Saturday, April 21, 2012

St David

St David with his trademark dove upon his shoulder.

I probably do not need to tell you that Saint David is the Patron Saint of Wales. But what else do you know about him? Huh? Huh? Just as I thought - very little. Luckily for you, I drove to the Western-most tip of Wales to find out a bit more. The Western-most tip is called St David’s Head, and nearby, in a secluded little valley, is the UK’s smallest city, St David’s City. It gets to be a city (despite looking exactly like a small village) because it has a cathedral, and is the Throne of the Archbishop of Wales. It is important - if you are Welsh, in particular - to note that the Church in Wales is “independent from Canterbury”. It achieved this in 1920 - it’s called being “disestablished” and there is a whole lot of Church politics behind it, with possibly the most interesting outcome being the schoolyard aphorism about the longest word in the dictionary: “antidisestablishmentarianism”.

The Cathedral of St David's City.

But I digress. Back to St David. He was a monk and abbott who lived in the sixth century. His life was said to be prophesied, and he was born to a lady named Non, in a spot (the exact whereabouts of which is lost in time) where a sacred spring sprang up. David, like all good saints, performed many miracles (including bringing dead children to life) and generally when he performed a really good one, a sacred spring sprang. No wonder he was popular. Although he is also said to have been six feet tall (which makes him almost twice as tall as most people in the sixth century), strong, handsome and charismatic. He is famous for having taken a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and he founded monasteries all over Southern Wales and England. He is known as a very popular saint in his day.

Wonderful painted ceiling in the Cathedral.

He lived most of his life at what is now St David’s City, but was previously called Mynyw, and later Tyddewi. At least it has now acquired some more vowels. David drank only water and lived on bread and herbs (especially watercress). Much of the story of David is a mixture of Celtic pagan symbols and Christian overlays: he lived at a time when Christianity was only just beginning to colonise the Celtic lands, and the pagan symbols either died hard or were deliberately incorporated into Christian rituals to aid evangelism.

The nave.

After a life performing miracles, mediating in Church disputes, and running his monastery with a firm hand, David died, having achieved a legendary lifespan of 147 years. Nobody is sure when exactly he was born, but everyone is very definite that he died on Tuesday, 1st March 589. Or maybe 601. 1st March, anyway. Definitely. So that is St David’s Day, still celebrated in Wales: ‘Dydd Gwyl Dewi’. David later became the patron saint of Wales and St David’s Day is marked by religious services, celebration dinners (of watercress, perhaps?) and eisteddfods. David’s symbol is (slightly unfortunately) the leek. Thus the Welsh national colours were green and white, and the Welsh Guard wear a leek as a cap badge. In recent times the leek has somewhat given way to the daffodil, as some people (who shall remain nameless, but we’re looking at you, David Lloyd George) seem to prefer it.

Narrow old medieval doorway.

But back to Saint David and his City: on the site of his original monastery now stands a large Cathedral - the largest in Wales. This went though the usual pillaging and destruction following the dissolution of the monasteries and the Civil War, but today stands again. It is a rather lovely Cathedral, with beautiful decorated wooden ceilings, and the distinctive feature that the choir screen is actually a pretty solid wall, thoroughly blocking off the church into discrete sections. It also has the distinction of holding the tomb of Edward I, the grandfather of Henry VIII, which might be why it escaped greater destruction during the Reformation. 

The precursor to the current church was of course Norman, and there is thus a great square bell-tower. In 1123 David was recognised as a bona fide saint by the then Pope, and the result was that St David’s Church became a very popular site for pilgrimages, despite its situation at the Western-most tip of the mainland kingdom: it is said that two pilgrimages to St David’s equalled one to Rome - such a bargain! The church was visited by William the Conqueror (1081), Henry II (1171 and 1172), Edward I and Eleanor (1284) and Richard II (1394). 

Saint David was buried in his own monastery, now somewhere under the present church. Over the centuries there has been a certain amount of dispute over his ‘relics‘ (Edward I, for instance, is said to have made off with David’s head and a leg bone). There was a brief flurry of excitement when some bones were found encased in a wall during a Victorian renovation by Sir Gilbert Scott (the architect of St Pancras Station , my ex-home); but they were later carbon-dated and found to be not old enough to be David’s bones. 

The Bishop's Palace, St David's City.

Carvings and gargoyles: Bishop's Palace.

The magnificent wheel-window.
David’s fame and that of his monastery reached a high point in the Middle Ages. At that time the bishop in residence was one Bishop Henry de Gower (1328 - 47), known as the 'Building Bishop'. He constructed an enormous Bishop’s Palace next door to the church/monastery - its remains can be toured today. It is roughly three times as big as the church (even if you count the brand new refectory and toilet block) - a great rambling Palace it must have been. Architecturally, it features rows of arched decorations along high-walk parapets, stone carvings of the faces of men and animals, a spectacular wheel-window, and some very well-preserved  undercrofts, including stone spiral stairs from the buttery to the dining hall for the easy delivery of the wine to the Bishop’s banquets.

What Saint David would have made of it all, we can only imagine, as he munches on his watercress.

Locator: The small blue dot on the Westernmost tip of Wales.

Map from:

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