Biography of Saint David
Bith Date: c. 520
Death Date: c. 601
Place of Birth: Wales
Occupations: priest, monk, evangelist
Saint David (c. 520-c. 601) is the patron saint of doves, poets, and Wales. One source calls him "perhaps the most celebrated of British saints." Another gives him credit for evangelizing much of Wales. The body of information available about him today is thin in substantiated fact but rich with tradition, including even King Arthur and a sea monster. Saint David's mere existence may provide evidence that Christianity in Wales persisted in tact and uninterrupted since Roman times.
Rhygyfarch Embellished Story
Most information about Saint David comes from the writings of an eleventh-century monk named Rhygyfarch (also Rhygyvarch, Rhigyfarch, and Ricemarch), son of Bishop Sulien, of Saint David's Cathedral, Saint David's favorite of the churches he established. Rhygyfarch claimed to have gathered his information from old written sources, but those have not survived. Rhygyfarch's life of Saint David is regarded by many scholars as suspect because it contains many implausible events and because he had a stake in enhancing Saint David's history so as to support the prestige of the Welsh church and its independence from Canterbury, the center of the English church (still Catholic at the time). According to David Hugh Farmer in The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Rhygyfarch's history of Saint David "should be treated as propaganda, which may, however, contain some elements of true tradition." Another source considers Rhygyfarch's biography "traditional, symbolic tales of a great religious leader." Saint David's existence at least does not seem to be in doubt; it is attested to in written records from earlier dates. The earliest is an Irish Catalogue of the Saints of 730. Another is an Irish Martyrology of 800.
Saint David Born
One legend says Saint David's birth was foretold to Saint Patrick (about 373-464) by an angel 30 years in advance. In the traditions surrounding Saint David, his mother is said to be a woman named Non, now Saint Non, who may have been a nun at the cloister called Ty Gwyn, near Whitesand Bay. She may also have been the daughter of a chieftain in Pembrokeshire. She is said to have been very beautiful, and it was her great beauty that is said to have driven Saint David's father, Sant, or Xantus, a local chieftain or king, perhaps related to King Arthur, to rape her. (Other traditions say Sant and Non were married, and she became a nun later in her life.) She became pregnant with Saint David. Yet another legend says that during her pregnancy she entered the church of Saint Gildas in Wales, and he was struck dumb. He realized the Welsh church must be intended for the future Saint David and left for Ireland. In any case, Non is said to have given birth during a storm (so violent as to have deterred a local ruler who planned to kill Saint David in order to eliminate a rival for power in the realm) at a spot overlooking Saint Bride's Bay, south of today's Saint David's Cathedral. The year is given variously as 454, 487, 520, 542, and 544. A medieval chapel named for Saint Non was built at the spot; it is today in ruins. Non's son was baptized at Porth Clais by Saint Ailbhe, who may have been Non's nephew. Miracles marked the event: a new spring erupted and sight was restored to a blind monk, Movi, holding the baby.
Excelled in School
Saint David went to school at a monastery called Hen Vynyw, or Henfynyw, in Cardigan. Rhygyfarch wrote, "He grew up full of grace and lovely to behold. And there it was that holy David learnt the alphabet, the psalms, the lessons for the whole year and the divine office; and there his fellow disciples saw a dove with a golden beak playing at his lips and teaching him to sing the praise of God." One source points out he would have learned Latin there and studied mathematics, astronomy, and music. After Hen Vynyw, he went to an unidentified island (one source says it was the Isle of Wight) to study for the priesthood under a Welsh scribe, Saint Paulinus. A legend says that Paulinus had gone blind from crying so much as he prayed, and that Saint David restored his sight with a gentle touch. Another legend says that an angel told Paulinus to send Saint David out to evangelize the British.
As a traveling priest, Saint David is said to have founded 10 or 12 monasteries. The number is disputed, but several have been authenticated. He also allegedly cleansed deadly water at Bath and turned it into a warm and healing pool. Another legend says some monks tried to poison Saint David's bread, but Saint Schuthyn rode to Saint David one night from Ireland on the back of a sea monster to warn him, and Saint David blessed the bread, counteracting the poison. There is consensus that he ended his evangelizing travels in Mynyw, or Menevia, in extreme southwest Wales (where Saint David's Cathedral is today) and founded his major abbey there, training "many great pastors and eminent servants of God," according to Father Alban Butler on the Catholic Forum website. Butler described Mynyw as "formed by nature for solitude, being . . . almost cut off from the rest of the island." Another source calls the site "lovely and lonely."
Wrote Strict Rule
Saint David's monks followed a very strict rule "in the spirit of penance," according to Father Butler. Others say Saint David adapted his rule from that of monks in Egypt. "Every moment of the day had its duties," wrote Amy Steedman, one interpreter of Saint David's life. Wearing animal skins, they labored in the fields, plowing without farm animals; "every man his own ox," Saint David is reported to have said. Speaking was severely restricted, and they were to pray, silently if not aloud, at all times. When not in the fields, they prayed, studied, and wrote. They ate bread, vegetables, and salt and drank only water and a little milk. Following the evening meal, the only one of the day, they prayed for three hours before going to bed, then awoke at dawn. Because he didn't allow the consumption of wine or other spirits, Saint David is nicknamed "The Waterman." The monks were to pray continuously from evening on Friday until daybreak on Sunday, with only an hour after Saturday Matins for rest. Farmer noted, "David devoted himself to works of mercy and practised frequent genuflexions and total immersion in cold water as his favourite austerities."
