Each year on 1st March the patron saint of Wales, Dewi Sant, is celebrated across the country with choir concerts and dance recitals as well as traditional dress. Here we look at the history of this influential Celt and how he came to be inextricably woven into Welsh identity
Unlike the patron saints of England and Scotland, Saint David (or Dewi Sant, to give him his proper name) could hardly be more tied up with the county of his patronage. In both life and death he was a major influence on the history and identity of Wales.
David was born between 462 and 530 and died towards the end of the sixth century—Rhygyfarch, the 11th century author of the Life of Saint David, insists that he lived to the ripe old age of 147. His was a high birth, but not a romantic one. Rhygyfarch tells how David’s powerful father, King Sanctus of Ceredigion, raped “a very beautiful and graceful girl” called Non, conceiving a son.
During the birth, high on coastal cliffs in the midst of a storm, David’s saintly mother is said to have been gripped by such intense birth pangs that her fingers gouged out holes in the granite. The baby was baptised by St Elvis of Munster, at which point a spring of crystal clear water sprouted from the spot and cured a blind man. This should be no surprise: you’re bound for big things if Elvis is overseeing your christening.
Some medieval hagiographers suggest that David was, through his mother, a nephew of King Arthur—and he is certainly tied up with lots of Arthurian myth. David’s burial place is said to have been Bedd Arthur, high on the Preseli Ridge, which also marks the spot of the slaughter of Arthur’s knights by the fearsome Twrch Trwyth.
Merlin the Magician
The blue stones of Preseli are the same stones found in the inner circle of Stonehenge, said to have been magicked there by Merlin the Magician. St David is also said by Rhygyfarch to have been the founder of Glastonbury Abbey, later claimed to be the location of Arthur’s grave.
St David was a man of miracles. One famous story sees David preaching at the Synod of Brewi. When many in the large crowd were unable to hear him, the ground rose up to become the hill of Brewi, a white dove fluttered down to sit on his shoulder (the symbol of St David) and the saint was able to project his voice far enough for even the Pelagian heretics to be converted to the ‘true path’.
Impressive stuff—although, as the historian John Davies archly notes, it is hard to “conceive of any miracle more superfluous” in that part of Wales than the creation of a new hill. St David did, however, bring a dead boy back to life by washing his face, and he had a horse that could walk on water, which is pretty cool however you look at it.
The saint was big on austerity (he’s famously known as Dewi Dyrwr: David the Water Drinker) and the severe conditions he imposed on the monks in his charge, who weren’t allowed possessions and had to drive the plough themselves, made him unpopular—so unpopular that some disgruntled monks decided to poison his bread.
The dastardly deed
Fortunately for David, St Scuthyn travelled on the back of a sea monster from Ireland to warn him of the dastardly deed. Facing down the assassins, David fed some of the poisoned bread to a small dog (“as soon as it had tasted the bit it died a wretched death, for in the twinkling of an eye all its hair fell off, so that its entrails burst forth, its skin splitting all over; and all the brethren who saw it were astonished”), killed a raven with the next hunk, then ate the last slice—and lived.
St David is woven into the Welsh identity. The people of Wales are fondly known as Taffy, a derivative of David or Dafydd. The saint advised Welsh soldiers to attach leeks to their helmets to assist them in their fight against the hated Saxons, leading to their adoption of the leek as a national symbol—although the exact same story is also attributed to King Cadwaladr of Gwynedd, so either the Welsh had a paucity of good yarns or a widespread faith in the power of leeks.
In the later medieval period, the popularity of St David was successfully used by the church in Wales as a key instrument for establishing a Welsh church ruled from St David’s, independent of Canterbury. The English however, were having none of it and when King Edward I conquered Wales in 1284, he stole St David’s skull and arm bones from the crypt in his cathedral, mindful of the power of the cult of St David to reunite his defeated and scattered enemy.
To this day, the sayings of St David endure. On his death bed, David is said to have uttered: “Do the little things... the small things you’ve seen me doing.” A good way of living life, regardless of whether that includes raising the dead.