St David’s Day is celebrated in Wales on 1 March, in honour of Dewi Sant or St David, the patron saint of Wales. Little is known about him for certain. What little information we have is based on an account of his life written by Rhigyfarch towards the end of the 11th century.
According to this Latin manuscript, Dewi died in the year 589. His mother was called Non, and his father, Sant, was the son of Ceredig, King of Ceredigion. After being educated in Cardiganshire, he went on a pilgrimage through south Wales and the west of England, where it is said that he founded religious centres such as Glastonbury and Croyland. He even went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he was made archbishop.
He eventually settled at Glyn Rhosyn (St David’s), in south-west Wales, where he established a very strict ascetic religious community. Many miracles have been attributed to him, the most incredible of which was performed when he was preaching at the Synod of Llanddewi Brefi – he caused the ground to rise underneath him so that he could be seen and heard by all. How much truth is in this account of his life by Rhigyfarch is hard to tell. It must be considered that Rhigyfarch was the son of the Bishop of St David’s, and that the Life was written as propaganda to establish Dewi’s superiority and defend the bishopric from being taken over by Canterbury and the Normans.
From the 12th century onwards, Dewi’s fame spread throughout South Wales and as far as Ireland and Brittany. St David’s Cathedral became a popular centre of pilgrimage, particularly after Dewi was officially recognised as a Catholic saint in 1120. From this period on, he was frequently referred to in the work of medieval Welsh poets such as Iolo Goch and Lewys Glyn Cothi. In 1398, it was ordained that his feast-day was to be kept by every church in the Province of Canterbury. Though the feast of Dewi as a religious festival came to an end with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the day of his birth became a national festival during the18th century.
Now March 1 is celebrated by schools and cultural societies throughout Wales. It is the custom on that day to wear either a leek or a daffodil – two of our national emblems – and for young girls to wear the national costume.
It has become the national costume of Wales. But how does it compare with what was really worn in the past ?
According to tradition, the red dragon appeared on a crest born by Arthur, whose father, Uthr Bendragon, had seen a dragon in the sky predicting that he would be king.
The dragon as a symbol was probably introduced into Britain by the Roman legions. Medieval Welsh poets often compared their leaders to dragons in poems praising their bravery, for example, Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Coch said of Llewelyn ap Gruffudd Pen dragon, pen draig oedd arnaw (‘A dragon’s head he had’).
Between 1485 and 1603, the dragon formed part of the arms of the Tudor dynasty, but it was replaced on the royal coat of arms with a unicorn by order of James I.
The red dragon reappeared as the royal badge for Wales in 1807, and from then on it was often seen in the regalia of Welsh patriotic societies. At the suggestion of the Gorsedd of the Bards, it was officially recognised by the Queen in 1959, and is now widely used as the national flag.
The leek and the daffodil
Legend has it that St David ordered his soldiers to wear leeks on their helmets during a battle against the Saxons during the sixth century, while the Battle of Crecy, in 1346, featured loyal and brave Welsh archers who fought in a field of leeks. By 1536, when Henry VIII gave a leek to his daughter on 1 March, was already associated with St David’s Day. It is possible that the green and white family colours adopted by the Tudors were taken from their liking for the leek.
In comparison with the ancient Welsh associations of the leek, the daffodil has only recently assumed a position of national importance. An increasingly popular flower during the 19th century, especially among women, its status was elevated by the Welsh-born prime minister David Lloyd George, who wore it on St David’s Day and used it in ceremonies in 1911 to mark the investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon.