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Stained glass depicting Saint David. Source: Hchc2009 / CC BY-SA 4.0.

Miracle from the Womb: Saint David, Patron Saint of Wales

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Saint David (known in Welsh as Dewi Sant) was a Welsh bishop who is recorded to have lived during the 6th century AD. Not much is known about Saint David and the main source of information about the saint comes from a hagiography written during the 11th century.

Nevertheless, Saint David has been an important figure in the history of Wales, as he is the country’s patron saint. His feast day, known as Saint David’s Day, which falls on the 1st of March, is still celebrated even today.

The Foretelling of Saint David

The exact year of David’s birth is unknown. Some sources, for instance, claim that he died around 544 AD, which means that he could have been born as early as the 5th century AD. On the other hand, the 10th century Annales Cambriae (Latin for The Annals of Wales ), which is the earliest mention of the saint, states that David died in 601 AD, though the same source states that he was born in 458 AD. In any case, as a record of events, the Annales Cambriae does not provide a detailed account of the saint’s life.

The earliest biography of David that we know of is the Vita Sancti David ( Buchedd Dewi in Welsh, or The Life of Saint David in English), written during the 11th century by a Welshman by the name of Rhygyfarch. Since this work was only produced many centuries after the saint’s death, its reliability has been questioned by modern scholars.

One scholar has even argued that Rhygyfarch had his own agenda in writing this hagiography, claiming that it is “chiefly a tissue of inventions intended to support the claim of the  Welsh episcopate to be independent of Canterbury”. Nevertheless, the legends found in the Vita Sancti David are pretty impressive.

According to Rhygyfarch, the birth of David had been prophesied to Saint Patrick before his mission in Ireland. In the story, Patrick came to the “valley of Rosina, called Glyn Rosyn, and intended to pass his life there”. An angel, however, appeared to him, telling him to travel to the place for one yet to be born.

Saint Patrick preaching in Ireland. St. Patrick received a vision about Saint David and was sent to Ireland. (Lawrence OP /CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Saint Patrick preaching in Ireland. St. Patrick received a vision about Saint David and was sent to Ireland. (Lawrence OP / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

Although Patrick was unhappy and complained, he prepared to leave. As he was packing, God sent another angel to the saint, this time showing him the island of Ireland, and to tell him of his mission to convert the Irish. Thirty years after this incident, David was born.

As incredible as the preceding story may be, Rhygyfarch provides an even more fantastic genealogy of Wales’ patron saint, tracing his ancestry all the way back to the Holy Family . Thus, David is said to be “the son of Sandde, the son of Ceredig, the son of Cunedda, the son of Edeyrn, the son of Padarn Beisrudd, the son of Deil, the son of Gwrddeil, the son of Dwfyn, the son of Gorddwfyn, the son of Amgnod, the son of Amweryd, the son of Onwydd, the son of Perw, the son of Dwfn, the son of Owain, the son of Avallach, the son of Eugen, the son of Eirdolen, the son of the sister of the Virgin Mary , the mother of Jesus Christ”.

Early Miracles of Saint David

As for David’s mother, she is said to have been Nonn, a nun who had been violated by Sandde. Rhygyfarch goes on to claim that even while in his mother’s womb, David was already performing miracles. One of these involved a fellow saint by the name of Gildas, whose epithet was ‘the Wise’.

In this tale, Nonn, while she was still pregnant with David, went to church to hear Gildas preach. When Gildas began to preach, however, he found that he could not say a word. After ordering the parishioners to go out of the church, Gildas attempted to preach a second time, but was still not able to do so.

When the saint asked if there was anyone besides himself in the church, Nonn replied that she was there, between the door and the partition. Gildas asked her to go out of the church and to call the rest of the parishioners back in. Once this was done, Gildas found that he was able to preach.

When Gildas had finished preaching, he called Nonn back in, and declared that:

“The child in the womb of this nun, has more property and grace, and dignity than I have, for God has himself given to him the privilege, and supreme authority over all the saints of Wales forever, both before the day of judgment, and afterwards”.

The Vita Sancti David continues with numerous miracles that David performed during his life, which would no doubt have served to enhance the saint’s reputation as a man of God. One of these, for example, relates to how David consumed poison, but survived.

