Saint David (Welsh: Dewi Sant, Latin: Davidus; c. 500 – c. 589) was born near Capel Non (Non’s chapel) on the South-West Wales coast near the present city of Saint David. 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 educated in a monastery called Hen Fynyw, his teacher being Paulinus, a blind monk. He 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 stdavid3churches. 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.
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.
The Monastic Rule of David prescribed that monks had to pull the plough themselves without draught 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 considered an offence. He lived a simple life and practised asceticism, teaching his followers to refrain from eating meat and drinking beer. His symbol, also the symbol of Wales, is the leek.
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.
His best-known miracle is said to have taken place when he was preaching in the middle of a large crowd at the Synod of Brefi: the village of Llanddewi Brefi stands on the spot where the ground on which he stood is reputed to have risen up to form a small hill. A white dove, which became his emblem, was seen settling on his shoulder. John Davies notes that one can scarcely “conceive of any miracle more superfluous” in that part of Wales than the creation of a new hill. Dewi is said to have denounced Pelagianism during this incident and he was declared archbishop by popular acclaim according to Rhygyfarch, bringing about the retirement of Dubricius. The saint’s metropolitan status as an
archbishopric was later supported by Bernard, Bishop of St David’s, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Gerald of Wales.
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.