Some of the earliest references to dragons can be found in ancient Welsh literature between 400 and 700 AD. Following the retreat of the Roman empire, Britain was subject to a period or major upheaval where warring tribes struggled to gain the upper hand.
As with much of literature much can be read into the symbolic aspect of the dragon. Dragon’s represent strength and power but also destruction.
Ancient Welsh poets Aneirin and Taliesin used the Welsh word for dragon "draig" to mean warrior or leader. Later in 800 A.D The dragon emerged as a symbol of national independence in the Historia Brittonum ascribed to Nennius. Here the dragon represents national independence in the story of the red dragon battling with the white dragon of the Saxon enemy.
Later during the Norman conquest in the 11th century, the dragon was used by both the Norman’s and the Anglo Saxons in their standard. The Bayeux tapestry clearly shows King Harold close to a dragon standard as he falls at the Battle of Hastings and on the pennant of one of duke William's messengers.
It would take the Normans more than two centuries to fully conquer Wales through slow process of colonisation. Nonetheless Welsh culture and the Welsh language survived along with its national identity.
The red dragon we know today would eventually become a symbol of Wales at the time of the Tudor dynasty. Despite all the bad press about English oppression, Henry VII who faced king Richard III at the battle of Bosworth in 1485 one of his battle standards carried a red dragon described by chroniclers as "Red ffyry dragon peyntid upon white and Grene Sarcenet".
Perhaps in an early attempt at propaganda, the dragon banner was supposed to represent Henry Tudor's claim to be a true representative of the ancient kings of Britain by adopting a recognisable symbol of the Welsh nation.
Today the Welsh dragon continues to sit proud as a national symbol. Perhaps the latest chapter in the history of the Welsh dragon will be the Waking the Dragon Project which will place a highly visible national icon in the hands of Wales and anyone from the international community who want to get involved.
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23rd Mar 2011