The Quiet Hero

James Lloyd belatedly celebrates Saint David’s Day, remembering what little is known and much of what is made up about the life of Wales’s heavenly defender.

The British really can pick ‘em. Saint George and Saint Andrew, patron saints of England and Scotland, were both Palestinians who never visited Britain or had anything to do with the countries for which they supposedly intercede before the throne of God. Not an awful lot seems to unite the English and the Scots these days but an arbitrary taste in saints is at least one of them. The Irish do a little better with Saint Patrick, who did have a genuine, indeed transcendently significant, role in their country’s history but even he was actually a Romano-Briton born in what is now England, who originally went to Ireland as a captive (an initial relationship between the Irish and the British that would be reversed in subsequent centuries quite spectacularly).

Of the Home Nations, only Wales has picked one of its own countrymen as its patron. This is probably just as well, because historically not a great deal of things did unite the Welsh. Though they may have a devolved administration now, a flag, an unofficial anthem and a titular Prince, Wales has never been a nation-state (unlike England and Scotland – Ireland is a grey area, politically as well as meteorologically). Between the collapse of Roman rule at the beginning of the fifth century and its final annexation by England in 1284, the area that is customarily called “Wales” was divided into a number of mutually independent kingdoms, who spent as much time fighting one another as they did their wicked Saxon oppressors.

One of these kingdoms was Ceredigion, which gave its name to the historic county of Cardiganshire, as well as to the modern administrative county of Ceredigion, within the sheriffwick of Dyfed. This kingdom developed in the late fifth century, founded by the eponymous Ceredig (possibly a back formation from its own name). The son of Ceredig, King Sanctus, is said to have ravished a nun called Non, who gave birth to David and lived (understandably) in chastity the rest of her life.

There is little in this that can be taken seriously, not least because “Sanctus” and “Non” mean Holy Nun, so may originally have been the same person. The earliest source to mention Saint David is an Irish Catalogue of the Saints from around 730, which claims he preached in Ireland. An Irish Martyrology of about a hundred years later gives his feast as 1 March and places his seat at Menevia, a peninsula in Pembrokeshire where the settlement of Saint David’s grew up around his monastery.

The earliest complete Life of Saint David was written in 1090 by Rhygyvarch, son of the Bishop of Saint David’s, in protest at (ultimately successful) attempts by Canterbury to assert its metropolitical authority over Wales. It is to this hagiography that we owe the story of his conception. He was educated first at his birthplace of Henfynyw, then for ten years on an island with Paulinus the scribe. He founded ten monasteries, including Glastonbury. At a time when austerity meant eremitical asceticism, rather than Labour-bait, he encouraged extreme self-denial, including vegetarianism, something that was neither easy nor healthy in the Middle-Ages.

The only major historical event with which Saint David is associated with certainty is the Synod of Brevi, held in the middle of the sixth century against the Pelagian heresy. Saint David is said to have spoken so well that he was made metropolitan of Wales, going to Jerusalem to be consecrated archbishop for the purpose. This story is an obvious contemporary snub to the Archbishop of Canterbury and is totally unhistorical. Pope Callistus II was, however, sufficiently persuaded by Saint David’s reputation to declare in 1120 that two pilgrimages to Saint David’s were worth one to Rome.

Llanddewi Brefi

There are numerous stories of Saint David’s piety. One tells how Boia, the chief of Menevia, was so irritated by his ostentatious holiness that he decided to bully him into leaving, only for David to make a born-again Christian out of him. Boia returned in a haze of saintliness to his disappointed wife, who sent her maidservants to the monastery stark naked, hoping to distract Saint David and his brethren with their womanly wiles. After spending all day cavorting gymnastically outside the monastery windows, they became cold, gave up and went home.

Despite Saint David’s popularity, churches dedicated to him are concentrated in South Wales, with a smattering in Brittany and even south-western England. These latter, along with his association with Glastonbury, may have been the work of Asser, a Welsh monk who became chaplain to King Alfred the Great and wrote his biography, before retiring to become Bishop of Saint David’s. It is possible that, is he had not become a symbol of resistance to English ecclesiastical rule, David would never have achieved the national symbol status that he did.

His own symbols have, owing to that chain of associations, in turn become the symbols of Wales. The daffodil became his emblem for no better reason than that it flowers at around the time of his feast day. The leek, less aesthetically pleasing, has a little more logic to it. It is said that, when he fasted, the leek was the only thing that Saint David would eat. That Saint David’s Day itself usually falls during Lent made it a doubly appropriate symbol to wear on his day.

An alternative explanation for the symbolism of the leek is that King Cadwallader of Gwynedd, leading his men in a battle against the Saxons in the late seventh century, ordered them to wear leeks, picked from the field in which the battle was to be fought, on their caps, so that they might distinguish their own side in the heat and confusion of the fray. However, all of the earliest references to the leek as an emblem associate it with Saint David’s Day specifically. One of the best known is a scene from Shakespeare’s King Henry V, when Lieutenant Fluellen, having been mocked by an Englishman for wearing his leek on Saint David’s Day, beats him with it and forces him to eat it.

It is neater to assume that the symbol was originally associated with Saint David and therefore with his feast and subsequently with Wales, rather than originally with Wales and subsequently with Saint David and his feast. This is all but confirmed by a variant on the above legend, which improbably nominates David himself, rather than Cadwallader, as the Britons’ commander in the battle.

Maybe the quietness of Saint David’s life and the simplicity of his living are the attraction of his cult. It is easy to make a hero out of a dragon-slayer (though slaying dragons is not really the done thing in Wales), or a martyr, or someone who risked his life returning to the home of his childhood slavery to preach love and forgiveness to his erstwhile captors. Yet not all forms of heroism are so drastic or dangerous. Maybe a place in the pantheon of national icons should be given to a man who just lived his life as a quiet example to others. It is certainly not an easy thing to do but sometimes it can change far more people than all the deeds of valour in the world.


Photo credits: Saint David’s Cathedral (Robin Drayton) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Llanddewi-Brefi (Ian Capper) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Saint David’s Church, Henfynyw (Eirian Evans) / CC BY-SA 2.0


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