Happy St. David's Day! Dydd Gwyl Dewi Sant!
Saint David, or Dewi Sant, as he is known in the Welsh language, is the patron saint of Wales. He was a Celtic monk, abbot and bishop, who lived in the sixth century. During his life, he was the archbishop of Wales, and he was one of many early saints who helped to spread Christianity among the pagan Celtic tribes of western Britain.
For details of the life of Dewi, we depend mainly on his biographer, Rhigyfarch. He wrote Buchedd Dewi (the life of David) in the 11th century. Gerallt Gymro (Giraldus Cambrensis), who wrote a book about his travels through Wales in the 12th century, also gives some information about Dewi's early life. Dewi died in the sixth century, so nearly five hundred years elapsed between his death and the first manuscripts recording his life. As a result, it isn't clear how much of the history of Dewi's life is legend rather than fact.
However, both sources say, so we can be relatively certain, that Dewi was a very gentle person who lived a frugal life. It is claimed that he ate mostly bread and herbs - probably watercress, which was widely used at the time. Despite this supposedly meagre diet, it is reported that he was tall and physically strong.
Dewi is said to have been of royal lineage. His father, Sant, was the son of Ceredig, who was prince of Ceredigion, a region in South-West Wales. His mother, Non, was the daughter of a local chieftain. Legend has it that Non was also a niece of King Arthur.
Dewi was born near Capel Non (Non's chapel) on the South-West Wales coast near the present city of Saint David. We know a little about his early life - he was educated in a monastery called Hen Fynyw, his teacher being Paulinus, a blind monk. Dewi stayed there for some years before going forth with a party of followers on his missionary travels.
Dewi travelled far on his missionary journeys through Wales, where he established several churches. He also travelled to the south and west of England and Cornwall as well as Brittany. It is also possible that he visited Ireland. Two friends of his, Saints Padarn and Teilo, are said to have often accompanied him on his journeys, and they once went together on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to meet the Patriarch.
Dewi is sometimes known, in Welsh, as 'Dewi Ddyfrwr' (David the Water Drinker) and, indeed, water was an important part of his life - he is said to have drunk nothing else. Sometimes, as a self-imposed penance, he would stand up to his neck in a lake of cold water, reciting Scripture. Little wonder, then, that some authors have seen Dewi as an early Puritan!
He founded a monastery at Glyn Rhosyn (Rose Vale) on the banks of the small river Alun where the cathedral city of St. David stands today. The monastic brotherhood that Dewi founded was very strict, the brothers having to work very hard besides praying and celebrating masses. They had to get up very early in the morning for prayers and afterwards work very hard to help maintain life at the monastery, cultivating the land and even pulling the plough. Many crafts were followed - beekeeping, in particular, was very important. The monks had to keep themselves fed as well as the many pilgrims and travellers who needed lodgings. They also had to feed and clothe the poor and needy in their neighbourhood.
There are many stories regarding Dewi's life. It is said that he once rose a youth from death, and milestones during his life were marked by the appearance of springs of water. These events are arguably more apocryphal than factual, but are so well known to Welsh-speaking schoolchildren that it is worth mentioning them here.
Perhaps the most well-known story regarding Dewi's life is said to have taken place at the Synod of Llanddewi Brefi. They were to decide whether Dewi was to be Archbishop. A great crowd gathered at the synod, and when Dewi stood up to speak, one of the congregation shouted, 'We won't be able to see or hear him'. At that instant the ground rose till everyone could see and hear Dewi. Unsurprisingly, it was decided, very shortly afterwards, that Dewi would be the Archbishop...
It is claimed that Dewi lived for over 100 years, and it is generally accepted that he died in 589. His last words to his followers were in a sermon on the previous Sunday. Rhigyfarch transcribes these as 'Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.' 'Do the little things' ('Gwnewch y pethau bychain') is today a very well-known phrase in Welsh, and has proved an inspiration to many. On a Tuesday, the first of March, in the year 589, the monastery is said to have been 'filled with angels as Christ received his soul'.
Dewi's body was buried in the grounds of his own monastery, where the Cathedral of St. David now stands. After his death, his influence spread far and wide - first through Britain, along what was left of the Roman roads, and by sea to Cornwall and Brittany.
St David's Day, as celebrated today, dates back to 1120, when Dewi was canonised by Pope Callactus the Second, and March 1st was included in the Church calendar. After Dewi's canonisation, many pilgrimages were made to St. David's, and it was reported that two pilgrimages there equalled one to Rome, and three pilgrimages one to Jerusalem. March 1st was celebrated until the Reformation as a holy day. Many churches are dedicated to Dewi, and some to his mother Non.
I have shown three generations of one Welsh family - mother, grandmother & two daughters - dressed in trditional costume. Their remarkable tall hats are thought to be the origin of the pointed witch's hat - an early form of racist slur! Two of the family hold umbrellas - this is Wales after all! Their names, from right to left, are Gwenyth (my great-aunt's name), Buddug, Blodwyn and little Winifred (my mum's name) at the end. There's a traditional Welsh song 'We'll keep a welcome in the hillside', but judging by the expressions on their faces it sure isn't this hillside!
The image is based on an early Victorian print showing Welsh farm women.
If you are Welsh you should wear a daffodil or leek on your lapel or in your hat to-day. Or at the very least a scallion!
Happy Saint David's Day!