The Medieval Cult of St David

Statue of St David on the Stone Screen, located in the Nave.

Devotion to St David

St David, or Dewi Sant, was a bishop and monk who lived in this area in the sixth century. He is said to have performed miracles during his lifetime and after his death. His last message to his followers was to ‘Be joyful, keep the faith, do the little things you have seen me do’. St David was buried in his monastery, although exactly where is not known.

His body and belongings would have been kept as relics and placed in a special container known as a reliquary. They become powerful symbols in Welsh tradition. 400 years later, the Welsh Princes Rhys ap Tewdwr and Gruffudd ap Cynan swore an oath of loyalty upon them before defending their kingdoms of Deheubarth and Gwynedd at the battle of Mynydd Carn, not far from St Davids. Their historic victory ensured the security of their medieval kingdoms for at least their own lifetimes.     

The medieval cult of St David spread naturally from Wales into places with similar Celtic cultures, such as Ireland and Brittany. There was also a close connection with Ireland: one of the earliest mentions of St Davids is in an Irish manuscript.In medieval Brittany, St Non, mother of St David and a saint herself, may have become more popular than St David. Place-names, for example Saint-Divy (Sant-Divi in Breton), and medieval churches dedicated to St David and St Non can still be identified in Brittany.

Niche in Holy Trinity Chapel, St Davids
Wall niche in the Holy Trinity Chapel where the discovered remains are now buried. 

The “New” Shrine of St David

A new Shrine of St David was built in 1275 by Bishop Richard de Carew, after the early Shrine was lost in the Viking raid of 1089. It was painted with the figures of St David, St Patrick and a third saint, possibly St Justinian (who came here from Brittany) or St Denis of France. You can see this Shrine today in the Cathedral presbytery. In 2012, it was restored with new icons ‘written’ (painted), drawing on techniques dating back to the medieval period.

At first, this Shrine housed a body, believed to be St David’s, miraculously discovered outside the Cathedral. These bones are now lost, perhaps dispersed during the Reformation, when Bishop Barlow described having seized ‘two heads of silver plate enclosing two rotten skulls, two arm bones and a worm-eaten book covered with silver plate.’

St David’s relics remain elusive. In the 1920s, a story circulated that the bones discovered behind the Cathedral’s high altar fifty years previously might be St David’s remains. This story was to cause much controversy over the following decades until future Bishop of St Davids Wyn Evans had then radiocarbon dated in the 1990s. The bones were found to date to the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. This solved the matter: they could not be the bones St David’s as he died in the sixth century. Some, however, could be the remains of St Caradog, who died in 1124.

Carving of St James, patron saint of pilgrims
Carving of St James, patron saint of pilgrims, on the 14th century reredos (carved altar screen) in the Holy Trinity Chapel.

Pilgrimage to St Davids

The landscape of St Davids was sacred to pilgrims. The Cathedral contained the Shrines of St David and St Caradog and there were chapels dedicated to St Justinian, St Non and St Patrick within two miles.

The Cathedral was granted a privilege from the Pope stating that two pilgrimages to St Davids was equal to one to Rome, and that three were as significant as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. 

People would have travelled here for many reasons: to pray to the saints for help with life’s difficulties, or for loved ones who had died. They would have given donations and doubtless purchased souvenirs from the site. 

In 1171, Henry II visited St Davids after the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Prior to this William I, known as the Conqueror, had made a pilgrimage to St Davids, although he reputedly had a large army with him so the intention may not have been entirely religious.

By the thirteenth century, St Davids was an important pilgrimage site on a European scale. Edward I of England and Queen Eleanor of Castile who visited St Davids in 1284 were among the thousands of pilgrims who came to say prayers at this shrine.

Pilgrimage to St Davids was ruthlessly stamped out during the Reformation by Bishop Barlow, who destroyed St David’s shrine in the sixteenth century.  


Statue of Gerald of Wales in the Holy Trinity Chapel
Statue of Gerald of Wales in the Holy Trinity Chapel

The written story of St David

Around 1095, the Life of St David was written by Rhygyfarch, son of Bishop Sulien. It is the earliest known written account of St David, setting out much of what we know about the man. It proved essential for the survival of his story.

Medieval Lives of saints were not like biographies, but stories written to inspire by example, sometimes drawing on the lives other saints and Jesus himself. Rhygyfarch refers to St David as an Archbishop, perhaps because he wanted to make St Davids the seat of an archbishop, equal to Canterbury and York. He also drew on Celtic history and saints’ legends to weave a powerful story of great holiness.

A second Life of St David was written a century later by medieval author and churchman, Gerald of Wales. Gerald drew heavily on Rhygyfarch’s work, adding that the Cathedral itself is the most important connection to St David. Gerald’s father was a Norman knight and his half-Welsh mother Angharad was the granddaughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, Prince of Deheubarth.

Gerald had hoped to become Bishop of St Davids himself, but it was not to be. The twentieth-century statue of him in the Trinity Chapel shows him with a bishop’s mitre by his feet. In 1199, Gerald was finally elected as Bishop, but he was not confirmed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, perhaps because of his Welshness. Despite this, he went to the Pope three times to argue the case for St Davids to have separate metropolitan, and Archbishopric, status from Canterbury. His efforts failed and even the St Davids clergy lost patience. It was another 700 years before there was to be an independent Archbishop of Wales.