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The white dragon is a symbol associated in Welsh mythology with the Anglo-saxons. More recently, a flag featuring a white dragon on a red field has been adopted by English nationalist movements.
Origin of tradition
In Welsh legend, the white dragon was one of two warring dragons who represented the ongoing war between the English and the Welsh. The white dragon represented England, as opposed to the red dragon of Wales.
The battle between the two dragons is the second plague to strike the Island of Britain in the mediaeval romance of Lludd and Llefelys. The White Dragon would strive to overcome the Red Dragon, making the Red cry out a fearful shriek which was heard over every Brythonic hearth. This shriek went through people’s hearts, scaring them so much that the men lost their hue and their strength, women lost their children, young men and the maidens lost their senses, and all the animals and trees and the earth and the waters, were left barren. The plague was finally eradicated by catching the dragons and burying both of them in a rock pit at Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia, north Wales, the securest place in Britain at that time. The dragons were caught by digging out a pit under the exact point where the dragons would fall down exhausted after fighting. This place was at Oxford, which Lludd found to be the exact centre of the island when he measured the island of Britain. The pit had a satin covering over it and a cauldron of mead in it at the bottom. First, the dragons fought by the pit in the form of terrific animals. Then they began to fight in the air over the pit in the form of dragons. Then exhausted with the fighting, they fell down on the pit in the form of pigs and sank into the pit drawing the satin covering under them into the cauldron at the bottom of the pit whereupon they drank the mead and fell asleep. The dragons were then wrapped up in the satin covering and placed in the pit to be buried at Dinas Emrys.
The ultimate source for the symbolism of white dragons in England would appear to be Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fictional History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136), where an incident occurs in the life of Merlin in which a red dragon is seen fighting a white dragon which it overcomes. The red dragon was taken to represent the Welsh and their eventual victory over the Anglo-Saxon invaders, symbolised by the white dragon. The tale is taken up by Nennius in the Historia Brittonum, which was written before Geoffrey of Monmouth was born. The dragons remain at Dinas Emrys for centuries until King Vortigern tries to build a castle there. Every night the castle walls and foundations are demolished by unseen forces. Vortigern consults his advisers, who tell him to find a boy with no natural father, and sacrifice him. Vortigern finds such a boy (who is later, in some tellings, to become Merlin) who is supposed to be the wisest wizard to ever live. On hearing that he is to be put to death to solve the demolishing of the walls, the boy dismisses the knowledge of the advisors. The boy tells the king of the two dragons. Vortigern excavates the hill, freeing the dragons. They continue their fight and the red dragon finally defeats the white dragon. The boy tells Vortigern that the white dragon symbolises the Saxons and that the red dragon symbolises the people of Vortigern. If Vortigern is accepted to have lived in the fifth century, then these people are the British whom the Saxons failed to subdue and who became the Welsh.
Historical use of a golden dragon as a symbol of the Anglo-Saxons
Due to its origins as a symbol representing the Anglo-Saxons, there are a number of associations of the dragon with the Anglo-Saxons. Both Henry of Huntingdon and Matthew of Westminster speak of a golden dragon being raised at the Battle of Burford in AD 752 by the West Saxons. A golden dragon is associated with the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts a dragon twice, both in the death scene of King Harold. One is a red dragon with white wings held aloft a staff. The same scene also contains a fallen dragon, which may be considered to be either brown or golden. This dragon is two legged, a form later known as a wyvern. Evidence for it as a golden dragon is supported by the fact that King Harold II was previously the Earl of Wessex.
Possible high and late medieval continuation
A dragon standard was also carried by Henry III (1216) and was subsequently installed at Westminster Abbey. The dragon was also used by Edward I, by Edward III at the battle of Crécy (1346) and by Henry V at the battle of Agincourt (1415). However, the colour of the standard is unknown.
The modern association with a white (rather than golden or red) dragon is evident in the work of Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832). In his poem "The Saxon War Song" he starts as follows:
"Whet the bright steel, Sons of the White Dragon! Kindle the torch, Daughter of Hengist!"
In February 2003 during his enthronement at Canterbury Cathedral Archbishop Rowan Williams wore hand-woven gold silk robes bearing a gold and silver clasp that showed the white dragon of England and the red dragon of Wales.
In 2014 the Royal Wessex Yeomanry adopted the white dragon as the centrepiece of their new capbadge.
- The Battle of Burford and the Golden Dragon
- Coronation Stone
- Hengist and Horsa
- Saxon steed
- White Horse Stone
- English People
- List of English flags
- Raven banner
- Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae
- "The Tale of Lludd and Llefelys" in The Mabinogion, translated by Sioned Davies, 2007
- Geoffrey of Monmouth, op. cit.
- Moreton, Cole. Is God Still an Englishman, Hachette UK, 2010