Welsh Nationhood

St David, Archbishop of the Welsh Church 

Christianity has always been central to the life and history of the Cymry, the Welsh people. For the Cymry, the Island of Britain was Ynys y Cedyrn, ‘the Island of the Mighty’ and St David was its rightful religious leader. This mythology was used in the fifteenth century by Henry Tudor in his campaign for the English Crown. His father Edmund Tudor’s tomb is in the Cathedral.

At the heart of the Cathedral lies the Shrine of St David. It was restored in 2012, with new icons ‘written’ onto the restored medieval stonework. Much of the Shrine’s original stonework has survived. This may be due to the nearby tomb of Edmund Tudor, Henry VIII’s grandfather. The location of the tombs of important figures may have prevented more widespread damage to nearby structures.

Tomb effigy of The Lord Rhys ap Guffydd, Yr Arglwydd Rhys,
St Davids Cathedral

Memorials to Wales’ past 

Tomb of the unknown priest, St Davids Cathedral
Tomb of unknown priest, St Davids Cathedral

St Davids Cathedral has long played an important role in keeping national memory alive by providing a physical space to express this. The Cathedral contains the tombs of many important figures in Welsh history. Many more of those who fought against oppression in Wales are also buried here.     

Among these is the reputed tomb of the Welsh prince, Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd, Arglwydd Rhys. During the Norman Conquest period, he restored the medieval Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth and was called ‘Prince of Wales’. He united poets and musicians from across Wales for the first National Eisteddfod of 1176. The ornately-carved tomb dates from the 14th century, some two hundred years after his death.

There are also a number of tombs in the Cathedral with little or no inscription, particularly in the north transept. Their histories are unknown to us today. Some commemorate unnamed priests who served God and His people here at St Davids.

These nameless tombs help preserve the memory of the wider community which has served, visited and protected the Cathedral and is still here, Yma o Hyd, living on within the walls of this holy place.

Returning to St David’s Church? 

The Cymmrodorion Society poster
The Cymmrodorion Society poster, 1876
© National Library of Wales/Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru

As part of its move away from medieval excessiveness, the Reformation intended to return the Welsh Church to simpler practices and its historic roots at the time of St David. St David swiftly became as popular in Protestant expressions of the Church here in Wales as he was before the Reformation. This came to include Nonconformist chapels as well as the Anglican Church.

Almost every country worldwide now celebrates St David’s Day. Welsh Societies have steadily grown in popularity since the eighteenth century.

London’s Most Honourable and Loyal Society of Ancient Britons was one of the first established outside Wales. This was founded after the Welsh lawyer Thomas Jones arranged for a sermon to be preached in the “ancient British tongue” at St Pauls, Covent Garden on St David’s Day 1715. It was the first service of its kind and provided the people and setting for the Society to be formed. The Society aimed to promote Welsh culture and its celebration of St David’s Day in London was its annual highlight.

Their traditions have been partly continued in London by the Honourable Society of the Cymmrodorion, who also promoted the republication of ancient Welsh texts and hold regular scholarly lectures. The Cathedral Library holds sets of the reprints and of the Cymmrodorion Transactions.

St Davids Cathedral surrounded by daffodils
St Davids Cathedral surrounded by daffodils.

The Secular Hero 

Alongside the leek and the daffodil, St David has become an embodiment of Wales to all, Christian believers or not. Some might feel St David is now so popular he has become distanced from his monastic origins. Not only churches, but many kinds of establishments work under the name of St David, from commercial companies to schools and hospitals.

Yet, St David’s story has passed through centuries, responding to local and national needs. Today, he remains central to a vast range of expressions of Welsh identity.

Some associations made with St David might surprise us today, although many of these are fictitious.

The tenth-century Welsh poem Armes Prydein Fawr, The Great Prophecy of Britain, called on St David to unite the Cymry, the Welsh people, to join with Cornwall, Ireland and Scotland against the first king of England, Athelstan, who lived until 939 and had ambitions to extend his kingdom over all of Britain and Ireland.

600 years later, St David featured as one of the knightly patron saints in Richard Johnson’s band of champions in his novel The Most Famous History of the Seven Champions of Christendom. Here, St David was portrayed defeating the pagans who ravaged his homeland before dying from his battle wounds.

Nathaniel Griffith’s 1717 poem The Leek recalled medieval warring between the Welsh and the Anglo-Saxons. This time, it was the Saxons who wore leeks, which were taken by the Welsh, led by a David, modelled after the patron saint, after their victory in battle and worn at the celebration. To this day, the Welsh Guards Regiment have a leek as their cap badge. This poem is a rather unusual and lively take on the association of the Welsh leek with St David and Wales, but it is a good example of how St David’s legend has been woven into stories to inspire, inform and entertain...