Father Butler wrote that if someone wished to join Saint David's monastery, he had to wait outside for 10 days, "during which time he was tried by harsh words, repeated refusals, and painful labours, that he might learn to die to himself. When he was admitted, he left all his worldly substance behind him."
Combatted Pelagian Heresy
A man who lived over a hundred years before Saint David played a role in the next major event in the traditional telling of Saint David's life. The monk Pelagius, born in Britain in about 354, visited Rome in approximately 380. Although Pelagius was not a priest, he was a popular religious leader who placed a high value on asceticism, or self-denial, as a way of drawing closer to God. The self-indulgent excess he saw in Rome shocked him, and he blamed it on the doctrine of salvation by grace, the idea that people cannot earn salvation by good works but that only God can bestow it. To counteract this doctrine, which Pelagius thought led to moral degradation, he insisted humans were responsible for their own salvation. For this he was declared a heretic and excommunicated in 417 by Pope Innocent I.
By the fifth century, Pelagius's heresy, called Pelagianism, was widespread in Britain. It was suppressed, but legend says it sprang up again in Saint David's lifetime, and a meeting of church officials, called a synod, took place at Brefi, in Cardigan, in about 519, to suppress it again. Saint David was invited to attend. Although he spoke to the assembly only reluctantly, his words were compelling, and legend says a hill rose up under his feet so that everyone could see and hear him and a white dove came and sat on his shoulder as he spoke. (He is represented in church art standing on his hill with the dove on his shoulder.) He not only put down the heresy, but was elected primate of the Cambrian, or Welsh, church unanimously. The incumbent primate, Dubricius, even resigned in Saint David's favor. Saint David accepted on the condition that the headquarters of the see be transferred to his home monastery in Mynyw (now Saint David's Cathedral). Some traditions say the legendary King Arthur approved the relocation of the see.
Made Pilgrimage to Jerusalem
Other stories of Saint David say that after a vision, he traveled to Jerusalem with two companions to aid the patriarch, and that the patriarch of Jerusalem, John III, consecrated him archbishop. Back in Wales, he allegedly assembled a Synod of Victory to officially celebrate the end of the Pelagian heresy in Britain. This synod also presumably ratified a set of rules written by Saint David for the "regulation of the British church," but Rhygyfarch maintained the writings were lost to "age and negligence, and also . . . the frequent attacks of pirates."
Died in Mynyw
Saint David died in his monastery at Mynyw, some say at the age of 142 or 147 (he is credited with predicting the day), and an observer watched angels carry Saint David's soul up to heaven. Saint David's last words to his monks are said to be, "Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do those little things that you have seen me do and heard about." The year of his death varies; it may have been in 560, 589, or 601.
In 1120 Pope Callistus II declared David a saint. Butler's Lives of the Saints casts doubt on a legend that the pope also declared that visiting Mynyw twice would be "equal to one visit to Rome" in indulgence value. Saint David's feast day is March 1 (his mother Saint Non's is March 3), and according to Butler's Lives, "There can . . . be no question that he was a highly popular saint in his own country. More than fifty pre-Reformation churches in South Wales are known to have been dedicated in his honour. Moreover, even in England, Archbishop Arundel in 1398 ordered his feast to be kept in every church throughout the province of Canterbury." Although the monastery Saint David built is gone, today's Saint David's Cathedral, much of it dating from the twelfth century, is Wales's largest cathedral.
Saint David Symbolized
Several symbols are associated with Saint David. William Shakespeare referred to the Welsh custom of wearing leeks or daffodils in Saint David's honor on March 1 as "an ancient tradition begun upon an honourable request," as quoted in Farmer's Oxford Dictionary. Some say the custom comes from a battle between the Welsh and the Saxons; Saint David reportedly wanted the Welsh to wear leeks in their hats so they could recognize other Welsh. Saint David's day now is marked by festivals that feature singing, dancing, and reciting, and the leek and the daffodil are national symbols of Wales.
Other symbols associated with Saint David come from yet another legend about his birth: An angel told Saint David's father, Sant, in a dream that when he went hunting the next day, he would kill a stag and find a fish and a beehive. The stag, said to eat snakes, represents Christianity's conquering Satan (the serpent); the fish represents Saint David's abstinence from liquor; and the bees represent his wisdom and spirituality.
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- Gill, Elaine, The Celtic Saints, Cassell, 1995.
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- Butler, Alban, www.catholic-forum.com/saints/std08002.htm (March 1, 2003).
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- "St. Dewi, Bishop of Mynyw," http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/bios/dewi.html (March 15, 2003).
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- Steedman, Amy, "Saint David of Wales," http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/std08001.htm (March 1, 2003).
- "A Stormy Night," http://www.saintdavid.org.uk/stories.htm/page2.htm (March 1, 2003).
- "Wales," Encyclopaedia Britannica Library, 2003, CD-ROM.