St David, now the patron saint of Wales, was a Welsh bishop who lived from c. 500-589 AD. The anniversary of his death on 1 March 589 AD is celebrated annually as St David’s day, or the Feast of St David, in Wales.
Many miracles are ascribed to St David and he founded many churches, with over 50 named after him. His shrine at St David’s Cathedral in the town of the same name in Wales is today a popular place of pilgrimage.
Not a great deal is known about St David’s life: most information is based on the Latin writings of Welsh scholar Rhygyfarch, who wrote the hagiography Buchedd Dewi (‘Life of David’) some 500 years after St David lived.
Here are 10 facts about the patron saint of Wales.
1. St David was conceived through rape
It is alleged that St David was conceived after his mother, St Non, was raped by the chieftain Sant. Both parents descended from royalty and St David’s grandfather was King Ceredig and founder of Ceredigion, a minor kingdom in west Wales.
2. St David was born during a storm
Rhygyfarch writes in his documents that St David was born during a ferocious storm on a cliff-top rock near Capel Non (Non’s Chapel) in Pembrokeshire in southwest Wales. During the storm, which prevented anyone reaching St David’s mother to assist her, a bolt of lightning is said to have struck the rock, spitting it in two.
The spot of St David’s birth is marked by the ruins of Non’s Chapel and a holy well, believed to have healing powers and which is a place of pilgrimage.
3. St David is associated with several miracles
St David is associated with several documented miracles that have contributed to his reputation as a holy man with healing powers. One of the first and most notable is when it is claimed he restored the sight of his tutor St Paulinus. He is also said to have brought a dead boy back to life.
One of the most famous miracles associated with St David is when, while preaching to a crowd, where some were unable to see him, the ground beneath his feet rose to create a hill. At that moment as he levitated, a white dove landed on his shoulder, which became the saint’s emblem.
Historian John Davies remarked that one can scarcely “conceive of any miracle more superfluous” in that part of Wales than the creation of a new hill.
4. St David led a monastic and vegetarian lifestyle that bordered on the extreme
Vegans today have nothing on St David: centuries before supermarkets stocked plant-based fare, St David was leading a very strict and austere life, eating only bread, herbs and vegetables. His only drink was water which led to him becoming known as Aquaticus or Dewi Ddyfrwr (the water drinker) in Welsh.
St David’s commitment to holy orders included adherence to practising penance by standing up to his neck in a lake of cold water and reciting scripture. He also refused his fellow monks to use oxen to plough their fields and insisted they do it by hand, pulling the ploughs themselves.
5. 50 churches in Wales are named after St David
Many churches can be found throughout Wales and England named after St David. He became a preacher founding monastic settlements and churches in Wales, sub-Roman Britain and Brittany including St David’s Cathedral, the site of his original monastery, in the town named after him in Pembrokeshire.
St David also founded 12 monasteries including Glastonbury and at Menevia (now the city of St David’s) where he was named Archbishop of Wales in 550 AD. There are over 50 churches named after him throughout Wales.
6. Shakespeare immortalised St David’s emblem of the leek
St David may be famously associated with the white dove after one of his miracles, but his symbol, also that of Wales, is the leek, which inspired a reference in William Shakespeare’s Henry V. The scene, Act V Scene 1, sees the character Fluellan discussing the vegetable:
“If your Majesty is remembered of it, the Welshmen did good service in a garden where leeks did grow, wearing leeks in their Monmouth caps, and I do believe, your Majesty takes no scorn to wear the leek upon Saint Tavy’s day”.
King Henry responds: “I wear it for a memorable honour; for I am Welsh, you know, good countryman”.
7. Today the resting place of St David’s relics are still unknown
The relics of St David, including his remains and burial artefacts, were originally kept in a portable casket on the stone base of the shrine at St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire. In the 13th century, the cathedral was attacked by Vikings during raids, and the shrine was stripped of its precious metals.
A new shrine was constructed in 1275 restoring the ruined base. King Edward I came to pray at the shrine in 1284. However, during the Reformation centuries later, the staunch Protestant Bishop Barlow stripped the shrine and confiscated St David’s relics.
8. St David’s Cathedral is a site of pilgrimage for Christians
After Pope Callactus II canonised St David in 1120, his influence as patron saint of Wales took hold around the world, leading the Pope to declare that two pilgrimages to St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire equalled one to Rome by the faithful, while three were worth one holy journey to Jerusalem.
9. St David’s aphorism to assist daily life for believers is still remembered today
St David’s simple and concise motto, to assist followers in their daily lives, simply suggests that people focus not on the big picture but on small things to make life better for them and those around them.
‘Do the little things’ comes from a sermon David made to his followers the Sunday before his death. ‘Be joyful, keep the faith, and do the little things that you have heard and seen me do.’ The phrase gwnewch y pethau bychain (‘do the little things’) is still well-known in Wales.
10. Candles prophesising imminent death were inspired by St David
Probably one of the more bizarre things associated with St David is ‘corpse candles’, mysterious lights that would warn or foretell of the imminent death of someone in the community. The candles were small balls of yellow or blue light that are said to have appeared on certain roads, also called corpse roads, that were old highways in the middle ages for taking dead bodies for burial.
St. David is said to have prayed for his people to have some warning of the death of a family member, so that they could prepare themselves, and in a vision was told that believers would be forewarned by the dim light of mysterious tapers where the end of a life was to take place.