Y Ddraig Goch: The Story of the Welsh Red Dragon Pt 1

by JoHarrington

The Red Dragon of the Welsh is not just a symbol for a people. It's a defiant yell, a promise and a prophecy. Y Ddraig Goch is hope.

'Y Ddraig Goch Ddyry Cychwyn!' is the often not so silent war-cry of the Welsh. At the very least, it's the unofficial motto of Wales, and the very fact that it's in Welsh shows that it's working.

'The Red Dragon will lead the way!' is how it's often translated. Another interpretation could be 'the Red Dragon will rise again'. It's more than just a pretty picture on a flag. It's not there to show how ferocious a Celtic soldier might be.

It's a touchstone to the past; an ancient foreseeing that all is not lost, despite the apparent hegemony of the invading Anglo-Saxons. The British will survive. Y Ddraig Goch has ensured it.

The Red Dragon of Wales

Y Ddraig Goch (the red dragon) appears on the flag of Wales. It represents that Celtic nation in other ways too.

The Red Dragon is ubiquitous in Wales. It flies on flags above government buildings, castles, shop frontages and parks; it's resplendent on rugby shirts, postcards and book covers; it's stamped on the top of menus; and it's reproduced in a million tourist souvenirs, stuffed toys and ornaments.

Y Ddraig Goch (pron. ee thr-aig g-ock, with a hard breath on the 'ck') represents the Welsh nation. But it's more than just a country's flag.

It might help to remember that the Welsh are a people which were forced together in extremity. They were originally several distinct tribes with separate monarchs, who were categorized as one nation by the invading English.

Wales means 'foreigners' in Old English. The Welsh call themselves the Cymru, or 'brotherhood', people uniting against a common foe. It's a little like us telling the Germans, Dutch, Austrians and Swiss that they are now one people, because they're pretty much the same. Or expecting the Canadians and Americans to act under one government without consulting either nation first.

Y Ddraig Goch brought together an alliance of Brythonic Celtic nations under a single banner. A treaty borne of necessity, if you will.

The Red Dragon represents the Cymru, the brotherhood - the Welsh, or foreigners - but more than that. It represents the native British in their enduring struggle against the White Dragon of their Germanic invaders. It's the icon of an ancient oath, that the British people and culture will survive the onslaught of all that is English.

Y Ddraig Goch ddyry cychwyn. The Red Dragon will lead the way.

Books about Y Ddraig Goch and the History of Wales

Lludd and Llefelys: The Cry of the Dragon Over Britain

Sometimes you have to look past the legend to the real history hidden within. The Mabinogion records a story from Britain's ancient past.

Even those unfamiliar with old British legends and Celtic lore will have caught a whisper about Lludd. He lived on the banks of the River Thames in Caer Ludd, which was later called Llundein.

We know where the entrance once stood. It was at Ludgate in London.

Yet the tales tell us that this Celtic monarch did more than merely leave his name on England's capital city. At a time when all of Britain was in the control of the British, Lludd had to deal with successive waves of continental invaders.

They became known as the Three Plagues, or Three Oppressions, and one was symbolized by a dragon.

We can deal with two of the invading forces quickly.  The first was the Coraniaid. History has lost sight of who these people were. We have just two clues. They came from Asia, and they were much shorter in physical stature than the average Celt. Their name means 'dwarves' in Welsh.

The story goes that Lludd mixed certain poisonous insects into a mixture and sprayed it over the invaders. They all sickened and died. Perhaps a hint there that these would be raiders didn't have immunity against some native British virus.

The third was a giant, who was subdued through a mixture of tactics, including luring him with choice things to eat and drink, before attacking and beating him into submission. That could be a hint that the Celts provided tribute towards a stronger people - a fledgling Roman force, the Vikings or Gaels perhaps - before realizing that it wasn't going to stop them being raided. So they fought back and won.

It's the second invader which laid the foundation for the later legend of the red dragon, though it didn't appear here. Just the invading dragon of another hue. The first sighting of an enemy, which would become the greatest occupying force of all. The white dragon had arrived.

