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Who is St David?

Icon of St David from the Cathedral's shrine to the saint
Icon of St David from the Cathedral's shrine to the saint

St David, Dewi Sant, was a leading figure and monk in the early Welsh Church who lived in this area in the sixth century. He founded a monastic community here living a simple, austere life in the Celtic monastic tradition which connected the people of Wales with Ireland, Cornwall, France and the Scottish Isles. He drew followers from all over Wales and he travelled a great deal to preach. 

One of the most famous stories about David’s preaching is that when speaking at the Synod of Brefi (now Llanddewi Brefi in Ceredigion) the earth beneath his feet rose up to create a hill so his words could be heard, and he could be seen. 

His last words to his followers, still repeated to this day, were “Be joyful, keep the faith, do the little things you have seen me do”.

The ‘Life’ of St David/Dewi Sant

The earliest known ‘life’ of St David was written by a monk called Rhygyfarch around 1080, five hundred years after David died. It was based on the oral traditions and memories of his sayings and the stories passed down, not always what we would consider ‘facts’. Later versions added more detail from other sources. According to these, his father was a prince of Ceredigion and his mother was St Non, the daughter of a chieftain and a nun. Saints’ lives like this were not written as biography but to build the reputation of the saint by drawing on parallels with other saints and with the life of Jesus himself. 

Saints lives were written in this way to serve a specific purpose: they were to inspire people to follow the example of the saint to lead a life of holiness and faith. In the case of Rhygyfarch there was the added purpose of boosting the claims of the Celtic and Welsh Church and the role of St Davids as an archbishopric. They included any known facts but were usually written long after the saint’s death. Trying to untangle facts from later fable would have been both impossible and would be missing the point: later additions and legends were proof the power and importance of the saint in people’s lives.

The ‘real’ St David?

The statue of St David in the Cathedral's carved quire screen
The statue of St David in the Cathedral's carved quire screen

We know very few hard facts about David, but as he lived 1500 years ago, in a land where people passed on their history by speaking it not writing it down, that is not very surprising! He was reputed to have been unusually tall for the time (about 6 feet), a powerful speaker and spoke as a bishop at the Synod of Brefi in c.545. From mentions in some monastic chronicles, particularly Brut y Tywysogion, we can believe that he lived in the area of modern St Davids and probably started travelling around 547. This may be linked to an attack of plague in South West Wales (possibly a type of yellow fever, originating in the Eastern Roman Empire) which caused people to flee. 

David came back to establish and lead his monastery in around 550, which became known for learning and for its pure way of life. His monastery would have been built in the Celtic tradition of small stone ‘beehive’ huts, not the grand abbeys of later centuries. He died on March 1st in either 589 or 601 (the oldest chronicles disagree), the day we now celebrate as St David’s Day.

The legends of St David

The story of St David has been added to over the centuries with details from many sources, the weaving in of golden threads which have created the rich tapestry of stories we have today. Some preserve whispers and fragments of other stories which take us to the culture and history of an earlier Wales and to the earliest traces of Christianity in this place. Some draw on details told in the stories of many saints, to emphasise the holiness of David and to link him in with places in the landscape and surrounding area. Others weave in parallels with the life of Jesus, to make listeners think of the God who David served.

European honey bees on comb
European honey bees on comb

St David is understood to have performed many miracles of healing, but a different miracle story tells us of the importance of bees. An Irish monk called Modomnoc was the beekeeper in David's monastery, making honey and wax. He had to return to Ireland, but his bees kept following him to the boat. Three times he returned the bees until David blessed them and allowed Modomnoc to take them with him, reputedly introducing honeybees to Ireland!

David and Boia

One example is the story of David’s struggles with a pagan chieftain, Boia, when establishing his monastery in ‘the valley’. This story of conversion, magic, martyrdom and the defeat of pagan belief includes elements which probably do preserve traces of what the confrontation between the old and new faiths was like. 

