History of the Welsh Red Dragon

Now that the Scottish independence is on the table, another story came to my mind. Even today there is an anecdote out there about an academician, also a prominent Plaid Cymru member, who visited in various English universities explaining the Welsh sentiments about their independence. He was often accompanied by his secretary, a patriotic Welshman.

On the way to give one of such lecture, the professor suddenly started to feel ill. The secretary had sometimes joked that he had heard the lectures so often he knew the topic better than professor himself, the professor had an idea. He asked, if the secretary would like to be the professor for the day, and he’d get to be the secretary. This was settled and the secretary gave a most impassionate and in-depth lecture on the Welsh national sentiments the professor had ever heard.

Heraldic Welsh Red Dragon.
Heraldic Welsh Red Dragon. Heraldry leaves some room for artistic interpretation.

At the end of the lecture there was time was questions, and the professor could only be proud as the secretary, an active party member, kept shining. Until someone asked: “But why exactly is the red dragon a Welsh symbol?” He stared at the inquirer with an expression of utter confusion on his face. He had never even thought about it. Professor knew that the secretary was no educated man, and started to sweat in back row. For the secretary the dragon is a symbol of all things Welsh. It needed no explanation. His heart missed a beat. But just one. Then he sighed.

“It amazes me that people like you are even admitted to universities. This question is so trivial, any Welshman could answer it. And since I’ve already answered all the serious questions, I’ll let my secretary answer this one.” And so he did.

The Legend

First, there’s the legend of Lludd and Llefelys from the Mabinogion collection translated by Lady Charlotte Guest. King Ludd of Albion, descendant of the horse people of Troy, had a problem: Every May Day a terrible scream would shout over the entire island and cause all pregnant women to miscarry. His brother king Llefelys explained that the scream came from dragons fighting, one of them foreign. He instructed Lludd to dig a hole in the middle of the island and fill it with mead. Once the dragons got drunk, he should bury them underground in a stone chest.

Later after the Roman era Vortigern, king of the Britons, invited some mercenaries from the mainland to help him with the Britons. Leaders of these were called Hengist and Horsa. This is when the Anglo-Saxon invasion began.

Hengist and Horsa
Hengist and Horsa by Richard Verstegan (1605)

Invaders caused Vortigern much trouble, and he even had to flee from his capital Caer Guricon, modern-day Wroxeter, to Dinas Emrys Welsh for “Fortress of Ambrosius”. He tried to build a fortress there, but every night the ground shook and destroyed the days work. Vortigern asked advice, and was told that a fatherless child should be sacrificed on the spot. Such was found, called Myrddin or Merlin Ambrosius, who wanted to spare his life and told the real reason for the problem: the dragons king Lludd had captured were imprisoned inside that hill. The hill was dug deeper and two dragons, red and white, shoot up in the air and started to fight. Merlin then explained that the red dragon represented the Britons and the white Anglo-Saxons.

But how did the dragons come to Britain in the first place?

Long Way to Britain

John Collier (1891). Note the fumes from the seam, said to inspire Pythia, and compare with the Gildas dragon below.

The very word “dragon” comes from the Greek word drakon for “a long serpent” or drakein “to have sawn clearly”. To understand the deep correlation of these words we need to look at the myth of python. It was a great chthonic serpent guarding the navel of the earth at Mount Parnassus. It had chased Apollo’s mother Leto, so that she could not give birth anywhere in the lands where the sun shone. In return this god of light, truth prophecy and art, chased Python to its lair in Delphi and killed it there. The Greek word pythein, means “to decay” and oracle Pythia lived in the cave where dragon guardian of the old order had lived.

Dragons faced by the Romans were a different beast. In the Trajan’s Column, over 100 feet tall triumphal pillar built in Rome to commemorate the Dacian wars is sculpted the Dacian Draco, the standard of Thracian cavalry. It consists of a skull of a wolf with metallic tongues and a serpent-like sock. It was carried on a pole over the rider’s head. Thus creating an image of a howling dragon flying along the assaulting troops.

Dacian Draco
Dacian Draco and weapons from the Trajan’s Column.

This ensign was so impressive that even the Romans adopted it. In a matter of decades the Draco was a symbol of a cohort, the way eagle was a symbol of an entire legion. In cavalry the man who carried the standard was called draconarius, a dragon bearer. Thus, when anyone defeated the Roman cavalry and captured the flag, a dragon was slain. As climate change deteriorated the living conditions of many Anglo-Saxon people, they started to have more skirmishes with the Romans in the fourth century, and certainly captured many dragons. Later even king Richard the Lionheart rode on the third crusade under a white dragon.

Thus they reached Britain. This connection between dragons and horses made the flying serpent especially fitting in the land of knights. Thus the dragons remained, even when Macsen Wledig or Maximianus, a Roman general and a king of Britain took the Roman garrison and left the island in 340. Later Macsen gave Brittany, or Little Britain, as a gift to his loyal supporters. In 407 another Roman usurper, Custennin II of Britain, took the rest of the Roman garrison with him.

