Today is the feast of St David, the patron saint of Wales.
Born at the beginning of the sixth century in South Wales, St. David belonged to an age of well known Celtic Saints: Teilo, Gildas, Finnian, Brendan, Brigid, Ciaran, Columbanus, Columcille. It is claimed that the Irish form of the Mass was drawn up by Gildas, David and a mysterious Docus. (1)
David became a priest and retired for several years to the island monastery of the Welsh St. Paulinus. Later, because of his eloquence, learning and miracles, but against his will, he was elected Archbishop, transferring his See from Caerleon to Menevia, now called St. David's.
Glastonbury is not a very great distance from south Wales across the Bristol Channel, and so there is good reason to believe that St. David would have visited a `monastery which was becoming famous in the Celtic world'.
William of Malmesbury tells us that St. David came over to Glastonbury with seven bishops of whom he was the primate, to dedicate the Old Church to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but Our Lord appeared to him in a vision on the night before the day appointed for the ceremony, and told him gently that He Himself had already done so, and David must not. As a sign that the vision was a true one St. David would have a sore upon his hand until he said Mass next morning; and it was so. But lest they should seem to have come for naught he immediately set about building another church, a sort of chancel to the east of the Old Church. This was on the site of the present `Galilee', and he consecrated that before he left. (2)
It is recorded that he presented a great sapphire to Our Lady's Altar which was a source of wonder and admiration for a thousand years. We know little about the furnishings of the Lady Chapel, rebuilt after the disastrous fire of 1184, which destroyed the 'Old Church', just prior to its desecration.
In the midst stood the casket with the supposed relic of St. Patrick. St. David's great sapphire was incorporated into a "super-altare". The precious gem had been hidden possibly from fear of the Danes, and was lost for generations. But it was rediscovered by Abbot Henry of Blois, nephew of King Henry I, "who had it magnificently set in gold and silver, surrounded by precious stones, as it is now seen". Thus did William of Malmesbury describe it. On l5th May 1539, according to Dugdale, there was delivered unto the King's majesty a "super-altare" garnished with silver and gilt and part gold, called the Great Sapphire of Glastonbury. Its subsequent fate is unknown. (3)
St. David died about 589. In common with most saints of that time his place of burial is uncertain. William of Malmesbury tells us that some years after David's death his successors failed to find his body. And he goes on to say that, `in the reign of King Edgar the relics of St. David were translated with great solemnity from the vale of Ross to Glastonbury'. This was probably the monks' edition of William of Malmesbury's history, as Glastonbury has never really boasted of being the last resting place of St. David.
(1) G. H. Doble The Saints of Cornwall, Part 4, p.108.
(2) De Antiguitate, trans by Lomax as The Antiquities of Glastonbury, p.28.
(3) H M. Gillett. Shrines of Our Lady in England and Wales, 1957, p .151.
I wonder if the "Great Sapphire" was actually a portable altar made out of lapis lazuli, and like that found in the coffin of St Cuthbert, and dating fron a century later, rather than a precious stone in the usual sense of the phrase. According to the OED a "superaltar" would mean a portable altar in the sixteenth century: only in 1848 is the word used to mean a reredos. What made it precious to the depradators of the sixteenth century was the gold mounting and precious stones decorating rather than the stone itself.
In the church of St John the Baptist in Glastonbury is a nineteenth century stained glass window with afigure of St David holding the "Great Sapphire", but I have not so far found a photograph of it.