WHERE THE FOLK did the Welsh get their flag from?
Updated: Feb 23, 2022
ON FEBRUARY 28TH 2019, THE WELSH FLAG WAS VOTED ‘COOLEST FLAG IN THE WORLD’ from a poll of nearly 184,000 people from across the globe. There are only three nations (from a total of 195 at the time of writing this) which have a dragon on their flag, the other two being Bhutan and Malta. But dragons, in some shape or form, feature in almost every culture and religion in the world. So why did Wales choose to make an idol of one of these mythical beasts, and why has the Red Dragon embedded itself so strongly in Welsh culture and identity?
If you ask around, most people in Wales will either shrug their shoulders at this or tell you the tale of when the Welsh dragon fought off the English one, something many Welsh children are ‘taught’ at school. That epic event supposedly took place here at Dinas Emrys, just outside Beddgelert, which featured in my previous post.
I have come here with Alun and Danny, two friends of mine. The latter had his wedding plans ruined this year thanks to Covid- Alun and I are his two best men, and this is the weekend when we were supposed to be going on Danny’s stag. Instead, I’ve dragged the pair of them with me on a hike in the pouring rain, and am telling them the tale of the two dragons as we make our way from Craflwyn Hall, through the woods, past a couple of waterfalls and up towards the forgotten fortress on the hill, like some sort of modern-day Gandalf…
The story goes that, back in the 5th Century, King Vortigern of the Britons (425-450) decided to build a fortress on one of the hills surrounding Beddgelert. The Saxons had arrived, and where better to hide from them than in the mountains of Snowdonia? But building his fortress proved to be a bit of a nightmare, for every time they came near to completing construction, the keep would collapse into ruins. Again and again, the newly-built walls would crumble and fall.
You’d think Vortigern would have brought in a surveyor to find out what was going on, but he decided to seek the help of local sorcerers and magicians instead, who told him that the obvious solution would be to find a child born to a human mother and a father from the Welsh Otherworld, kill it, and sprinkle the ground with its blood.
That poor sod was to be Myrddin Emrys from Carmarthen- but you may know him as ‘Merlin’. I would like to say that’s where Carmarthen (or Caerfyrddin, in Welsh), got its name from, but it is actually the other way around- I’ll save all that for another post. Baby Merlin, keen to save his own skin, told Vortigern that the real issue involved the two dragons that were locked in eternal battle in an underground lake beneath the hill. Vortigern was remarkably dubious for a man about to sacrifice a child, so he ordered his men to dig, and lo and behold, they did, indeed, find there to be an underground lake beneath the fortress. Myrddin prophesized that, should the red dragon lose, then the Saxons would successfully invade Wales.
But the excavation disturbed the duelling dragons, and the white one fled to the skies, never to return. The red dragon chose to remain in the lair, and his name was celebrated by the Welsh ever since. Vortigern went on to successfully build his castle, which he named ‘Dinas Emrys’, after Merlin.
Interestingly, an excavation at the site in 1945 revealed that there really is a lake beneath the hill, as well as the remains of a fortress on top of it which dates back to Vortigern’s time that shows signs of having been re-built several times, though sceptics would argue that the keep was either destroyed in battle or as a result of its poor foundations.
We nearly walked straight past the ruins when we reached the top of the hill, we were so engrossed in reciting our own drunken tales. But what followed was a relatively silent moment as we all stood on the foundations of Dinas Emrys, the place where our nation’s flag supposedly has its roots, and looked out at the most magnificent view, truly appreciating the place we call ‘adra’.
Now, as well as being a close friend of mine, Danny is also a local artist, and prior to bringing him here, I asked him to provide illustrations for this blog as a little side-project which, much to my delight, he agreed to. His portrayal of the duelling dragons, with the view from Dinas Emrys in the background, is his first contribution, but expect more of his artwork to be featured in future posts. You can view and buy his work, as well as request commissioned work, here.