Legend Meets History

As soon as the Romans had left, the Picts started to cause trouble. In 446 the council of British chieftains decided to hire some Anglo-Saxon mercenaries to help. As a reward Hengist and Horsa were given the peninsula of Thanet, but they wanted more. According to a story the entire Kent was given for Rowena, Hengist’s , and Essex and Sussex to save Vortigern’s own life.

There are several historical references to Vortigern. For example, according to the Croes Elisedd, Vortigern was also married to a daughter of Magnus Maximus, Sevira. On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles state he fought Saxons in 455.

According to a legend, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, father of king Arthur, fought against the Saxons around the same time as Vortigern. There was a decisive battle at Mons Badonicus around 500, where Aurelius, or possibly Arthur Pendragon, son of Uther,  defeated the Saxons. Arthur was crowned a king by a historical contemporary Saint Dubricius. Gildas, a welsh clergyman and a contemporary historian apparently got angry to Arthur who had beheaded his rebellious brother in the village of Rhuthyn.

Statue of Gildas.
Statue of Gildas near the village of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys. Image by <a=href=”http: commons.wikimedia.org=”” wiki=”” user:romary”=””>Romary

Gildas, wrote later that after the battle there were years of great national turmoil, political and otherwise, paving the way for the return of the Saxons around 550. He recorded that there was great famine immediately prior to the return of Saxons. Tree rings indicate that there was a considerably cold period 10 years starting around 540. Gildas also recorded Yellow Death which devastated the land for years as well as famineas well as famine. Yellow Death devastated the entire post-Roman world and was possibly a joint pandemic of pubonic plague and yellow fever, combined with bad hygiene. Even king Maelgwyn, who had hidden in a church but could not resist watching his kingdom through a keyhole, got infected and died. There are also records of great fires, even stating that the entire island was aflame. After all this, when the Anglo-Saxons finally returned there was next to no resistance.

The story of Gildas tells us more about dragons. Having committed a sacrilege of destroying some manuscripts in a spell of anger, did a pilgrimage to Rome. On that journey he met an underground dragon, familiar to him from Wales. Dragonbones, or Kuhnosaurus fossils, are common in Southern Wales. Like modern gliding lizards of the Genus Draco these posses the typical draconic body-build of four legs and wings. Of course these small specimens were thought to be merely hatchlings. On the other hand, evident flows of toxic, flammable and sometimes quite visible smelly, methane from coal seams was a known phenomenon to people in that area, thus giving rise to the idea of breath of fire.

We also need to remember that it is a nature of myth to explain things retrospectively. When the legend gave Myrddin the words to prophesy that the dragons fighting in the sky represent Britons and Saxons, his words may have included an observation of a fiery dragon flying across the sky with a horrible roar setting everything ablaze, followed by another larger than life, and equally devastating, force of nature: ten relatively cold years with snowy winters on the entire region. In 1908 there was a multi-megaton class explosion over Tunguska from a smallish shooting star. It has been estimated that the frequency of such events is in the order of centuries. The scientific data from the 6th century Britain suggests that such may have taken place there.

After these events Britain was a divided country. Anglo-Saxons with their white dragon had overcome the red Welsh dragon. Yet the red dragon of Thracians, Romans and British has prevailed. And shall prevail.

The “secretary” finished. There were no further questions.

1 comment

  1. The things you do for exercise… Our storytelling club had a theme “Dragons” and I decided to do some research for the story behind the Welsh flag. This essay http://www.morien-institute.org/darkages.html about meteors with all its shortcomings and dragons was a great inspiration, as well as this http://www.heroicage.org/issues/6/gildas.html article about Gildas and dragons was quite useful. Apart from them, Wikipedia is a good starting point, and as always GIYF.

    There are undoubtedly plenty of mistakes and shortcomings in the text above, especially concerning the sixth century history. OTOH, the in the brief exercise I learned a lot about it, about criticism concerning various sources about the era and inconsistencies in the history writing. I got another piece to the history of Brittany, to give an example.

    Ideas of further study:
    – Historical perspectives to the Arthurian legends. There are many historical people connected to them, while some central characters are barely mentioned. Also, the lore has evolved and transferred from one country to another. The remark “nature of myth is to explain things retrospectively” is grave understatement.
    – Bronze age cultural collapse around 1100 BC, especially with respect to Israelites entry to the land of Canaan.
    – Prehistory of Indo-European peoples and other indigenous peoples: Achaians, Celts, Goths, Slavs, Vikings. Seafaring people who caused trouble around the time of kings David and Solomon are of special interest, as well as Fenno-Ugrian relationships with neighboring countries (history of the Hungarians, the Finns and the Scandinavians…)

    Oh, and this is A Self-Referential Joke, reference implementation.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *