James Lloyd re-visits Dinas Emrys in Gwynedd, to find out what became of the dragons and how their battle ended – if it even has.
Long before the Romans came, two dragons fought over the skies of Britain. One was a red dragon, native to this island, the other a foreign white drake. Locked in perpetual combat, these dragons were captured by King Lud, who sedated them, rolled them up in a satin bag and buried them under a hill in the fastness of Gwynedd. The problem was suppressed for the time being but it was not destroyed, for what King Lud did not realise was that these two dragons were not merely waging a private feud but were the portent of an inevitable war between the Britons and a foreign nation.
In the middle years of the fifth century, King Vortigern’s plan to hire Saxon mercenaries to fight off Irish and Pictish raiders hit upon a slight snag when the Saxons turned against him and began conquering great swathes of the country, beginning in Kent and sweeping westwards, through the land that the Britons called Loegria but which in the Saxon tongue would become known as “Englalond”.
Vortigern’s own tyrannical tendencies and liberal attitude towards incest eliminated native support and he retreated to Gwynedd, where, acting on the advice of his magicians, he found a suitable hill on which to build a fortress and summoned materials to be brought there. Every morning, however, the workmen would emerge from their tents to find the stones and equipment gone. This happened so many times that Vortigern turned to his magicians to explain it. They concluded that supernatural forces were displeased by the building project, to be appeased only by a human sacrifice and they recommended that a boy without a father be selected as the victim.
Vortigern sent out search parties to find such a boy and eventually they located one Ambrosius, whose mother claimed that she had never known a man (rather a blasphemous defence, which Ambrosius himself later rescinded, claiming that his father was a consul). The boy was brought to Vortigern’s hill to be prepared but Ambrosius boasted that he knew the real reason the building programme was being frustrated.
“Knewest thou, O King,” the boy asked, pointing to the pavement already laid down, “that a pool is under here?” The King ordered the paving stones to be lifted and a pool was indeed revealed. “In the pool,” the inspired boy proceeded, “thou wilt find a vase and within the vase a bundle of satin and within the satin are two sleeping dragons, a red dragon and a white.”
The King’s servants waded into the pool and found everything exactly as the boy had described. Once unwrapped, the dragons awoke and resumed their long-suspended battle. At first it seemed that the white dragon would prevail, repeatedly biting and injuring the red but eventually the red gained the upper claw and chased the white dragon away.
Ambrosius explained that the dragons were an omen, the red dragon signifying the Britons and the white dragon the Saxons. At present, the Saxons were prevailing against the Britons but in the fullness of time the Britons would strike back and re-capture the lost lands of Loegria.
Vortigern let the boy have the hill, which became known as Dinas Emrys, “fortress of Ambrosius”. Archaeologists have, strangely enough, found the remains of a platform overlooking a well on its summit. The King, meanwhile, built his fortress elsewhere but it did him no good. It was struck by lighting and burnt to the ground, with him inside it.
The story of Ambrosius and the dragons is first recorded in a ninth-century anthology of folktales and legends called The History of the Britons, traditionally but uncertainly attributed to Nennius. The story was probably older than that but it obviously cannot have been older than the fifth century, when the events that it reports are supposed to have occurred and if, as is generally believed, the account of the English Invasion that it relates is a garbled simplification, then it probably dates from comfortably after that. As it stands, it is fantasy and it would become even more fantastic in the re-telling.
In the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth worked his inimitable magic on it, re-classifying the boy’s father as an incubus and changing his name. Ambrosius, Geoffrey thought, was a tad confusing, potentially leading to identification with Aurelius Ambrosius, Vortigern’s rival for the British throne and eventual deposer. So, Geoffrey had to find a new name for his prophetic prodigy and borrowed that of sixth-century Cumbrian bard and ecstatic Myrddin. Unfortunately, the scholarly Latin in which Geoffrey wrote would not admit this name, since “Merdinus” means something unwritable (the reader familiar with French crudities will recognize it). To sidestep this, Geoffrey tweaked it to “Merlinus” and found Merlin such a useful character that he greatly expanded his role, having him re-appear later on as the architect of Stonehenge and the orchestrator of the birth of Arthur. Subsequent generations of storytellers also could not leave the character alone and Nennius’s sacrificial victim was transmogrified into the best-known wizard in the pantheon (not everyone has read Harry Potter).
The original reason for Ambrosius’s appearance was deeply sinister and represents the oldest stratum of storytelling in the legend. The practice of making a sacrifice to consecrate a new building is ancient and found in many cultures all over the world. Usually an animal sufficed but, as in Ambrosius’s case, a human was sometimes needed when the gods were particularly displeased with Man’s architectural hubris. One would like to believe that the real Britons of the fifth-century, who were Christians by this stage, no longer practised this barbaric enormity but their awareness of it implies that the Ancient Britons had done.
The other important element of truth in the story is, perhaps surprisingly, the dragons. The Romans had used a battle-standard in the form of a windsock shaped like a dragon and various Germanic tribes, including the Saxons, are known to have copied the idea. In England, both the West Saxons and the Mercians used draco-standards and the Bayeux Tapestry shows two, a red one and a golden one, carried at the head of King Harold’s army at Hastings. English kings would continue to use a dragon on their battle-flag, on and off, into the reign of Edward III, after which the motif was superseded by the increasingly popular Cross of Saint George.
Nennius’s use of a white dragon to represent the Saxons is therefore clunkingly unsubtle. The appearance of a red dragon to represent the Britons has caused disparate interpretations. One school has it that the Britons were already using a draco-standard, having inherited it from the Romans. Another believes that they did not and that Nennius invented the red dragon himself to provide a British opponent to the Saxon white.
Whichever the truth, the red dragon became a symbol of British resistance to the Saxon invaders as the direct result of this legend. In the early fifteenth century, when Owen Glendower rebelled against the English, he fought under a white banner with a red dragon embroidered on it, consciously and blatantly casting himself in the role of fulfiller of Ambrosius’s prophecy that the Britons would take their country back.
Such optimism proved to be premature but in 1485, when Anglo-Welsh nobleman Henry Tudor made his own bid for the throne, he landed in Wales and flew the red dragon flag, though he adjusted the design slightly, adding a strip of green from the Tudor livery to provide the dragon with some grass on which plant its claws. His intention was to encourage recruits by reminding the Welsh that he was himself descended from one of Glendower’s lieutenants.
It worked and, after his victory at Bosworth, Henry VII had the red dragon flag paraded through Westminster Abbey at his coronation. The symbolism, one again, was unsubtle but this time the meaning was reversed: For the first time in a thousand years, a Welshman ruled Loegria. The prophecy had been fulfilled.