St. David is one of the earliest British Saints, today associated with Wales and Welsh culture. The national flag of Wales is named in his honour. Unlike some other saints, there are a few records of his existence – albeit most of what we know comes from a single book, centuries after his life.
Who Was the Real St. David?
We don’t know exactly when he was born, but it was likely sometime in the year 500 at Henfynyw. Most of what we know about his life is from the early medieval document Buchedd Dewi (Life of David). However, it was written around 500-600 years after his death. Its reliability is questionable in places and severely limited due to this passage of time. Some modern scholars have questioned its reliability. Nevertheless, it appears to be the only source for St. David.
What we do know is that St David was a monk, later elected as a primate to the region’s monastic communities. He also founded monasteries in Dumnonia (Cornwall) and Brittany. He had strict rules for those who followed his monasteries, including that monks had to plough the fields manually and without livestock.
We don’t know for certain when he died either, but the generally agreed date is 1st March AD589 – hence that this is St. David’s Day today. It’s important to remember that the 7th century, the century in which he died, a different calendar was in operation. It’s possible that he died a few days before or after this date.
St David’s Miracles
What usually leads to people being selected as Saints for the church is their reported miracles. St David’s most famous took place in the small village of Llanddewi Brefi while preaching to a large group of people. During the sermon, it is said that the ground beneath his feet rose up to form a small hill, elevated him above the crowd and wowing the congregation. Also during the same sermon, a white dove settled on his shoulder.
Later, he visited Glastonbury. William of Malmesbury said that David visited to donate an altar and a great sapphire. During the visit, David had a vision of Jesus in which he was told not to rededicate it with human hands when it had been dedicated by Christ himself many years before. Instead, David commissioned an extension to the abbey church. There is a record for the altar and its sapphire, part of the list of items seized by Henry VIII’s commissioners during the Dissolution.
As a Figurehead of the Welsh
He did not become an official saint until over 500 years after his death when the Holy See accepted a petition from Bernard, the Bishop of St David’s (the UK’s smallest city and one of the country’s earliest cathedrals). Some 50 churches in Wales alone were dedicated to this uniquely Welsh saint including the city and its cathedral. Later still, the Eastern Orthodox churches accepted his canonisation too.
He was a huge inspiration figure for Wales and beyond, preaching in Wales, Scotland, islands in the Irish Sea and Cornwall. They even reached the continent, preaching in northern France – Brittany especially. St David is arguably one of the founding fathers of the Celtic Church and responsible for regional and local identity as well as Welsh national identity.
But where did his (and Wales’) association with the leek begin? Well, he lived at a tumultuous time when the structures of the old Roman Empire were being swept away and their buildings crumbling. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes swept in from the continent. It is said that David encouraged the Welsh soldiers to wear leeks to distinguish each other from the enemy.