Walk and pitch over. Now it’s time to head to the Prince Llywelyn Hotel in Beddgelert for a pint and to dry our boots in front of the fire…
Many Welsh people are vaguely familiar with the tale of Dinas Emrys, which was adapted by Geoffrey of Monmouth, though they perhaps do not associate the legend with a particular place. But what many of them don’t realize is that the tale is, in fact, something of a sequel- the first part of the story features in The Mabinogion, in the tale of ‘Lludd and Llefelys’…
The story begins when Lludd inherits the crown from his father, Beli, and becomes King of the Britons. He considered his brother Llefelys to be one of the wisest men he knew, and opted to help him marry a French princess, making him the king of France in the process. Lludd’s reign got off to a good start, with the new king building ‘Caer Lludd’, which would grow to become London.
But not long into his reign, however, Britain was tormented by three plagues. The first came in the form of the Coraniaid, a race of people possessing the ability to eavesdrop on any conversation in the land, making plotting against them nearly impossible. Their invasion was a sneaky, relatively peaceful one, like in The Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, with the Britons learning to keep their mouths shut and their heads down in order to survive. The second plague concerned some terrible screams heard in the night sky on May Day which caused pregnant women to miscarry and the leaves and flowers to drop off the flora, leaving them bare. The third plague involved disappearing provisions- no matter how well Lludd guarded his stores, his food would vanish in the night. Not as scary as the other two, granted, but a nuisance, nonetheless!
Lludd sought the help of his wise brother Llefelys, who sorted it all out for him by using a brass horn to deafen the Coraniaid and offering these solutions:
1. The creation of a potion or formula made from crushed insects to kill the Coraniaid that was harmless to humans. Lludd arranged a meeting between the Britons and the Coraniaid and they threw the powder over everyone, thus defeating the invaders.
2. He proposed that the terrible screams were caused by two duelling dragons, namely a local red dragon and a foreign white one. They tricked the dragons by laying a trap for them down in Oxford which involved getting them drunk on mead and transforming them into pigs then locking them in a stone chest and burying them beneath a hill in Snowdonia. In the sequel, I can only presume that the dragons had managed to break out of their stone chest beneath Dinas Emrys by the time Vertigern and his men began digging…
3. As for the missing food, well that was to be blamed on a mischievous warlock, whom Lludd confronted. As an apology, the sorcerer vowed to be his loyal servant for the remainder of his days.
But according to Welsh legends, Lludd was no ordinary king, for he also went by another name- ‘Gwyn ap Nudd’, the king of the Welsh Otherworld and the leader of the Tylwyth Teg. He was also the leader of the ‘Wild Hunt’ (that might ring a bell for gamers or fans of The Witcher franchise), which was a band of demonic horsemen which featured in myths and folktales across Europe. Seeing the Wild Hunt was thought to mean something terrible was about to happen, such as a great famine, plague or war.
Two tales, each concerning an invading force and a local dragon there to defend us. But the reason why the Welsh adopted the red dragon as a national flag is far more complicated than that, though it does concern the country’s long history of facing up to foreign invading armies…
It wasn’t granted official flag status until as recently as 1959, but the red dragon has been associated with Wales for centuries. Some historians believe it was originally brought here at the time of the Roman invasion, around the time Lludd and Llefelys is set. The Romans often bore emblems of dragons, particularly their cavalry, though they stole th idea from the Sarmatians, Alans, Parthians and Persians, all of whom used the 'Draco' standard before them. Now, bear in mind that the Roman occupation of Britain began around 43-78AD, became official in 55 and lasted until around 383AD- over three hundred years! Now consider the reluctance of many Welsh people today to call for independence from the United Kingdom- call it Stockholm Syndrome if you will, but people get used to living under someone else’s rule, so when the Roman Empire collapsed and the Welsh were left to fend for themselves, they opted to favour Roman traditions and insignia over the ways of the invading armies that came after their departure.
After that, Vortigern’s tale was featured in Historia Brittonum in 830, and so began the association between Wales and the red dragon, though it is believed that the dragon was used by the legendary King Arthur as well as other Celtic/Romano-British leaders, with evidence suggesting that it was the symbol of the Romano-British monarchy and high society. In China, which perhaps has the longest-established association with the beasts, dragons also symbolize imperial rule and prosperity. Dragons also featured in Anglo-Saxon poetry and the red one, in particular, was widely associated with Cadwaladr, king of Gwynedd (655-682).
