History of St David's Day In Wales

St Davids Cathedral Pembrokeshire

The first day of March is a very special day for Welsh people wherever they are in the world, for it is the day on which we honour St David, our national saint. He was born near St Davids, though the exact date is not known. He established a monastery close to where the present cathedral stands and spent a great part of his life there. He died on 1st March either in 589 or in 609AD and was buried in the grounds of his monastery.

There are many legends concerning his life; one of the most famous concerns his birth. His mother Non was a woman of great beauty and virtue. She was attacked by a nobleman named Sant and St David was conceived as a result. Almost from that moment, his greatness was prophesied, both in the Christian and pagan worlds. Merlin, the great mage at the court of King Arthur, foretold his coming. St Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, who at that time lived near St Davids, or Mynyw as it was then known, is said to have wanted to found a monastery nearby, but was told by an angel that the place was reserved for another who would appear in due course. St Patrick’s disappointment was soothed by a vision which showed him that his true vocation lay in Ireland.

St Davids father, Sant, was also warned by an angel that he would find three treasures by the River Teifi in Cardiganshire, which should be set aside for his son; a stag, a salmon and a swarm of bees. These seemingly strange gifts each had a great significance. The stag symbolised the conflict of good and evil; the salmon represented the ascetic way of life and the bees indicated industriousness and wisdom.

A local chieftain was alarmed by one of the prophesies concerning Dewi Sant, that ‘He who will come, whose power will fill the land.’ The chief attempted to kill Non, but she fled during a great thunderstorm. She came at last to a special place overlooking the coast near St Davids, at a spot now known as St Non’s. Some legends state that a circle of stones stood there. Within the circle Non gave birth and a great light shone on the place. In the pains of labour, she grasped a stone, leaving the imprints of her fingers upon it. The stone then divided and moved to stand at her head and feet. At the moment of birth a spring of pure water gushed out of the ground.

The new born baby was baptised by Aelfyw, or Elvis, Bishop of Munster. A blind monk named Movi held the infant during the ceremony and some of the baptismal water splashed into hius eyes. He was instantly cured of his blindness. A medieval poet later wrote:

Dyw  wrth vedyddiaw Dewi

Y wnaeth ffons oddyfwr yni

Roes y Dadbedydd medd rai

Y olwc gynt ny welai.

At the baptism of Dewi

God made a well for us

Which some say

Gave sight to Dewi’s blind godfather. 

David is said to have been dedicated to the religious life from birth. He attended several centres of learning, but their exact locations are lost. One suggestion is that he studied at a religious house called Ty Gwyn on the slopes of Carn Llidi near Whitesands Bay, another that he was a pupil near Aberaeron in Cardiganshire. He may also have been educated at Hen Dy Gwyn, the old white house, a monastery near present day Whitland. One of his tutors at Llanddeusant, another teaching house, was Paulinus, whose sight David restored.

St David travelled widely during his lifetime. He is said to have visited Jerusalem, in company with St Teilo and St Padarn. They had an audience with the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who consecrated David as an archbishop. The three saints were given four gifts; an altar, a tunic woven with gold, a staff and a bell.

The altar given to David was a portable one, easily carried in a bag or some such container. It was said to have been placed in the church at Llangyfelach by an angel, where it was responsible for many miracles. So holy was it that it was wrapped in animal skins to keep it from human eyes. A small stone tablet set into a table top in the south transept of St Davids Cathedral and known as the Jerusalem Altar, is said to be David’s, though the story is probably more legend than truth. If you look at it carefully you can see some small crosses carved into its surface, which may indicate that it was at one time carried from place to place as a temporary altar by the priests of the cathedral.

David’s bell was known as Bangu, the dear, loud one. Many Celtic saints owned bells, some of which had miraculous powers and which were thought to be an instrument of signal, a talisman and a weapon They were rung to attract a gathering, they drove away evil spirits and made curses stick. People took oaths on these portable bells with, so it said, more fear of swearing falsely by them than on the gospels. Bells were carried into battle and were believed to work miracles. St David’s bell was said to fulfil many of these functions and it used to be kept at  Glascwm in Radnor, but has long since been lost.

David may also have spent time in Brittany, as a result of the Yellow Plague, which is believed to have devastated Britain in about 547AD. This epidemic caused sufferers to develop a yellow, jaundiced appearance and few survived it. People fled far and wide to escape it. David’s possible refuge in Brittany may be attested by the many church dedications to him and to his mother Non in that region.

