16 things you (probably) didn’t know about St David’s Day traditions

St David’s Day is celebrated on 1 March across Wales and the wider world. But who was St David? What was he famous for? And in which Shakespeare play is a character forced to eat a leek in his name? Here, a spokesperson for Cadw, the Welsh government's historic environment service, reveals 16 facts about the patron saint…

St David painting in stained glass window, Ceredigion, UK. Exact date unknown. (Photo by David Angel/Alamy Stock Photo)
1

David was born in the 6th century

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. He was reputedly born on the Pembrokeshire cliffs during a wild thunderstorm.

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2

He had an unlikely parentage

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

3

David founded a monastery

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.

A view from the Choir of Canterbury Cathedral looking towards Trinity Chapel, which was built in the 12th century to house the remains of Thomas Becket. (Photo by Alamy)

4

Britain’s smallest city is named after him

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

5

His diet led to a unique nickname

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.

6

David was a miracle maker

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.

View of Saint Davids Bishop's Palace, Saint Davids, Pembrokeshire, Wales. (De Agostini Picture Library/G Wright/Bridgeman Images)
View of Saint Davids Bishop’s Palace, Saint Davids, Pembrokeshire, Wales. (De Agostini Picture Library/G Wright/Bridgeman Images)
7

He moved mountains

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.

Will Millard – presenter of the BBC series 'Hidden Wales'. (Photo by BBC Wales)

8

David became famous outside Wales

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.

9

He signed off with a poignant quote

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”.

10

David’s shrine became a pilgrimage site

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

The regions of Britain in 1635, before the 1707 Acts of Union that united England and Scotland. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

11

Edward I took St David’s remains back to London

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.

12

His name spawned a common Welsh term

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.

13

David is mentioned by Shakespeare

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).

A Welsh Feast on St David's Day, 1790 (colour etching). (British Museum, London, UK/Bridgeman Images)
A Welsh Feast on St David’s Day, 1790 (colour etching). (British Museum, London, UK/Bridgeman Images)
14

He has his own flag

Many people mark St David’s Day on 1 March 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. The Welsh translation of “Happy St David’s Day” is “Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus”.

15

Children celebrate his legacy in schools

Schools across Wales hold 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. Schools across the country will also hold an Eisteddfod (a traditional festival of Welsh poetry and music) on this day.

A Cardiff City player shakes hands with an Arsenal player before the kick off of the 1927 FA Cup final. (Photo by H. F. Davis/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

16

St David’s Day is a fantastic time to explore Welsh heritage

A number of Wales’s heritage sites are open for free on St David’s Day 2019 (Friday 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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This article was originally published by History Extra in March 2017