St David meets the Victorians

by Mike Benbough-Jackson (Liverpool John Moores)

The Welsh are entitled to feel a little self-satisfied on the 1st of March. For one thing, St David was born and bred in the land that would, eventually, become Wales. Unlike England’s national saint, who was Greek, or Ireland’s, who was Welsh, St David is a home-grown saint. The day also has an innocent air. Local and national Welsh papers are crammed with photographs of children bedecked in various forms of national costume. It lacks the commercial and hedonistic feel of St Patrick’s Day. And unlike the English, the Welsh don’t have to worry about their saint being appropriated by right-wing groups. In sum, St David is Welsh, child-friendly, sober and does not have anything to do with the National Front.

Yet the St David’s Day we are familiar with is very much the product of the twentieth century. Mass education and, ironically, secularisation, have resulted in a day that is marked in Welsh schools and does not offend anyone’s religious sensibilities. In the nineteenth century, St David’s Day was a little more problematic. While national identity was flourishing and taking on a variety of forms, from Romantic antiquarianism to campaigns for Welsh Home Rule, St David shuffled uneasily in the wings. Occasionally, he was grabbed by his robe and dragged centre stage. Like St George today, St David was at once appropriated and ignored.

St David presented both a problem and an opportunity for Welsh Victorians. From the late Georgian era, his day had been marked by patriotic societies in Wales and elsewhere. Towards the middle third of the nineteenth century, however, the day appears to have lost some of its appeal.[1] There are probably many reasons for this noticeable, though far from universal, decline. As the saint’s day assumed greater prominence in the latter third of the century, it is possible to discern some reasons why his popularity dipped in the mid-nineteenth century. An examination of editorials, letters and reports in the English and Welsh-language press reveals how St David posed some weighty religious, political and historical questions.

Dewi Sant, to give St David his Welsh name, was canonised by Pope Callixtus in 1120. Although it appears that St David owed more to the ascetics of the Egyptian desert than to the popes of Rome, being around about a millennium before the Reformation did nothing to distance him from the Catholic Church. This presented a problem for the predominantly Protestant Welsh. Not only were the Welsh Protestants, the Religious Census of 1851 showed that the majority were Nonconformists. Even as the saint’s day was growing in popularity during the 1890s, some speakers distanced David from his sainthood by stressing that he was commonly simply called Dewi sans the Sant.[2] This is not to say that all Nonconformists did not celebrate the day. It was just that many of them, like those who gathered at a Congregational Chapel at Bootle in 1895, chose to leave the saint out of the proceedings altogether.[3]

Catholics, on the other hand, could call on St David without fear of contradicting their belief system. When the Catholic diocese was re-established in 1850, it was named ‘Newport and Menevia’ – the young David was reputedly educated in a Roman settlement called Menevia – and when John Cuthbert Hedley was appointed Bishop of the diocese in 1881 the ceremony at Belmont took place on St David’s Day.[4] Yet the association between Catholics and the saint could be spelled out in quite assertive ways, too.  One priest at Carmarthen stated that St David ‘was anything but a Protestant’.[5] Non-Catholics acknowledged this relationship in less emphatic terms. A poem by the Anglican curate Thomas Tudno Jones emphasised how the Catholic Church praised the saint.[6] St David was not anyone’s sole property.

By the end of the nineteenth century, many Liberals called for the Anglican Church in Wales to be disestablished. What had once been fondly known as ‘Yr Hen Fam Eglwys’ (the Old Mother Church) was now more commonly seen as a foreign institution. Churchmen like Thomas Tudno Jones, who vigorously opposed disestablishment, fought back with the argument the Church was one of the foundations of the Welsh nation and had done much to foster the Welsh language. This argument had a number of strands, but St David offered a convenient way of demonstrating how the Church was linked to the ancient Celtic Church. It was noted how efforts to remember the saint’s day at Manchester in 1892 had taken ‘a religious turn’ with a service at St Anne’s Church.[7] That year, calls for disestablishment had led to a motion being brought before the House of Commons. Welsh Conservatives had a similar image problem. Holding a dinner on St David’s Day, as the Tories did at Rhyl and Cardigan in 1884 and 1895 respectively, was one way of aligning the party with the Welsh nation, if only until the plates were cleared away.[8]

