Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/David (d.601?)
DAVID or DEWI, Saint (d. 601?), the patron saint of Wales, is first mentioned in the tenth-century manuscript of the ‘Annales Cambriæ,’ which merely says that he was bishop of Moni Judeorum (Menevia, afterwards called St. David's) and died in 601. Although this date comes from a document written four centuries after David's time, there seems to be no good reason for setting it aside. The arguments which various writers have urged in favour of an earlier period are chiefly founded on the chronological data contained in the current lives of the saint, the earliest of which was written by Rhygyfarch (Ricemarchus), bishop of St. David's about 1090. But the work of Rhygyfarch, on which all the later biographies are founded, is so thoroughly legendary that no confidence can be placed either in its mention of historical persons as David's contemporaries, or in the number of generations which it interposes between him and his alleged ancestor Cunedda. Nor can much weight be allowed to the authority of William of Malmesbury, who says that the saint died in 546. Professor Rice Rees attempted to settle the date of David's death by means of the statement of Geoffrey of Monmouth that David was buried at Menevia by order of Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd. Maelgwn died, according to the ‘Annales Cambriæ,’ in 547, though Rees prefers the inferior authority of a document printed by Wharton which places his death in 566. However, it is now scarcely necessary to say that the testimony of Geoffrey on such a matter is absolutely worthless. Some of the modern writers who have argued for an early date have relied on the evidence of the thirteenth-century manuscript of the ‘Annales Cambriæ,’ which assigns David's birth to 458. But this must be taken in connection with the legend accepted by Rhygyfarch and Giraldus that the saint's age was one hundred and forty-seven years. Evidently the natal year given by the thirteenth-century scribe has been calculated backwards (with an error of four years) from the documentary date of David's death, and is consequently, if anything, a confirmation of its genuineness rather than a ground for suspicion.
It may therefore be said that all the evidence worth considering goes to show that David died in 601. The only other facts respecting him which can be regarded as tolerably certain are that he was bishop (not archbishop) of Menevia, and that he presided at two synods of the Welsh church, the earlier of them being held at Brefi (now Llanddewi Brefi), and the other (in 569) at a place whose Welsh name is translated into Latin as Lucus Victoriæ. The genuine acts of these two councils, which have nothing to do with Pelagianism, but relate merely to the ecclesiastical penalties to be imposed for certain offences, are given in Haddan and Stubbs's ‘Councils,’ i. 117, 118.
The legendary history of the saint is much more extensive. According to Rhygyfarch, his birth was predicted by an angel to St. Patrick, who, on his return to Britain from Rome, had proposed to take up his abode in a place called Vallis Rosina, apparently near to Menevia. The angel appeared to him and commanded him to undertake the conversion of Ireland, adding that the spot which he had chosen for his dwelling was destined not for him but for one who should be born thirty years later. It seems likely that this prediction, as originally circulated, had reference to some other person than St. David, and that the desire to make it apply to this saint was the motive which led to the ascription to him of a fabulous length of life. Like many other Welsh saints [see Carantacus], David is said to have been a grandson of Ceredig, king of the region called after his name, Cardigan. David's father was called Sanctus or Sant (in later documents corruptly Xantus and Sandde), a name apparently evolved from the title mabsant (patron saint), which admits of being mistranslated ‘the son of Sant.’ His mother was, according to Rhygyfarch, a nun, who had been ravished by Sant, and who, after the birth of her son, spent her life in prayer and self-mortification in expiation of her involuntary fault. Her name, Nonna or Nonnita, is obviously the Low-Latin word nonna, a nun. It is curious to observe that Giraldus, whose life of David is founded upon that of Rhygyfarch, has carefully suppressed all mention of David's mother having been a nun. Nonna is said in the ‘Genealogies of the Saints’ to have been a daughter of Gynyr of Caergawch, chieftain of Pebidiog (western Pembrokeshire), who, like Ceredig, though in a less degree, was celebrated as the ancestor of many saints. The whole pedigree of David may safely be dismissed as fictitious, and there is really not the slightest evidence that he was related to the Cunedda family at all. It is even possible that the patron saint of Wales was not himself of Welsh birth, for his traditional title of Deverur, which Giraldus renders ‘vir aquaticus,’ and supposes to refer to the saint's abstemious habits, may be plausibly explained as meaning ‘the man of Deira.’
