Many of the traditional tales about David are found in the Buchedd Dewi, a hagiography written by Rhygyfarch in the late 11th century. Rhygyfarch claimed it was based on documents found in the cathedral archives. Modern historians are sceptical of some of its claims: one of Rhygyfarch’s aims was to establish some independence for the Welsh church, which had refused the Roman rite until the 8th Century and now sought a metropolitan status equal to that of Canterbury. (This may apply to the supposed pilgrimage to Jerusalem where he was anointed as an archbishop by the patriarch).
His best-known miracle is said to have taken place when he was preaching in the middle of a large crowd at the Synod of Brefi: the village of Llanddewi Brefi stands on the spot where the ground on which he stood is reputed to have risen up to form a small hill. A white dove, which became his emblem, was seen settling on his shoulder. John Davies notes that one can scarcely “conceive of any miracle more superfluous” in that part of Wales than the creation of a new hill. David is said to have denounced Pelagianism during this incident and he was declared archbishop by popular acclaim according to Rhygyfarch, bringing about the retirement of Dubricius. St David’s metropolitan status as an archbishopric was later supported by Bernard, Bishop of St David’s, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Gerald of Wales.
The Monastic Rule of David prescribed that monks had to pull the plough themselves without draught animals, must drink only water and eat only bread with salt and herbs, and spend the evenings in prayer, reading and writing. No personal possessions were allowed: even to say “my book” was considered an offence. He lived a simple life and practised asceticism, teaching his followers to refrain from eating meat and drinking beer. His symbol, also the symbol of Wales, is the leek (this largely comes from a reference in Shakespeare’s Henry V, Act V scene 1).
Connections to Glastonbury
Rhygyfarch counted Glastonbury Abbey among the churches David founded. Around forty years later William of Malmesbury, believing the Abbey older, said that David visited Glastonbury only to rededicate the Abbey and to donate a travelling altar, including a great sapphire. He had had a vision of Jesus who said “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 verified archaeologically 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.
It is claimed that David lived for over 100 years, and that he died on a Tuesday 1 March (now St David’s Day). It is generally accepted that this was around 590, and March 1 fell on a Tuesday in 589.
The monastery is said to have been “filled with angels as Christ received his soul.” His last words to his followers were in a sermon on the previous Sunday. The Welsh Life of St David gives these as: “Bydwch lawen a chedwch ych ffyd a’ch cret, a gwnewch y petheu bychein a glywyssawch ac a welsawch gennyf i. A mynheu a gerdaf y fford yd aeth an tadeu idi,” which translates as, “Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and 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 ye the little things in life” (“Gwnewch y pethau bychain mewn bywyd”) is today a very well known phrase in Welsh.
David was buried at St David’s Cathedral at St David’s, Pembrokeshire, where his shrine was a popular place of pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages. During the 10th and 11th centuries the Cathedral was regularly raided by Vikings, who removed the shrine from the church and stripped off the precious metal adornments. In 1275 a new shrine was constructed, the ruined base of which remains to this day, which was originally surmounted by an ornamental wooden canopy with murals of St David, St Patrick and St Denis of France. The relics of St David and St Justinian were kept in a portable casket on the stone base of the shrine. It was at this shrine that Edward I came to pray in 1284. During the reformation Bishop Barlow (1536–48), a staunch Protestant, stripped the shrine of its jewels and confiscated the relics of David and Justinian.
David’s popularity in Wales is shown by the Armes Prydein Fawr, of around 930, a popular poem which prophesied that in the future, when all might seem lost, the Cymry (the Welsh people) would unite behind the standard of David to defeat the English; “A lluman glân Dewi a ddyrchafant” (“And they will raise the pure banner of Dewi”).
Unlike many contemporary “saints” of Wales, David was officially recognised at the Vatican by Pope Callixtus II in 1120, thanks to the work of Bernard, Bishop of St David’s. Music for his office has been edited by O.T. Edwards in Matins, Lauds and Vespers for St David’s Day: the Medieval Office of the Welsh Patron Saint in National Library of Wales MS 20541 E (Cambridge, 1990).
David’s life and teachings have inspired a choral work by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins, Dewi Sant. It is a seven-movement work best known for the classical crossover series Adiemus, which intersperses movements reflecting the themes of David’s last sermon with those drawing from three Psalms. An oratorio by another Welsh composer Arwel Hughes, also entitled Dewi Sant, was composed in 1950.
Saint David is also thought to be associated with corpse candles, lights that would warn of the imminent death of a member of the community. The story goes that David prayed for his people to have some warning of their death, so they could prepare themselves. In a vision, David’s wish was granted and told from then on, people who lived in the land of Dewi Sant (Saint David) “would be forewarned by the dim light of mysterious tapers when and where the death might be expected.” The color and/or size of the tapers indicated whether the person to die would be a woman, man, or child.