Passant on a green and white field

winged
Wyvern (“the Western Squat Dragon”) by Edward Topsell
Welsh
Flag of Wales (credit: wallpapertree.com)

Carl Lofmark (G A Wells, editor)
A History of the Red Dragon
Gwasg Carreg Gwalch (No 4 Welsh Heritage Series)

In 1959 the Queen sanctioned the flying of the now familiar Welsh flag on Government buildings in Wales and in London, whenever “appropriate”, officially recognising a national symbol that has had a long but mixed history. In this booklet by the late Carl Lofmark the convoluted story of its origins, use and development is traced to the point where the dragon and the colour red is ubiquitous on March 1st, the feast of St David, patron saint of Wales. Why a dragon? And why is it red?

Lofmark begins at the very beginning, if there is such a thing where this fabulous creature is concerned. Are there real dragons? Do they still exist? Can they fly? The author discounts racial memory of dinosaurs or mere confusion with existing creatures such as the Komodo dragon (only known to the outside world from the early 20th century). Yet it exists in traditions stretching across the world, from Britain to China, Africa, the Americas and the Pacific. Not all dragons have the same appearance or attributes however — some are winged, others not; some seem to differ little from serpents while others have two or four legs; they can live in caves, under water or in the air; they can be consummately evil or have beneficial aspects. But dragons from different cultures can often share commonalities such as the ability to raise storms, association with water, keen sight (the name is said to be cognate with Greek δερκειν ‘to see’), treasure-guarding skills (perhaps stemming from the previous attribute) and destructive nature (though only in the West has its association with Satan caused it to be seen solely as wicked).

bannerAlthough images and stories of dragons (however they are termed) occur throughout prehistory, in historic times the standard of Rome’s enemies — the Parthians, Scythians and Dacians, for example — became co-opted as the banner of the Roman army unit, the cohort.  This military windsock (δρακοντειον  in Greek) later emerged in the form Drache in Germany and drake in Old English when a kite was intended (as shown in the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry). But it was principally the fierce aspect of the beast that led to warriors in the Dark Ages in Britain to being called dragon or draig, and their leaders referred to as pendraig or pendragon, ‘chief dragon or ‘head warrior’. For example, the 6th-century Owain ap Urien was,  in an early poem attributed to Taliesen, called Owain ben draic. From this term arose various later misapprehensions, such as that Pendragon was a dynastic name or that it literally referred to a dragon’s head instead of a chief warrior.

windsocksNowadays of course Pendragon is associated very strongly with King Arthur, largely due to the influence of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s mostly fictitious 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain. In fact, a number of strands have become conflated due to this medieval bestseller. The old tale of two serpents or dragons contending underground, one red and the other white, was interpreted as Britons and Saxons fighting for supremacy of Britain. To this was added Geoffrey’s explanation of Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon creating a gold dragon standard from a vision of a comet, the dragon device also appearing on Arthur’s helmet. For much of the Middle Ages the colour of the dragon that rulers claimed for themselves as supposed heirs of Arthur veered from gold to red. However, the appropriation of the dragon as a uniquely Welsh symbol accelerated with the adoption of dragon slayer St George as the patron saint of England from the 13th century onwards.

It was the use of the red dragon device by the Tudor family during the Wars of the Roses, along with the green-and-white uniforms that distinguished Welsh soldiers in the 13th and 14th centuries, that contributed towards the design of the flag that we now know; but when the dynasty was established (and especially after the early death of Henry VII’s first son Arthur) the legendary past and its symbols such as the dragon were largely abandoned by ruling families, to be resurrected for reasons of pure national pride in recent years.

Lofmark’s little book (about a hundred pages, a quarter of which is taken up with notes and index) is strong on medieval history, less so on details of the dragon’s origins. While what he does say is, as far as I can guess, accurate and authoritative — he was after all a Professor of German in St David’s College, Lampeter — I would have welcomed more analysis of how and why the dragon in its various forms loomed large in myth, legend and lore. But as his focus was on the red dragon of Wales perhaps I was expecting too much from a work that — in a field where so much tosh is expounded — splendidly fulfils its brief.

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6 thoughts on “Passant on a green and white field

  1. I have a fascination with the history of dragons. I am not sure I buy the idea that dinosaur bones gave rise to the mythical creature, but then again I have not heard a better argument. Oh that I had the time and money to research the subject.

    1. I think dinosaur bones may have influenced local versions of dragon lore–China’s legacy of fossils may help account for the ubiquity of their dragon tales–though they are not the whole story of course. I’ve discussed before the possibility of local archaeopteryx fossils influencing Wolfram’s strange reference to the phoenix in connection with his version of the grail story, and I’m sure that the Victorian mania for reconstructing fossils was partly based on a rationalisation of dragon legends.

      Dragons in caves guarding precious metal, or by seashore cliffs with bones of their prey or even — gasp — young maidens — it’s possible such “evidence” helped confirm topographical legends in some localities.

      Oh, and Lofmark scarcely mentions (or only in passing) celestial phenomena — comets, meteors, the constellation Draco — as contributing to more generalised mythology or political prophecy.

      It’s a complex topic to be sure, Sari!

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