Behind the High Altar of St Davids Cathedral there was once an empty space, open to the winds. In the early 1500s, Bishop Edward Vaughan created a chapel there which, for me, is the loveliest part of the cathedral. The Holy Trinity chapel seems to be a very simple space of hewn stone; such is the sense of harmony there that the intricate carvings of the fan vaulted ceiling barely register as being ornate.
Instead, the eyes are drawn to the altar and to a niche through which one can just about see through to the High Altar and the shrine of St David. Both the altar and the niche use carvings far older than their construction… fragments of history that were recognised as such five hundred years ago. In the niche, a sanctuary light burns before the ancient carved crosses that frame the little window. Above the altar, the reredos shows St James, St Andrew, St Peter and St Paul flanking a scene from the Crucifixion, with a Latin text, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”.
There is a sense of being enclosed here in an atmosphere of peace hallowed by centuries of prayer. Bishop Vaughan himself was buried in front of the altar. It seems an odd contrast… the churchman was responsible for many of the restorations and improvements that were added to the church in the sixteenth century and himself had an illustrious career… yet here he lies in an aura of simplicity.
Just outside this little chapel is another, very simple, where priests and knights rest in stone. Above the altar a depiction in stained glass of St David himself. The image is stylised and idealised, bearing little resemblance to the dress and accoutrements he would have habitually worn. St David was known as a simple man in life, yet his shrine is decked with gold.
Dewi Sant he is called by the Welsh and he is the nation’s patron saint. Little is known about him apart from those stories that have been passed down through long memory and the legends that arose about the saint. In the Middle Ages he was believed to be the nephew of King Arthur, but in truth little is known about his family history for certain. The tales say that he was the son of St Non, born at the place where the chapel now marks the site of her house within an ancient circle of stones. The Annales Cambriae say that he died in 601, although others suggest the date of his death to be AD544. He is reputed to have been over a hundred years old when he died… and legend has it that he lived till he was 147.
Much of what is known of the saint comes from the Buchedd Dewi (“Life of David”), written by Rhygyfarch around five hundred years after David’s death. Scholars doubt the veracity of many of the stories the book contains, believing that the author sought to use them to aid the ecclesiastical politics of the time. The Celtic version of Christianity had remained at St Davids far longer than most places and it was not until the eighth century that Roman Rule was accepted. At the time of Rhygyfarch’s writing, there was still a battle for equal status with Canterbury and certain details may have been being used to score points.
St David founded several monastic communities adhering to a strict and ascetic Rule of absolute poverty, where the monks worked hard, ate little and prayed much. He was renowned as a teacher and preacher and as a good man. There are a good many miracles attributed to St David. The best known was when he was preaching to a large crowd at the Synod of Llanddewi Brefi. The crowd could not hear him, but a hill rose up from under his feet and a dove landed on his shoulder… a clear sign that the Holy Spirit was with him. He had raised a widow’s son from the dead on the way to the Synod too. Perhaps my favourite is that the phenomenon of corpse candles is attributed to the strength of his prayers and love for his people. He prayed that they might be given a sign when their end was near so that they could prepare themselves to meet their Maker. In a vision he was told that from that day forward, those who lived in the lands of Dewi Sant would see the flickering lights of tapers to warn them of their approaching demise. The size and colour of the flames would denote who they were for. Corpse candles are spheres of light, commonly reported in Welsh legends, that travel close to the ground, especially upon the corpse roads the night before a death.
Another legend tells of his travels across the sea and how he sailed back upon a stone… the very same Sapphire Stone that is now housed in the cathedral. The simple, broken slab of blue stone may have been David’s portable altar and the tale more symbolic than true. A great sapphire altar is also associated with the saint that was his gift to the Abbey at Glastonbury, where his plans to rededicate the church were changed by a vision of Jesus, telling him that the chapel to His Mother had been dedicated already and needed no dedication by human hands. David built an extension to the Abbey instead and gifted the great sapphire altar. Curiously, a great sapphire was mentioned centuries later in the inventory…
The shrine of St David contained his relics, along with those of the French St Denis and St Justinian. They were removed by one bishop in an attempt to halt his veneration and the shrine later desecrated by the religious politics that damaged so much of our heritage and history. Now the shrine has been restored, with beautifully executed and gilded portraits and is once again a place of pilgrimage. In the niches below the pictures are reliquaries that are said to have contained the saints’ bones. Recent analysis of the relics shows this to be highly unlikely, the bones thought to be those of the saint coming from three different individuals and one of them a woman.
It doesn’t matter. Those who now visit the shrine are not credulous Medieval peasants with a superstitious belief in the power that resides in a shard of bone. Education allows a better understanding and even the best authenticated relic is now seen as representative of that greater Power that inspires faith. The shrine is still hallowed… by the faith of those who pray there. Whatever we fix our eyes and hearts upon in reverence is no more than a focus… a symbol through which the inexpressible can be wordlessly approached and the intellectually unknowable Known. When St David died it is told that the monastery was filled with angels. His last words to his followers have been softened by time and usage and ‘do ye the little things’ is a well-known phrase in Wales. Legend has become the heart of a people and through such stories we learn and grow. Things do not always have to be real in order to be True.