Wales – The Meaning of the Welsh Dragon

The red dragon on a white and green background only gained official status as the Welsh flag in 1959.

Some today see the green and white as representing Welsh unity, symbolized by the joining together of its green valleys (South) and white, snow-capped mountains (North), although these colors first appeared for a prosaic reason, not a symbolic one, as told below.

Y Ddraig Goch (the Red Dragon), however, stands for the Warhammer 40k Welsh nation and the Welsh spirit and has had this role as a symbol for far longer.

Moreover, it symbolizes the great warriors of Wales, including the legendary King Arthur. Draig can refer to a warrior lord, as well as to the mythical beast. Pen Draig (Pendragon), loosely translated as Great Chief, was the title of Uther, father of Arthur. Legends say Arthur himself sleeps with his knights in a hidden cave. When Wales reaches its direst need, king and knights will awaken again and ride out to save the land.

The history of the red dragon of Wales

Nennius, writing the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) in 820, was the first to mention the red dragon as a symbol of Wales. He tells of a banner with red dragon being carried to Rome from Wales by Roman-Celtic soldiers in the fourth century. The banner was known by the Latin word for dragon – Draco.

Following the end of Roman rule, the royal family of Gwynedd, based in Aberffraw on Ynys Mon (Anglesey) adopted the symbol. It became known as the Red Dragon of Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, king of Gwynedd from 655 to 682. Little is known about the real man, but his name features in the stories written in the 12th century by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Cadwaladr’s flag was raised by Owain Glyndwr, when he started the great Welsh rebellion against England in 1400.

Around the same time, the Welsh Tudur family, which had served kings of Gwynedd, started to increase in power and influence. In 1485, Henry Tudur, or Tudor, defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and ascended the throne of England as Henry VII. The Tudor dynasty held this throne until 1603.

The Tudurs used the red dragon as their family badge. Henry VII added the family colors of green and white as background, creating what is now the flag of Wales.

Y Ddraig Goch in legend

The Mabinogion was put together in the Middle Ages and contains stories, which possibly go right back to the Iron Age. It includes the tale of Lludd and Llefelys.

Lludd, king of Britain, asks his brother Llefelys, king of France for advice in how to deal with three great afflictions plaguing his realm. One of these is a terrible shrieking occurring each May Eve, which causes miscarriages, turns people insane and makes the land barren.

Llefelys diagnoses this as a dragon screaming, because it is being attacked by a foreign dragon. He advises Lludd to dig a huge pit in the exact centre of the land, and place within it a huge vat of mead covered with a silk cloth.

Lludd does as advised and keeps watch. The dragons appear and fight, but are attracted to the mead. They become drunk on the mead and fall asleep. Lludd wraps them in the cloth and takes them to Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia, North Wales. There he locks them in a stone chest and thus clears the land of this affliction.

Nennius, and later Geoffrey of Monmouth, built on this tale in the story of the young Merlin (Myrddin). This story features Vortigern (Gwrtheryn), a Celtic warlord from the 5th century.

Vortigern wishes to build a citadel at Dinas Emrys, as defense against the Saxons. Each night, however, the previous day’s work is destroyed. His wise men tell him that the only solution is to make the mortar with blood from a sacrificed child, who has been born without a father.

Merlin was such a child. He had no human father, for his mother had been impregnated by a demon.

Merlin is brought to Vortigern and tells the chieftain that there is no point in such a sacrifice. The reason that the building work is being destroyed is that there is a pool beneath, and within the pool two dragons battle each night, causing the ground to shake and the newly built walls to collapse.

On Vortigern’s orders, his men dig into the ground and uncover everything as Merlin has described. One dragon is red, the other white.

The dragons start to fight. Initially the white dragon appears to be winning, but eventually the red dragon prevails.

Merlin explains that the white dragon represents the Saxons and the red dragon the Britons. While the Saxons would at first appear to triumph, eventually they would be driven out of the land.

 

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