St David of Wales, Dewi Sant, was a saint of the Celtic Church. He was the son of Sandde, Prince of Powys,and Non, daughter of a Chieftain of Menevia whose lands included the peninsula on which the little cathedral town of St David’s now stands.
St David is thought to have been born near the present town of St David’s and the ruins of a small chapel dedicated to his mother, Non, may be seen near St. David’s Cathedral
David became the Abbot of St David’s and died on 1st March 589. A.D. An account of his life was written towards the end of the 11th century by Rhygyfarch, a monk at Llanbadarn Fawr near Aberystwyth.
Many miracles were attributed to him. One such tale, much recounted, was when Dewi was preaching to a crowd at Llandewi Brefi. Those on the perimeter could not hear, so he spread a handkerchief on the ground and stood on it to preach, whereupon the ground rose up beneath him and all could hear. Very shortly afterwards Dewi was made Archbishop
Dewi was a very gentle person who lived a frugal life. It is claimed that he ate mostly bread and herbs, probably watercress, which was widely used at the time. Despite this supposedly meagre diet, it is also reported that he was tall and physically strong.
He was educated in a monastery called Hen Fynyw, his teacher being Paulinus, a blind monk. Dewi 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, establishing several churches. He also travelled to the south and west of England and Cornwall as well as Brittany and 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.
As a self-imposed penance, he would stand up to his neck in a lake of cold water, reciting the scripture. Some authors even view Dewi as an early Puritan.
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.
Early morning prayers were followed by hard work to help maintain life at the monastery, including cultivating the land and pulling the plough. Many crafts were followed and 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.
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’. He was buried in what is now St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire. His holiness was such that medieval pilgrims equated two pilgrimages to St David’s were worth one pilgrimage to Rome. Fifty churches in South Wales alone bear his name.
March 1st , St David’s Day, is now the traditional day of the Welsh. It is the date given by Rhygyfarch for the death of Dewi Sant, and was celebrated as a religious festival from 1120, when Dewi was canonised by Pope Callactus the Second, up until the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. In the 18th century it became a national festival among the Welsh, and continues as such to this day.
The celebrations usually involve singing and eating. The singing of traditional songs is followed by a Te Bach, tea with teisen bach and bara brith. Y Ddraig Goch, the Red Dragon, is flown as a flag or worn as a pin or pendant, and leeks are both worn and eaten.