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Saint of the week

The Scottish king who spent his last hours reciting the psalms

St David of Scotland (May 24)

By on Thursday, 24 May 2012

St David built an abbey for Augustinian canons at Holyrood, above

St David built an abbey for Augustinian canons at Holyrood, above

King David I (c 1085-1153) played a vital role in the development of the Scottish state, and in the organisation of Christianity therein.

“The whole barbarity of that nation was softened,” declared St Aelred of Rievaulx, who served at David’s court, “as if the Scots, forgetting their natural fierceness, submitted their ranks to the laws which the royal gentleness dictated.”

Needless to say, modern Scottish nationalists have been rather less enthusiastic about the introduction of Norman feudalism north of the border. The Church, however, had no cause to complain, for David established the bishoprics of Brechin, Dunblane, Caithness, Ross and Aberdeen, and founded many monasteries.

These included the Cistercian houses of Melrose, Kinloss, Newbattle and Dundrennan, while at Holyrood he built an abbey for Augustinian canons.

David was the youngest of the six sons of King Malcolm III (who deposed Macbeth) and St Margaret, the grand-daughter of the English king Edmund Ironside.

In 1100 his sister married Henry I of England, at whose court, according to William of Malmesbury, David “rubbed off all the tarnish of Scottish barbarism”.

In 1107 he succeeded one brother as Prince of Cumbria (which comprised south-west Scotland as well as Cumberland) and in 1124 he followed another brother as King of Scotland.

After the death of Henry I in 1135 David fought to establish his niece Matilda on the English throne, prosecuting the struggle with great barbarity (according to English chroniclers) only to be defeated at the Battle of the Standard in 1138.

David continued to fight on Mathilda’s behalf for a further three years. After 1141, however, he concentrated on the affairs of his own kingdom.

In ecclesiastical affairs, he extinguished the last vestiges of Celtic Christianity and brought the Church in Scotland more directly under Roman influence.

As to his generosity, James I, his 15th-century successor as King of Scotland, complained that David’s expenditure on the Church had left the Scottish Crown permanently impoverished.

St Aelred left a full account of David’s death, on Sunday May 24 1153. On Friday the King had received the last rites, after which
he spent the rest of the day reciting the psalms with his attendants. On Saturday he was urged to rest, but would have none of it.

“Let me rather think about the things of God,” he insisted, “so that my spirit may set out strengthened on its journey from exile to home.

“When I stand before God’s tremendous judgment seat, you will not be able to answer for me or defend me; no one will be able to deliver me from his Hand.”

David became a saint by popular acclamation. Even after the Reformation, his name was included in the calendar of Archbishop Laud’s prayerbook for Scotland, issued in 1637.