They’re everywhere in Wales! In the flag; in logos; on T shirts and jewellery; in topiaries, bumper stickers and blankets, even holding up flower baskets. You can’t get away from dragons in Wales. Why this obsession with dragons? Red dragons, specifically.
It’s all Merlin’s fault. One of the ancient Arthurian legends (and if King Arthurever existed, he was almost certainly Welsh, called “Arthwr,” meaning a bearer, rather than English — sorry if that’s a let-down), Merlin has a vision in which the white dragon attacks the red dragon’s lair and drives him off.However, after the red dragon has rested, it returns to the fray, recapturing not only his own lair, but the white dragon’s also.
Merlin interpreted the vision: the white dragon represented the Anglo-Saxons; that is, the English. The red dragon represented the native Britons; that is, the Welsh.
Fast forward to 1485. Wales, having been slowly annexed and covered in castles by the English during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was ruled as an extension of England by Richard III, a deeply unpopular king who was widely regarded as a usurper and child-murderer — the late middle age was a violent place, but they drew the line at that. Henry Tidwr (meaning “the treasurer,” but generally rendered “Tudor” in English) had fled his childhood home in Pembroke Castle for France, where the French king, ever eager to meddle in England’s affairs, had provided financial and military backing for an invasion. Aware of the legend of the dragon, Henry chose to land not on England’s south-east coast, the shortest and most direct route to London, but to sail around the Cornish peninsula and up the Irish Sea to Milford Haven, across the bay from Pembroke Castle. And just in case anybody missed the symbolism, he painted a red dragon rampant — that is, walking; moving forward, not standing still — on his green-and-white shield.
A fat lot of good it did him. The Welsh were far from enthusiastic and failed to run in droves to his banner. His tiny army faced a realistic prospect of destruction right up until the last minutes of the battle of Bosworth, in which Richard III’s much larger army was betrayed and defeated. Richard, in a desperate last charge hoping to kill Henry was surrounded, pulled from his horse, his armour ripped off, and was beaten and stabbed to death. Somebody thought it was funny to bugger the corpse with a sword. His naked body was tied to a donkey and dispatched to the nearby city of Leicester as proof of his demise. His burial place was unmarked and forgotten, his skeleton rediscovered only recently under a parking lot. Legend has it that his crown was discovered in a thorn bush, and placed on Henry’s head.
And that was the moment when the Welsh all decided they loved him! He didn’t love them, especially. Having become Henry VII, he never set foot in Wales again, and did little for the country. His son was Henry VIII, who, whatever else you say about him, was one of the most-influential monarchs in the history not just of England but of western Europe. Henry VII’s granddaughter was Elizabeth I, of whom probably more has been written and filmed than any other monarch in the world. His direct descendant is the present queen of England, Elizabeth II. So it could be said that the red dragon still controls the white dragon’s lair.
And that is why the Baner Gymru — the “Flag of Wales” — is a red dragon rampant on a green-and-white background. It’s why the red dragon is the national animal of Wales. It’s why you’ll see a red dragon in the Cardiff airport before you’ve even left the terminal building. It’s why you’ll see dragons everywhere you look, from magisterial domes to humble garden ornaments. And it’s why the floor of the council chamber in Cardiff City Hall bears the legend: “Y ddraig goch ddyry cychwyn” — “The red dragon will lead the way.”