn moved the archiepiscopal see from Caerleon (site of the martyrdom of Ss Aaron and Julius in 303), where it had been for some time, to St David’s (also known as Mynyw or Menevia). Rhigyfarch tells us that this happened so that Britain would have an apostolic leader and rock for its Church, just as “Peter was for Rome, Martin in France, and Samson in Brittany.”

“…Phedyr yn Ruvein, a Martyn yn Freink, a Samson yn Llydaw, y rodes Dauyd Sant vot yn ynys Brydein.”

St David’s was foretold of his death in a dream, where an angel counselled him to prepare himself for the 1st March, as that would be the day that the Lord Jesus Christ would come with his angels to call him out of this world. He preached his last sermon on the last Sunday in February, at a Mass that was attended by a great crowd of people. During the sermon St David exhorted his disciples such: –

“Lords, brothers, and sisters, be joyful, and keep the faith and the creed, and also do the little things that you heard and saw me do.”

“Arglwyddi, vrodyr, a chwiorydd, byddwch lawen, a chedwch ych fyd a’ch cret, a gnewch y pethau bychein a glywassach ac a welasawch y genyfi.”

The banner of St David

St David was buried in his Cathedral, where his relics were venerated until the Reformation, but pilgrims still visit to this day. Soon after his death a cult developed quickly and David’s fame spread throughout Wales, where he was immediately adopted as patron and leader – especially called upon to save the Welsh from both Saxon and Norman invasions. In fact, many prophecies arose in which it was said that the ancient British (or Welsh) would rise up one day behind St David’s banner to drive the Saxons from the Island. This prophecy is clearly seen in the famous 10th Century poem, Amres Prydein which is contained in the Books of Taliesyn. King Henry Tudor used these aspirations when searching for followers from his native Wales, after landing in Pembroke, to go and fight with him at Bosworth Field in 1485.

In Wales, as well as other places where the Welsh find themselves, St David’s Day is a major event in the annual calendar. In many places an eisteddfod is held – where participants rejoice in music, song, the recitation of poetry, and dancing. Many families sit down to enjoy a special broth or stew, called cawl. Depending on where the person is from in Wales either a daffodil or a leek is worn as a sign of dedication to the Saint’s cult (though, most Welsh – being Protestant or secular – have no knowledge of this significance). The daffodil, in Welsh cenhinen pedr (St Peter’s leek) is normally worn in the North, whilst those from South Wales wear a leek (which is one of St David’s symbols in hagiography). By now many places have parades, and week-long festivities. There had also been a call by the people of Wales for the National Assembly to officially establish 1st March as a bank holiday throughout the Principality. Many churches and official buildings raise the banner of St David on this day – though other places, including Westminster Abbey, fly the Red Dragon flag.

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