Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:28 am
St David is the patron saint of Wales and St David’s Day is on 1 March. The problem with saints’ days is that most Britons do not believe in saints. However, they are regarded by many as occasions to celebrate national characteristics and cultures, and St David’s Day is no exception. Very little is known about David, Dafydd, or Dewi; he lived in the 5th/6th centuries and is the only patron saint of any British nation to be a native.
Who was St David?
The story goes that David’s mother, St Non, or Nonnita, was raped by Xantus, or Sanctus, Prince of Cereticu (Ceredigion), and the product of this violation was David. Non, who may have been a nun and the daughter of a chieftain, gave birth to her son on a clifftop during a wild storm. Today, the ruins of St Non’s Chapel on the Pembrokeshire coast mark the spot. Generally, the year of David’s birth is given as anywhere between 462 and 515 AD.
St David grew up to become a celebrated preacher and founder of monasteries and churches throughout Wales, southwest England and Brittany. Some do say he founded Glastonbury Abbey. He is also reputed to have made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. And, in the little green valley of the River Alun, an area known as Mynyw, David established the monastic centre that would come to bear his name, St Davids (no apostrophe). His rule was austere: the monks wore animal skins, did not eat meat, drink beer, had no personal possessions and laboured hard – including ploughing the fields by hand – to sustain themselves as well as help feed the local poor. This lifestyle obviously did David no harm at all; he became a bishop and some say he lived to 100, dying on 1 March (which, by uncanny coincidence, is St David’s Day; did we mention that?). The year of his death is often given as 589AD, but you won’t be surprised to hear that alternative dates are available. He was buried in the church that he founded, on the site of today’s St David’s Cathedral, where you will still find his shrine.
The leek has long been associated with Wales and St David. It is said that Welsh soldiers wore leeks in their helmets to distinguish themselves from their Anglo-Saxon enemies in battle – indeed ‘tis said that David ordered this, though it is hard to picture such a highly spiritual man indulging in anything as disagreeable as war.
In the last sermon he gave, he told his followers to, “Be joyful, keep the faith, and do the little things that you have heard and seen me do.” The phrase Gwnewch y pethau bychain mewn bywyd – ‘Do the little things in life’ – is still a well-known Welsh saying.
Stories about St David
St David’s monastic settlement gained reputation as a place of holiness and learning. The saint’s resting place became a place of pilgrimage and St Davids went on to become the wealthiest diocese in medieval Wales. The status of St Davids was such that even the 9th century King of the West Saxons, Alfred the Great, sought help from it. The Welsh monk, Asser, was dispatched to Wessex to assist in the restoration of spiritual and intellectual life in the wake of the devastation caused by warfare with the Danes. Mind you, Alfred, ever the pragmatist, may have been motivated by the desire to unite Celt and Saxon against the common foe. St Davids was always a handy location too, for visitors dropping by en route to or from Ireland. But this, as well as the magnet of its prosperity, could be a drawback; because Viking raiders attacked a dozen times in the 10th and 11th centuries, twice killing the bishop (being killed once must have been bad enough, poor chap).
One story told about David concerns his teacher, Paulinus. Paulinus was an elderly man and going blind. David gently touched the old man’s eyes, restoring his sight. St David’s best-known miracle, however, took place in the village of Llanddewi Brefi, at the synod held there. David was addressing the crowd and, so that all could see and hear him, the ground he was standing on rose up to form a hill. This was necessary because, of course, there are so few hills in Wales. And then a white dove was seen to settle on the saint’s shoulder; the white dove remains one of David’s emblems.
Why is David the patron saint of Wales?
The 5th and 6th centuries have been called the ‘Age of the Saints’ in Wales and Welsh tradition features many evangelising figures, all journeying the seaways between Brittany, Cornwall, Wales and Ireland, spreading the Word. Somehow, David emerged from this as the pre-eminent figure. He was canonised by Pope Callistus II in the 12th century, is the only Welsh saint to be canonised by the Roman Catholic church and St David’s Day has been a national festival for centuries.
St David has his own flag – a yellow cross on a black background – but, unlike the flags of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick, it is not incorporated into the Union Flag. Neither is the national flag of Wales – the red dragon on the white and green background. Both flags only really date from the 20th century, though the red dragon, Y Ddraig Goch, is an ancient symbol, and green and white were the colours of the Tudors, whose origins were Welsh.
St David’s Day is widely celebrated as a national day in Wales, when it is traditional to wear the national emblems of a leek or a daffodil. It is not yet a public holiday, despite support for this from the National Assembly for Wales. Parades take place in Cardiff, and other places (possibly including villages like Llareggub), lessons are often put aside in schools, traditional costumes worn, eisteddfods held and leek broth consumed. It is a salutation to Welshness, which includes the language (still the first language of many in Wales), singing and the obsession with rugby – in which the national team consistently punches above its weight. The daffodil, incidentally, was encouraged as a Welsh emblem by the politician David Lloyd George (Prime Minister from 1916-1922), but no one seems sure why. Whilst mentioning famous Welshfolk, we shouldn’t forget (in no particular order), Bonnie Tyler, Catherine-Zeta Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton (the actor), Tom Jones, Aneurin Bevan, Dylan Thomas, Shirley Bassey, Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams and (probably) Ryan Giggs.
But St David is seen by some as the ultimate Welshman. Indeed, apparently, the nickname ‘Taffy’ is derived from ‘Dafydd’, the Welsh for David.
Here are pictures of some leeks and daffodils.
The above article is taken from A Bit About Britain’s High Days and Holidays, available from Amazon and other places.