19 things you didn’t know about St David and his day

On 1 March Wales and the wider world will pay homage to St David, the celebrated patron saint. But how much do we actually know about him? Here, writing for History Extra, a spokesperson for Cadw, the Welsh government's historic environment service, reveals 19 fun facts….

St David, patron saint of Wales. (© David Angel/Alamy Stock Photo)

A saint is born

1) The exact date of his birth is unknown, but David is said to have been born around the year 520 – some 1,500 years ago.

2) David was reputedly born on the Pembrokeshire cliffs during a wild thunderstorm.

3) Story has it that David was the son of Sant (aka Sanctus), king of Ceredigion and a nun named Nonnita (Non).

 

A monk’s life

4) As a young man, David became a monk. He is said to have founded a monastery in around the year 560, close to the place where he was born. The surrounding area (in Pembrokeshire, west Wales) is now known simply as ‘St Davids’. It’s believed that St Davids Cathedral and St Davids Bishop’s Palace are built on the site of the original monastery.

5) The existence of the cathedral means that St Davids is Britain’s smallest city, with a population of roughly 1,600 – compared to an estimated 358,000 in Wales’s capital, Cardiff.

6) David became known as Dewi Dyfrwr (David the Waterdrinker) because of his modest monk’s diet of bread and water. Even meat and beer were forbidden.


View of Saint Davids Bishop's Palace, Saint Davids, Pembrokeshire, Wales. (De Agostini Picture Library/G Wright/Bridgeman Images)
 

Raising the dead and moving mountains

7) According to legend, David was a miracle maker: he was said to have been able to restore a blind man’s sight and bring a child back to life by splashing the boy’s face with tears.

8) While preaching to a crowd in the village of Llanddewi Brefi, David is thought to have performed his most famous miracle: some of the crowd were finding it difficult to hear the sermon, when a white dove landed on David’s shoulder. As it did, the ground on which he stood is said to have risen up to form a mighty hill, making it possible for the gathering crowd to finally see and hear him. The dove became St David’s emblem, often appearing in his portraits and on stained-glass windows depicting him. Today, a church stands on the crest of the special hill.
 

Reputation spreads far and wide

9) St David’s influence was not limited to Wales – churches and chapels dedicated to David can also be found in south-west England, Ireland and Brittany.

10) St David is believed to have died on 1 March 589.

11) David’s final words to his followers were supposedly “do the little things, the small things you’ve seen me doing” or “Do the little things that you have heard and seen me do”.

12) After St David’s death, a shrine was built in his honour at his cathedral. Pope Callistus II thought of it so highly that he declared to Catholics that two pilgrimages to the shrine was worth one to the Vatican in Rome.

13) The tenor Dewi Sant bell in the cathedral weighs 2,700lbs!

14) By the 12th century, more than 60 churches in Wales had been dedicated to St David.

15) After his 1284 military campaign in Wales, English king Edward I took the head and arm of St David from the cathedral and displayed the remains in London.


A Welsh Feast on St David's Day, 1790 (colour etching). (British Museum, London, UK / Bridgeman Images)

 

Legacy

16) The nickname ‘Taffy’ for a Welshman links back to St David as the original and ultimate Welshman – the term dates to the 17th century and derives from ‘Dafydd’, the Welsh for David.

17) William Shakespeare name-dropped St David in Henry V. When Fluellen’s English colleague, Pistol, insults the humble leek on St David’s Day, Fluellen insists he eat the national emblem as punishment: “If you can mock a leek, you can eat a leek” (Act V, Scene I).
 

St David’s Day today

18) Many today mark St David’s Day by wearing a leek or a daffodil, the national emblems of Wales, or by displaying the flag of St David, which features a yellow cross on a black background. Schools across Wales hold festival celebrations, with a number of children dressing in traditional costume – a black hat with white trim; long skirts and shawls. Many boys, meanwhile, will wear a Welsh rugby or football shirt. Many schools across the country will also hold an Eisteddfod (a traditional festival of Welsh poetry and music) on this day.

19) A number of Wales’s heritage sites are open for free on St David’s Day 2017 (Wednesday 1 March), as part of Cadw’s St David’s Day celebrations – including St Davids Bishop’s Palace. To read the full list, click here.
 

For more information about St David and the free entry programme visit cadw.gov.wales, Like Cadw on Facebook or follow @CadwWales on Twitter.

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