The Red Dragon of Wales

The Welsh flag flying in the breeze

It is said that Vortigern, the Fifth century Celtic overlord who did his best to repulse the input of Saxon invasions into southeast Britain, was searching for a suitable place to build a fortification in what is now known as North Wales.

Finding one, he was advised by the young Merlin that the site was directly over an underground lake, where two rival dragons, one red and one white, lay asleep. As Vortigern’s men began to dig the foundations, the dragons woke, and fought ferociously!

The earth shuddered and rocked as the great beasts repeatedly attacked each other, and the lake boiled as both dragons dodged seemingly endless blasts of flame: talons and fangs sank into each dragon’s hides, and scales flew in the air like frightened birds! Their mighty roars deafened Vortigern’s men, who had soon run far from the terrifying sight of the two great creatures fighting for dominance.

Gradually, the fight slowed as the unworldly creatures began to tire, and it was with one final desperate lunge that the Red Dragon seized the White Dragon by the throat, and dragged him under the waters of the underground lake. For a few minutes, the waters churned as the bloodied White Dragon fought for life . . . then all was calm, and silent.

Then the cavern re-echoed with the sound of the triumphant Red Dragon bursting from the depths of the blood red water, his roar of victory rolling around the mountains of North Wales.

In memory of Merlin, this place was called ‘Dinas Emrys’ (‘City of Emrys’ – the old Welsh name for Merlin)

Later, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’ (between 1120 -1129) interpreted this story as the coming of King Arthur – his father’s name ‘Uther Pendragon’ translates as ‘Dragon’s Head’. . .

Geoffrey’s account also tells us that Merlin had prophesied the long battle between the red and white dragons, which symbolised the historic struggle between the Welsh and the English peoples.

The emblem of the dragon appeared on the battle flags of Romano-British troops on their way to Rome in the Fourth century, and it was displayed by the Fifth century Welsh kings of Aberffraw after Roman rule ended in 410, keen to show their authority in the vacuum created by the Roman absence.

The oldest recorded use of a dragon to symbolise Wales is from the ‘Historia Brittonum’, written by the monk Nennius in about 820.

Owain Glyndwr raised the ‘Dragon Standard’ in 1400 as a symbol of his revolt against the English crown, but the first use of the ‘Dragon Flag’ (by this time known as the ‘Flag of Cadwaladr’) was on Bosworth Field in 1485, when the Welsh Henry Tudor defeated Richard III.

Although it failed to feature on the Flag of the Union in 1606, Queen Elizabeth II declared that ‘only the Red Dragon on a green and white flag should be flown on government buildings in Wales’.