Facts about Wales
- Languages: Welsh (Cymraeg), English
- Capital: Cardiff
- Population: 3,064,000
- Area: 8,022 square miles
- GDP per capita: $30,546 (2006 estimate)
- Currency: UK £ GBP
- Government: Welsh Assembly and UK Parliament
- Patron Saint: Saint David (Dewi Sant)
About the Flag
The Welsh flag is one of the most recognisable in the world. It is one of only three national flags to display a mythological creature, the other two being the Snow Lion flag of Tibet and the Thunder Dragon flag of Bhutan.
It is often said that it is one of the oldest national flags in Europe although this is almost impossible to verify. Certainly, the association of the Red Dragon with the people of Wales has existed far longer than that of the English with the Cross of St George. However, it was not made the official flag of Wales until 1959 and before then many alternatives had been in use.
How long has the Red Dragon been a symbol of Wales? The short answer is that it was probably a symbol of the Celts in Britain since the time of the Romans and probably well before the Anglo-Saxon invasion in the 5th century.
History of the Flag
The Welsh flag mixes two major influences, namely that of the Red Dragon and the colours green and white, taken from the heraldry of the Tudor family.
The House of Tudor was a Welsh aristocratic family who seized the throne of England at the Battle of Bosworth, ending the 15th-century War of the Roses. On the 22nd of August 1485 Henry Tudor (Harri Tudur) marched into this battle carrying this version of the Red Dragon. By the end of that day he had been crowned King Henry VII on a small hill near the village of Stoke Golding before marching with the standard proudly on display to London.
The origins of the Red Dragon as a symbol of the Celtic people of Britain and later Wales are, however, far older. The oldest historical mention of this symbol in relation to the Welsh people is to be found in the Historia Britonnum (History of Britain) written or compiled by the the Welsh monk Nennius c. AD 830.
Reconstructing the early history of Great Britain from ancient legends he writes a story of a boy born without a father, an apparent virgin birth, who is called before the wicked King Vortigern, last of the Celtic kings of Britain. At this stage in history the Anglo-Saxons were a small invading force who had yet to claim much land in what was later to become England.
The boy reveals to the King two serpents, one white and one red, who had been hidden deep underground. They began to fight and the white serpent three times threw the red serpent down, apparently winning the battle, until finally the red one summoned his strength and drove him away.
The story is then explained by the mysterious child: “the two serpents are two dragons; the red serpent is your dragon, but the white serpent is the dragon of the people who occupy several provinces and districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea: at length, however, our people shall rise and drive away the Saxon race from beyond the sea, whence they originally came.” (Source: http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk/arthist/vortigernquoteshb.htm)
The fact that Nennius chose to lend credence to this story in the early 9th century demonstrates that the red dragon had likely been an emblem of the Welsh people for a long time before. There is even evidence to suggest that it was a widespread symbol of British society as early as the Roman occupation.
The Origins and Meaning of the Dragon
When the Romans were conquering much of Britain after AD43 they brought with them much of their culture and symbolism. The dragon was one of the most prominent symbols of the Roman military. Roman Legions, military units of a hundred men commanded by a Legate, were led into battle by someone carrying an eagle mounted on a pole. The legions were themselves usually sub-divided into ten smaller Cohorts and each of these would, in turn, be led into battle by a standard-bearer carrying a dragon.
This dragon was composed of a wolf’s head with a forked tongue and a serpent-like body made of fabric which would ripple out in the wind. Some accounts of Roman battles have implied that these dragons would be fitted with a sort of whistle in their mouths to screech as the soldiers charged into battle. The Romans themselves had taken this dragon primarily from the Dacians in Eastern Europe who had also used it as a battle standard, although Roman dragon mythology also betrays Greek and Iranian influences. In other words, there is no clear distinction between European and Asian dragons and the dragons on the flags of Bhutan and Wales should be considered symbolic cousins.
After centuries of extracting resources from Britain (including gold, copper and tin from mines in Wales and western England) the Romans finally abandoned the colony c. AD 410. At a time when the Roman Empire was finding it difficult to defend its widespread colonial interests it had eventually become more effort than it was worth to continue to subdue the island province of Britannia. They left behind a Romano-British society of Celts who had until then been Roman citizens and who spoke a mixture of Britonic languages and Celticised Latin. In the absence of Roman leadership a British monarchy evolved, many of whom used the dragon as a primary symbol of their monarchical power.
The lives of these Kings are recorded only in legend and the most famous of these are Uther Pendragon and his son King Arthur. Pendragon’s name is a mixture of Latin and Britonic and means “head dragon” or “chief dragon” and partly on this basis many have assumed that the battle flag of the legendary King Arthur would have been an ancestor of the Red Dragon of Wales.
Further evidence for the idea that the dragon was a symbol of the Britonic (Celtic) peoples of Britain comes in the form of the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Wanderer’. It’s hard to tell exactly when, but this poem could have been composed at any time from the 6th to the 10th century in English Britain. The poem is a tale of an old warrior who has been banished from his home country and wanders in exile in a desolate land. In it, the protagonist comes across a “weal wundrum heah, wyrmlicum fah” or in Modern English “a wall, woundrously high, decorated with serpents [dragons?]”. Scholars have struggled with these lines but one possible explanation is that when the Anglo Saxons invaded Britain they discovered the ruins of Romano-British villas decorated with dragons. If we assume that this was a widespread symbol of the British culture of the day then this would make sense. According to this theory the memory of this Romano-British symbol was preserved in their culture until much later, partly in the form of this poem.
As the Anglo-Saxons slowly consolidated their position in the East of Britain, and eventually established English kingdoms there, those who wished to maintain their Britonic culture inevitably had to flee. Wales was far away from the main centres of Anglo-Saxon power and partly protected from invasion by its challenging terrain, leading it to become the centre of Celtic culture in Britain. As the Britons converged on Wales they brought with them their language, which would eventually evolve into Modern Welsh, and national symbols including the dragon.
From then on the dragon had begun its second life as a symbol of the Celtic nation of Wales. As a result, it would become enshrined in Welsh literature through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) and the masterpiece of medieval Welsh folklore, the Mabinogion. Finally the association was cemented when it was taken up various Welsh kings and leaders, especially the 7th-century Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd.
On the topic of surviving elements of Britonic culture, it is also worth noting that a dragon-like symbol has survived as an emblem of the county of Dorset in the form of the wyvern. The area has longstanding Celtic connections and indeed there have been suggestions that the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex that was once based in the area betrayed greater Britonic influence than any of the other Kingdoms. The idea that the dragon may have survived in multiple Celtic societies with minimal influence on one another testifies to the importance that this symbol may have had to the pre Anglo-Saxon British.
Throughout its history the use of dragon symbolism has been associated with war and aggression. In its association with Wales from the time of Nennius at least it has come to mean something nearer to a “never say die” attitude, indomitable in the face of cultural hegemony and ferocious in the defence of its own identity. It is a symbol that has served as an emblem of the Celtic British since before records began and whose cultural significance shows no sign of waning in the early twenty-first century. Thus, Y Ddraig Goch itself can be said to represent the tenacity of national identity, its symbols and institutions.