Silencing the Saint

St David had an uncanny knack at silencing other well-known churchmen who wanted to settle on the peninsula of Dyfed, today known as St David’s at Lands End, before he was even born. As out of the way as this site is today, but it would have been a prime site in the medieval period when the Irish sea was the primary western travel artery.

The first saint that was moved out of David’s way was St Patrick. He came to Lands End and liked the look of a place then called Vallis Rosina, later renamed Patrick’s Seat. He decided to stay there a few years but an angel appeared to him and said that he was to move from there because David would be born in 30 years and this place was reserved for him. After a couple angry confrontations with the angel, Patrick agreed to move on to Ireland. Before he left Porth Mawr (Great Port), he resurrected a man dead twelve years named Cruimther to be his ferryman and later made him a bishop in Ireland. Rhygyfarch claims this story is written among the Irish.

Appended to the end of Rhygyfarch’s Life of David (before 1120) are three prayers, the collect, secret, and post-communion thanksgiving. This story is reflected in the medieval collect:

O God, who foretold your blessed confessor and bishop, David, by message of an angel to Patrick, prophesying thirty years before he was born; we pray that by the intercession of him whose memory we celebrate, we may attain eternal joys, for ever and ever. Amen. (p. 155)

The second saint that David drove away from the peninsula of Dyfed before he was born was St Gildas son of Caw (Gildas the Wise). Gidlas is a famous figure among the Welsh, and known elsewhere mostly for his manifesto On the Ruin of Britain. He is often called Gildas sapiens, the wise, in medieval texts.

So as the story goes David’s mother St Non goes to church to receive the usual blessings for expectant mothers and to hear St Gildas preach but as soon as Non entered the church Gildas’ throat seized up and he could no longer preach. He could speak normally but not preach. So Gildas orders the church cleared and then tries to preach but still can’t. After searching the church he finds Non hiding in the church and concludes that he can’t preach in the presence of her unborn child, who will clearly be exceptional. He then prophecies that her child will have sovereignty over the entire island of Britain will pass to him and that he must leave for Ireland, leaving Britain to David! This all occurs during the time of King Tryffin of Dyfed, grandfather of Vortipor who Gildas roasts in his manifesto.

Interestingly, this same episode is nearly repeated in the Life of St Ailbe (8th-9th century), who David silences before his birth as in the Gildas story above. In Rhygyfarch’s Life of David, Bishop Ailbe of Munster in suddenly introduced to baptize David and cure a man with the water used to baptize David. He then just as suddenly disappears from the Life. So why is Ailbe in the Life of David at all? This is the same Ailbe from Brendan’s Navigatio. Well, according to the foundation legend of Dyfed, the people of Dyfed were from an Irish clan called the Deisi in about the 5th century. They arrived as the Romans were withdrawing about the same time that the first Anlgo-Saxons were arriving in Britain. There are several groups in Ireland called the Deisi; some were from Munster. So if these Irish did come from Munster then they would have considered Ailbe to the Apostle of Munster. According to some legends, Ailbe was evangelizing Ireland before the arrival of Patrick. So David is blessed by the Ailbe, Apostle to Munster, homeland of the Irish of Dyfed, and silences the Apostle to Ireland Patrick who moved out of the way for David. And by the way, he is wiser than Gildas the wise.

These stories of David’s birth are of course constructed to prove David’s role as patron saint of Wales. Yet, the degree that they were wide spread, apparently known in written sources in Ireland, and attached to place names in Wales testifies to David’s widespread cult.

Richard Sharpe and John Reuben Davies, eds. “Rhygyfarch’s Life of St David”, pp. 107-155 in St David of Wales: Cult, Church and Nation. Edited by JW Evans and JM Wooding. Boydell Press, 2007.