The tale begins with the appearance of an angel to Saint Aedan, one of David’s disciples, who was in Ireland. The angel warned Aedan that some monks were planning to kill his master by serving him poisoned bread and told him to send a messenger to David to inform him of their treachery.

Aedan gave the task to Saint Scuthyn, another of David’s disciple, who crossed the sea on the back of a sea monster. Scuthyn arrived in Wales on the following day, at noon, and told David of the angel’s warning.

Later, at the monastery, David took the poisoned bread, much to Scuthyn’s surprise. The saint then broke the bread into three parts, giving the first to a dog. Rhygyfarch provides a rather vivid description of the poison’s effects on its first victim. After the dog had tasted the bread, “she died, and all her hair fell off so soon as it could be seen, and the skin that was about her broke, and all her entrails fell to the ground”.

Although the rest of the monks were shocked by the scene that unfolded before their eyes, David was unperturbed and gave the second part of the bread to a crow, who also died after tasting it. Finally, David himself took the third part of the bread, blessed it, and ate it.

The rest of the monks looked upon David, fearful for his life, but no harm came to the saint. David then revealed the matter to the monks, who cursed those who were trying to kill the saint.

Saint Finian as a boy with Saint David in Wales. (Andreas F. Borchert / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Saint Finian as a boy with Saint David in Wales. (Andreas F. Borchert / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Other Legends About Saint David

Although the Vita Sancti David contains many extraordinary legends about David’s life, it mentions other, more ‘mundane’, stories about the saint as well. One of these, for instance, is David’s participation in the Synod of Brevi (Llandewi Brefi in Cardiganshire), which was held around 550 AD. The synod is believed to have been summoned for the suppression of the Pelagian heresy. Even so, Rhygyfarch did not fail to weave a fantastic tale (or two) into this ordinary event.

The author begins by claiming that there was a great multitude of people at the synod, “and the bishops, and the doctors, and the clergy, and the kings, and the princes, and the earls, and the barons, and the nobles, and the esquires, and the pleaders, and the multitude, that could not be numbered”. Next, Rhygyfarch states that “an agreement was made at that meeting, that whosoever of the saints should preach at the synod, so that the great multitude in general should hear, should be sovereign over the saints of the isle of Britain”.

Needless to say, no one was able to do so except David. At that time, the saint was not in Brevi, but living in Rubi. It seems that David had not gone to the synod and was reluctant to go there. He only agreed to attend the synod after three groups of messengers were sent to invite him.

On the way to Brevi, David raised a young man from the dead. In any case, at the synod, David decided to preach on the surface of a flat ground, rather than from on top of a hill. Amazingly, everyone could hear David’s voice.

In addition, the ground, miraculously, rose up like a mountain. Rhygyfarch concludes by having the participants of the synod “acknowledge unanimously that he (David) was a prince over the saints of Britain”.

David is also said to have presided over another synod, the Synod of Victory, which was held at Caerleon-on-Usk, Monmouthshire, years after the one at Brevi. This synod is alleged to have defeated the Pelagian heresy in Britain. In addition, David moved the seat of the ecclesiastical government from Caerleon to Mynyw (known today as St Davids), which is still the cathedral city of the Church in Wales’ Diocese of St Davids. Incidentally, St Davids is Britain’s smallest city, in terms of population, having less than 2,000 inhabitants.

St Davids Cathedral, current day, restored to its 1181 appearance. (DayTM / Public Domain)

St Davids Cathedral, current day, restored to its 1181 appearance. (DayTM / Public Domain )

Saint David’s Day – March 1st

Although David is reputed to have been a great preacher, it is perhaps a little surprising that his sermons, unlike the miracles he performed, were not recorded for posterity. David’s last words, however, can be found in the Vita Sancti David . According to Rhygyfarch, on the last Tuesday in February (of a year not mentioned by the author), an angel came to David and told him that on the first day of March, “thy Lord Jesus Christ will come with nine orders of angels from heaven with him, and the most beautiful on earth, to meet thee”.

On the last Sunday of his life, David sang mass, preached, and gave his blessing to those present. After that, Rhygyfarch puts the following words in David’s mouth,

“Lords, brethren, and sisters, be joyful, and keep your faith and belief, and perform the small things which you have heard and seen with me, and I will go the road which our fathers have traveled. Be courageous whilst you are on the earth, for you will not anymore see me in this world.”

Rhygyfarch notes that on Tuesday night, about the time of cock-crowing, i.e. the eve of David’s death,

“a host of angels filled the city, it was full of all kinds of songs and mirth; and in the morning, lo, the Lord Jesus came, and with him nine orders of angels, as he had left his majesty, and the sun was shining on all the hosts. And on that Tuesday, the first day of March, Jesus Christ took the soul of Saint David, with great victory, and joy, and honor.”

Saint David, patron saint of Wales. (Lawrence OP / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Saint David, patron saint of Wales. (Lawrence OP / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

Therefore, the 1st of March , regarded traditionally to be the day of David’s death, is celebrated as his feast day, known also as Saint David’s Day. One of the traditional ways to mark the day is the wearing of a leek, the national symbol of Wales. According to one legend, David advised the Welsh to wear leeks in their hats, so as to allow them to distinguish themselves from the Saxons whom they were about to fight.

Another explanation suggests that the leeks are meant to commemorate David’s habit of fasting on water and leeks. In any case, the tradition was popularized by Shakespeare in his play Henry V . One of the characters, a Welsh captain by the name of Fluellen, is said to have worn a leek on Saint David’s Day, and was mocked by another character, Pistol. This angered Fluellen, who beat up Pistol, and forced him to eat a raw leek.

Saint David remained a popular figure in Wales over the centuries, and Rhygyfarch’s Vita Sancti David would have certainly boosted his reputation. As David’s cult grew, his shrine at St Davids, his reputed final resting place, became a site of pilgrimage. He is popularly said to have been canonized by Pope Calixtus II in 1120. The same pope is claimed to have declared that making two pilgrimages to St Davids is equivalent to one to Rome.

Shrine of Saint David in St Davids Cathedral, in Wales. (Plucas58 / Public Domain)

Shrine of Saint David in St Davids Cathedral, in Wales. (Plucas58 / Public Domain )

David’s popularity is Wales is also evident by the fact that he is the country’s patron saint and that numerous churches there were dedicated to him. Even today, Saint David is held in high regard by the Welsh, attested by the fact that Saint David’s Day is still celebrated as a national festival in Wales. Finally, David’s reputed last words are even relevant for today’s society. According to a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (who is himself Welsh),

“...it reminds us that the primary things for us are the relationships around us, the need to work at what's under our hands, what's within our reach.
We can transform our domestic, our family relationships, our national life to some extent, if we do that with focus and concentration in the presence of God.”

Top image: Stained glass depicting Saint David. Source: Hchc2009 / CC BY-SA 4.0 .

By Wu Mingren

References

Halsall, P. 1998. Medieval Sourcebook: The Annales Cambriae (Annals of Wales) . [Online] Available at: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/annalescambriae.asp

History Extra. 2017. 16 things you (probably) didn’t know about St David’s Day traditions . [Online] Available at: https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/facts-st-davids-day-wales-traditions-facts-welsh-costumes-leek/

Johnson, B. Date Unknown. St David – Patron Saint of Wales . [Online] Available at: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofWales/St-David-Patron-Saint-of-Wales/

Jones, V. 2019. Who was St David and why does Wales celebrate him on March 1? . [Online] Available at: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/whats-on/arts-culture-news/st-davids-day-facts-wales-6748875

Rees, W. 1853. Lives of the Cambro British Saints . London: Longman, & Co.

St David of Wales Church. 1994. Who is Saint David? . [Online] Available at: https://sdow.org/saint-david/

The BBC. 2009. Saint David . [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/saints/david_1.shtml

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2018. St. David . [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-David

Toke, L. 1908. St. David . [Online] Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04640b.htm

www.visitwales.com. 2019. Five facts about Saint David . [Online] Available at: https://www.visitwales.com/info/history-heritage-and-traditions/st-david-five-facts

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