It also suggests this valley was an ancient sacred place before David came. It provided an explanation for a wellspring in the valley and served to demonstrate the power of David: he could cause Boia’s men and cattle to fall, and face down a powerful local chieftain to establish his church.

Boia was an Irishman and local pagan chieftain. David came into the valley below his fortified homestead and lit fires which staked his claim to the area. Boia sent his warriors to drive David and his companions away, but David cast a ‘spell’ which made Boia’s men and all his cattle fall as if dead. Boia made peace with David and converted to Christianity, so David lifted the enchantment. But Boia’s wife was still opposed to David and sent her maidservants to bathe naked in the river to tempt David’s monks. When this failed, she lured her stepdaughter into the valley and cut off her head. A miraculous healing well sprang from the spot. This martyrdom sealed the fate of paganism in the area. Boia’s wife went mad and ran away and Boia was beheaded by invaders after turning against David. Legend has it that fire fell from heaven and destroyed all trace of Boia.

The example of St David

The stories and legends all point to St David as an example to follow, a model of a Christian life. David’s monastic routine and that of his monks was one of great simplicity and self-denial.  Their days were centred on prayer, work in the fields (pulling the plough themselves) and reading. They ate one meal a day of bread and herbs or vegetables, and drank only water. 

This was a contrast to the chieftains and some in the wider church, who expressed their power and status in feasting, having many servants and gift-giving. Although David had great status within the church, as a bishop and archbishop, he worked alongside his monks, doing ‘the little things’. 

His faith inspired him, and the stories of his life inspire others; David saw himself as a signpost to God.

David and Celtic Christianity

Celtic Christianity had a close relationship with the natural world, but it was sometimes a harsh one. David was a ‘waterman’ or ‘dyfrwr’, that is someone who drank only water (not the more common barley beer) and who would stand up to his neck in the sea reciting the psalms as a penance. However, many stories also tell of David’s kindness and his humility. He was a great healer and scholar, probably speaking several languages including an early form of Welsh, Latin and Old Irish.

Remote and wild areas were believed to harbour demons who had to be fought to save the souls of all the people. Personal comforts and desires were also to be resisted as being the lures of the devil. David and his followers saw themselves as engaged in a battle of good over evil which had to be fought every day.

Dewi ddyfrwr yw’n ddiwyd            Dewi the waterman, faithful is he
Dafydd ben Sant bedydd byd            Dafydd the chief saint of Christendom

(Ieuan ap Rhydderch, 15th century)

Dewi was a form of the name David in the dialect of South West Wales: Dafydd is another form of David now in more common use.

The cult of St David

The cult of St David, where people were drawn to him and his miracles during his lifetime, grew in strength and spread after his death. Many sites in the landscape, such as healing wells, were believed to have sprung up where he performed miracles and churches were dedicated to him across Wales and elsewhere. The area around the peninsula became known as ‘Dewisland’, an area under his protection.

David was buried in his own monastery.  His early shrine was destroyed by fire in 645 and repeatedly raided by the Vikings, but always renewed and rebuilt. The later medieval shrine, which was restored in 2012, attracted thousands of pilgrims as two visits here were considered of equal value as one journey to Rome, and three would equal a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Some wanted healing or other kinds of help whilst others looked for forgiveness for sins.

But St David, Dewi Sant, was always clear that he was simply a channel for God’s grace; his miracles were the work of God through him, a faithful servant.

St David today

The Shrine of St David, restored in 2012
The Shrine of St David, restored in 2012

The restored shrine of St David here in the cathedral is used as a focus for prayer and reflection by many people. St David has become a symbol for Wales, a figure to which Welsh people all over the world can turn. His feast day is a national and international celebration of Welsh culture and identity, but he is especially associated with this place and this area.

We do not have anything which belonged to David, except, perhaps, the spirit that many feel in his Cathedral. But in many ways that best honours David the man, who was not interested in material things and his simple possessions were held in common with his fellow monks.

David’s legacy is his example and his final words, “Be joyful, keep the faith, do the little things you have seen me do”.