Reconstructing the Life of St. David

excerpt from The Lives of the British Saints, Sabine Baring-Gould (1908)

Link to The Life of St. David
When fixing the date of St. David's birth and death, we are met with difficulties.

The adjusted Annales_Cambriae have against 603, "David episcopus Moni Iudaeorum," and they couple it with the death of Pope Gregory, which took place in 604. The Annals of Inisfallen give as the date 589, the Chronicon Scottorum, 589, and the Annals of Tighernach 587. If we trust the Life of St. Kentigern, David died whilst that Saint was still in Wales, before 574. The story told by Geoffrey of Monmouth, that Maelgwn Gwynedd ordered the burial of St. David to be carried out with great pomp, may be dismissed. William of Malmesbury gives 546, but this is too early, as 603 is too late. David died on March 1, which that year fell on a Tuesday. The day on which that date coincided with a Tuesday might be in 550, 561, 567, 572, 578, and 589. This last year will agree with the Annals of Inisfallen and Chronicon Scottorum.

To help us in the determination of the true date we must consider the dates of the deaths of the contemporaries of David. Gildas was certainly older than he, and he died in 570; Cadoc about 577; Dyfrig, who was assuredly his senior by some years, died about 577. Finnian of Clonard died in 548, during the raging of the Yellow Plague, and died of it, according to the Annals of the Four Masters. Aidan or Maidoc, the pupil of St. David, certainly some twenty years his junior, died, as we have shown, about 625. Samson, his fellow-student under Illtyd, if we may trust one account, shortly after 557; and Paul of Leon about 560. Senan of Iniscathy, with whom he had entered into a compact of brotherhood, died, as nearly as can be determined, about 568. Brendan, of Clonfert, who visited him, died in 577; Constantine of Domnonia, another visitor, about 598.

We are inclined to take 589 as the date at which David died. Archbishop Usher was certainly wrong in putting the date so early as 544. The date of his birth was about 500, possibly a few years before that. It is hardly credible that it can have been protracted to 601, the date given in the Annales Cambriae,

We have but conjecture, more or less plausible, to guide us towards fixing tentatively the periods in the Life of St. David when he formed his several foundations.

His first, we may suppose, was the Bangor or Henllan on the Teifi, in Ceredigion, granted to him by his father. The Old Bush would come to him from his maternal grandfather. This, as already shown, had been established some time before under Mancen or Maucan, apparently at the instigation of St. Patrick, but on land that pertained to Cynyr of Caer Gawch. There may have been an understanding that it was to be held by a stranger only until one of the founder's family was in the ecclesiastical profession and ready to assume the headship. In a Celtic monastery the rule as to headship was, "The tribe of the patron saint shall get the Church as long as there shall be a person fit to be an abbot of the tribe of the patron saint, even though there should be but a psalm-singer of them, it is he that shall obtain the abbacy," And, "the abbacy shall go to the tribe to whom the land belonged, until a person fit to be an abbot of the patron saint shall be qualified; when he is, the abbacy will be given to him, if he is better than the abbot from the tribe to whom the land belonged and who had taken it. If he be not better, then it is only in his turn that he shall succeed." Only in the absence of any person, a blood-relation to the founder, could the abbacy be held by one not of the tribe, and he had to give securities to surrender the headship when a duly qualified person of the founder's kin appeared to claim it.

Now the Old Bush must have been conceded by Cynyr to Mancen according to Celtic rule, conditionally. It had to be vacated as soon as one of Cynyr 's blood was prepared to become president. Whether Paulinus succeeded Mancen at the Old Bush is not very clear, but probably he did, and David became his pupil there, with the certainty of becoming abbot as soon as he was of age to assume the position, when Paulinus would surrender it to him without question.

In or about 527, when David was abbot, though quite young, Gildas appeared on the scene, and attempted to wrest the place from him, but failed. Finnian of Clonard, who was called in to settle the dispute, gave judgment in David's favour. He could do no other, as already said. David had a hereditary right to the place.

Next we have the Goidels expelled by Urien Rheged from the district in Carmarthen, and David called in to found churches there.

After 540, when appeared the violent Increpatio of Gildas against the Welsh princes, Gower must have been vacated by Cenydd, the son of Gildas, who had been the ecclesiastical head there. It would have been impossible for him to remain on the lands of a chief who had been covered with abuse by his father. Then David slipped in and made his foundations in Gower.

About what time he was in Cornwall, and he and his mother made settlements there, can only be guessed. He passed through Domnonia and planted churches at Thelbridge, Exeter, Ashprington and Dews to we on his way. These foundations were probably made at no late period in his career.

When the Yellow Plague broke out, we hold that he departed to Leon in Brittany, and the period of his foundations there would be between 547 and 551.

