The Leek

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), October 20, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Leek


The dragon has been a potent symbol since antiquity, when the Romans borrowed it from the Dacians and used it as a military emblem. It was widely used; a wyvern (two-legged dragon) was borne by Harold's army at the battle of Hastings and Henry III had a dragon flag, which was borne against the Welsh.

The Historia Brittonum, composed about c. 830, describes a struggle between a red dragon (representing the Britons) and a white dragon (representing the Saxons) at Dinas Emrys (Beddgelert), where Vortigern was trying to build a fortress.

It was foretold that, although the white dragon would long oppress the red one, the final victory would go to the red dragon.

This tale was retold by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who included it in the prophecies of Merlin (Myrddin), and it also appears in The Mabinogion. Arthur is said to have borne a dragon as his crest.

The dragon was often used in poetry as a heroic epithet for Welsh princes, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth among them.

Owain Glyndwr's banner was white with a golden dragon, and Owen Tudor's sons Edmund and Jasper used dragons as crests.

The Yorkist Edward IV, descended from the princes of Gwynedd through the Mortimers, claimed to represent the red dragon, while Henry VI of the house of Lancaster represented the white.

It was, however, Henry Tudor who gave the fullest recognition to the red dragon, in order to emphasise his claim to descent from Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, 'the last king of the Britons'.

He presented a standard of the 'Red Dragon of Cadwaladr' to St Paul's cathedral after his victory at Bosworth.

The Tudors displayed the red dragon on standards and as a supporter of the royal arms, and it was one of the beasts set up by Henry VIII in the Hampton Court gardens.

The Tudor dragon was usually red with a golden belly.

A red dragon on a green mount was adopted as the badge of Wales in 1807, and to this was added in 1953 the motto 'Y Ddraig goch ddyry cychwyn' ('The red dragon gives impetus'), a line taken from a poem, by Deio ab Ieuan Du (fl.1450-80), about a bull copulating.

A red dragon on a white and green field was declared the national flag of Wales in 1959.

Courting on the bed' attracted the attention of English travellers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Maidservants were often visited in their bedrooms at night during courtship.

Having taken off their shoes, the couple would lie on (not in) the bed to while away their brief leisure hours in private. As long as they continued to talk, it would be assumed by those downstairs that nothing improper was going on.

The possibilities for sexual 'immorality' attracted the criticism of the churches and chapels, especially after the publication of the Education Report of 1847.

The custom of bundling was evidently known to the 19th-century American ethnologist and painter George Catlin: while studying the Mandans - the tribe of 'Welsh Indians' allegedly descended from Madog ab Owain Gwynedd and company - Catlin identified several supposedly Welsh practices among the tribe, including an inclination to 'prattle' during sexual intercourse.

The nickname given to any member of the small army of onion-sellers who used to cross from Brittany during the second half of the year, and who would travel to all parts of the United Kingdom.

Their activity began in 1828 and they were still occasionally to be seen at the beginning of the 21st century, but the golden age of their trade was between 1919 and 1930, when as many as 1,200 would arrive annually.

A familiar sight in many a Welsh town and village would be that of 'Johnny' pushing his bicycle along, with his merchandise hanging in thick strings from the handlebars.

His first language was usually Breton, which made it comparatively easy for him to pick up a little Welsh, assuring him of a warm welcome in Welsh-speaking areas. …

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