The Legendary Welsh Dragon that Expelled the Saxons
The Welsh Dragon is a heraldic symbol of Wales, and arguably one of the country’s most recognizable symbols. The image is most notably seen on the flag of Wales. Additionally, this symbol is also used by various institutions in the country, both public and private. The Welsh Dragon traces its history as a national symbol all the way back to the 9th century, though it is popularly believed that the symbol was already used by the ancient Celts who inhabit the country, and even by the legendary King Arthur himself.
Welsh Dragon symbol on the flag of Wales. Source: Public Domain
The Welsh Dragon is known locally as Y Ddraig Goch , meaning ‘The Red Dragon’ in Welsh and the heraldic term ‘gules’ (for the red tincture) is also used. The national flag features the red dragon passant, which in heraldry terms indicates that the animal has its right paw raised.
The earliest written record in which the Welsh Dragon is used as a symbol of Wales is the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons), traditionally attributed to Nennius, a Welsh monk. Approximately 35 manuscripts of the Historia Brittonum survive to this day, although none from the 9 th century AD, when the work was compiled. These later manuscripts date from the early 10 th to 13 th centuries. One of the stories found in the Historia Brittonum is about King Vortigern and how the Welsh Dragon came to be a symbol of Wales.
Digitized page from Historia Brittonum, 12th Century, held by Bibliothèque nationale de France ( Public Domain )
Vortigern and the City he was Fated to Never Build
Vortigern is depicted as notoriously evil as well as an illegitimate ruler, who usurped the throne of Britain from his predecessor. In the Historia Brittonum , Vortigern is said to have found an ideal site to build a city. The king collected the necessary construction materials and had them transported to the site. All of the materials, however, vanished within a single night, thereby making it impossible to build the city. The king collected more building materials for his city, but the same thing happened. When this happened a third time, Voltigern consulted his wise men and asked them to solve the mystery.
The wise men told the king to find a child born without a father, kill him, and sprinkle the blood on the ground where the city was to be built. Only by these means, the wise men claimed, would the king be able to build the city he desired. Voltigern sent his men throughout Britain to search for such a child. They managed to find him in the field of Electi, in the district of Glevesing, and brought him back to their master. Incidentally, when the men found the child, he was playing a ball game with a group of boys. This may be one of the oldest references to football in the history of Britain.
The next day, the boy was brought before the king to be put to death. When the boy met Voltigern, he asked the king the reason he had been brought there. Hearing the king’s reply, the boy wanted to know who had given the king this advice. The king told the boy that it was his wise men who gave him these instructions. The boy asked the king to call them and after questioning them and exposing their ignorance, the boy revealed the truth.
The boy told the king and his wise men to dig at the site until they found the pool. True enough, they found a pool. In the pool were two vases which the boy said contained a tent. When the vases were taken out of the pool and separated, a folded tent was found within. Next, the boy explained that there were two serpents in the tent, one red and the other white, and asked the wise men to unfold the tent. Once again, everyone was amazed to find that what the boy said was true. At first, the serpents were asleep, but when they awoke, they began fighting and the white serpent was winning the battle. The red serpent, which seemed to be the weaker of the two, recovered its strength, expelled the white one from the tent and pursued its rival to the pond.
Pictured above Vortigern sits at the edge of a pool whence two dragons emerge, one red and one white, which do battle in his presence Detail from Lambeth Palace Library MS 6 folio 43v illustrating an episode in Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136). ( Public Domain )
After the serpents had disappeared beneath the water, the boy explained the meaning of this mysterious incident. He told Voltigern and his wise men that the pool symbolized the world, the tent stood for Britain, and the serpents denoted dragons. The red serpent represented the king’s people, whereas the white one symbolized the invading Saxons . The boy foretold that although the Saxons have occupied much of Britain, they would be driven off the island and chased back to their homeland. The boy added that the king and his men had to leave as he was not allowed to build a city on that site. Fate had assigned the place to the boy instead. Voltigern asked the boy for his name, which was Ambrose, and gave him the site, as well as the western provinces of Britain. In the story recounted by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th century History of the Kings of Britain , Ambrose is replaced by the renowned wizard Merlin.
The Earliest Literature in Britain, the Mabinogion
Another story, featuring the Welsh Dragon, is found in Lludd and Llefelys , a Medieval Welsh tale written during the 12th or 13th century (though it may have been passed along orally long before that). This tale was included the History of the Kings of Britain and also appears in Lady Charlotte Guest’s Mabinogion, a 19th century collection of old Welsh tales. Lludd and Llefelys were brothers and when Lludd inherited Britain from his father, Llefelys married a French princess and became the King of France. The beginning of Lludd’s rule was peaceful and prosperous. After some time, however, the kingdom was menaced by three plagues.