While Conservatives and Churchmen called on the tradition of St David to help root them in Welsh soil, the Liberals were busy casting him in their own image. Their St David was progressive. A few of those who spoke at St David’s Day gatherings hazarded a guess about where the saint’s political loyalties would lay had he lived in the late nineteenth century. At a Swansea Liberal Club dinner in 1887, it was agreed that the saint would have been a reformer and made sure that Welsh-speaking bishops were appointed.[9] When Conservatives and Liberals met, St David’s Day gatherings could become heated affairs. After a meeting of the Welsh Liberal Federation on the afternoon of March 1 1888, many decided to attend a gathering of the Cardiff Cymmrodorion. This ‘social’ rather than ‘political’ assembly included a number of Conservatives. If a speech contained statements in defence of the Church, the Liberals shouted ‘No politics’.[10] The whole affair reads like an account of a family sitting down to dinner and trying to avoid divisive topics.

Some may have taken the saint and his day as a way to establish their Welsh credentials; to stand for Wales it helped to stand by the saint. But for others, it was important to differentiate the ‘real’ or ‘true’ St. David from the one of legend. As one commentator put it, to ‘repeat all the fabulous legends invented respecting him, would be to heap together a mass of absurdity and profaneness’.[11] There were those who were inclined to simply dismiss the saint, especially as there were more recent, authentic figures who better encapsulated the nation’s values.[12] By cleansing polluted water in Bath and conjuring mounds and Llanddewi Brefi, St David had made it very difficult for the more rational-minded Victorians to believe anything about him. There may have been a historical figure there, but the legends had overshadowed the man. Even those who spoke at dinners on St David’s Day felt the need to brush aside the fantastical elements of the saint’s story before speaking of his more down-to-earth qualities, such as piety and love of learning.[13] Caveats often preceded praise. The age of miracles was well and truly over. A recent description of the main source of information about St David, Rhygyfarch ap Sulien’s Life of David (c. 1090), as being something similar to ‘very early magic realism’, goes some way to explain why so many Victorians felt uncomfortable around the legendary St David.[14]

Although some degree of smugness on St David’s Day is excusable, it is important to acknowledge that the day has been, and indeed is, contested. Furthermore, the day has been ignored. Nations and national symbols are prominent features of modern life. Yet their prominence should not be mistaken as being an indication of their permanence or solidity. In fact, symbols and nations are there because they are flexible. If they lose that flexibility, then they become fragile. St David regained his flexibility during the Victorian era. There were many more twists and turns to the ‘representational history’ of St David and his day than those I’ve outlined above. The Victorians did not see the saint or his day in as concrete a sense as we do today. A supposed age of certainties was as uncertain our age; the only difference is that they were unsure about different things.

Dr Mike Benbough-Jackson is a senior lecturer in History at Liverpool John Moores University. He has published Cardiganshire and the Cardi: Locating a place and its people, c.1760-2000 (University of Wales Press, 2011); Merseyside: culture and place (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011) (edited with Prof Sam Davies); and, Cardiganshire: a concise history (University of Wales Press, 2007). This blog is part of a project about the history of St David’s Day in modern times. Recently, Mike has examined recent celebrations in Cardiff: ‘A nation on the march’, Planet: The Welsh Internationalist, 209 (2012), 47–56.

[1] North Wales Chronicle, 7 March 1874.

[2] Western Mail, 2 March 1893.

[3] Liverpool Mercury, 2 March 1895.

[4] Joseph Anselm Wilson, The Life of Bishop Hedley (Burns, Oates and co., 1930), p. 96.

[5] Western Mail, 3 March 1890.

[6] Dan Rowlands (ed.), Telyn Tudno (Hughes a’i Fab, 1897), pp. 115–16.

[7] The Herald, 4 March 1892.

[8] North Wales Chronicle, 8 March, 1884; Welshman, 8 March 1895.

[9] Cambrian Daily Leader, 5 March 1887.

[10] South Wales Daily News, 2 March 1888.

[11] Church of England Magazine, 4 (1838), p. 287.

[12] Yr Athraw, 74 (1900), p. 82.

[13] Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald, 7 March 1868; Cambrian News, 8 March, 1887.

[14] Jon Gower, Story of Wales (BBC Books, 2012), p. 100.

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