Who Was St David? The life and times of Wales' Patron Saint

St David, Castell Coch
Castell Coch stained glass panel by William Burges | Hchc2009 | Wikipedia

St David’s Day is a joyous moment in the Welsh calendar, synonymous with parades, concerts, children in traditional dress, and the proud wearing of daffodils and leeks on lapels. But just who was St David – or Dewi Sant – himself?

It’s impossible to say for certain when the patron saint of Wales was born, though it’s widely thought it was sometime between the years 462 and 515. Much of what we 'know' about him comes from the writings of a chronicler and clergyman named Rhygyfarch, who lived roughly 500 years after St David. What makes it hard to tease out the authentic details of David’s life is the fact that Rhygyfarch’s account is more folklore than fact, infused with magic and miracles from the start. He tells us, for example, that none other than St Patrick was given a divine vision of St David’s imminent arrival.

The legend goes that, while travelling through southwestern Wales, St Patrick decided it would be a good place to settle down and spread the word of God among locals. His plans were scuppered by a visitation by an angel, who told him that God had already reserved the region for another man who would not be born for 30 years. St Patrick didn’t take the news well, indignantly demanding to know 'Why hath the Lord despised his servant who has served him from his infancy with fear and love? Why hath He chosen another not yet born?' Fortunately, he calmed down when the angel told him that he would be the apostle of Ireland instead, and he went on his way.

After the 30 years passed, a prince or king named Sant (also known as Sanctus or Sandde) was in the region and set his eyes on a woman named Non (also known as Nonnita). The most commonly told version of the legend is that Sant was so overcome with lust that he took Non by force, conceiving David through rape.

Rhygyfarch depicts Non as a blessed, almost Virgin Mary-like figure, who 'neither before nor after knew a man'. David, for his part, is presented as a Christ-like figure – a divinely gifted being whose conception was prophesised by an angel, and who would perform amazing miracles. There’s even a King Herod-like figure in the legend – a local 'tyrant' who, having heard that 'a son was about to be born within his borders, whose power would fill the whole country', vowed to murder both mother and child.

Fortunately, Non was protected by heavenly intervention. Giving birth to David on a Pembrokeshire clifftop in the midst of a violent thunderstorm, she was bathed in 'so serene a light that it glistened as though the sun was visible.' Another miracle occurred during David’s baptism, when a spring of 'clearest water' erupted from the ground, and a blind monk holding the baby had his eyesight magically restored.

David proved to be a prodigy, learning mathematics, music and scripture, and cured the blindness of a teacher simply by touching him. Virtuously celibate (he 'preserved his flesh pure from the embraces of a wife' in the words of Rhygyfarch), David became a passionate evangelist, founding an string of monasteries in Wales and England, and performing remarkable feats along the way. Rhygyfarch tells us that David encountered resistance from a druid and chieftain called Bwya, who – threatened by David’s 'power and renown' – gathered together troops to kill David and his followers. The would-be assailants were struck down by a sudden fever, and when they returned to their estates they found that all their cattle had mysteriously died. Now convinced of David’s holy credentials, they begged forgiveness, and David restored the animals to life.

As well as working these miracles, it’s also popularly thought that David enshrined the leek as a symbol of Wales when he advised Welsh soldiers battling Saxon invaders to wear leeks in their hats so they could recognise each other on the battlefield.

Two pilgrimages to St Davids [the location of his shrine] is equal to one to Rome.'

Meanwhile, David’s monastic regime was reputed to be tough. It’s said that he subsisted on bread, vegetables and water alone, leading to his nickname, the 'water drinker'. He and his monks spent their days toiling on the land and praying, with no personal possessions permitted. As historian David Hugh Farmer writes in The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 'David devoted himself to works of mercy and practised frequent genuflexions and total immersion in cold water as his favourite austerities.'

Though the exact year of his death is not known, 1 March is the traditionally accepted date, and is celebrated as St David’s Day. It’s said that his last instruction to his disciples was to 'do the little things', a phrase that remains well-known in Wales. He was declared a saint in 1120 by Pope Callistus II, who is said to have declared that 'Two pilgrimages to St Davids [the location of his shrine] is equal to one to Rome.'

Today, pilgrims still travel to St Davids, which is officially the UK’s smallest city, and whose cathedral stands as a majestic monument to the patron saint of Wales.