01 March 2013

With the Saints in Lent (17): Saint David of Wales, 1 March

Saint David in a 19th century stained glass window in the Chapel of Jesus College, Oxford (Photograph: Tomasz Wachowski/Wikpedia)

Patrick Comerford

Saint David, known in Welsh as Dewi Sant (ca 462/512 to ca 569/601) was the Bishop of Menevia in the 6th century and is the patron saint of Wales. In the Roman Martyrology, Saint David is listed today [1 March]. He ruled his monastic foundations by following the example of the Eastern Fathers, and through his leadership, many monks went out to Wales, Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany.

Saint David was a native of Wales, and is said to have been the son of a local Welsh prince and an Irish mother. While we are uncertain about the dates of both his birth and death, we know a lot about his life. His birth has been placed between the years 462 to 487 or even 512; the Annales Cambriae or Welsh Annals say he died in 569, but others say he died in to 601 – but it is impossible to reconcile these dates, and it is improbable if not incredible that he died at the age 119.

Many of the traditional tales about Saint David are in the Buchedd Dewi, written in the late 11th century by Rhygyfarch, who claimed his biography was based on documents in the archives in St David’s Cathedral.

Although historians today are sceptical of some of his claims, we should remember that Rhygyfarch was trying to establish the claims to autonomy by the Welsh Church, which was seeking a metropolitan status equal to that of Canterbury. These claims are reflected in the story of Saint David’s supposed pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where, it is said, he was consecrated an archbishop by the Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Some legends say Saint David was educated by Saint Colman of Dromore. He become a renowned teacher, preacher and spiritual leader, and founded monastic houses and churches in Wales, south-west England and Brittany. St David’s Cathedral stands on the site of the monastery he founded in a valley in Pembrokeshire.

He became a bishop and presided over two synods that condemned Pelagianism: at Brefi ca 560 and the Synod of Victory at Caerleon ca 569.

One celebrated miracle is said to have taken place when he was preaching at the Synod of Brefi: the ground on which he stood is said to have risen up to form a small hill, and a white dove settled on his shoulder. Saint David denounced Pelagianism on that occasion and was declared archbishop by popular acclaim, according to Rhygyfarch.

The Monastic Rule of Saint David prescribed that monks must pull the plough themselves without animals, must drink only water and eat only bread with salt and herbs, and spend the evenings in prayer, reading and writing. No personal possessions were allowed – even to say “my book” was prohibited. He lived a simple life and taught his followers to abstain from meat and beer.

His disciples included Saint Finian (454-563), who founded the Monastery of Clonard in Co Westmeath, and Saint Aidan, who founded his monastery in Ferns in Co Wexford.

Tradition says Saint David lived for over 100 years, and that he died on a Tuesday 1 March, now Saint David’s Day. It is generally accepted that this was around 590, and March 1 fell on a Tuesday in 589. The monastery is said to have been “filled with angels as Christ received his soul.”

His last words to his followers were in a sermon on the previous Sunday: “Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do ye the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.”

Saint David was buried in St David’s Cathedral, in St David’s, Pembrokeshire, where his shrine was a popular place of pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages.

In the 10th and 11th centuries, Saint David’s Cathedral was regularly raided by Vikings, who removed his shrine and stripped away the precious metal adornments.

In the 12th century, Bishop Bernard of St David’s claimed metropolitan jurisdiction over Wales and presented his case unsuccessfully before six successive popes. But through his endeavours, Saint David was officially recognised in 1120 by Pope Callixtus II, who decreed that two pilgrimages to St David’s were equivalent to one to Rome.

Many monarchs made pilgrimages to St David’s, including William Conqueror (1077), Henry I (1171), and Edward I and Queen Eleanor (1284).

A new shrine was built in 1275, and the ruined base can still be seen. The shrine was once surmounted by an ornamental wooden canopy with murals of Saint David, Saint Patrick and Saint Denis of France.

The Bishops of St David’s have included the historian Giraldus Cambrensis (11999-1203), who chronicled the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland; John Catterick (1414-1415)), who then became Bishop of Lichfield; William Barlow (1536-1548), who stripped the shrine of its jewels and confiscated its relics at the Reformation; Robert Ferrar (1549-1554), who was burned at the stake in 1554; Marmaduke Middleton (1582-1592), who had previously been Bishop of Waterford and Lismore; Richard Smalbroke (1724-1731), who then became Bishop of Lichfield; and William Stuart (1794-1800), who then became Archbishop of Armagh.

The present Bishop of St David’s is the Right Revd Wyn Evans. Saint David’s Cathedral was the venue for Songs of Praise on BBC last Sunday [27 February 2013].

St David’s (Welsh, Tyddewi) in Pembrokeshire is the de facto ecclesiastical capital of Wales. But it is also a city with a difference. With a population of just 1600, it is the smallest city in the United Kingdom. It has had city status for centuries, thanks to the Cathedral, but in 1995 Queen Elizabeth officially granted City Status to both St David’s and Armagh.

Bishop Wyn Evans of St David’s, (left), during a recent visit to Dublin, with Bishop Dominic Walker of Monmouth, Patrick Comerford, Bishop John Davies of Swansea and Brecon, and Archbishop Barry Morgan of Wales

The Collect:

Almighty God, who in love towards thy people called thy servant David to be a faithful and wise steward of thy mysteries: mercifully grant that, following his purity of life and zeal for the whole Gospel of Christ, we may with him receive thy heavenly reward; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Spirit be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.


Sirach 15: 1-6; Psalm 16: 3, 6-9; I Thessalonians 2: 2b-12; Matthew 16: 24-27.

Tomorrow (2 March): Saint Chad of Lichfield.

1 comment:

Bookishsue said...

Ah, thank you. To know a little more about St. David is a good thing.