Who was St David? The history of St David’s Day and its traditions

    Many stories about David tell of the Welsh royal lineage of his parents; his father was a prince of Ceridigion while his mother – Nonnita (of Non’s chapel) – was the daughter of a local chieftain.

    St Davids Cathedral in Pembrokeshire

    St Davids Cathedral in Pembrokeshire. It’s believed that the cathedral and St Davids Bishop’s Palace are built on the site of the original monastery. (Image by Getty Images)

    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.

    While facts about David’s life remain shrouded in history, some oral histories claim that David was unusually tall for the period – perhaps as tall as 6ft – and following his entry into the church, he became an influential preacher who (so the legends have it), performed miracles.

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    What is the story behind St David?

    St David is credited with many miracles, the most famous of which is associated with the Ceredigion parish of Llanddewi Brefi.

    As St David was preaching to a crowd in the village, some of the crowd were finding it difficult to hear the sermon. But then a white dove landed on David’s shoulder, and 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.

    Welsh history on the podcast

    Matthew Stevens tackles listener questions on the history of the Welsh regions during the Middle Ages (Image by Getty Images)

    The dove became St David’s emblem, and often appears in his portraits and on stained-glass windows depicting him. Today, a church stands on the crest of the special hill.

    Other legends have it that St David 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.

    What was the Rule of St David?

    While David himself preached kindness to others, and was an advocate for care and compassion, he lived a very austere life and his Monastic Rule was strict.

    He taught his followers to fast, eating only bread, vegetables and water – meat was forbidden – and suggested that they should plough their own fields rather than using beasts of burden. His followers were also allowed no personal possessions – some stories have it that for an individual to claim a book as their own was considered an offence.

    These ascetic rules earned him the unique nickname Dewi Dyfrwr (‘David the Waterdrinker’) because of his modest monk’s diet.

    Why do we wear leeks and daffodils?

    The leek has become a symbol associated with St David, and many children don leeks (or leek badges) on their lapels around St David’s Day.

    Welsh schoolboys wear leeks in their lapels

    The leek has become a symbol associated with St David, and many children don leeks. Here, Welsh schoolboys wear leeks in their lapels on St David’s Day. (Image by Alamy)

    The reason for the association is a legend that had St David advising Welsh soldiers ahead of a sixth century battle to pull up leeks from the ground and wear them in their helmets, so that they could be more easily distinguished from their enemies. However, some have cast doubt on this tale, due to David’s renowned pacifism.

    The symbol was further solidified when the battle of Crecy, in 1346, featured Welsh archers who fought in a field of leeks against French soldiers.

    The battle of Crecy

    The battle of Crecy during the Hundred Years’ War. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

    Daffodils have a less certain history – many consider that the daffodil has been adopted over the last century as a popular alternative to the leek. The bright yellow flowers bloom naturally around 1 March, making it a good choice for a patriotic springtime celebration.

    Other traditions that continue include singing Welsh hymns and songs (favourites include Calon Lân, meaning ‘pure heart’, and Cwm Rhondda), and making cawl (a soup often made with lamb or ham and, of course, leeks) and Welsh cakes.

    Welsh cakes

    Welsh cakes are a traditional sweet dish made and served on St David’s Day. (Image by Getty Images)

    Many schools across Wales hold annual celebrations, with a number of children dressing in traditional costume – a black hat with white trim; long skirts and shawls, or choosing to wear a Welsh rugby or football shirt. Schools across the country will also hold an Eisteddfod (a traditional festival of Welsh culture, poetry and music) on this day.

    A young girl in Welsh national dress

    A number of children dress in traditional Welsh costume on St David’s Day. (Image by Getty Images)

    Read on for nine fascinating facts about the patron saint, or find more about the history of Wales…

    Britain’s smallest city is named after him

    The existence of the cathedral in St Davids, Pembrokeshire, means that it is Britain’s smallest city, with a population of roughly 1,400 – compared to an estimated 362,000 in Wales’s capital, Cardiff. The tenor Dewi Sant bell in the cathedral weighs 2,700lbs.

    St 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.

    St David 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”.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    David is mentioned by Shakespeare

    William Shakespeare name-dropped St David in his play 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 satirical 19th century print depicts a Welshman with a leek on his hat

    A satirical 19th century print depicts a Welshman with a leek on his hat. (Photo by The Print Collector via Getty Images)

    St David 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 gold cross on a black background. The Welsh translation of “Happy St David’s Day” is “Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus”.

    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 each year, as part of Cadw’s St David’s Day celebrations – including St Davids Bishop’s Palace.

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