My blog is usually about real everyday nature, in real time, but today at the beginning of this Chinese New Year of the Dragon, I am writing instead about the significance of this mythological creature here in Wales.
The Welsh Dragon, in Welsh Y Ddraig Goch, (Red Dragon) is the indisputable and most highly prominent icon of the country. It is employed and proudly displayed in a myriad of ways and places, from playful car bumper stickers and drinking mugs to more serious applications such as that as the symbol of the Welsh Assembly Government, but its most significant role is as the centrepiece of the nation’s flag.
Mythology of the red dragon
The mythology connecting the Red Dragon to Wales begins in the Mabinogion, a collection of eleven prose stories collated from mediaeval Welsh manuscripts. The tales draw on pre-Christian Celtic mythology, international folktale motifs, and early mediaeval historical traditions.
In the Mabinogion story of Lludd and Llefelys, the Red Dragon fights with an invading White Dragon. His awful pained shrieks bring about mayhem and disaster; women miscarry, animals perish and plants become barren. Lludd, the then king of Britain,seeks help from his wise brother Llefelys in France. Llefelys tells him to dig a pit in the centre of Britain, fill it with mead, and cover it with cloth. Lludd does this, and the dragons drink the mead and fall asleep. Lludd imprisons them, still wrapped in their cloth, in Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia (Welsh:Eryri).
The same story is repeated in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, where the red dragon is also a prophecy of the coming of King Arthur. It is notable that Arthur’s father was Uther Pendragon (“chief dragon”, erroneously translated by Geoffrey as “dragon’s head”).
The dragon has always been a symbol of a people, not an individual.
In 1400 Owain Glyndwr raised the dragon during his revolt against Henry IV, echoing its role in Welsh mythology as a symbol of struggle and resistance. However, this didn’t confer exclusivity to Wales: the dragon reappeared alongside Henry V at the battle of Agincourt (1415).
The dragon began to roar even louder after the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century. The House of Tudor was the Welsh dynasty who defeated the House of York at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.
The Tudors’ livery was white and green. As he marched his troops through Wales to Bosworth, Henry Tudor – shortly to be Henry VII – flew the red dragon of Cadwallader, from whom he claimed ancestry, on the white and green Tudor colours. After the battle the flag was carried in state to St. Paul’s Cathedral to be blessed.
It was the beginning of the flag as we know it today.
In the town of Newcastle Emlyn, a Heart of the Dragon Festival is held every two years (the next one is in 2013). Local legends say that the last dragon was slain there during a village festival. The Heart of the Dragon Festival aims to resurrect the “spirit of the dragon,” in the form of a baby dragon egg, which ultimately “hatches,” to reveal a miniature dragon. www.heartofthedragonwales.org
The Mametz Wood Memorial
The 38th (Welsh) Division was recruited from battalions of the Welsh Regiment, South Wales Borderers and Royal Welsh Fusiliers in 1914. Lloyd George had a heavy hand in the raising of the formation; one of his sons being an officer in the division. It crossed to France in late 1915, and came down to fight on the Somme in July 1916. The first attack on Mametz Wood was on 7th July, when the division lost heavily in ‘Death Valley’ during the advance on the ‘Hammer Head’. The next attack went in on the 10th, and by 14th July the wood was cleared – but at the cost of over 5,000 casualties in the 38th (Welsh) Division. A memorial was placed in Mametz Church in the 1920s, but this Red Dragon monument was placed here in the late 1980s on the wishes of a number of Mametz Wood veterans, former Sergeant Tom Price among them.