This prompt made me do a deeper dive into dragon lore in Sussex, where my novels are (mainly) set, but also got me curious about dragon folklore in the British Isles more generally. Soooooooooooooo…. here we go.
The Welsh Dragon
The dragon is not the symbol of Wales because of the proliferation of dragons and the number of myths and folktales about them.
It was adopted from the Roman draco (pl. dracones), a military standard of the Roman army. The Welsh word ddraig is almost certainly etymologically linked to the Latin draco.
It is most closely linked with North Wales, where the Kings of Aberffraw (a cadet line of the kingdom of Gwynedd) adopted the dragon after the Roman withdrawal, in the early fifth century, to symbolise their power and control. Later, in the seventh century, the red dragon symbol was known as the Red Dragon of Cadwaladr, after Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, king of Gwynedd from 655 to 682.
Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon himself was a real historical person who became heavily mythologised later, and you can read more about him here. It is Cadwaladr and Cynan, not Arthur, who are prophesied to restore British rule [British here in the sense of Brythonic speakers, as ‘Welsh’ is a Saxon name meaning ‘foreigner’ only adopted by the Welsh to talk about themselves much later on] and defeat the Saxons.
You can read more about the Armes Prydain Fawr, the Great Prophecy of Britain, here. It’s attributed to Taliesin, but it was written too late to be one of his, not that this really matters.
A concept of collective ‘Welsh’ identity existed from the twelfth century, and you can read more about basic Welsh history and fun facts here. The oldest recorded use of the dragon to symbolise Wales (as opposed to just the Kingdom of Gwynedd?) is from the Historia Brittonum, written by the historian Nennius around 820, some two hundred years after the death of Cadwaladr when the political landscape had shifted dramatically following the invasions of the Saxons, Angles et al.
The Red Dragon came to have a certain legend attached to it, which would cement it as the symbol of the nation. The scene of the legend is Beddgelert (translation: Gelert’s Grave, so-called because of another, later legend, in which the dog dies. That’s very much the point. Gelert is the name of the dog.) Anyway, before Beddgelert was called that, the Red Dragon legend is set in that area.
This is largely the fault of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who recorded it in his Historia Regum Britanniae, written between 1120 and 1129. Geoffrey connects the Dragon to the Arthurian legends, and although Merlin (who has a life outside of Arthurian texts) is a South Welsh figure based in Carmarthen, he appears in the legend as a young boy brought to North Wales to solve the problem of Vortigern, whose new tower keeps falling down. Tired of constantly rebuilding the bastard thing, Vortigern asks the young seer why this keeps happening to it, and the young Merlin replies it is because he’s trying to build it above a subterranean cavern in which a red dragon is constantly fighting a white dragon. They take a look and let the dragons out, and the red one wins and flies away. Merlin explains that the red dragon symbolises the Welsh, and the white dragon symbolises the Saxons.
Why are the Saxons also represented by a dragon? Well, the rulers of Aberffraw were not the only ones to adopt this Roman legionary standard. There were other tribes, scattered across Wales and the rest of Britain, that used the draco too. The West Saxons (inhabiting Wessex) had the dragon as a symbol as well, and transferred it to Somerset, which today also has a dragon emblem.
Anyway, when the Saxons rocked up, they too adopted the same standard of the areas they settled in, and you ended up with battles in which both sides were fighting under the same emblem, which was understandably problematic. This is why the dragon worked in the legend for both parties, but as the Red Dragon of Cadwaladr was well established by the time Geoffrey was writing and the legend had been around a while, the Welsh dragon was red, and the Saxon dragon was white.
You can read the legend online here along with more posts on folklore and so on.
Fast forward to the Tudors, who themselves were an established Cambro-Norman dynasty. After complicated shenanigans during the Wars of the Roses, Harri Tudur (Henry Tudor, to give him his better-known English name) came out on top and Wales ended up judicially and administratively absorbed into England under his son, King Henry VIII. Henry VIII was responsible for adding the green and white to the Red Dragon banner, as those were the colours of his standard.
So, basically, Wales is not a land of dragons in the sense that we have thousands of dragon myths and you trip over the little sods every time you go outside, it is a land of the or a dragon depending on the emphasis you give the legend, and this particular dragon, who most likely winged its way to Wales from what is now modern-day Iran or wherever via the Roman army in a much earlier form, and now represents the nation and the spirit of overcoming in whatever way you want it to.
Now, that’s not to say Wales doesn’t have OTHER dragon stories, more to say that the reason the symbol of Wales is a dragon is for political (and prophetic) reasons.
Other Welsh Dragon Stories
- Penmynedd, Anglesey – Not far from the manor farm of Penhesgyn dwelt a dragon. One day a soothsayer prophecised that the heir to the manor would be killed by the dragon, so the lord of the manor sent the boy away to England. In the meantime a local youth slew the dragon by putting a polished cauldron in the bottom of a pit. When the dragon saw its reflection it fought it until it was exhausted. At that point the youth killed the dragon and it was buried in the pit. Thinking that all was well, the heir returned to the manor, but insisted on seeing the body of the dragon. When the carcass was exhumed the heir made to kick the dragon’s head but instead caught one of the dragon’s poisonous fangs in his foot and died. Thus the prophecy was fulfilled. We do like a bit of tragedy. All very Oracle of Delphi, over here.
