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Wales: History of Welsh Flags

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Last modified: 2009-05-24 by rob raeside
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[Flag of Wales] by K. J. Seefried III


See also:

History of Welsh Flags

[Note: The following is excerpted from "A History of the Red Dragon" by Carl Lofmark, edited by G.A. Wells

The origins of the Welsh Dragon were undoubtedly the Roman "draconi" standards of the cohorts, which were far more numerous than the legions, particularly after the gradual withdrawal of the latter. "... the people who were left behind when the legions withdrew forever must most naturally have thought of the Dragon as the symbol of that Roman civilisation to which they belonged and which they were now defending against the ravages of the barbarian invaders. It is generally agreed that resistance to the Saxons was first organized by Romans, or Romanized Britons, presumably on Roman lines ... For their battle standard no emblem was more natural than the familiar Dragon of the Roman cohort."

"The Welsh, as a distinct people, may be said to date from about the seventh century, when the advance of the Saxons to the Bristol Channel and the Mersey isolated them from the rest of Celtic Britain. The 'Historia Brittonum,' of about 800 A.D. (traditionally ascribed to the scholar Nennius), which drew on earlier sources, described a Red Dragon as the symbol of the British people in their wars against the White Dragon of the Saxons. ... Early in the Welsh literary tradition, in the tale 'Lludd a Llefelys,' this Red Dragon is associated with Merlin, who gives counsel to the earliest kings in Briton."

"From the very first records of the Welsh language the words 'draig,' 'dragon' mean 'warrior' and great warriors are referred to as 'pendraig,' 'pendragon,' i.e. 'chief dragon'."

"The only thing that remains unclear about the early British dragon is its colour. According to Nennius, the dragon of the Britons is red. ... The national dragon of Mediaeval Wales may be red, or firey, or golden. ... It may be that his colour was not yet fixed, though he was thought to resemble fire, his most natural element: for the colours, on those occasions when colour is mentioned, are those appropriate to fire, and never any other."

"While the warriors, chiefs and princes of Wales were constantly called 'dragons', we do not have any clear evidence to prove that they ever used a dragon, let alone a red dragon, as a military standard at any time before the fifteenth century. It is perfectly likely that it may have happened, but the literary and historical documents which we have contain no unambiguous reference to the use of a dragon banner by Welsh resistance fighters until 1401."

"The arms of Llewelyn's [the Last, proclaimed the first Prince of Wales in 1258, died 1282] father, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn Fawr [of the royal house of Gwynedd], were sketched by Matthew Paris (died 1259) and they show, quarterly or and gules (i.e. gold and red) four lions passant counterchanged. ... there is no dragon in the arms of Gwynedd. ... there is more reason to suppose that Llywelyn fought under the traditional Lions of Gwynedd, like other leaders of Gwynedd both before and after him, up to Owain Glyndwr and the Tudors."

An "englyn" written at the time refers to Llywelyn and his army, "There is my lord Llywelyn and tall warriors follow him; a thousand, a host in green and white."

"These are the colours in which the Black Prince, Edward of Woodstock, was to dress his Welsh contingent at Crécy in 1346: these men were, as D.L. Evans remarked, 'the first troops to appear on a continental battlefield in national uniform.' Thus, by the middle of the fourteenth century, green and white appear to have been understood as the national colours of Wales; they were to be used later by Henry Tudor as the field for the Red Dragon, and they remain to this day the colours of the national flag, upon which the Red Dragon is set."

"Owain Glendwr, ... in 1401-04 succeeded in conquering virtually the whole of Wales."

"One of the earliest great successes of his career was his siege of Caernarfon (2nd November 1401), at which he unfurled his banner, displaying a golden dragon on a white field, as the chronicler Adam of Usk records: 'in multitudine glomerosa vexillum suum album cum dracone aureo ibidem displicuit'."

"From 1404 onward we hear no more of Owain's use of the dragon emblem. It seems that, having become established as Prince of Wales and successor to Llywelyn, he now preferred to display the Lions of Gwynedd."