Battle Between the Red and White Dragons Celtic Pendant

"This Dragon of Yours Raises a Dire Scream"

Whole communities were dying under the ravages of the White Dragon. Lludd had to work fast, but first he had to take some advice.

It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to read between the lines of the descriptions of the White Dragon's coming.

The creature left utter destruction in its wake. The sound of its mournful cry caused women to miscarry, and crops to be ruined in the fields. The ferocity of its attack struck terror into the hearts of men. They turned pale and lost their strength in defense. It was enough to send young men and women alike into the grip of insanity.

Moreover the white dragon came annually, regular as clockwork, on May eve. It came when the North Sea was calm enough to allow ships to cross in relative safety.

The story of Lludd never mentions the Saxons. That was an association which came much later. But the fact that it was recalled suggests that these earlier raids were the Anglo-Saxons too.

Lludd turned to his brother Llefelys for advice and support. Llefelys had married the daughter of a Celtic king across the channel, ruling a region now located in modern-day France. He was someone well positioned to have up-to-date information about the movements, and politics, in continental Europe.

Llefelys directed his brother to find the geographical center of Britain, then to build a huge pit there. He was to line the pit with silk, then fill it with mead. It would lure the white dragon to the spot.

Lludd would then see that a foreign dragon is already attempting to kill the white dragon. It would follow it to the trap, where the intoxicating pit would allow the new dragon to gain the upper hand.

Both dragons would collapse into the mead as piglets. Lludd and his warriors should then bind them fast in the silk, and carry them to a stronghold lined with stone. The piglets would eventually sober up and become dragons again, but by then it would be too late. They'd be buried away from harm.

This Lludd did, digging the pit at Oxford, then watching in amazement as a red dragon pursued the white dragon, just as Llefelys had foreseen. The Celts conveyed the captive dragons to an oubliette deep in the mountains of Snowdonia. The creatures languished, half-forgotten, beneath the peak now known as Dinas Emrys.

Ancient Celtic Britain Maps and Histories

Discover more about Lludd and the British landscape of his time.

The Ancient Celts Came Together to Defeat the White Dragon

There are hints towards a remarkable event concealed beneath the telling of Lludd's victory over the white dragon.

You're probably thinking, 'Eh? Say what?' about the advice that Llefelys gave to his brother. Not least because Oxford wouldn't have existed back then. The city was founded by the Saxons circa 900 CE.

Not to mention the fact that a single Celtic chieftain appears to be active all over the place. He's a long way from Caer Llud up in the mountain ranges of Snowdonia; and the geographical center of the British Isles was not in his jurisdiction.

But Oxford is where it is for a reason. It's a position of strategic importance.

The River Thames and River Cherwell meet there, so whichever water course the invaders used to gain deeper access into Britain, they would have to encounter Oxford.

Geographically, it's as true now, as it was in the time of Lludd.

Lludd did not measure the whole of Britain to find its geographical center. The entirety of the islands would have been none of his concern, and Oxford is nowhere near its meridian anyway.

What he did was visit, or send envoys, across the Isles to discover which other tribes were plagued by the 'white dragon' raiders. Then persuaded their chieftains to unite with him to see the menace off.  The Oxford terrain was merely the perfect ambush site, upon which the combined British forces centered.

Lludd was told that he'd witness a 'foreign dragon' fighting on his behalf. He saw it, yet knew from the outset that the red dragon was on his side. Why would he assume that? Surely one 'foreign' dragon is as potentially destructive as the next.

This brotherhood of Celts were not one nation. They covered the British Isles in a patchwork of territories, each with its own leaders, customs and laws. A 'foreigner' could merely be a Celt from a neighboring tribe.

Moreover the Celtic warlords took the title 'Pen Dragon', chief dragon or head dragon. Hence the Arthurian legends are full of such names: Uther Pendragon and Arthur Pendragon.

The white dragon was the invaders from across the sea - the Germanic (or maybe Norse) folk intent upon plundering individual Celtic tribes. The red dragon was the collective brotherhood of Celtic nations coming together to stop them.

It was a persuasive idea which lingered, only to resurface centuries down the line. When the white dragon raids grew into an actual invasion, then the lessons of the red dragon would rise again from the mists of druidic memory.

