The Monks of the West: Saint David of Wales

[Saint David of Wales]
David is much more generally known than his co-disciple, Saint Iltut. He has always continued popular among the inhabitants of Wales; and Shakespeare informs us that, even since the Reformation, the Welsh have retained the custom of wearing a leek in their hats upon his feast-day. His history has been often written, and through the transformation of the legend it is still easy to recognize in it the salutary sway of a great monk and bishop over souls which were faithful to religion, but yet in full conflict with those savage and sensual impulses which are to be found only too universally among all men and all nations, in the centre of civilisation as on the verge of barbarism. The origin, indeed, of the holy patron of Cambria himself, like that of Saint Bridget, the patroness of Ireland, affords a startling proof of a state of affairs both corrupt and violent. He was the son of a nun whom the king of the country – a nephew of the great Arthur – met upon the public road, and whom, struck by her beauty, he instantly made the victim of his passion. This crime is told by all the biographers of David, generally so lavish of praise and blame, without the least expression of surprise or indignation. The scribe Paulinus, whose name indicates a Roman origin, and who is known to have been a disciple of Saint Germain of Auxerre, was charged with the education of the young David, which was as long and complete as possible. He issued from his tutor’s hands clothed with the priesthood and devoted to a kind of monastic existence which did not exclude him either from Continental travel, nor from exercising a great influence over men and external affairs. He exercised a double power over his countrymen, by directing one part to coenobitical life, and arming the other with the knowledge and virtue which enabled them to triumph over the dangers of a secular career. It is on this latter point that he differs from his illustrious contemporary, Saint Benedict, whom he resembles in so many other features. Like Benedict, he founded, almost at one time, twelve monasteries; like Benedict, he saw his young disciples tempted to their fall by the voluptuous wiles of shameless women; like Benedict, he was exposed to the danger of being poisoned by traitors in the very bosom of his own community; and, finally, like Benedict, he imposed upon his monks a rule which severely prohibited all individual property, and made manual and intellectual labour obligatory. The agricultural labour thus prescribed was so severe, that the Welsh monks had not only to saw the wood and delve the soil, but even to yoke themselves to the plough, and work without the aid of oxen. As soon as this toil came to an end they returned to their cells to pass the rest of the day in reading and writing; and when thus engaged it was sometimes necessary to stop in the midst of a letter or paragraph, to answer to the first sound of the bell, by which divine service was announced.

In the midst of these severe labours the abbot David had continual struggles with the satraps and magicians, which, no doubt, means the chiefs of the clan and the Druids, who had not been destroyed in Britain, as in Gaul, by the Roman conquest, and whose last surviving representatives could not see, without violent dislike, the progress of monastic institutions. But the sphere of David’s influence and activity was to extend far beyond that of his early work. Having made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he returned thence invested with the office of archbishop, which had been conferred upon him by the patriarch of Jerusalem. On his return he was acknowledged metropolitan of all that part of the island not yet invaded by the Saxons, by two very numerously attended councils, in which he had the honour of striking a deathblow at the Pelagian heresy, which had come to life again since the mission of Saint Germain.

One of these councils recognised in his honour a right of asylum, pointed out by ancient authors as the most respected and the most complete which existed in Britain, and which created for all pursued culprits an inviolable refuge wherever there was a field which had been given to David. This is one of the first examples, as conferred upon a monastic establishment, of that right of asylum, afterwards too much extended, and disgracefully abused towards the end of the middle ages, but which, at that far-distant period, was a most important protection to the weak. Who does not understand how irregular and brutal was at that time the pursuit of a criminal; how many vile and violent passions usurped the office of the law; and how justice herself and humanity had reason to rejoice when religion stretched her maternal hands over a fugitive unjustly accused, or even over a culprit who might be worthy of excuse or indulgence!

David immediately resumed his monastic and ecclesiastical foundations, and restored for the first time from its ruins the Church of Glastonbury, so that it might consecrate the tomb of his cousin King Arthur. He himself died more than a hundred years old, surrounded by the reverence of all, and in reality the chief of the British nation. He was buried in the Monastery of Menevia, which he had built at the southern extremity of Wales, facing Ireland, on a site which had been indicated thirty years before by Saint Patrick, the apostle of that island. It was of all his foundations the one most dear to him, and he had made it the seat of a diocese which has retained his name.

After his death the monastic tomb of the great bishop and British chief became a much-frequented sanctuary place of pilgrimage. Not only the Welsh, Bretons, and Irish came to it in crowds, but three Anglo-Norman kings – William the Conqueror, Henry II, and Edward I – appeared there in their turn. David was canonised by Pope Calistus II in 1120, at a period when Wales still retained its independence. He became from that moment, and has remained until the present time, the patron of Cambria. A group of half-ruined religious buildings, forming altogether one of the most solemn and least visited relics of Europe, still surrounds the ancient cathedral which bears his name, and crowns the imposing promontory, thrust out into the sea like an eagle’s beak, from the south-eastern corner of the principality of Wales, which is still more deserving than the two analogous headlands of Cornwall and Armorica, of the name of Finisterre.

- from The Monks of the West, by Charles Forbes Rene, Comte de Montalembert, 1867