On his return we have assumed that he travelled over nearly all south Wales up to the Wye, working along with St. Teilo in restoring the Church, greatly shaken by the losses caused by the pestilence, and that it is to this period that we may attribute so many Dewi churches scattered far and wide, and to the laying the foundations for the extension of the great Diocese of St. David's, or Menevia, of a later period.

It has been supposed that a regular diocese was formed by St. David; but this cannot be admitted. All David did was to plant centres of religious and monastic influence broad- cast over the land. He and Teilo worked together in friendly con- cord, with the same object, and neither had any idea that there would exist at a later time a rivalry between the sees of Menevia and Llandaff relative to their limits, on account of their foundations being so mixed.

We repeat what has been said above, that we offer this scheme as a suggestion, but do not insist upon it, as there are no positive dates on which to go.

We will now give in tabular form a probable chronology of the life of this venerable Saint:

St. David, born


(The author Sabine Baring-Gould suggests the birthdate of 495, but I suggest that it is 489. See note for date 460 in Annales_Cambriae)

Educated as a child by Paulinus at Ty Gwyn.

Obtains the abbacy of the Old Bush and Henllan

c. 526

Gildas attempts to wrest the abbacy from him

c. 527

Visits Domnonia and makes foundations there.

Makes foundations in Carmarthen.

Returns to Menevia and removes his monastery from the Old Bush to Glyn Rhosyn.

Makes foundations in Gower

c. 542

Attends the Council of Llanddewi Brefi

c. 545

Rhygyfarch and Giraldus both misrepresent the Council as one convened for the suppression of the Pelagian heresy. But it was really called together to enact canons of discipline for the clergy and laity. The canons have been preserved in a MSt. in the Bibho- thdque Nationale at Paris. The Council of Brefi must be put before the outbreak of the Yellow Plague, probably in 544 or 545.

Outbreak of the Yellow Plague. Goes to Brittany with Teilo, and settles in Leon and makes foundations there .

c. 547

(The terrible Pestis Flava broke out in 547. It took its name from the yellow and bloodless appearance of those who were attacked by it. Its appearance was heralded by a watery column, with its head in the clouds, that trailed over the earth and discharged heavy rain. This had nothing actually to do with the disorder, but it was supposed to be its originator. The physicians knew not how to deal with it; vast numbers of all conditions and ages died; and the very beasts and .eptiles also perished. The panic was universal. The idea got about that the sole means of escape from the disorder was to be found in flight across the seas. Accordingly all who could fled, some to Ireland, where, however, the plague raged with equal violence, the majority to France.

Teilo feigned that he had received a revelation from heaven bidding him go. Accordingly he ran away, along with some of his suffragan bishops, and men and women of different orders and ranks, and took refuge in Armorica, after having passed through Cornwall. That David also went is probable enough. He and Teilo were close friends. The biographer of St. David does not say that he then went, but he does relate how that David, Teilo and Padarn departed together on a pilgrimage and went to Jerusalem, where David was consecrated bishop by the patriarch. The story of this fictitious journey to Jerusalem occurs in the Lives of David, Teilo, and Padarn, with notable variations. But the object of its manufacture is obvious enough. It was invented to establish the independence of the Welsh bishops from the see of Canterbury by showing that they were consecrated at Jerusalem.

We may dismiss this pilgrimage to Jerusalem as interested fiction; but there may remain this basis of fact, that David, Teilo and Padarn did abandon their monasteries at one and the same time and cross the seas together.

Both Teilo and Padarn went first to Cornwall when leaving Wales, and we may suppose that David did the same, and that on this occasion he may have picked up his mother, who was residing on one of the lands that had been granted to her by her brother-in-law, Solomon or Selyf, and carried her on with him to Armorica.

Teilo,, we know, went into Armorican Cornubia, to King Budic. Whether Padarn went any further than Cornwall may be doubted. But David went into Leon, and during the years of his absence, till after the complete cessation of the Yellow Plague, he founded churches in Leon; and his mother was settled at Dirinon. near Landerneau, where she is thought to have died, and where is now shown her tomb.

His principal foundation in Leon is St. Divy, near Landerneau. but he had his locus peniteniae at Loquivy, near Lannion. He is also culted at Dirinon. Here are two holy wells, one of St. Non, the other of St. David.

We cannot say with any assurance that the period when David was in Leon was that during which the Yellow Pestilence raged in Britain, 547-550; but we consider it probable, and if so, it is not un- likely that it was during this period that St. Non died.

This residence in Leon may have misled Giraldus into supposing that David was at one time in Caerleon, and so have given rise to the preposterous fable that he had been archbishop there.

If it be allowed that David was in Leon at this time, then his return would be about 551.

Returns to Menevia

c. 551

Engaged for some years in founding churches throughout South Wales
Invited by Ainmire to Ireland. Sends a form of Mass and pupils to Ireland, perhaps founded there the church of Naas


Attends the Synod of Lucus Victoriae in Annales Cambriae




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