Tomorrow is St David’s Day, a celebration of the patron saint of Wales, the land of my mother and father and where I now live as much as possible. It’s 8 March 2020 as I write this, but having missed the boat this year, I decided to set the blog to publish until 1 March 2021. It’s history innit? It can’t exactly get out of date.
Some might question why an atheistic internationalist has chosen to write a blog about a day of national religious celebration, but St David (Dewi Sant in the Welsh) was a vegetarian who spent some time at Glastonbury and established his first hermitage in Llanthony, a few miles down the road from where I sit writing this blog. Moreover, it’s an excuse to make use of my shelf of Welsh history books and then pretend I know something about it.
A progeny of the rape of his mother, Non (possibly meaning ‘Nun’) by a local nobleman, David was born where he was conceived, outdoors at Wales’ most westerly point. This tough introduction to the world quickly improved via a ring of flowers springing up protectively around mother and baby, along side a freshwater spring.
Today a cathedral in St David’s name marks the spot. It is a spectacular building, made all the more fascinating by the fact that it is sited in a hollow so that it is hidden from view until the visitor is almost upon it. The surrounding landscape adds to the mystitque – “so ascetic but so exciting, all bare rock and heather headland falling to the wild Atlantic sea” as described by Welsh historian, Jan Morris.
The cathedral was once a major centre of Celtic spiritualism and Christian pilgramage, especially after Pope Calixtus II ruled that two pilgramages to St David’s were equal to one trek to Rome, making it a cheaper and more accessible option for Britons needing to top up their pilgramage points.
Markontour has only made one visit to St David’s, and that some years ago, but I another place of worship closely associated with St David is on one of my favourite weekend cycle routes: Llanthony Priory.
Completed in the early thirteenth century and oriented so that it faces the sunrise on 1 March each year – the day of St David’s death, it must once have been rather magnificent – in contrast to the ethos of its saintly patron, who famously lived on spring water and and wild leeks.
It is this legendary diet that inspired the adoption of the leek as a national symbol of Wales. My cousin’s husband tells of how every school child wore a plastic leek-pin to school on St David’s Day when he was growing up, but as the son of grocers he wore the real thing, growing more pungent throughout the day.
Llanthony is a place of beautiful ruins now and makes a great spot to sit and admire the hills mid-way through a cycle ride, taking advantage of the fantastic bar and cafe at the adjacent hotel.
Although David wasn’t made a saint until the twelfth century, there was a feast day in his name from at least the ninth century, possibly reflecting his status as a famous Welsh leader (he was made the first Archbishop of Wales) from the last era when Cymru still held out as a Celtic stronghold, while the various Saxon, Angle, Pictish, and Scotti invaders were elsewhere dividing up Britain.
St David has also been celebrated for centuries in the Welsh night’s sky, via a constellation that only starts to show itself after 1 March, as spring is ushered in. Latin-based star-maps record the sprawling stretch of stars low on the spring/summer horizon as Ophichus, but the Welsh know it as ‘Non of the Stream’, and it represents David’s mother in pregnant form, arms upheld to support a heavenly water-way. I can’t say I’ve ever looked for it before, but as soon as we get a clear night I’ll have a look.
Astounding things happened to St David, most famously a hill rising up below his feet as he preached. But the man himself liked to keep things simple, as is the message of his most famous teaching, “Lords, brothers and sisters, be joyful and keep your faith and your belief, and do the little things that you have heard and said from me.”
It is a sentiment that is in keeping with another celebration of Welsh character, ‘ Mae Hen Wlad fy Nhadau’, the hymn that became the national anthem. Unlike many other songs of nationhood, which tend to celebrate conquering and monarchs reigning over us, ‘Land of My Fathers’ offers “Old land of the mountains, paradise of the poets / Every valley, every cliff a beauty guards / Through love of my country, enchanting voices will be / Her streams and rivers to me”.
- Davies, Jenkins, Baines & Lynch, The Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales, 2008
- Jan Morris, Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country, 1998
- Martin Griffiths, Dark Land, Dark Skies, 2017
- Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, Wales: A History, 1985
- Donald Gregory, Wales Before 1066, 2006