Known in the Welsh as Dewi Sant
Sixth Century Celtic Saint
Born c520 Died c601
Commemorated on the 1st March.

Saint David is, of course, the Patron Saint of Wales and has the distinction of being the one patron saint of the British Isles who was actually a native of the nation which he now represents.1

The Legendary David

The earliest Life of David, the Vita Sancti Dauidis appeared around five centuries after the saint's death, written about the year 1090 and by the hand of one Rhygifarch2, a son of Sulien, who was bishop of St David's at the time. This hagiography, as with most medieval hagiographies it must be said, was written with a specific purpose in mind, which in this case was to promote the claims of the Welsh church to independence from the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury and to advance the cause of St Davids as the leading see in Wales.

Later writers such as Giraldus Cambriensis, William of Malmesbury and Geoffrey of Monmouth gleefully incorporated Rhygiferch's work into their own and added the odd details here and there as they saw fit, but the basis of the story is as follows.


David was born at Henfynyw that is 'Old Menevia' sometime around the year 454. He was the son of Sant or Sandde ap Ceredig ap Cunnedda a prince of Ceredigion, and his mother Nonna or Nonnita, a nun who had been raped by the aforementioned Sant. His birth had been foretold thirty years previously when an angel appeared before Saint Patrick and he was baptised at Porth Clais by Saint Elvis of Munster, "whom Divine Providence brought over from Ireland".

David received his education from Saint Illtyd at his school at Llanilltud Fawr (Llantwit Major] in modern Glamorganshire) and later at Whitland in Dyfed under Pawl Hen or 'Old Paul' otherwise known as Saint Paulinus whom David later cured of blindness.

He then left the care of Pawl Hen journeyed throughout the west of Britain, founding a number of monasteries including those of Glastonbury, Bath, and Leominster before returning to Dyfed where he founded a monastery at Mynyw or 'Menevia'. There he established a regime of extreme austerity with a strict programme of hard physical labour during daylight hours, study and worship during the hours of darkness, combined with a vegetarian diet with water the only permitted beverage.

This is presumably why his monks decided to try and poison him, but David was saved by the intervention of Saint Scuthyn, who crossed over from Ireland on the back of a sea-monster, to warn him of the dastardly plot. After blessing the poisoned bread that he had been given, David ate it with no ill effects.

Inspired by a vision and in the company of another two saints Saint Teilo and Saint Padarn, David then went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where was made a bishop by the patriarch of Jerusalem, from where he returned to Wales to take part in the Synod of Brefi3 "against the Pelegians".4

It was on his way to the Synod of Brefi that he performed his most famous miracle, or at least the one that is taught to every Welsh schoolchild. Whilst preaching to a particularly large crowd, some complained that they could not hear him properly. The ground on which he stood promptly rose up beneath his feet so that David stood upon a small hill and all could hear and see him clearly. As some have remarked, given the general geography of Wales, it is hard to imagine a more unnecessary miracle, as there is hardly a shortage of hills about, but presumably it impressed the assembled multitude.

When Saint Dubric resigned as Archbishop of Caerleon he was replaced by David, who after organising, in the year 569, yet another synod, this time the Synod of Victory5 against the Pelegians, relocated the see from Caerleon to Mynyw from where he governed the Welsh Church until his death in 601 at the ripe old age of a 147.


Some of this may well be true and a lot of it undoubtedly isn't. I have grave doubts about the sea-monster in particular. And no doubt it was very useful to link David to a descendant of Cunedda, the legendary founder of Gwynedd, particularly one who was variously said to have been either king Arthur's nephew or uncle.

The Historical David

The first recorded reference to Saint David is an Irish Catalogue of Saints dating from around 730, the martyrologies of both Tallaght and Oengus of around 800 show that his feast day of the 1st March had been determined and was regularly celebrated.

In the ninth century he was being referred to by the name of Dewi Ddyfrwr or Dauidis Aquaticus (due to his insistence that the monks in his care drank only water, clearly not the norm for the average monastic establishment at the time).

The Annales Cambriae, composed in the tenth century his death is recorded for the year 601, which in the absence of any evidence to the contrary is generally accepted as the date of his death. On the basis of which it seems likely that he was born sometime around the year 520 give or take a decade.

The detail is sparse enough, but it is clear that a significant cult of David developed in south Wales, with over fifty Welsh churches dedicated to his memory, the greatest concentration of which are in the south west. In the tenth century poem Armes Prydein Fawr, his name is clearly invoked as some kind of national figurehead under which the Welsh are urged to unite to drive out the hated English from Britain.

There also appears no reason to doubt the tradition that he founded a monastery at the place known as Menevia or Mynyw and which later become known as St Davids in his honour and became the seat of one of the four traditional sees of the Christian Church in Wales.

Which is essentially all that can claim to be historical regarding the patron saint of Wales other than that David is the only Welsh saint to have been formally canonised by the Catholic Church in the form of Pope Callistus II in the year 1120.

Lords, brothers and sisters, be happy and keep your faith and your belief, and do the little things that you have heard and seen me do

NOTES

1 (Patrick was Welsh or technically Romano-British; George was from central Anatolia in Turkey, specifically Cappadocia and Andrew was one of the twelve Apostles and brother of Saint Peter and therefore presumably a Jew. Neither George nor Andrew ever set foot in Britain.

2 Also known as Rhygyvarch in Old Welsh and Ricemarchus in the Latin

3 Held at Brefi, now known as Llandewi Brefi in modern Cerdigion/Cardiganshire

4 Which is not to say that there were any Pelegians about; just that it was a convenient accusation to throw around.

5 The Synod of Victory was held at the town of Lucus Victoriae, hence the name believed to be Caerleon.


SOURCES

Wendy Davies Wales in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester University Press, 1982)
John Morris The Age of Arthur (Orion, 2001)

Articles on St David at;
http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04640b.htm
http://www.data-wales.co.uk/st_david.htm

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