However far he travelled, David eventually returned to West Wales. He decided to establish a monastery there, possibly close to Whitesands. There was however a problem. Each night the walls that had been built during the daytime were cast down, to the accompaniment of great noises. At last an angel advised David to build his monastery in the valley where the cathedral now stands.

There was opposition to the founding of this new religious house. A chieftain named Boia, whose fortified settlement occupied the rocky outcrop known today as Clegyr Boia and  who was said to be a druid, saw the smoke arising from the fire David had lit in the valley and recognised it as a challenge to his authority.

At the urging of his wife, Boia sent his warriors to attack David and his companions. David retaliated with a spell that caused the warriors to fall dead. Boia recognised the power of his opponent and became a convert. His wife, whose name is not known, refused to give in. She sent her maidens to bathe naked in the waters of the River Alun in the hope that it would result in the monks abandoning their vow of abstinence. Her plan was unsuccessful.

Finally, she lured her stepdaughter Dunod down into the valley together hazelnuts. She then placed Dunod’s head in her lap saying that she wished to plait the girl’s hair. Poor, trusting Dunod did so and her head was struck from her shoulders. Perhaps Boia’s wife hoped that such a barbaric act might frighten the monks away, or she may have intended it as a sacrifice to her own pagan gods, who would then overthrow the Christians. Whatever her intention, a spring of water, the symbol of life and rebirth, burst from the ground. This became a revered spot in medieval times, though the location of the well is now lost.

Boia’s wife was driven mad and disappeared. Boia himself was beheaded not long after, when an Irish raider named Lisci landed at Porth Lisci (Lisci’s harbour) on the coast nearby and destroyed the settlement on Clegyr Boia. Excavation on the site in modern times has revealed evidence of a fortified Iron Age settlement.

There are other, kinder, legends about St David. One of these concerns the great, intricately carved Celtic cross to be seen in the churchyard at Nevern in north Pembrokeshire. David was said to have carried this cross from St Davids, intending to set it up at Llanddewi Brefi. On the way, he stopped at Nevern to see St Brynach, an Irishman who lived there and who was a great friend of his. He was tired after such an arduous task and was persuaded by Brynach to leave the cross there, where it has stood ever since. It’s worth noting that the present cross actually dates to the 11th century, so cannot be the one carried by St David, but it may have become associated with a legend concerning a much earlier and now vanished cross.

Another stone associated with St David is known as Mesur y Dorth. It can be seen set into a low wall on the main road between St Davids and Fishguard, about a mile beyond Croesgoch. The name Mesur y Dorth means ‘measure of the loaf’. David is said to have decreed that, in times of famine, loaves should be made no larger than the circle inscribed on the stone. In this way food was rationed, so that everyone received an equal share of what food was available. It is also said that in the medieval period pilgrims approaching St Davids ate their last meal here before going on to the cathedral.

Some ancient stories tell us that the monks at David’s monastery ate only herbs, bread and vegetables, including leeks which were grown in the monastery garden. After his death his spirit appeared to  King Cadwallon’s army in 633 as they prepared for battle against Edwin of Northumbria, and advised them to wear leeks in their caps so that they could identify friend from foe. Edwin lost the battle.

In his play Henry V, Shakespeare describes Welshmen wearing leeks and daffodils on St Davids Day in memory of their saint. Michael Drayton, in his verse drama Polyolbion, written in 1612, also mentions the custom:

As he did only drink what crystal Hodney yields,

And fed upon the leeks he gathered in the fields.

In memory of whom, in each revolving year,

The Welshmen, on his day, that sacred herb do wear.

St David died in about 589 or 601, apparently at the age of 147. He  is said to have reminded his followers to ‘ be happy, and keep the faith and do those little things you have seen me do and hear me say.’ Each year thereafter, on the anniversary of his death, his monastery was said to be filled with angels.

Old St David’s Day, 12th March was marked in the Gwaun Valley in Pembrokeshire by placing a wooden candle instead of wax one into the candlestick on the table. This signified the end of the dark winter nights. From then on until Michaelmas in September, farm workers were given three meals a day instead of two, a necessary extra given the longer working hours. Old St David’s Day also marked the point at which oats, beans, barley and peas could be sown in the fields.

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