Y Ddraig Goch: The Story of the Welsh Red Dragon Pt 2

by JoHarrington

'The Red Dragon will rise again!' It sounds like a cry of defiance from the Welsh, but it's much, much more than that. It's a prophecy waiting to be fulfilled.

Y Ddraig Goch (the red dragon) is the national symbol of Wales. It dominates their flag and appears throughout the country in a myriad of ways.

Yet it shouldn't be assumed that the red dragon represents only that nation. Wrapped up in the folklore and legends there are hints towards a much greater designation. Y Ddraig Goch is the unifying force for all Celtic Britons. It's the last line of defense against cultural genocide, both ancient and modern.

But more than that, the red dragon serves as a reminder for a 5th century prediction. Its time is yet to fully come, but Y Ddraig Goch will rise again.

The Red Dragon of the British Lay Slumbering

That unifying force of Britain's Celtic tribes lived on only as an interesting point of oral history, recounted only by the druids in their Snowdonian strongholds.

Buried beneath the layers of an ancient Welsh tale, there are hints towards a less mystical, but possibly real history.

The full legend of Lludd and the dragon was retold in part one, so I won't repeat it here. But for recounting that startling conclusion. In an age before the coming of the Romans, Vikings, Saxons and Normans, the Britons banded together as one nation to repel a mutual foe.

These days, that wouldn't seem so unusual, but then it amounted to a serious amount of negotiation and diplomacy to bring together disparate tribes of Brythonic Celts. 

They did so under the collective symbolism of the red dragon. Divided they could be conquered; united, they were able to repel a strong invasion force. They had sent the white dragon packing.


In the aftermath, each Celtic tribe returned to their territories, every one with its own monarchy, laws, norms and culture. While the ancient Britons might have shared a language and many other aspects, they were not one people.

Yet the notion of the red dragon lingered. The moment when they had brilliantly and temporarily been one. An idea buried deep beneath the ground of Dinas Emrys; or, to put it another way, recalled only by the druidic bards and the history keepers.

It was a political hot potato, this thought of being one nation under a single High King or Queen. No leader wanted it, unless they were to be the one wearing the crown. It was no more welcome to the people than one modern day world leader attempting to conquer and unite all of Europe. The national self-identity of, say, the Czech, the Polish and the Dutch is no less keen than it was for the Cornovii, the Iceni, the Silures and the Brigantes.

Separate Celtic countries within the confines of the British Isles, living their lives as the centuries went on. Paying no more heed to the red dragon than as a strange story from the dim, distant past.

And like any nation, there would occasionally arise warlords and leaders who'd rather like to expand their borders. Clashes sometimes turned into full-scale wars, and then no-one could have even believed that they once marched together under Y Ddraig Goch, let alone that it could ever stir again.

But in the pit beneath Dinas Emrys the beasts were stirring. This time the ferocity of their battles would shake the British Isles to the core. The roar of the dragons is still sounding today. The red dragon is shackled, but not yet dead. It will rise again.

Deluxe 1000 Piece Jigsaw of the Welsh Red Dragon

The White Dragon Welcomed Back to Britain

Throughout the early narratives, white dragon always refers to the Saxons, Jutes and later Angles, who would eventually overtake parts of Britain as Angle-land, or England.

When the white dragon returned to the British Isles, it was not initially an invasion, but an invitation.

The man usually blamed for this is Gwyrtheryn, better known to history and legend as Vortigern, a Romano-British ruler.

It's a common misconception that the Romans conquered the whole of Britain. They didn't. They secured isolated cities (just about everything ending in 'chester' in modern place-names) with long, straight roads in between.

When the Romans withdrew from Britain, in 409-410 CE, they left between them enclaves of Romanized Celts, who suddenly felt very vulnerable. These people were used to the protection of the legions, and they'd grown very rich accordingly. Now they were stranded in the midst of Celtic tribes who'd never submitted.

In addition, there was renewed interest - and threats - from the Irish Gaels, Scots and Germanic raiders, all of whom saw rich, undefended booty there for the taking.

Later legend says that Vortigern acted alone, but the near contemporary histories talk about a 'council' supporting him all the way.  It would seem that a consortium of high-ranking Romano-Celts panicked and made a decision with major consequences; not least the fact that you're reading this in English.

Vortigern and his council invited two Saxon mercenaries to bring three shiploads of warriors into Britain. They would fight on behalf of the Romano-Celts against the British and all comers. They would be given land to facilitate their needs.

Hengist and Horsa established their bases, and quickly realized the truth of the situation. The Romano-Celts were weak.  The British Celts were divided. In short, a united front of Germanic tribes from Jutland, Saxony and Angeln (Schleswig-Holstein today) could probably take it all.

Messages flew back across the North Sea and more ships sailed over the horizon in response. The fighting was fierce (Horsa was killed helping the Jutes take modern day Kent from the Cantii), but with startling speed much of the south of Britain became Angle-land - England.

