Dragon spirit: the legend of the Welsh dragon 

Fire-breathing dragons are a staple of folklore the world over – throw in a knight and a princess and you have yourself a fabulous fairytale. Wales has a healthy collection of tangled tales relating to warring warriors, kings, dragons and princesses of course, but although the dragon has been a part of the Welsh flag since 1959, what’s the story behind the legend?

Welsh rugby fans make their way to the Principality Stadium, a Welsh flag is hanging in the foreground

Rugby fans on their way to the Principality Stadium, Cardiff

Where the story begins

Long before the faithful old hound Beddgelert was slain in a case of mistaken identity, Beddgelert (the place) was a stomping ground for Vortigern – a Celtic King, who was looking for a spot to build a castle.  Though Vortigern quite liked the look of Dinas Emrys, he encountered mystical goings on when he tried to build his fortress.  He was advised to sacrifice a young boy (who turned out to be Merlin), who then warned him that his chosen site for a castle was above an underground lake where two dragons lay sleeping. 

Vortigen’s men dug down and sure enough, found two dragons (one red, one white) who started to fight fiercely.  The red dragon triumphed and was said to represent Vortigen’s people and (according to Geoffrey of Monmouth) – was a prophecy of the coming of King Arthur, whose father’s name ‘Uther Pendragon’ translates as ‘Dragon’s Head.’  

And if you don’t believe us, a 1945 excavation of the Dinas Emrys site reveled evidence of a lake and fortress dating back to Vortigen’s time….just saying…careful where you roam in Wales (remember: let sleeping dragons lie).  

A view across the hilly and rock Dinas Emrys

A view across Dinas Emrys, Snowdonia Mountains and Coast

The Welsh flag in battle 

But really….why was the dragon chosen to feature on the Welsh flag? It has actually appeared on the battle flags of various British soldiers on their way to Rome since the 4th century and was later adopted by 5th century Welsh kings keen to show their authority following the Roman withdrawal.  

Wales’ proper flag debut though could probably be considered during the battle of Bosworth field in England. It was here that Henry Tudor defeated Richard III. This Pembroke-born English king would then go on to reign over England for 24 years as Henry VII.  

Though the Welsh dragon faded in popularity somewhat and wasn’t featured on the Union Flag of 1606, Queen Elizabeth declared in 1959 that that ‘only the Red Dragon on a green and white flag should be flown on government buildings in Wales’.

Now of course you’ll see it on badges, buttons, bumper stickers and painted on the faces of eager rugby fans at rugby internationals.  There really is no flag quite like it and we think it’s one of the best….so there.

Performers dressed as dragons, forming part of the St Davids Day parade as it passes Cardiff Castle

St Davids Day Parade 2014, Cardiff by Simon.Matthews

Fancy spotting some dragons of your own? Here's some inspiration