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Lludd confronting the magician who stole his supplies (Arthur Rackham’s, The Allies’ Fairy Book, 1916)
The first was the arrival of a race of being called the Coranians. These beings were said to have such acute hearing that they could hear every spoken word carried on the wind. The Britons were unable to get rid of them since the Coranians were able to hear all their plans. The second calamity to strike the land was a terrible shriek that happened every evening before May Day , which caused great fear in the hearts of all who heard it. The final disaster was the disappearance of provisions from the king’s courts. Lludd had no idea how the three problems might be solved, and after seeking the counsel of his nobles, left for France to seek the aid of his brother.
Interpretation of a Coranian, the mythical creature which could hear all words carried on the wind ( chainat / Adobe Stock)
Fortunately, Llefelys knew how to deal with all three plagues Lludd was facing and gave his brother the solutions. In order to prevent their conversation from being heard by the Coranians, the two brothers spoke to each other through a brass horn. Llefelys gave his brother some insects to boil in water which produced a magic elixir that had the power to destroy the Coranians. The third plague, according to Llefelys, was caused by a magician, and Lludd had to confront him in order to solve it. The second plague relates to the Welsh dragon, and Llefelys explained, “And the second plague,” said he, “that is in thy dominion, behold it is a dragon. And another dragon of a foreign race is fighting with it and striving to overcome it. And therefore, does your dragon make a fearful outcry. And on this wise mayest thou come to know this. After thou hast returned home, cause the Island to be measured in its length and breadth, and in the place where thou dost find the exact central point, there cause a pit to be dug, and cause a cauldron full of the best mead that can be made to be put in the pit, with a covering of satin over the face of the cauldron. And then, in thine own person do thou remain there watching, and thou wilt see the dragons fighting in the form of terrific animals. And at length they will take the form of dragons in the air. And last of all, after wearying themselves with fierce and furious fighting, they will fall in the form of two pigs upon the covering, and they will sink in, and the covering with them, and they will draw it down to the very bottom of the cauldron. And they will drink up the whole of the mead; and after that they will sleep. Thereupon do thou immediately fold the covering around them, and bury them in a kistvaen, in the strongest place thou hast in thy dominions, and hide them in the earth. And as long as they shall bide in that strong place no plague shall come to the Island of Britain from elsewhere.”
Lludd did as he was told and freed his kingdom of the three plagues. Incidentally, the two dragons are said to have been kept in Dinas Emrys, in Snowdonia, a mountainous region in northwestern Wales.
The Welsh Dragon as a symbol of Wales features not only in these stories, but also in history as the dragon may have been used as a battle standard by the ancient Celts and Romans. This standard would have consisted of a metal dragon’s head mounted on a pole and attached to silk body resembling a windsock. When the standard was brought into battle, the body of the dragon would flutter in the wind, whilst its head, which contained a whistle, would create a screaming noise to frighten the enemy – terrifying psychological warfare.
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A Sarmatian in Roman service carrying the dragon standard (Illustration by Gerry Embleton )
The Symbolism has Continued Through the Ages
In Medieval times, the Welsh Dragon took on a more symbolic form. For example, the image of a gold Welsh Dragon is said to have been featured on the royal standard of Owain ap Gruffydd, a Welsh leader who fought a war of independence against the English during the 15 th century. The standard is called Y Ddraig Aur , meaning ‘The Gold Dragon’. Subsequently, the Welsh Dragon was introduced into England by the House of Tudor, which was of Welsh origin. At the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the standard used by Henry Tudor (who became Henry VII of England as a result of his victory) displayed the Welsh Dragon. The king’s coat of arms, as well as those of subsequent Tudor monarchs, also featured the Welsh Dragon as a supporter.
After the House of Tudor ended, the Welsh dragon lost its popularity and its position on the royal coat of arms. The House of Stuart replaced the Welsh Dragon with a unicorn. When the Union of Crowns took place in 1606, the new Union Flag was created, which combined the flags of England and Scotland. Wales was not included in this flag. The same thing happened in 1801, when the flag was redesigned to include Ireland. It was only in 1807 that the Red Dragon was adopted as the emblem for Wales. The national flag of Wales was officially unfurled for the first time in 1959. This flag has the Welsh Dragon in the center with the top half of the flag in white and the bottom half in green, the colors of the House of Tudor .
Henry VII’s coat of arms displaying the red dragon ( CC BY 2.0 )
Today, the Welsh Dragon remains one of the most recognizable symbols of Wales. The Welsh flag is flown over many public and private buildings all across Wales, as well as at sporting events. Moreover, the Welsh Dragon is used as an emblem by various Welsh institutions, including the Welsh Government, the Football Association of Wales, and Visit Wales.
Top image: The legendary Welsh dragon. Credit: warpaintcobra / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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