The place where David received his earliest education is called by Rhygyfarch Vetus Rubus, a translation, apparently, of the common Welsh name Henllwyn, though Giraldus identifies it with Vetus Menevia (Henfynyw in Cardiganshire), on the ground of a fancied etymological connection between Menevia and the Irish word muni (muin), which he considers equivalent to rubus. Afterwards David became a pupil of a certain Paulinus, who had enjoyed the instructions of St. Germanus. The editors of the ‘Acta Sanctorum’ identify this Paulinus with St. Paul, archbishop of Leon in Brittany. It is quite possible that he is really the person referred to, though in that case the story of his having been David's teacher must be a mere fiction. In the existing copy of Rhygyfarch's work Paulinus is said to have lived ‘in a certain island;’ the abridgment of Rhygyfarch, printed by the Bollandists from a Utrecht manuscript, calls the island Dilamgerbendi. The manuscript itself, however, is said to read Minindi Lanergbendi (Llanerchbeudy?). Giraldus strangely supposes that the Isle of Wight is meant, and the life published by Colgan ingeniously corrects this into ‘Witland’—i.e. Whiteland in Carmarthenshire. While living with Paulinus David began to work miracles, and after completing his education he journeyed through Wales, preaching the gospel and founding monasteries. In the list of his foundations occur the celebrated names of Glastonbury, Leominster, Repton, Crowland, Bath, and Raglan, though probably the mention of the first five places arises from misreadings of Welsh names. After some years David betook himself with his chosen disciples to the place which the angel had foretold should be his abode, and there he established a monastery. The curious story of the persecution he underwent from a Gaelic chief named Baia or Boia (who, with his wicked wife, came to a violent end as the reward for their ill-treatment of the saint) looks as if it might have some historical foundation; but David's alleged pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and his consecration as archbishop by the patriarch, is obviously an unmixed romance. Rhygyfarch says that an altar presented to David by the patriarch was still in existence, but since the saint's death had been kept wrapped up in a leather case, and had not been allowed to be seen by any one. The popular belief, he adds, was that this sacred object had come down from heaven. William of Malmesbury identifies this altar with the jewelled silver ‘superaltare’ known as ‘the sapphire of Glastonbury;’ but this seems to be a guess of Malmesbury's own. The ‘sapphire’ eventually fell into the hands of Henry VIII's commissioners, but they say nothing about its origin, nor do the Glastonbury records mention any tradition connecting it with St. David.
Equally unhistorical with the story of the Jerusalem pilgrimage is the grotesque account given by Rhygyfarch of the synod of Brefi, which, he says, was held soon after David's return from the Holy Land. When the assembled bishops had decreed the condemnation of the Pelagian heresy, first one and then another of them (‘standing upon a heap of clothes!’) attempted to proclaim the result of their deliberations to the vast throng of laity who stood around. But no one was found whose voice was powerful enough for so great a congregation; and it was resolved that whoever was able to make himself heard by all should be appointed metropolitan archbishop of Wales. David was not present, but (at the recommendation of his old teacher Paulinus, who was aware of his consecration) he was sent for, and was successful in this singular competitive examination for ecclesiastical honours. The effect of his eloquence on the occasion was so powerful that from that moment the Pelagian heresy was never more heard of in Wales. It is extremely improbable that in the sixth century there existed any archbishopric in Wales; the object of Rhygyfarch's childish inventions seems to have been to provide an historic basis for the claims which his own see was then beginning to assert to primacy over the other bishoprics in the country.
The fictions of Rhygyfarch are improved upon by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who represents David as the uncle of King Arthur, and alleges that the metropolitan see had formerly been at Caerleon, but that David, with Arthur's sanction, removed it to Menevia. Modern writers have frequently discussed the motives for which this change was made, but as in all probability no archbishopric of Caerleon ever existed this question falls to the ground. The importance which the see of St. David's actually did obtain is to be accounted for partly by the celebrity of its founder, and partly by the situation of the place, which, on the one hand, rendered it safe from English influences, and on the other, afforded facilities for communication with the sister church of Ireland.
The great reverence which was early felt for St. David is shown by the large number of churches dedicated to him in Wales, and also in some parts of Ireland. His festival is observed on 1 March; he was formally canonised by Pope Calixtus in 1120. William of Malmesbury alleges that the saint's remains were in 966 translated to Glastonbury by an English lady named Ealhswith. The body was, he says, deposited in ‘the old church,’ which had been destroyed by fire. There is little doubt that the story of the translation is one of the many fictions that were devised to enhance the glory of Glastonbury. It may be observed that the Welsh name Dewi (a corruption of David, dating from the time when the Latin v was pronounced in Britain as w) is applied only to the saint; the biblical David being always rendered by the later form Dafydd.
The life of David by Giraldus has no independent authority, though the manuscript of Rhygyfarch which he followed seems in some places to have been more correct than that now extant. The same remarks apply to the life published in the ‘Acta Sanctorum’ and to that printed by Colgan from an Irish manuscript of unknown date.[Rhygyfarch's Life of David in Rees's Cambro-British Saints, 102–44; Rice Rees's Essay on Welsh Saints, 193 ff.; Acta Sanctorum, March 1; Dictionary of Christian Biography, art. ‘David;’ Wharton's Anglia Sacra, ii.; William of Malmesbury's De Antiq. Glaston. Eccl.]