The Welsh Dragon is one of the most iconic images of Wales in the 21st century, but its history goes back thousands of years to the time of King Arthur and the legendary Merlin.
It is an iconic image representing Cymru, parades across the world at various sporting and cultural events, by proud Welshman displaying their heritage.
The Welsh Dragon is regularly cited as one of the best flags in the world, but very few actually know the legend behind Y Ddraig Goch.
However, very few people know about how there was not just the one dragon in Welsh mythology – in this tale we will tell the Legend of the Two Dragons, and how it was one of the early examples of political allegory.
The Legend of the Two Dragons
The tale of the Two Dragons of Wales begins in the fifth century, with a Celtic King named Vortigern.
Vortigern was known as the King of the Britons, he invited the Saxons into Britain to help ward off an invasion from the Picts (Northern Scottish tribesmen) and the Scots.
While he is generally considered to be a true historical figure, Vortigern is actually not his name, but a title – meaning ‘Great Chief’ or ‘Supreme Lord’ in the Old Welsh language.
In the legend of the Two Dragons, Vortigern was searching for a spot to build his new castle. This was to protect himself from the Saxons, who had taken over Britain since he erroneously brought them into the country.
For the spot for his fortress, Vortigern chose the wooded hillock of Dinas Emrys (or Emrys City) near Beddgelert in Gwynedd.
He planned for a grand castle to be built into the side of the hill, but work on the building did not go as planned.
Every day, Vortigern set his royal masons to work to build his castle out of storm. It was being built on the side of the hill so that he could see attackers coming from a distance, and have the tactical advantage when defending against the Saxons.
They would put down their tools every night, going to sleep to prepare for the next day of work. However, each morning they awoke to discover that all their hard work was for naught – the tower they had built was toppled, reduce to dust and rubble in front of them.
Night after night, the castle was knocked over by the time the morning came. Not knowing the reason for this, Vortigern sought council from Magicians and sorcerers to help deal with the issue.
According to Nennius, a 9th century monk, they warned him that the only way to stop it from happening was to sacrifice a young boy “not conceived by a mortal man“, and sprinkle his blood in the mortar of the stonework – hoping to appease the dark force acting against him.
After days of searching, Vortigern’s men brought him a young boy named Myrddin Emrys – also named as Merlin Ambrosius (and will be referred to as Merlin from this point) – with the intent to put him to death.
However, the wise and magical Merlin told Vortigern of the two dragons who lived beneath the hill – referred to as “Serpents”, which was an interchangeable term for dragons in the ancient texts – sleeping in a large lake under the ground.
The two dragons, one red and one white, awoke every night and began to fight. Their aggression caused earthquakes beneath the hill, destroying the mason’s work above ground and toppling the fortress.
Satisfied with this explanation, the King of the Britons ordered his men to dig deep into the hillock, and after days of digging exposed the water of the lake, just as Merlin had predicted.
They drained the water, revealing two sleeping dragons. One red, and one white, just as the young Merlin had predicted.
Annoyed by being awoken from their slumber, the two dragons once again began to fight in sight of Vortigern, Merlin and their men.
Eventually, the white dragon grew weary, and flew away across the boarder to England, while the red dragon returned to his lair to continue his sleep.
Merlin explained to Vortigern that the legendary Two Dragons were actually representative of the defenders of Great Britain (in this case, Vortigern and his men who resided in Wales) and the invaders, the incoming Saxons.
The remaining Red Dragon became a symbol of Welsh resilience against its invaders, and in 1959 was made the official flag of Wales
Was The Two Dragons Tale Real?
Some elements of the Legend of the Two Dragons are based on fact, while others are clear embellishments of the truth (or simply a fictional retelling).
Vortigern was a real historical figure, although his name was unknown. Vortigern was simply a title, meaning”Great Chief’ or ‘Supreme Lord’.
The site of Dinas Emrys was excavated between 1954 and 1956, with some discoveries that backed up the story of the Two Dragons.
A pool was found underneath the ruins of a fort, which showed signs of being rebuilt multiple times over the years.
This could have inspired the legend of the dragons fighting, destroying the walls of the fortress every night, or could prove the legend to be a true tale.