St David’s Day is a big public affair for Welsh people anywhere in the world today, but this was not always the case.
Although Dewi Sant, or Saint David, has been recognised as the Welsh patron saint at least since the twelfth century, public celebrations of his feast day are a fairly recent tradition. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the habit of patriotic festivities on his feast day seem to have originated in London in the early eighteenth century. Here, the Honourable and Loyal Society of Ancient Britons was known to hold annual processions through the city with much aplomb and fanfare as a public display of Welsh patriotism. Following the parade, the members of the society would assemble for a banquet until late in the night and raise many toasts, not just in honour of Wales and Dewi, but also to the monarch. By the early nineteenth century, this habit of patriotic feasting had also caught on in Holyhead where the elite of local society would gather annually at the King’s Head Inn, which at the time also doubled up as Excise Office.
In 1829, the North Wales Chronicle and General Advertiser reported in greater detail about the Holyhead celebrations organised by the Association for the Prosecution of Felons. This was not the first time that the Association held a banquet at the King’s Head in honour of the national patron saint, but the report notes that celebrations that year were undertaken ‘with more than usual conviviality’. Although Captain Morris M. Goddard had left the society in a pickle by resigning his post as chairman at the eleventh hour, Edmund Roberts, Esq. stepped up to the plate and took over the role as ceremonial master in front of a richly assembled crowd that evening.
The newspaper article goes on to praise the quality of the dinner, although it remains unclear whether Wales’s national dish cawl formed part of the menu. Instead, the reporter goes into greater detail about the many and varied toasts raised over the course of the evening. Among the recipients were, naturally, St David, but also King William IV, several members of the aristocracy, as well as local nobility and gentry such as Henry Paget, 1st Marquess of Anglesey, and the Stanleys of Penrhos. The Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel also had a glass raised in their honour but, to the reporter’s dismay, the assembled guests were suddenly overcome by a collective coughing fit. Most importantly, however, the party drank to the health of their annual hosts, Mary Parry and Edward, the landlady of the King’s Head Inn and her son.
The celebrations were not entirely dedicated to drinking and dining, but also included another favourite Welsh pastime: recitation of poetry. At some point during the evening, the local poet laureate, John Bates presented his latest annual contribution to the festivities in the shape of a praise poem to the patron saint and country:
Hail! first of March – to Britons dear,John Bates, 2 March 1829
Be this thine own – thy native lay;
First, fairest, happiest of the year,
Art thou, divine Saint David’s Day.
At last, the party retired around midnight ‘highly delighted with their entertainment, and the occasion which brought so many good friends together’.
- ‘St. David’s Day at Holyhead.’ North Wales Chronicle and General Advertiser. 12 March 1829. Welsh Newspapers Online. National Library of Wales. https://newspapers.library.wales/view/4461105/4461108/19/
- Rhys Kaminski-Jones. ‘”Where Cymry United, Delighted Appear”: The Society of Ancient Britons and the Celebration of St David’s Day in London, 1715-1815.” Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion. 2017. 23: 56–68. https://perma.cc/5W7R-EV23
Holyhead Celebrates St David’s Day in 1829 by Rita Singer. The story was originally published on Ports, Past and Present on 1 March 2021. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.