"Throughout the Middle Ages the colour of the Dragon fluctuates between gold and red. This, like so much else, is a legacy from Geoffrey of Monmouth, for while the dragon of the Britons seen by Ambrosius is plainly red ('rubeus draco'), the one displayed by Uther Pendragon [legendary father of Arthur] is gold ('vexillum, aureus draco'). The princes of Gwynedd, whose family colours were red and gold, had no reason to prefer one colour to the other."

Jasper, son of Owain Tudor (along with his brother Edmund) used "a red blunt-tailed dragon" as crest and supporter to his arms and on his seal. He "campaigned long and hard, leading the Welsh Lancastrians against the Yorkist English king. Though repeatedly driven into hiding or exile, he showed great resilience and kept returning to the attack. He earned great praise from the poets ... Deio ap Ieuan Du (c.1460-80) refers to Jasper's patriotic struggle when he produced the line which was later to become famous as motto of the nation: 'Y draig coch, ddyry cychwyn' ('the Red dragon advances')."

"When Henry Tudor [Jasper's nephew] with his allies faced King Richard III at Bosworth [1485], one of his three battle standards showed 'a red firye dragó beaten vpó white and grene sarcenet'. ... After his victory Henry rode with these three standards to St. Paul's cathedral in London, where they were blessed: they are described thus in the 'Chronicle of London', referring to 27th August 1485:

oon was of the Armys of Seynt George, the secund a Red ffyry dragon peyntid upon white and Grene Sarcenet, and the third was a Baner of Tarteron bett wyth a dun cowe.

Thus, side by side, Henry honored St. George of England, the Red Dragon of Wales, and the family arms of the Lancastrian house of Beaufort. Another chronicler tells of Henry's standard showing a Red Dragon passant, breathing flames, upon a field divided horizontally green and white, with a background of flames, white and red roses and golden fleur-de-lis."

"In Wales, where the red dragon has long been keenly felt as a national symbol, it could not become the emblem of any single princely family." There is no dragon in the arms of Welsh nobility of the fourteenth century, and this has not changed subsequently. ... Owain Glendwr used it only temporarily, and even the Tudors used it only as a supporter." It was also used as a supporter in the arms of the commonwealth.

"In 1807, after the union of the parliaments of Great Britain and Ireland, it was declared that 'a red dragon passant standing on a mound should be the King's badge for Wales'."

"... in 1953, Queen Elizabeth II decreed that the royal badge for Wales should be augmented, and to its red dragon there was added the famous motto 'Y ddraig goch ddyry cychwyn'. This augmented badge was placed on a white flag and flown over government buildings on appropriate occasions. But in 1958 the Gorsedd of Bards expressed the wish that the Red Dragon flag be recognised as the national flag of Wales, instead of this augmented badge. Accordingly, in 1959 Her Majesty commanded that in future 'only the Red Dragon on a green and white flag should be flown on Government buildings in Wales and in London where appropriate'. The augmented badge was to continue in use for other purposes, i.e. for its display as a badge in accordance with established heraldic procedure."

"The red dragon, from early times, has been the national symbol of Wales -- at rugby stadiums and battle-grounds; as royal heraldry and as newspaper logos. Today, the flag is held proudly as a mark of national identity and a reminder of a colourful and prestigous history."

Dave Martucci, 28 February 2000

13th Century

Around the time of King John of England and Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, if flags as such were in use by the early 13th century, then the flag used by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd would be the same as that used by his ancestor Llywelyn ab Iorwerth at the time of King John. In effect, this was the banner of the royal arms of Gwynedd, quaretered with a red lion passant-guardant(?) on a yellow background in the first and fourth quarters and the colours reversed on the second and third quarters. The same flag was also used by Owain Glyndwr.

