This is a question we are asked on our tours from time to time. Why does the Welsh flag have a Dragon on it? The most obvious answer is, “because it looks awesome”, is rarely enough to satisfy the inquisitive. Whilst they agree is does look awesome, they still want to know the origins of why Wales has a mythical creature on its flag.
The actual answer is not all that clear cut. The history of the Welsh Dragon goes all the way back to the 5th Century, and involves warlords, myth’s & legends. Wizards and King Arthur.
History suggests that the Dragon was first adopted as a symbol of power in, what is today, Wales around the 5 or 6th Century. Exactly when is unclear, with dates varying wildly from once source to another. However it is the 5th and 6th Centuries that comes up time and time and time again. Why a Dragon exactly is also unclear, but some Roman legions used the Dragon as an emblem. This led to the Dragon being associated with Military, Leaders and Warlords.
One of the Warlords whose name is repeatedly connected to the Welsh Dragon is Vortigern. The story of Vortigern is one of a Warlord in post-Roman Britain. The story goes, that after defeat in Battle, Vortigern had retreated to North Wales, for refugee and to rebuild his armies. Post Roman Britain was ruled by a number of tribes, each battling each other for more territory and control. There was no Wales, Scotland or England at this point, just tribes. In England, most tribes were Saxon, in Scotland it was Picts, while those in Wales were predominantly Celtic. Saxons made raiding parties and often warred with the Celts and Picts for control of their lands. Around the time of Vortigern, Celtic legend began to believe that at some point a “Draig” would come and fight the Saxons, and banish them from their land. Today Draig is the Welsh word for Dragon. But in the 5th & 6th Century, Draig merely meant a Strong Person, a Leader, a Warlord.
When Vortigern, the warlord, sought refuge in North Wales he wanted to build a castle at Dinas Emrys. Yet every night the walls would fall down, and work would have to start again. Legend recalls that Vortigern sought assistance and advice on how to resolve the problem. His advisors told him the ground was cursed, and to seek out a young boy, who had “no natural father”. To sacrifice the boy and spread his blood on the ground, as this would remove the curse.
Vortigern searched, and eventually found such a boy, whom many believe to be Merlin the Wizard of King Arthur fame. The boy told Vortigern, there was no curse, and the reason the castle fell down every night was because of two Dragons asleep in a lake below the mountain. Vortigern instructed his labourers to dig deep into the mountain to find the Dragons. Which they did, eventually finding the Dragons. One Red, One White. The two Dragons, angry at being awoken began to fight. Eventually, the White Dragon fled the scene, and the Red Dragon returned to its lair in the mountain.
Vortigern’s Castle was completed and the land became a peaceful land under the protection of the Vortigern and his red dragon.
Truth or myth? In 1945 Archaeologists excavated the mountain in question and discovered a lake, and ruins of a castle from the 5th Century. Further investigation of the ruins found evidence that it had been rebuilt several times
Whilst Vortigern and his red Dragon, merely expelled the white dragon, and brought peace to what would become Gwynedd. The Saxons still remained in other parts of what is now Wales. Some believed that Vortigern’s Dragon was part of the Celtic prophecy that a “Draig” coming to rid the Saxons from their land coming true. However, Vortigern was not the Draig himself, but merely a sign of the arrival of the “Draig”. Legend tells us that Vortigern’s Brother was Uther Pendragon, who, according the legend, is King Arthurs father. In this telling of King Arthur, he, like his Uncle Vortigern, was a warrior and a War Lord in post roman Britain around the 5th & 6th Centuries. At this time, there was no land called “Wales”. Everything was still tribal, with no one person ruling over all the land.
King Arthur fought with the Saxons, to attempt to rid them from as much of the British Isle as possible. The Anglo Saxons, called Arthur a “Foreigner”, or “Wealas” in Old English, which over time evolved to Wales and Welsh. Arthur’s surname was Pendragon, which means “chief leader”, “chief warrior” or “Head of the Dragon”. In this respect The “Welsh Dragon” fought against the English.
How much of this origin story is true, how much is legend, how much is total fabrication is not known. It is highly unlikely that it is all 100% true. Certain historical facts do however back up the story. We like to believe that the basis of the story of true. Namely Vortigern seeking refugee in North Wales, warring with the English, and his nephew taking up his mantle after he passed. Then over the centuries the story became embellished for more dramatic effect.
The story moves on to the late 7th Century and King Cadwaladr, the King of Gwynedd. Dinas Emrys is in Gwynedd, and under the protection of his Red Dragon, Vortigern expanded his territory to what would become the Kingdom of Gwynedd. As King of Gwynedd, Cadwaladr adopted a red Dragon as his emblem. To signify power and authority. For the next 700 or so years the Dragon remained as a symbol for the Kingdom of Gwynedd, until the end of the 13th Century, when the Kingdom of Gwynedd ceased to exist, as it became part of the Principality of Wales
The Dragon would not be seen again until Owain Glyndwr. Owain Glyndwr was a descendant of Welsh Royalty, and after winning a battle at Caernarfon, he raised a flag with a Gold Dragon above the Castle in a statement of defiance over English rule. Owain Glyndwr would go on to lead a Welsh Revolt against the English with a Dragon as his seal. The revolt would last for 15 years. Despite early success against the English, when Glyndwr and his armies took control of much of Wales, and in spite of French backing and assistance, ultimately the revolt failed, and Wales remained a principality under English rule.
In 1485, the Welsh Dragon once more appeared on the battle field. This time with more success. This time under the flag of Henry Tudor. Also known as King Henry VII.
Although English, Henry Tudor was born in Pembrokeshire. Whilst at this time, he was not King, he believed he had a legitimate claim to the English thrown. Seeking to use his Welsh Ancestry (descending from the Tudors of Penmynydd from Anglesey on his paternal grandfathers side) he placed the Red Dragon on the Tudor Green & White Standard. Henry, with the Welsh Dragon on his Standard, defeated King Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth, to become King Henry VII and begin the Tudor Royal Dynasty with the Welsh Dragon taking pride of place on the Tudor flag.
Evolution of the Welsh flag
It would remain on Royal Flags for the entire Tudor dynasty, but would be removed by the Stewarts, when their rule began in 1603. It wasn’t until 1800 that the Dragon would re-appear officially for Wales, when a Royal Badge of Wales, complete with Red Dragon, was given by parliament. It would be another 7 years however, before Wales got its first official flag.
In 1953, still two years before Wales was officially given a Capital City, the Welsh Flag was modified, to include the Royal Badge on a green and white back ground.
Then again in 1959, it was modified again, to the one we have today
Today, the Welsh people are inspired by the Dragon on the flag. A fearless, not to be messed with mythical being. Often brought to life by the Welsh call to arms at sporting events of “Hear the Dragon Roar”
How much of the origin story behind the Dragon is true, and how much is myth is irrelevant. The Dragon stands proudly on the flag, and inspires the nation. It certainly is a unique flag, for a unique country