Who is St Non?

The icon of St Non in the Cathedral's north quire aisle
The icon of St Non in the Cathedral's north quire aisle

St Non is celebrated here as the mother of St David. She is seen on an icon which shows her as a young woman, holding David as a child. She was likely to have been a nun and the daughter of a local prince, Cynir. Non gave birth to David after Sant, a prince of Ceredigion, forced himself upon her. As such she has a special meaning for those who have been subject to abuse or violence.

A chapel dedicated to St Non is on the coastal path near here, close to the ruins of a much older chapel on the site of where it is said she gave birth to David. There is also a holy well which is said to have sprung up at the moment of David’s birth: it is one of the many holy wells of Wales and has been sought as a place of healing and renewal for centuries.

The life of St Non

There are several versions of St Non’s life.  The Life of St David, written by the monk Rhygyfarch in 1080, focuses mostly on her life as a nun and giving birth to David. This Life was written five hundred years after David’s death, with Rhygyfarch drawing on old manuscripts in the cathedral library and oral traditions.

Statue of St Non in the grotto next to St Non's Well
Statue of St Non in the grotto next to St Non's Well

There are references elsewhere to a religious community in this area from the late-fifth century, at an unidentified location called Tŷ Gwyn (or ‘White House’), so St Non may have been a nun there. However, naming David’s parents as ‘Non’ and ‘Sant’, or ‘nun’ and ‘holy man’ could have been a way of saying their identities are unknown but appropriate for the parents of a saint.

Women in sixth-century Wales

St Non is described variously as the daughter of a chieftain or a king, a nun, and a chaste woman. It is likely that women played a prominent role in early Welsh society, with some legal rights and a degree of independence in managing their lives. However, marriage still made aristocratic women like Non an important political tool, as land and power could be traded.

Becoming a nun took women out of the marriage ‘market’, but it did not guarantee safety. Pregnancy and childbirth were dangerous, and women were supported by family and tribal bonds which remained strong. To early followers, St Non giving birth alone would have been almost as shocking as the assault which led to her pregnancy.

Traces of St Non in the Pembrokeshire landscape

The ruined chapel of St Non (Image: Thruxton, Creative Commons CCA 3.0)
The ruined chapel of St Non (Image: Thruxton, Creative Commons CCA 3.0)

Near the coastal path is the ruined medieval chapel of St Non. This is where Non is said to have given birth to St David. During her labour pains, she gripped a stone so hard that her fingerprints were left on it and it split in two. St Non’s well, which is said to have miraculously sprung up as David was born, is nearby.

This continued to be a place where people sought healing even after Bishop Barlow tried to stop all such ‘superstitious’ beliefs in the 1550s. The modern chapel of St Non was built in the medieval style in 1934 by Cecil Morgan Griffiths, using stones from ruined chapels in the area.

The ruined chapel contains a stone incised with a Celtic round cross dating to the 7th-9th century. It was once built into the wall and was probably originally a grave marker. The chapel is surrounded by a stone circle dating from the Bronze Age, marking this as a site which has been held sacred for thousands of years. Such layers in the landscape speak to us of the power of place.

Here is holy water
Old stone and a sky
That is timeless

RS Thomas

St Non in the wider world

Altarnun Church, Cornwall (Image: Robert Powell, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)
Altarnun Church, Cornwall (Image: Robert Powell, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

St Non is a saint celebrated in other parts of the Celtic world. It is said her tomb lies in the 16th century church of St Nonne and St Divy (St David) in Dirinon, Brittany, and she has a church and holy well dedicated to her in Altarnon, Cornwall. These connections show the strong cultural and language links this part of Wales had with the rest of south-west Britain and northern France.

In these places she is celebrated as more than the mother of St David and was a significant saint in her own right. In Dirinon, the legend has St Non being welcomed to Brittany by local people and her son David being baptised then educated in a Breton monastery – rather different from the Welsh version!

The role of legends

Stained glass of the Nativity of Christ
Stained glass of the Nativity of Christ

When St Non was giving birth alone, it is said that a great storm was raging on the peninsula, she was bathed in a golden light and complete calm. This imagery echoes a legend around the birth of Jesus where a frightened young Virgin Mary gave birth in a stable bathed in golden light from the Star of Bethlehem.

Such comparisons were designed to make the reader think of St David and St Non as being like Jesus and the Virgin Mary and to magnify their holiness. Their ‘truth’ lies in how they make you feel.

St Non’s story today

The heart of St Non’s story is a difficult one. It tells of a young woman being attacked by a powerful man who may have seen it as his right to have her. Her resulting pregnancy may have caused her to be shunned by her community or made her feel she had to hide away.

But she survived; her story is also one of faith enabling her to overcome this terrible experience and not allow it to define her. People who have experienced violence, assault or abuse draw strength from St Non’s story seeing in her an example, a light in their darkness.

Saints as life examples

We may think of a ‘saint’ as being someone who is perfect, but many saints’ lives tell a different story. They tell of people following God, but often failing or having things happen to them which are cruel or unjust. What marks them out is that they hold to their faith and find that God is with them, no matter what.

That does not mean God will ‘fix’ everything, but it does mean they, and we, are not alone. God can make a difference in and through our lives.