Thousands of Celtic refugees fled over the Channel into Lesser Britain (Britanny); others stayed and integrated with their Anglo-Saxon overlords.

As for the Romano-Celts, their leaders were all invited to a massive conference in London. It was supposed to be free of all weapons, but the Saxons each had a knife concealed about their person. At a signal, halfway through the welcoming feast, all of the Germanic warriors killed the Romano-Celt beside them. Only Vortigern survived, kept alive for his ransom and his standing as a mouthpiece in future campaigns to take the rest of the Isles.

The white dragon was invited into Britain; and the Celts didn't realize the danger until it was way too late. Nor did the Romans return to save the Romano-Celts.

But half lost in the mists of Celtic lore was an answer to it all.  The ravages of the white dragon could be held back, if the red dragon rose to meet it.

The Red and White Dragons Under Vortigern's Tower

Was Vortigern warned ahead of time, about the terrible folly involved in welcoming the Saxons into Britain? A famous legend suggests so.

The tale was first written down over four centuries after Vortigern was in his grave, executed in Powys, though we're unsure by which side. It's likely to have been repeated orally, from generation to generation previously, unless Nennius made it up.

Nennius was a Welsh monk, who lived during the 9th century. He credited the Breton warlord Ambrosius Aurelius as the central player alongside Vortigern.

A more famous telling comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century. Though historically suspect, he named Merlin. Most versions today follow this one, so it's the one that I'll tell too.

Vortigern was trying to build a great tower on a mountain - often located outright as Dinas Emrys - but the tower kept falling down. He consulted his priests, who blessed the ground to no avail, so he turned to his seers instead. Vortigern was advised that only the sacrifice of a child without a human father could save his tower. Its blood in the foundations would solve everything.

Across the British Isles, the search was on for such a person.  In Caerfyrddin (Carmarthen), Vortigern's agents found Merlin.

The boy was the son of a defiled nun, who'd been visited by a demon in the night. The devil wanted Merlin for his anti-Christ on Earth, but his mother Non prayed night and day for it not to be so. It was enough for Vortigern, who ordered the boy brought to the site of his tower.

Merlin knelt to his sacrifice, but, as the knife plunged down, he rolled away and avoided it. "Stop!" He yelled, "Can't you hear that?"  Nobody could. It was his half-demonic blood which gave Merlin such preternatural senses. "A great clashing beneath our feet!"

All listened, but could not hear. Merlin persuaded Vortigern to let him investigate, which the Romano-Celtic leader duly did.  The boy crawled down into the pit (or fell into a trance), and the cause of the tower's continued destruction was revealed.

Deep underground, a red dragon was ferociously battling a foreign white dragon. The winner would determine the Matter of Britain. There was also the little matter of a prophecy made, which would redefine Y Ddraig Goch forever.

'Merlin Am I' by Damh the Bard

The landscape on and around Dinas Emrys is beautifully shown here, along with a soundtrack from one of Britain's foremost bards today.

Merlin's Prophecy of the Welsh Red Dragon

Y Ddraig Goch holds within it the seeds of a promise given from the dawn of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain. One day the Celts would take back their land.

In Merlin's vision, the red dragon had already defeated the white dragon once. But the latter had slunk away, rested, healed and come back so much stronger than before.

Now, beneath Vortigern's Tower, the white dragon was tearing the red dragon to shreds. It was going to win a victory which would last for three hundred years or more.

But the red dragon was not dead. The red dragon would rise again, and when it did, it would overpower the white dragon with such ferocity that its foe would be struck from Britain itself, never to return.

It shouldn't take much to read between the lines, particularly with the knowledge that both Caer Myrddin (Merlin) and Vortigern's Tower have been used poetically as synonyms for Britain.

Y Ddraig Goch - the red dragon - as we recall from the legend of Lludd and Llefelys, represented the British working together.  As successive generations of Britons have heard the legend, applying it to their own place in history, it's become so much more than that.

It's about all that it means to be ethnically British.  Celtic culture, language, norms, mores and philosophy. A cultural genocide of the Celts (which has been attempted so many times during the intervening 1700 years) cannot succeed while the red dragon still twitches under Dinas Emrys.

I am writing this article in English.  The white dragon is dominant. But seventeen centuries on, I still know how to pronounce Myrddin, Y Ddraig Goch and Dinas Emrys.  The red dragon survives.  Ond dwi'r siarad Cymraeg.  (And I speak Welsh.)  Follow the red dragon. The red dragon will rise again.

This is the Matter of Britain in a nutshell, teeming with Celtic spirituality and wrapped up in a bestial icon. That one day the Celts will reign triumphant over the English, with their culture intact.

Merlin promised us.

Y Ddraig Goch Today

You will see the red dragon of Wales on its flag and everywhere else in the country. Even those who couldn't retell the story of Vortigern's Tower will grasp its meaning.

