Congratulations to Wales, whose national rugby team defeated Ireland Saturday 25-7 to win the Guinness Six Nations Championship. The other teams in this tournament represent France, England, Scotland, and Italy, and over the past few weekends Wales defeated them all, earning a perfect 5-0 record (a “Grand Slam“). This is their twelfth such achievement over the history of the tournament, which began as the Home Nations Tournament in 1883.
Most people don’t think about Wales all that much; the joke is that if you look up “Wales” in the index it will say “Wales: see England.” It’s true, since the reign of King Edward I (1277-1307), Wales has been completely subordinated to the English crown, and its prince is usually the heir apparent to that crown. Wales enjoys much less autonomy within the UK than Scotland does. But it remains its own country with its own language and sponsors its own sports teams. And, of course, it has a plethora of symbols, which this post will revel in exploring.
The Welsh national rugby team, though, does not identify itself with any traditional Welsh national symbols. The emblem above is that of the Welsh Rugby Union and appears on the shirts of the national team. It consists of three ostrich feathers and a crown.
This device is a stylized rendition of the badge of the heir apparent to the throne of England, currently HRH Prince Charles. The heir apparent is usually also styled Prince of Wales, but it’s technically not the same thing. (The first-born son of the Sovereign is automatically the heir apparent, but he has to be created Prince of Wales.)
This is the badge of the Prince of Wales as such – the familiar Welsh Red Dragon (Y Ddraig Goch) with a white “label” of three points on its neck indicating a first-born son. There was a time in the 1990s when the Welsh rugby team marketed itself the Dragons, but that did not stick, and they have reverted to the three feathers of erroneous usage.
Both the badge of the heir apparent to the throne and the badge of the Prince of Wales appear as part of Prince Charles’s full armorial achievement, along with the arms of the Duchy of Cornwall (Sable, fifteen bezants – Charles was created Duke of Cornwall in 1952). These arms are essentially the arms of the Sovereign, with first-son white “labels” on the shield, supporters, and crest, and with an inescutcheon of the royal arms of Wales, blazoned quarterly Or and Gules, four lions passant guardant countercharged armed and langued Azure. These arms were borne by the Prince of Gwynedd Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in the thirteenth century.
Being royal arms, these aren’t used much as a national symbol by the Welsh, but they do appear on the Royal Badge of Wales, which adorns legislation passed by the Welsh Assembly. In this rendition, the royal arms are surrounded by a ribbon bearing the motto Pleidiol Wyf I’m Gwlad (“True I am to my country”), and by plant badges for England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, which is represented twice, by the leek.
Reverse of a pound coin from 1985 with leek for Wales. Author’s collection.
Reverse, pound coin from 2018, featuring a rose, leek, thistle, and shamrock, for England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Wikipedia.
Why the leek? Wikipedia says that:
According to one legend, King Cadwaladr of Gwynedd ordered his soldiers to identify themselves by wearing the vegetable on their helmets in an ancient battle against the Saxons that took place in a leek field. The Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton stated, in contrast, that the tradition was a tribute to Saint David, who ate only leeks when he was fasting.
Shakespeare, in Henry V, has the Welsh officer Fluellen say:
Your majesty says very true: if your majesty is remembered of it, the Welshmen did good service in a garden where leeks did grow, wearing leeks in their Monmouth caps; which, your majesty know, to this hour is an honourable badge of the service; and I do believe your majesty takes no scorn to wear the leek upon Saint Tavy’s day.
So who is St. David? The patron saint of Wales, of course. He was active in the sixth century when, as bishop of Mynyw, he founded churches and monasteries, performed several miracles, and spoke eloquently against Pelagianism. His feast day on March 1 is a day of celebration in Wales, and its calendrical timing is responsible for another Welsh national symbol, the daffodil, which is usually starting to appear by then. Welsh rugby fans often wear daffodil bonnets to the match (click the links; I couldn’t find any photographs that weren’t copyrighted).
One more symbol of St. David: his flag, a gold cross on black. This one only dates back to the 1990s, and was formed as a parallel to the Cornish cross of St. Piran (a white cross on black, which is a reference to Piran’s alleged rediscovery of tin smelting). The arms of the diocese of St. David’s are Sable, on a cross Or, five cinquefoils of the first which suggested this color scheme.
But of all the symbols of Wales, the most familiar one is the red dragon, which appears on the country’s flag. It is the alleged emblem of Cadwalader, king of Gwynedd in the seventh century. Green and white are the Tudor colours, and a red dragon on a green and white field was apparently flown at the Battle of Bosworth field in 1485, when Henry Tudor defeated Richard III and was subsequently crowned King Henry VII. From that point on, and particularly from the 1950s when it was rediscovered, the Welsh have been proud to fly their red dragon flag.