Past notes: St David

BBC History Magazine - - Contents -

Who was St David?

Tra­di­tion has it that St David ( Dewi Sant in Welsh) was the son of a prince of Ceredi­gion and the fu­ture St Non, and that he was born around AD 500 dur­ing a thun­der­storm on the Pem­brokeshire cliffs. This makes him the only pa­tron saint of a na­tion in the Bri­tish Isles to ac­tu­ally be born in the coun­try he rep­re­sents. As a young man he be­came a monk, rose to be­come a bishop and is said to have founded a monastery near to his birth­place, where St David’s Cathe­dral now stands. Af­ter his death on 1 March, pos­si­bly in AD 589, he was buried there and a shrine was es­tab­lished.

When did he be­come the pa­tron saint of Wales?

Although it’s thought that he was canon­ised by Pope Cal­ix­tus II in 1123, David had long been ven­er­ated. By the 10th cen­tury, he ap­pears to have been viewed as the lead­ing Welsh saint and a sym­bol of Welsh na­tion­hood. William the Con­queror recog­nised the im­por­tance of his shrine and went there to pray in 1081. St David’s grew into an im­por­tant pil­grim­age des­ti­na­tion, helped by a pa­pal de­cree that two pil­grim­ages to St David’s were equal to a sin­gle one to Rome.

Are any mir­a­cles as­so­ci­ated with St David?

Of course. The best-known story is that while he was preach­ing be­fore a huge crowd at Lland­dewi Brefi, the ground on which he was stand­ing rose up to form a small hill, so that those at the back could see and hear what was go­ing on.

Why leeks on St David’s Day?

The leek as a sym­bol of Wales has a long his­tory although its ori­gin is un­clear. One leg­end says that, pos­si­bly on the ad­vice of St David, Welsh sol­diers wore them into bat­tle as a dis­tin­guish­ing sign. Shake­speare men­tions the wear­ing of leeks on “St Davy’s Day” in his Henry V while leeks were worn on St David’s Day at the Tu­dor and Stu­art courts, with James VI and I com­ment­ing that “the wear­ing of leeks by Welsh­men was a good and com­mend­able fash­ion”. How­ever, not ev­ery­one in the 17th cen­tury shared that en­thu­si­asm. Writ­ing in 1667, Sa­muel Pepys noted how Lon­don­ers marked St David’s Day by string­ing up life-sized ef­fi­gies of Welsh­men.

The shrine to St David in the Pem­brokeshire cathe­dral that bears his name

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