When the invasion became a long-standing occupation, the red dragon would burn like a beacon, carrying with it all that remained and could be preserved of British culture and ethnic identity. But first there would come the prophecy and the most famous tale of all about Y Ddraig Goch.

'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.

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Updated: 04/14/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 01/13/2014

Arderydd is the battle where Myrddyn went mad. Later on, that story was twisted into something more by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Myrddyn became Merlin. But it seems that the original tale referred to something quite terrible to behold up there. Just another example of where folklore and legend holds hints of real history.

Unfortunately, you are very right about the suicidal tendency of Celts to not see where the enemy truly lay until it was too late. Then the divide and conquer worked with horrible effect. But the Celts managed to hold Wales and Cornwall, though the latter was too small a territory to effectively retain. Leaving it in the horrible hinterland that it's in today.

Thank you for outlining the lay of the land. I forget sometimes to explain these things for those perusing the comments.

frankbeswick on 01/13/2014

In 547 the Angles of Bernicia [Northumberland] were pinned to the coast, but in 626 or thereabouts they swept over Northern England [having united with Deira earlier.] What happened? The battle or Arderydd in 597, which was a suicidal conflict which depleted the Britons of Northern England and Southern Scotland because of massive losses of manpower. Result: English expansion from the North East.

Sadly, the Britons spent too much time fighting each other. Without that suicidal tendency England could have been confined to the south east of the Tees-Exe line, and Wales could well have expanded right through the West of the country into Southern Scotland.

For those not familiar with the geography of Britain the Tees-Exe line is an imaginary diagona/arcl from south west to north east which roughly separates lowland from highland Britain, and to a lesser extent Celtic from Germanic, with the Celts to the north west. Part of these lands are in England [in fact much of the West of the country.] I am north west of the line, but in a lowland area, as the division between high and lowland is not absolute. As Jo says, her native Black country [part of Staffordshire] was in Wales [north west of the line] until the Mercian take over, and that is lowland

JoHarrington on 01/13/2014

Indeed they did and yes, another Kentish man. I'd forgotten about him.

Guest on 01/12/2014

Jack Cade certainly was a Kentish Man, leader of a popular revolt in 1450. Wat Tyler was about 70 years earlier than him so whether Jack grew up with tales of Wat in his ears, anyone knows. Jack and his followers certainly did a number on London at the time, as far as I understand.

JoHarrington on 01/12/2014

WordChazer - The Kentish Men are quite good at this. Wasn't Wat Tyler one of them? The Peasants' Revolt certainly started in Kent.

JoHarrington on 01/12/2014

Frank - That's more nationality than ethnicity, but I do get your point.

Guest on 01/12/2014

Jo and Frank, Conn Iggulden suddenly makes a lot more sense with you talking about Kentish men. His new series is on the Wars of the Roses and includes an uprising by the Kentish men at the time of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou.

frankbeswick on 01/11/2014

Beswick is an old Lancashire [Manchester] name. Had the Welsh won, Lancashire would have been in Wales, so I would have been Welsh; had the Scots won at the battle of Northallerton [1138] , we might have been Scots; but the English won, so I am English. Conclusion: ethnicity is a matter of history.

JoHarrington on 01/11/2014

I've just been reading something else that was citing that very book. Definitely one for me to check out. What's he's said there checks out with the ancient Welsh sources too, at least in the beginning - the middle of the 5th century.

The Black Country was in Powys, until the Mercians came.

frankbeswick on 01/11/2014

Stuart Laycock wrote a good book, "Britania, the failed state." It takes the view that after the Romans left, Britain disintegrated into warring tribal kingdoms. He notes that Saxon settlements are found near the borders of tribal kingdoms, and from this he infers that Saxon were setttled to defend borders against other Britons. It seems that the struggle was not between Saxons and Britons, but between various tribal kingdoms and their Saxon mercenaries. There were Saxons and Britons on the same side against other Saxons and Britons.

In what is now England the Saxons became dominant, but in Wales the Britons were the dominant group. However, Wales was far wider than it is now. Powys stretched West of the Severn until the Mercians, whom Robyn Fleming aptly describes as good at violence, managed to capture most of its lowland territories.

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