However, the symbol was far from being exclusively associated with Wales. More-so, it became a symbol of authority throughout Britain. In 1138, the Scottish adopted it as a royal standard; Richard I took a dragon standard with him on the Crusades, Henry III waved a red dragon at the Battle of Lewes and Edward III at the Battle of Crecv. In 1400, Welsh rebel Owain Glyndwr raised a similar banner, Y Ddraig Aur (‘The Golden Dragon’) when he rebelled against the English in Caernarfon. But just fifteen years later, Henry V used the red dragon to represent the English crown at the Battle of Agincourt, of which many Welsh longbow-men took part.
But it was in 1485 that the red dragon truly became synonymous with the Welsh, when Henry Tudor, claiming to have descended from the Welsh prince Cadwaladr, flew the red dragon during his usurpation of the crown of England. Arriving from France, Henry made full use of his Welsh heritage and gained their support in invading England. After Henry defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, he carried the red dragon to St Paul’s cathedral, then later, added the Tudor livery of white and green.
The Tudors were not ashamed of their Welsh heritage, and it is said that Elizabeth I was raised as a Welsh-speake. Henry’s son, Henry VIII, however, was not so affectionate towards his ancestry…
In 1536, he signed the Act of Union, which officially declared Wales a part of England. Under these new laws, tough restrictions were put on the use of the Welsh language, and we began to see a reduction in traditional Welsh names and the emergence of the common surnames we all associate with the Welsh today- Jones, Evans, Davies, Williams… you see, in the original Welsh alphabet, there were no j’s nor v’s… the Act of Union has been blamed by historians and nationalists alike for greatly damaging Welsh culture for years now, with others debating it's direct influence, but there’s one thing we can be certain of- it is because of the Act of Union that the red dragon does not feature on the Union Jack (though I should say ‘Union Flag’, for Charles II declared that it should only be called the ‘Union Jack’ when raised at sea)…
In 1350, Edward III adopted St George’s Cross as the emblem of England. St George, mostly famous for being a dragon-slayer, was to be a symbol of good triumphing over evil, with the dragon representing the Devil. In 1606, James I combined the cross of St George with the Scottish cross of St Andrew when the two kingdoms formed a union (aka The United Kingdom). But Wales was already a part of England- a ‘principality’, not a nation, so the red dragon wasn’t featured on the new flag, which wasn’t called the ‘Union Flag’ until 1707. Then, in 1801, George III formed a union with Ireland, and the cross of St Patrick was added, and it became the flag we all know and recognize today.
So, there you have it- we can thank Henry VII, as well as a combination of Celtic myth, Roman cavaliers and Middle-Eastern civilizations for the use of the red dragon as the flag of Wales, and Henry VIII for its absence from the Union Flag.
But mythical or real, it seems that the origins of the Red Dragon are embroiled in themes of invasion, occupation and fighting oppression, as well as a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps… truly, a profound representation of the nature of the nation’s people and of their bloody history.
Perhaps the real question is what the Red Dragon means to us in our own lifetime; our belief in standing up to oppressors, or our acceptance of being governed by others…?
I’m keen to know which theory you were told or believe/d about the origins of the Welsh flag?
For the Welsh readers, what does the flag mean to you? And for non-Welsh readers, what do you think of the Welsh flag? Do you think it deserves its ‘Coolest Flag in the World’ status?
Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher series
Davies, Sioned (2007), The Mabinigion: A new translation Dinas Emrys - Wikipedia
H. N. Savory, Arch. Cambrensis, 109 (1960), 13–77.
Rhys, John. Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx. ISBN 9781605061702.
Davis, Paul R. (8 March 2011). Castles of the Welsh Princes. ISBN 9780862439705.
Fishguard, Trevor (1972), Wales and the Welsh
Guest, Lady Charlotte (1838-1845) The Mabinogion
Historia Brittonum (828)
Stevenson, Peter (2017), Welsh Folk Tales
Red Book of Hergest (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Jesus College III), 1382-1410
White Book of Rhydderch (Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 4-5), 1350