Wales: Past & Present
St David, Patron Saint of Wales
On 1 March every year, Welsh people everywhere celebrate St David’s Day. David, or Dewi, was a monk and bishop of the sixth century, and has been regarded as the patron saint of Wales since the twelfth century. He is the only Patron Saint of the British Isles who is actually from the country with which he is associated!
It is hard to unravel truth from myth in the stories about St David. The earliest mention of David is found in the Irish Catalogue of Saints written around 730. Writings of around 800 speak of his feast day as 1 March, and locate his monastery at Mynyw, in Latin Menevia, which we know today as St David’s. The earliest ‘Life of David’ was written by Rhigyfarch, who was bishop of St David’s around 1090 – but this was probably written to further the independence of the churches in Wales from the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury, so it is hard to disentangle propaganda from elements of true tradition!
His life and ministry was certainly centred around Pembrokeshire, and it seems he founded a dozen or so monasteries. During his lifetime and in the years that followed, his reputation spread through South Wales, and to Cornwall, Brittany and Herefordshire. He was famous for his kindness and compassion to others, especially the sick and needy. He was also known for following, and requiring his monks to follow, a strictly disciplined life. This may have been influenced by the lifestyle of the monks of the Egyptian desert, with its strong emphasis on hard work, refraining from alcohol, and avoiding talking unnecessarily. They followed a diet of bread, vegetables (particularly watercress) and water. It is said that his favourite austerities were frequent genuflections, and immersing himself in the cold water of Welsh rivers while praying or reciting the Psalms. He died around the year 601.
Traditionally, David is pictured dressed as a bishop, standing on a mound with a dove (symbolising the Holy Spirit) on his shoulder. This follows the account by Rhigyfarch of his participation at the Synod of Brevi (at what is now Llanddewi Brefi) where he preached so eloquently against heresy that the ground rose under his feet so all could see and hear him, and ‘with the consent of all he was made archbishop and his monastery was declared metropolis of the whole country, so that whoever ruled it should be accounted archbishop’. In the early middle ages, two pilgrimages to St David’s Cathedral were counted as the equivalent of one to Rome.
It is said that David’s last words on his death-bed were to instruct his grieving followers ‘Do the little things that you have seen through me.’ They stand as a reminder to us all that true faithfulness to God’s calling is found in the small daily details of our lives, and that it is in the present moment that he meets us.
Wales measures 160 miles long by 60 miles wide, with an area of 8,000 square miles. Wales has extensive tracts of high mountain ranges, especially in the central and northern parts of the country, which are deeply dissected by river valleys. The lowland area is confined mainly to the relatively narrow coastal belts and the valley floors. Snowdon is the highest mountain at 3,650 feet. The coastline is almost 750 miles long.
Wales, with a population close to 3 million, is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In 1979 a proposal to establish a Welsh Assembly, with devolved powers, was defeated in a referendum, but a second vote in 1997 resulted in narrow approval.
The first elections to the National Assembly were held in May 1999 when 60 Assembly Members (AMs) were elected. 40 are chosen by the first-past-the-post system of voting in the same constituencies as Westminster MPs. The other 20 AMs represent five larger regions of Wales and are elected using a form of proportional representation known as the Additional Member System.
Unlike the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly of Wales does not have full law-making powers. Primary legislation on Welsh affairs continues to be made in the UK Parliament at Westminster, where Wales still has 40 MPs, along with a Secretary of State who is a member of Cabinet. The UK Government also remains responsible for defence and national security, economic policy, employment legislation, foreign policy, home affairs, social security and broadcasting.
However, the National Assembly has control over a significant budget and its areas of responsibility agriculture; culture; economic development; education and training; the environment; health; sport; economic development; education and student loans; local government and housing; social services; transport and the Welsh language.
The Welsh Assembly Government is led by a First Minister who appoints a Cabinet of Ministers responsible for key policy areas. The current First Minister is the Rt Hon Carwyn Jones, who heads a Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition.
The Assembly's initial home was Crickhowell House, an office block in Cardiff Bay. It is still used for office accomodation alongside the new Senedd building designed by Lord Richard Rogers which opened on St David's Day 2006.
More details can be found at http://wales.gov.uk/?lang=en
The Welsh Language
Welsh (‘Cymraeg’) is the oldest language still spoken in the British Isles. Its has an unbroken history that goes back to the time of the Ancient Britons. It is part of the Celtic family of Indo-European languages. When Anglo and Saxon invaders spread westwards, these Brittonic languages became separated in Cornwall, Wales and Cumbria. Cumbric died out in the eleventh century, Cornish in the eighteenth, and only Welsh survives.
Welsh had appeared as a recognisable language by the sixth century. In its time it has been influenced by Latin, especially from the Christian influences through to the Middle Ages, Irish, Norse, the pre-English of the Germanic invaders, and then French from the Normans. Little is left of ‘Old Welsh’ apart from carved inscriptions and the poetry of sagas. ‘Middle Welsh’ flourished with a rich literature of prose and poetry from the twelfth to fifteenth century.
Today, officially and legally, Welsh and English have equal status today within Wales. Over 20% of the population speak Welsh fluently and many more have some degree of familiarity with the language. Usage of Welsh has increased since the establishment of the Welsh TV channel S4C in 1982, which broadcasts predominantly in Welsh. Welsh has increasingly been used in schools in recent decades, and is now compulsory as first or second language up to the age of 16.