Wales

The red dragon

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Think of Wales and you invariably think of the dragon, the red dragon. Yet Wales is not alone in this. Many other cultures or people have also taken and embraced the dragon symbol, an emblem that has featured quite prominently in numerous ancient mythologies and folklores.

The Chinese have their long, snake-like dragon, an imperial version of the beast having no fewer than five claws, while the Indians have a dragon that is often shown hooded, like a cobra.

The dragon also features in Catalan legends - a serpent-like creature with two legs and a pair of wings, and English folktales have creatures that are sometimes known as wyverns.

The Romans were a superstitious people and each of their legions, in particular their cavalry units, marched behind a dragon. These dragons were given the name draco and were meant to bring luck and good fortune in battle. Usually made of cloth, mounted on a staff or pole, the draco would fill with air when the regiment charged, streaming out behind the standard bearer in a clear message to the enemy.

King Arthur - the real Arthur, the Romano-British war leader rather than the sentimental Victorian version of the man - used the draco in his battles against the Saxon invaders. This could well have been the beginnings of the Welsh allegiance to the dragon.

Arthur had clear Welsh connections and it is in Wales that the image of the red dragon has become particularly powerful - perhaps meaningful might be a better description.

The first recorded British use of the red dragon, or y Ddraig Goch, came in the Historia Brittonum, written in approximately 828-830 AD. The poem, which was more a piece of propaganda than actual history, tells the story of a battle between a red dragon, representing the Celts or Britons, and a white dragon which stood for the Saxons.

The struggle supposedly took place at the modern-day village of Beddgelert where the Celtic king Vortigern was attempting to build a fortress to stand against the Saxon hordes. The battle was long and arduous and although, at first, the white dragon seemed to be victorious, eventually y Ddraig Goch triumphed. Final victory, it seemed, was to go to the Celts.

The tale was re-told several times. Geoffrey of Monmouth included it as one of the prophecies of Merlin and it also appeared in The Mabinogion, where Arthur was said to have taken the outline of a dragon for his crest or emblem. It was an idea taken up by several Welsh Princes and leaders, men such as Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and Jasper Tudor.

The dragon used by these princes was not always red. Owain Glyndwr knew the value of the dragon emblem, but his dragon, which was displayed on the flags and banners which he took into battle, was actually golden.

Sometimes the dragon appeared on the opposite side to the Welsh. Henry III, in his campaigns in Wales, proudly displayed a flag that bore the dragon emblem.

During the Wars of the Roses, that cataclysmic series of brutal battles and political unrest that dominated much of the 15th century, the Yorkist faction, with a line of descent that came from the Princes of Gwynedd, claimed to represent the red dragon. Henry VI and the Lancastrians stood for the white.

When Henry Tudor won the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 he not only took the crown but united the two warring royal houses. Tracing his rather shaky claim to power to Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, the last king of the Britons, he constantly displayed the red dragon on his flags and even went so far as to present a standard bearing the image of the red dragon of Cadwaladr to the cathedral at St Paul's in London.

The red dragon was adopted as the official badge of Wales in 1807, the creature being displayed on a green background. However, it was only in 1959 that the red dragon, shown against a field of white and green, was adopted as the national flag.

Since then the red dragon has been used in a variety of ways and for a whole range of reasons, many of them patriotic, many with a rather more financial or economic purpose. It features heavily in any rugby international and regularly appears on items such as flags, crested china and tea towels – and even stands proudly on the battlefield as a memorial to the Welsh division that attacked Mametz Wood in 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.

Y Ddraig Goch remains one of the most potent and powerful of symbols. It has its origins in history but still has the ability to set the hearts of all Welsh men and women racing. It is the symbol of the nation.

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by rmacmhor

    on 2 Mar 2014 14:54

    This Welsh flag is very distinctive and is easily spotted and not readily confused with any other flag. It shares that with the Union flag. I’ve seen Red Dragon cloth badges sewn onto shirts and backpacks all over the place – from E Africa to Croatia to N America. You immediately know that the bearer has some link with Wales. Wonderful.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by Phil

    on 27 Feb 2014 15:43

    Raymondo and Noreen are right, that dragon is one of the most emotive of memorials - tearing single strand wire, as David once told me, which is what they would have used in 1916. I once did a radio programme from the wood at Mametz, standing in the open ground in front of the wood, in the wood itself, in the cemeteries - but the most heart rending piece of the broadcast (and it lasted half an hour) was from in front of the memorial. It moved me to tears and I had to start again!

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by raymondo

    on 27 Feb 2014 13:25

    I'm not Welsh (though I've been here most of my life, and wouldn't live anywhere else), but you'd have to be made of granite not to be moved and saddened by David Petersen's Red Dragon at Mametz and the thought of what it represents. I travelled there today in the comfort of my own armchair, courtesy of Google earth. Find the town of Albert, go east to Mametz village and then north east to the wood. Look for a small cluster of photo location indicators, switch to street view and there it is, tearing at the barbed wire in defiance and glaring at the dark, forbidding mass of Mametz Wood, brooding and menacing even today. Emotive and awe-inspiring!

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Noreen

    on 26 Feb 2014 11:02

    As someone who has collected dragons (ceramic, tin, pottery, you name it) for years I must say the Welsh dragon has always been my favourite. I suppose I am biased but, frankly, I don't care. And that dragon memorial at Mametz - wonderful.

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