It is far too early to talk about national emblems at this period of history, though, and what arms and banners did exist were connected with the ruler and his family rather than with the nation.
Stephan Hurford, 28 February 2000 

The Dragon's colour

I seem to remember that the reason was also due to the battle between the Red Dragon and the Blue Dragon. This was portrayed at the Cardiff Garden Festival some years ago and given as the reason for the Red Dragon of Wales.
Dave Davies, 13 March 2003

White, I think, not Blue. This was most recently referred to publicly at the enthronement of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who is Welsh and the former Archbishop of Wales. See http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/events/vestments.html under Morse (clasp).
André Coutanche, 13 March 2003

I recall the Arthurian legend about the birth of Merlin, in which he prophesized a battle between a red dragon and a blue one. The blue one won, symbolizing how an evil Saxon king would be defeated by his Celtic enemies. Of course, this can all change depending on which side (Celtic vs. Saxon, Saxon vs. Norman/Viking, Celtic vs. Roman, Christian vs. pagan) you say Arthur was on.
Nathan Lamm, 13 March 2003


14th Century flag

I have just been watching the recent BBC A History of Scotland presented by Neil Oliver. The programme displayed a dragon flag, which from what I could see had its tail presented to the staff but I'm unsure of how its head was pointed, e.g., was it regardant ? Neil Oliver was emphatic about it being a signal of giving no quarter and that it was a red dragon on white but the only reference I can dig up is the following which agrees with the facts stated in the programme but doesn't emblazon the flag. Since Edward 1st had just recently conquered Wales it is tempting to wonder whether this was a bunch of Welsh in his service...

http://www.footprintpublishing.co.uk/history.html : In February 1306 Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, assassinated his main rival John Comyn at Grey Friars Abbey and declared himself king of Scotland. His grandfather Robert de Bruce was one of the claimants to Scottish throne in 1291 and now he had revived that claim. He was crowned king on the 25th of March 1306 at Scone. His crowning divided the Scottish nobility and when Edward I – also called Longshanks and Hammer of the Scots, sent his General Aymer de Valence to 'Burn and slay and raised the dragon'. The raising of the dragon flag signified no quarter to be given – many of them fought on the side of the English.
David B. Lawrence, 21 January 2009

My understanding of Medieval warfare is that the rank and file of a defeated army (that is if they didn't change sides of course) were routinely slaughtered in any case, whereas the knightly class could expect to be held for ransom if they were unfortunate enough to be captured? That aside however, my instinctive reaction is that any display of a dragon flag could have had as much to do with English tradition as it had with Welsh, although I have never heard it used as a symbol of no quarter being offered?
One should, perhaps, remember that the Anglo Saxons very possibly adopted the dragon flag via the defeated (except in Wales) Britons, who in turn (equally very possibly) adapted the Ancient Roman "draco" for their own use? And that (as far as I am aware) the first recorded use of such in these islands was when it was employed by Alfred the Great of Wessex in the eighth century - not forgetting it being flown (if the Bayeux Tapestry is to be believed) by King Harold at the Battle of Hastings.
Christopher Southworth, 22 January 2009

The existence of the flag seems to rest on a passage in John Barbour's 'The Actes and Life of the most Victorious Conquerour, Robert Bruce King of Scotland', a poem-history written in c.1375, i.e., seventy or so after the events it is supposed to be describing. Barbour's history was written in support of the Bruce-Stewart dynasty and their claim to the throne (see http://www.enotes.com/classical-medieval-criticism/barbour-john and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Barbour_(poet) ); it perhaps follows that their enemies (in this case the English) are deliberately blackened to enhance the reputation of the Scots.
But personally I would like to see more contemporary sources in support of the existence of the flag. I had a quick look at the Oxford English Dictionary - there are a couple of references to dragons as standards or flags, one in 1297, and another in 1330; but both appear in histories and refer to either the Anglo-Saxons or King Arthur, i.e., not to the then contemporary English army. The word 'dragon' has been used to mean fierce, or even devilish / satanic - so Barbour may have been employing a poetic metaphor, rather than referring to an actual flag.
Ian Sumner, 22 January 2009

I am inclined to agree Ian, in that Barrow could very well have been drawing inferences that simply were not there, and that Barbour could just as easily have been using the phrase as a poetic metaphor for "give them hell" or its 14th Century equivalent. It is indicative is it not, that whilst existence of the "baucan" (a plain red streamer) for use at sea with the meaning of "no quarter" is well documented, there appears to be no reference at all (other than that of Barrow) to a "dragon flag" with this same meaning on land?

Please correct me if I have this wrong, but as it presently stands all we seem to have is one man's interpretation of a single (and possibly) partisan passage which is, in any case, capable of alternative connotation?
Christopher Southworth, 22 January 2009