The Red Dragon and the House of Tudor

The red dragon against a green and white background is an unambiguous symbol of Wales. But how Welsh are these colours and how ancient is the design?

I had always assumed that the Welsh Flag was an ancient design. The green and white stripes have a suitably Celtic feel and are completely alien to the vexillological tradition across the rest of the British Isles. England, Scotland, Ireland and even Cornwall and Devon are represented by crosses inspired by their patron saint.

With a great red dragon superimposed on the two stripes, the design is uniquely Welsh. In Welsh it is usually known as Y Ddraig Goch – the Red Dragon or, more obviously, Baner Cymru – the Flag of Wales.

But the design is not as ancient as I had assumed and its colours are not inspired by a Celtic past. Instead, they are the green and white of the Tudor family and were introduced by the future Henry VII as he made his way to destiny and the Crown on Bosworth Field in 1485.

In the recent BBC One documentary, the Story of Wales, Huw Edwards somewhat excitedly recounts a year that would change Welsh and British history. On 7 August 1485, a small armada of boats arrived at Milford Haven carrying Henry Tudor and 2,000 men. The boats carried two things that would leave a mark on history – a future king of England and a new flag for Wales.

The red dragon had been associated with Wales for centuries – possibly introduced atop a standard of one of the conquering Roman legions. It was known as the Red Dragon of Cadwaladr, borne by the Kings of Gwynedd in north Wales. Its uniquely Welsh connotations were reinforced when Owain Glyndwr raised it as his standard and the symbol of the revolt in 1400. As Henry Tudor canvassed the Principality for supporters, it was only natural that he sought to emphasize the Welsh heritage of his Tudor ancestors.

Blending the green and white of the Tudor family with the red dragon of Cadwaladr thus reinforced his national credentials. At the Battle of Bosworth, Henry Tudor faced his rival with three battle standards – the arms of St. George of England, the arms of the house of Beaufort and his Welsh arms: “Red ffyry dragon peyntid upon white and Grene Sarcenet” This heritage was not forgotten when Henry defeated Richard III and became King Henry VII. After the battle, Henry carried the Red Dragon standard in state to St. Paul’s Cathedral

The design was only officially recognized as the flag of Wales in 1959, five years after Cardiff had been proclaimed the capital of Wales. Although very recent in official recognition, and relatively new in terms of design it carried the more ancient design of the red dragon to represent the nation.