- Llandeilo Graban, Powys – A dragon once nested in the belfry of the local church. From this lair it ravaged the neighbourhood until a blacksmith devised a plan to rid the area of the troublesome beast. He made a dragon out of iron and set it in the nest when the dragon was away. On returning, the dragon became enraged and attempted to remove the impostor, whereupon a mechanism was triggered which thrust sharp spikes into the creature, killing it.
- Coed-y-Moch in Gwynedd was plagued by a wyvern, at one time, said to have been killed by the side of Llyn Cynwch.
Interestingly, there are quite a few dragon stories from the borderlands, which includes Cheshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. These mainly take the forms of serpents, and appear in 18th and 19thC folklore collections.
You can read the article on them here.
Some of these tales include:
- The Moston dragon, slain by Thomas Venables
- Drakelow (Cheshire) where, like Warwickshire, the name implies a belief that a dragon slept in a barrow or mound, and there is a legend where one of the Anglo-Norman lords of Malpas slew a dragon (according to Alfred Ingham, Cheshire, its traditions and history, Edinburgh, 1920.)
- The Mordiford dragon/wyvern, Herefordshire, raised from a tiny pup(?) by Maud of Mordiford, until it grew too big and she couldn’t control it (kind of a LAKE PLACID situation).
- Bromfield, Shropshire: this is probably a con that went wrong. Thomas Walsingham’s chronicle has the following: ‘1344. Of a remarkable incident. In this year a Saracen doctor same to Earl Warren and asked permission to take captive a serpent, which he said was in a place called Brunfeld, on the Earl’s land somewhere in Wales. When this doctor had worked his charm and captured the serpent, he said there was a cave in the area where it had had its lair, and that this cave contained a great treasure. Some Hereford men heard about this. On the instigation of a Lombard called Peter the Picard, they went out there, began digging, and found out that the Saracen had been right. So they gathered together there for several nights, until the Earl’s retainers got wind of the matter; then the Hereford men were arrested and committed to prison. The Earl acquired a considerable treasure form this business.’ This sounds like there was never a serpent, but the serpent was a ruse to dig up the treasure (possibly a Roman coin hoard or other sort of archaeological thing. In Bromfield there are barrows as well as a Roman site).
- Brinsop, Shropshire, another place where St George is meant to have killed the dragon, according to some local sources, but other versions of the tale simply reference a local knight who killed it at Dragon well.
- Deerhurst, Gloucestershire: county historian Samuel Rudder, writing in 1799 and embellishing a little on Sir Robert Atkyns’s county history written in 1712, reported: ‘In the parish of Deerhurst, near Tewkesbury, a serpent of a prodigious bigness was a great grievance to all the country, by poisoning the inhabitants, and killing their cattle. The inhabitants petitioned the king and a proclamation was issued out, that whosoever should kill the serpent should enjoy an estate in the parish, which then belonged to the crown. One John Smith, a labourer, engaged in the enterprise. He put a quantity of milk in a place to which the serpent resorted, who gorged the whole, agreeable to expectation, and lay down to sleep in the sun, with his scales ruffled up. Seeing him in that situation, Smith advanced, and striking between the scales with his axe, took off his head.’ The milk detail appears to be added by Rudder and apparently does not appear in Atkyns.
There are more dragon/drake tales across these borderlands, and I would theorise this is because of the concentration of Norman influence here in what was a highly militarised zone. The Normans were Norse (their name is literally “the northmen”, or the “nor’men”), so their cultural tales of wyrms and dragons remained. In the poem Fouke le Fitz Warin, a fictional account of the local noble family the Fitz Warins (several of whom had the first name ‘Fulk’, and were conflated in the poem’s events), the eponymous character kills giants, and rounds off his adventures by slaying a dragon in Ireland (accompanied by the Earl of Chester, whose patrimony as we have seen is also riddled with dragon tales). Gaelic and Brythonic speaking peoples – what tend to be known collectively as ‘Celtic’ cultures – don’t tend to have early, pre-existing dragon myths of their own with the exception of Wales, looked at above. So again, this is an example of the dragon (and indeed, the giants earlier in the tale) being both from Norman tradition and wider European folklore, but also being politically symbolic within the tale, in this case in context of the Cambro-Norman invasion of Ireland. [The Normans intermarried with the local population wherever they invaded and settled in order to legitimately secure the land for their heirs, and so in this case became Anglo-Normans and Cambro-Normans when we’re discussing England and Wales post Conquest].
This is PART 1 of today’s mini-series of posts on dragons across the British Isles. PART 2 is on the North of England, Scotland and the Scottish Isles, so look out for that coming next! Leave me a tip on Ko-Fi if you want to 🙂