Wales

St David's Day: Leeks v daffs - true icons?

  • 1 March 2011
  • From the section Wales
Welsh costume
Welsh costume - and the enduring hat

How Welsh are our Welsh icons? Should you wear a daffodil or a leek to mark St David's Day? When your daughters go to school in a Welsh hat and costume, will they really be honouring the traditions of our forebears?

BBC Wales documentary Welsh Icons, on St David's Day, aims to answer these questions.

Leeks v Daffodils

Leeks are rooted back as far as 200 years in Welsh tradition

One of the newest kids on the block turns out to be the daffodil. Apocryphally it was popularised by David Lloyd George, during the 1911 Caernarfon investiture as Prince of Wales, of the future Edward VIII.

Yet closer examination of the film footage of the investiture shows Lloyd George, but no daffodil anywhere in sight. Hardly surprising, considering that the investiture took place in July!

What is however known is that Lloyd George was a strong advocate of the humble daff', extolling its rightful place as a Welsh icon in numerous newspaper articles of the early twentieth century.

Yet it appears that Lloyd George, in common with many other Welsh academics exiled in London, may have misinterpreted ancient Welsh texts.

The Welsh for leeks is 'Cennin', while the Welsh for Daffodils is 'Cennin Pedr', or Peter's Leeks.

The vegetables themselves however are rooted in Welsh tradition, as far back as 1536, and possibly for 200 years before that.

The programme says there is proof that the wearing and giving of leeks was already associated with St David's Day at the time of the Tudor court of Henry VIII. Fifteen shillings were paid for one to be presented to the young Mary Tudor. But the mystery takes a more confusing twist before that date.

Welsh flag

But surely the Welsh Dragon on a green and white background is as old as Wales itself, right? Wrong.

Welsh Icons presenter Eddie Butler with the Welsh flag

The flag is extremely well-travelled. As well as flying on Captain Scott's ill-fated voyage to the Antarctic, a Welsh flag also travelled to space in 1994 aboard Atlantis. But in fact the odds are that some of you reading this are older than our national flag.

The Queen first assented to the flag as we know it being flown on government buildings, on 23rd February 1959.

However the programme finds evidence of both the red dragon and the green and white halves being used as symbols of Welshness, as early as medieval times. Though not always together.

Welsh costume

But you can't go wrong with a Welsh hat and shawl? Well yes and no!

The tall hat has become associated with Wales and national costume

A Reverend Romilly in 1821 describes a ferry journey from Liverpool to Beaumaris, during which he saw the "Welsh women in their ghastly men's hats!" Indeed in 1832 the Welsh hat was so well-known, that the future Queen Victoria had one made for her visit to Wales; "In respect to my fair maidens of Cambria!"

Yet the watercolour which popularised the Welsh costume as we know it today - Sydney Curnow Vosper's 1908 Salem - came at least 50 years after even old women had ditched the fashion.

So much so in fact, that at the time of painting, only one Welsh hat could be found in the village of Llanbedr, Gwynedd, meaning that it had to be passed from lady to lady for each sitting.

Salem was popularised when it's owner, William Hesketh Lever, used it to promote his brand of Sunlight Soap; leaving many thousands of disappointed Edwardian tourists to Wales.

Welsh Rarebit

Welsh rarebit goes back centuries

One item has been almost forever a part of Wales and can be found in the kitchen.

Welsh Rarebit, or caws pobi (Welsh for toasted cheese), was known to be wholly our delicacy as early as 1542; and no-one else dared - or maybe cared - to say otherwise.

Former Wales rugby star Eddie Butler investigates just how old, and Welsh, some of our traditions really are on Welsh Icons, 20.00 GMT on 1 March on BBC2 Wales.