This Sunday, it’s St David’s (Dewi) Day in Wales – Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant in Welsh. He is unusual in the United Kingdom for being the only saint born in the nation he represents, although the date of his birth can only be estimated at between 462 and 512 AD.
Dewi was born to Sant, was the son of Ceredig, King of Ceredigion, and Non, later St Non, the daughter of a chieftain of Menevia (now the cathedral town of St David’s). Non gave birth on a cliff top near Capel Non (a later chapel built for her) on the south-west coast of Wales. A fair storm whipped up from the sea as Dewi made his way into this world. The proximity of a Holy Well, possibly a pre-Christian site of veneration, may explain why Non chose this unlikely place to give birth. It is curious that milestones during Dewi’s life were marked by the appearance of springs of water.
Dewi was destined for the church from an early age and spent his formative years in the monastery of Hen Fynyw under the tutorage of St. Paulinus, a saint honoured as one of the founders of Brittany across the Channel. Paulinus was old when he took on Dewi and, as his sight faded into blindness, Dewi miraculously restored his vision. It was the first of many miracles performed by the saint.
Perhaps the most famous is the time Dewi was preaching at the Synod of Brefi. As more and more people crowded around him to hear his words, the ground on which he stood rose to form a hill. Now everyone could see Dewi clearly. A white dove landed on his shoulder, and it became his symbol, always shown in later illustrations. Although one of the most esteemed historians of Wales, the late Dr John Davies, remarks that creating a hill in Wales must rank with the most superfluous of miracles, Dewi was acclaimed for it and people called upon him to be made archbishop. This meant that St David’s, the monastery that he had earlier founded and was now bishop over, gained a metropolitan status that it still holds today. Despite being a tiny settlement, St David’s is a city.
Dewi ruled his monks with a kindly authority, insisting they pull the plough by themselves and spare the animals. Dewi was a vegetarian and, during his time in retreat, lived on leeks. This is one reason the leek is the symbol of Wales. Another more prosaic reason (mentioned by Shakespeare in Henry V) is that they identified the Welsh soldiers in battle. That bright idea is also attributed to Dewi.
Dewi owned nothing and if any of his monks referred to an object as theirs or his, they were chastised. Dewi lived a very simple life. Despite this, he is reputed to have travelled widely, founding other churches and monasteries. He even rededicated Glastonbury Abbey. But his role founding churches in Brittany (and many places there are still named for him) is probably apocryphal.
Dewi died at his cathedral on Tuesday 1st March, which could have fallen on 569 or 601 AD, apparently being a very old man of over 100 years-old. His remains were reverently buried in a shrine in the cathedral, befitting his status and immediately becoming a place of pilgrimage. Unfortunately, the place was ransacked in the 10th or 11th century by Viking invaders, who plundered the site and murdered two Welsh bishops along with it. They wrecked the shrine but not the remains of Dewi. In 1275 a new shrine was constructed (the remains of which can still be seen) and it was here that Edward I, not a very popular king in Wales, came to pray in 1284. During the Reformation, the shrine was stripped of treasure and the remains of Dewi confiscated. However in 1996 bones were found in St. Dewi’s Cathedral which, it is claimed, could be those of Dewi himself.
Unlike many other saints of Wales, Pope Callixtus II in 1120 officially canonised Dewi as a saint. It was a little after this that he became the patron saint of his nation, which he remains to this day.
Much of what we know about Dewi comes from the writings of Rhygyfarch in the late 11th century, supposedly based on archives from the monastery. However Rhygyfarch was extremely political. His main aim was to gain independence for the Welsh Church, which had rejected the Roman rite and remained Celtic until the 8th century. Old wounds went deep and it is interesting that the Church in Wales is now independent of English Anglicanism and is a far gentler and more inclusive church, just as Dewi and his forbears would have known it. Even Rowan Williams, our very own former Archbishop of Canterbury, thought nothing of initiating as a Druid whilst in post.
Through his life and, perhaps more importantly, after his death, Dewi unwittingly became a champion of Welsh identity. There is even saying about St Dewi that harks back to the medieval myth that he was a nephew of King Arthur, the once and future king. It is written in the 10th century Armes Prydein Fawr, that one day ‘A lluman glân Dewi a ddyrchafant”, in translation, “and they will raise the pure banner of Dewi” and defeat the English once and for all. We can still but hope.
But the last words should, appropriately, be the last words of Dewi himself. On his deathbed, he uttered his last instructions to those gathered around him: “do the little things, the small things you’ve seen me doing”. As Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury adds: “…it reminds us that the primary things for us are the relationships around us, the need to work at what’s under our hands, what’s within our reach. We can transform our domestic, our family relationships, our national life to some extent, if we do that with focus and concentration in the presence of God.” Amen.