St David's Day, Pembrokeshire


St David's Day, Pembrokeshire

St David, or Dewi as he is called in Welsh, lived in the sixth century. The influential religious leader and patron saint of Wales founded a monastery at Menevia (the modern St Davids in Pembrokeshire). In the twelfth century, a cathedral was built on the site of David's monastery. It became a centre of pilgrimage and still attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

The Very Reverend Wyn Evans has been Dean of St Davids Cathedral since 1994. An archaeologist by training, he has a keen interest in medieval history and has researched the story of St David.

He said: "David was internationally famous in the Middle Ages. Pope Calixtus II (Pope from 1119 to 24) decreed that one pilgrimage to St Davids was equal to two to Rome. A vast income was raised by visiting pilgrims."

St David was born the illegitimate son of a Welsh prince called Sant and a local woman called Non.

The Dean said: "Very little is known about David because his life was not written until 500 years after his death. We believe he born on the cliffs near St Davids and educated elsewhere in South Wales before founding his monastery here. The local chief Boia was opposed to David's plans for the valley. David overcame all objections to begin an austere monastic life."


Above picture: St David's Shrine

St David and his followers lived a strict existence. They ate no meat, surviving on a diet of little more than bread and water.

The Dean said: "David wanted to subdue the flesh. To this end he would spend time standing up to his neck in water, leading to his being called Dewi Ddyfrwr, or David the Waterman. It is believed David died either in 589 or 602 when March 1 – the date we still celebrate St David's Day – fell on a Tuesday."

The first pilgrims arrived during David's life and his influence continued long after his death. There are records of a vegetarian diet being adhered to at the monastery until 999. Following the Norman Conquest, St Davids, which had long ceased to be a monastery, became a secular cathedral. The first Norman Bishop, Bernard, arrived in 1115.

The Dean said: "Bernard did not carry out Norman plans to move St Davids from this bottom corner of Wales to a more accessible location. Instead, he set about rebuilding the cathedral and fostering the cult of St David."
St Davids, Pembrokeshire
Wales, SA62 6QW

Picture top right: St Davids Cathedral
Picture to right: Christmas at the Cathedral


Bernard's initiative, combined with the rave review from Pope Calixtus II, placed St Davids firmly on the religious map. Unlike many other centres of pilgrimage, St Davids did not display the bones of its namesake.

The Dean said: "Early mediaeval Welsh Christians had little interest in the bones of the dead and David's grave was not recorded. In 1275, John de Gamages, an Abbot based 60 miles from here, dreamt about the resting place of St David and following his instructions a body was found in the cathedral grounds. It was placed in a new shrine in 1275. King Edward I was one of the first to visit and make an offering."

The prosperity of St Davids continued with a steady traffic of visitors until the sixteenth century. The Dean said: "In 1538, Protestant William Barlow was appointed bishop at St Davids. He wanted to shut down the cathedral and confiscated the reliquaries. As far as we know, they were all destroyed. In the nineteenth Century some bones were found walled up in a recess at the back of the High Altar and they were later believed to be those of St. David. I had these carbon dated and it was revealed they are actually from the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It would appear that no relics have survived."

In 1648, Puritans vandalised the cathedral. The organ was smashed and the lead stripped from the roof leaving the building open to the sky. The Dean said: "The building was in a poor state of repair until about 100 years ago when there was a resurgence of interest in St David. Now the cathedral has been fully restored. It is the major heritage site of Wales and a building at peace with itself."

This year's St Davids celebrations at the cathedral span the weekend of Saturday 1 and Sunday 2 March. There will be two services on March 1, first at 8am in Welsh and a second at 10am in English. The Sunday morning service will be broadcast live on Radio 4 at about 8am. A schools service, Sunday morning service and evensong procession are also planned.

As part of the celebrations, the cathedral will commemorate the 175th anniversary of the founding of St David's College. The college is one of the oldest university institutions in Britain, admitting its first students on St David's Day in 1827.

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