Sometimes, if you travel along the Welsh border, you will see two flags facing each other across the invisible line. 

The red cross of St George versus Y Ddraig Goch. Old battles in modern guise. Neither icon was chosen lightly. It's no accident that the English flag is that of a dragon-slayer. Nor that the red dragon roars into a white void. 

Y Ddraig Goch represents all that it is to be Welsh.  Seen from another Angle (pun intended), it holds fast all that is culturally intact from the ancient British. 

Despite centuries of trying, the British Isles still aren't entirely English. We speak the language and we have assimilated a lot of the customs, but the Celtic bedrock remains underneath. Some of the traditions, which are seen as so quintessentially English, are actually British. It's a patchwork merging of cultures, which often resembles nothing more than a compromise.

But that's still not entirely English.  The cultural genocide of the Celts never quite succeeded, even in England, where the red dragon is seen far less.

That is the legacy of Y Ddraig Goch today. The hidden currents beneath its Welsh ubiquity. Less ancient battles fought over and over again, than a line which was drawn in the proverbial sand.

Does anyone fully believe that the English language, culture and people (only 10% of those in England are genetically descended from the Anglo-Saxon invaders) will be pushed back to Germany?  Probably not, despite the prophecy.

But as long as the red dragon is living, the harp of my country survives. Which, from a certain viewpoint, means that Britain was never conquered at all.

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Updated: 01/16/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 01/15/2014

It was close enough though! If you'd gone for Aberavon (Aber - mouth of the river; Afon - river) you'd have nailed it!

Guest on 01/14/2014

Confusing! And I studued philology too...

JoHarrington on 01/14/2014

Close, but there's some contractions there. 'Gaer yn ar Fon', with Fon being a mutation from Mon, or Anglesey. The fortress over the water from Mon.

Guest on 01/14/2014

As in Caenarfon, the building by the river?

JoHarrington on 01/14/2014

Not to mention the River Avon (Afon, pronounced Avon, being Welsh for river). I talked about some of them here: http://wizzley.com/lost-in-translatio...

Such things always amuse me.

frankbeswick on 01/14/2014

The claim that there are not many Celtic words in English runs foul of the fact that the variety of English that we speak is South Eastern, the area where Saxon dominance was strongest and Celtic the least spoken. But there were other forms, such as Wessex and the Angle dialects of the north and midlands, to which Kentish is related. These would have more Celtic words than south eastern would.

Some place names in Lancashire and the Pennines show Celtic influence. How many hills have pen in their name [e.g. Pendle, Pen y Ghent?] There is in South Lancashire a town called Ince, which means island, close to the Celtic inys/innis. There is a river Douglas near Wigan, Dhu Glas [Dark Stream.] Chat Moss, the large town near which Ince is situated, means wooded moss, chet/chat being old Celtic for woodland. Ince was an island near the edge of the swamp.

There are some hybrid names, which suggest that English and Celtic words flourished for a while at the same time. For example, in Ashton under Lyne there is a steeply sloping road called Penny Meadow, [Pen y Meadow] the high meadow.

JoHarrington on 01/14/2014

Frank - Re Mum and Dad. I was telling Ember last night about Celtic words in the English lexicon. I stopped at Nan, without considering the most fundamental ones of Mum and Dad.

Edward III introduced the St George cross partially because of its manliness - it was the soldier's cross, ergo The Crusades - but also because this was the period when the Welsh really did start raising Y Ddraig Goch and fighting under it.

JoHarrington on 01/14/2014

Yes, I had neglected to mention them. Thanks, Frank! There's some thought that their messages back home accounted for the Saxon attacks in 408, which were repealed by the Celts.

frankbeswick on 01/14/2014

One forgotten element in the equation was the remaining garrisons. In the third century the Roman army had been reorganised into field troops, who could go anywhere, and garrison troops, who were a permanent settlement. Many garrison troops in Britain were imported Germans. There seems to have been many around Lincoln.

The field troops were withdrawn, but the garrisons, who were communities intermingled with the local population, remained long after the official departure date of Rome, trying to repair decaying fortresses until they abandoned them.Robyn Fleming tells of garrisons surviving on Hadrian's wall, long after the Roman departure. Much of the Germanic ten per cent could come from these groups of foederati/laeti/tributarii, as they were variously known.

Britain at that period was in a state of mayhem, with small kingdoms developing and collapsing, with local warlords and garrison commanders taking power and losing it, until these smaller states coalesced into the better known larger ones.

JoHarrington on 01/14/2014

Ember - I recall you saying at the time that it felt different in Wales than it did it Yorkshire, West Sussex and London. To me, there is a definite energy to a place, which might be in the visual clues, but might equally be the place itself. I felt the same changes traveling across America too.

I'm glad to have interested you so much in the subject!

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