Examining the Red Dragon as a symbol of the Welsh… and larger… Brittonic identity

Since we are in the wake (March 1) of St. David’s Day, I keep thinking of the meaning of the Red Dragon (symbolizing the Britons) on the Welsh flag.

Now, before I dive in, if a reader happens to be an academic with a focus on this matter… or just someone much well-versed in this than myself, please be kind. I’m caught between summing this all up for myself just as much as I’m trying to bring it up as a topic for thought and discussion in a wide range of potential readers.

It seems different sites on the web vary in suggesting where the red dragon (Britons) vs white dragon (Saxons) originated. Some attest it coming from Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s History of the Kings of Britain, where the red dragon is a prophecy of the coming of King Arthur. Moving back further, it seems to me that Historia Brittonum (dating to ca. 828) means to make a point of “the balance” of “all things Britonic” being unseated for a Briton king’s desires (ca. AD 449) toward a Jutish king’s daughter… and support against the Scots and Picts. As much as I hate to quote Wikipedia, I do like this summary:

The Historia contains a story of the king Vortigern, who allowed the Saxons to settle in the island of Britain in return for the hand of Hengist‘s daughter. One legend recorded of Vortigern concerns his attempt to build a stronghold near Snowdon, called Dinas Emrys, only to have his building materials disappear each time he tries. His advisers tell him to sprinkle the blood of a boy born without a father on the site to lift the curse. Vortigern finds such a youth in Ambrosius, who rebukes the wise men and reveals that the cause of the disturbance is two dragons buried under the ground.

Detail from Lambeth Palace Library MS 6 folio 43v illustrating an episode in Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136). Pictured above Vortigern sits at the edge of a pool whence two dragons emerge, one red and one white, which do battle in his presence. From Wikipedia.

You see what I mean? Vortigern compromised the Britons for his personal benefit, and all of the Britons paid for it. Indeed, St. Gildas (ca. 500 – ca. 570) even put blame on Vortigern. I’ll also direct you to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for more about the story between Hengist and Vortigren.

But, hold on a second… Gildas being ca. 500-570, and Historia Brittonum being ca. 828… yes, Historia Brittonum borrowed from earlier tales as well.

Ultimately, it boils down to the struggle of Britons to maintain hold of what was long theirs. Just how long it was theirs is a subject of even deeper discussion, but some do refer to Britons as the Isles “First Peoples”. Personally, I have a problem with that, as there has to be some disambiguation between First Peoples of North America. I rather prefer, simply… Britons, or even Pretani. Nonetheless, moving on…

There’s even the thought that Britons borrowed the imagery of the dragon from the Romans. From the Historic UK website, we have this:

One legend recalls Romano-British soldiers carrying the red dragon (Draco) to Rome on their banners in the fourth-century, but it could be even older than that… It is considered that the Welsh kings of Aberffraw first adopted the dragon in the early fifth century in order to symbolise their power and authority after the Romans withdrew from Britain. Later, around the seventh century, it became known as the Red Dragon of Cadwaladr, king of Gwynedd from 655 to 682.

An even deeper argument can be made that, maybe… just maybe… it wasn’t the Romans after all, but a symbol much older, as part of Celtic identity. After all, Celtic identity took hold among the Britons (a subject that warrants more discussion in this blog). Take, for example, this rather Pictish brooch with the British Museum, which dates ca AD 43…

… or the Gundestrup Cauldron, which dates between 200 BC and AD 300, and has this really cool dragons…

Yet, we can’t seem to avoid the possibility that Romans had influence in even these two pieces. The Gundestrup Cauldron, for example, being made in the late La Tène period or early Roman Iron Age. While found in Denmark, I encourage reading about the potential origins of the piece, based on a number of factors.

Then too, there are those who thing the Red Dragon is a symbol of evil. I’ll keep my commentary short on that by saying simply that I don’t buy into such nonsense.

From the Visit Wales website

Whether adopted or not, the red dragon being used by the Welsh as a symbolic bond of unity between Britons fascinates me, and I’m drawn to that part of the Armes Preydein which notes that very unification…

And there will be reconciliation between the Welsh and the men of Dublin, The Irish of Ireland and Man and Scotland,
The men of Cornwall and of Strathclyde will be made welcome amongst us, The Britons will rise again when they prevail…

With that in mind… take a look at how the Y DNA lays out, under L21… this is a small range of all that falls under DF13, and I wanted to highlight the connection between the Ancient Welsh*, Gododdin*, Pict*, Royal Stewart*, Hibernian*, Irish Type I (Ancient Irish*), Irish Type II (Eoganachta*), Type III (Dalcassian*), and my own line under DF21 and down through BY3364, which I strongly believe (as I’ve demonstrated in earlier posts) is ONE (emphasis as I think I’ve identified a few lines that could qualify) of the Damnonii/Alt Clut/Kingdom of Strathclyde lines… sometimes called Strathwealas/Strathclyde Welsh. Although they weren’t actually “Welsh”, the Brythonic language ties classified them within the overall. Two other lines which I’m examining closely are from S168 (in the diagram, below), down through (not in the diagram) a few additional tiers to DC55 (my maternal father’s line… Hillyard/Hilliard, but NPE to Nolan… from Tipperary); and from Z2534 (in the diagram) through six tiers (not in the diagram) to BY109515 (my paternal grandmother’s mother’s line… Nicholson… which was in Cumbria).

*Indicates these are lines were designated as such by Britain’s DNA program, which is now defunct.

Published by Robert Moore

Historian, writer, hypertext & Web literacy theorist

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