Our father among the saints David of Wales (ca. 512-587), known in Welsh as Dewi Sant, was a 6th century bishop and monastic founder in Wales and is its patron saint. He is also known as the Dewi Ddyfrwr (David the Water Drinker) due to his drinking only water and the founding of many holy wells associated with his life. His feast day in the Church is March 1.
Much of our information on the early history of Saint David comes from two sources: the 11th/12th century hagiography Buchedd Dewi (Life of David) of Rhigyfarch and the 12th-century writings of Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales). David was a descendant of the royal house of Cunedda. Rhigyfarch wrote that David was the son of Sanctus Rex Ceredigionis, where Sanctus has been interpreted as a proper name and its owner honoured by Welsh Christians as Saint Sant. The Latin phrase itself translates as “a holy king of Ceredigion.” The king of Ceredigion in the 510s was Gwyddno Garanhir, according to regional tradition. His title Garanhir (“crane legs”), certainly indicated spiritual accomplishment to the Druids who bestowed it. If the son of King Gwyddno, David was a grandson of King Ceredig, and a nephew of King Maelgwn of Gwynedd, and a brother of Elphin the successor to the Kingdom of Ceredigion and the foster-father and first patron of the bard Taliesin. Little is known of his mother, Non (honoured by Welsh Christians as Saint Non), though she is said to have been the daughter of a local chieftain – some versions of the meeting of Sant (or Gwyddno) and Non state that Sant forced himself upon Non.
David was born on a stormy night at or near Capel Non (Non’s chapel) within a short walk of the present day city of Saint David’s. The ruins of the medieval chapel are visible near the site, and a nearby well is still a site of pilgrimage. He was baptised by the Irish monk St. Elvis, and educated at the monastery of Hen Fynyw. After ordination, David was taught by the elderly monk Paulinus, whose blindness the young David healed by making the sign of the cross over the monk’s eyelids.
He became renowned as a teacher and preacher, founding monasteries in Britain and Brittany (on the west coast of modern France), in a period when neighbouring tribal regions (that were to be united as England three hundred years later) were still mostly pagan. He rose to a bishopric, and presided over two synods, as well as going on pilgrimages to Jerusalem where he was anointed as a bishop by the patriarch.
St. David’s Cathedral now stands on the site of the monastery he founded in southwest Pembrokeshire; in early medieval Britain this part of Wales was located near several important Celtic sea routes, and was not nearly as remote as it might seem today. A shrine to Saint David, containing his bones, the bones of his spiritual father Saint Justinian of Ramsey Island, and possibly those of Saint Caradoc, is located within the cathedral.
The Monastic Rule of David prescribed that monks had to pull the plow themselves without draught animals; to drink only water; to eat only bread with salt and herbs; and to spend the evenings in prayer, reading and writing. No personal possessions were allowed: to say “my book” was an offence. He taught his followers to fast, especially refraining from eating meat or imbibing alcohol. His symbol, also the symbol of Wales, is the leek.
The best-known miracle associated with St. David is said to have taken place on an occasion when he was preaching in the middle of a large crowd. When those at the back complained that they could not see or hear him, the ground on which he stood is reputed to have risen up to form a small hill so that everyone had a good view. The village which is said to stand on the spot today is known as Llanddewi Brefi. A more mundane version of this story is that he simply recommended that the synod participants move to the hilltop.
One of Rhigyfarch’s aims in the Buchedd Dewi was that his document could establish some independence for the Welsh church, which was risking losing its independence following the Norman invasion of England in 1066. It is significant that David is said to have denounced Pelagianism during the incident before the ground rose beneath him. Giraldus Cambrensis, the nephew of a Bishop of St. David’s similarly hoped to demonstrate the ancient independence of the see as the archbishopric of an independent Welsh church; he was himself nominated for the position of Bishop of St. David’s on at least three occasions, but was turned down by Henry II initially and the Archbishop of Canterbury subsequently after the accession of John.
William of Malmesbury recorded that David visited Glastonbury intending to dedicate the abbey there, as well as to donate a travelling altar including a great sapphire. He had a vision there of Jesus Christ who said that “the church had been dedicated long ago by Himself in honour of His Mother, and it was not seemly that it should be re-dedicated by human hands.” So David instead commissioned an extension to be built to the abbey, east of the Old Church. (The dimensions of this extension given by William were archaeologically verified in 1921.) One manuscript indicates that a sapphire altar was among the items King Henry VIII confiscated from the abbey at its dissolution a thousand years later. There are unverifiable indications that the sapphire may now be among the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom.
His last words, according to the Buchedd Dewi, were: “Be steadfast, brothers, and do the little things.”
Troparion (Tone 1)
Having worked miracles in thy youth, founded monasteries and converted the pagans who had sought to destroy thee, O Father David, Christ our God blessed thee to receive the episcopate at the place of His Resurrection. Intercede for us, that our lives may be blessed and our souls may be saved.
Kontakion (Tone 6)
The living waters of godly discipline encompassed thee and the saving waters of faith flowed through thy teaching, O Hierarch and Waterman David. Symbolising the baptism of Wales in thy life, thou art worthy of all praise, wherefore we keep festival in thy honour, glorifying thy eternal memory.