BY WENDY HUGHES
Why is it that whenever I think of Wales and the Welsh I think of the colour red? No, it is not because I am annoyed with my country or fellow countrymen, but it could be because the colour has always featured prominently in the history of the country, from its traditional fiery red dragon, one of the emblems of Wales, its lace in so many traditional myths and legends of Wales. Red is one of the primary colours in the traditional Welsh costume that is made of hand-woven red flannel considered to be a well-known protector against colds, colic and fever. It is said that a piece of red flannel was hung at the window of a sick room to keep away further sickness, especially when colds or epidemics were raging in a village. Radishes were also collected to rub on warts, and hot, distilled water of red roses was used as a cure for toothache.
Many of the ‘good fairies’ in Welsh folklore, the Twlwyth Teg, are depicted as wearing red to sooth away the fears of children. However not all fairies are good, and so red was used to drive them away too. For example red berries scattered in church doorways to prevent them from entering, and scarlet ribbons hung on infant’s cradles or threads of red flannel stitched into the folds of shawls, to prevent the new baby from being taken away by the fairies.
Red is also the colour of magic in almost every country throughout the world, and has been since the earliest times. Anciently the emblem of the Parthians was the red dragon, and was introduced into Britain by the Roman’s, becoming the standard of King Calwaladr, king of Gwynedd in the 7th century, and later, the same standard was unfurled by Henry Tudor when he set foot on Welsh soil on his way to defeat Richard III at the battle at Bosworth Field.
Going back to prehistoric times, bodies of loved one were stained with red ochre as part of the burial ritual because our ancestors believed that the colour would liven up a pallid corpse. When the headless skeleton of the ‘Red Lady of Paviland,’ the earliest skeleton found in Britain was discovered in 1823, the bones were found to have been stained red – hence the name – although the ‘Red Lady’ turned out to be the skeleton of a 25 year-old man, but that’s another story.
The rowan tree, which blooms in May with clusters of scented creamy-white flowers that fall to reveal small green berries, then matures into fiery red berries, were placed in every churchyard to scare away demons that disturbed the night sleep of the dead. The fruit and the bark of rowan berries are used as medicines too, and in Wales ale once used to be made from the rowan berries. A rowan tree was normally planted at the door of the house for protection, and some women used to wear necklaces of rowan berries threaded onto red thread for protection.
Rowan trees were also sacred to the Druids, and can be found wherever there are druidic remains, or around stone circles, as rowan protects the energy of the circle and the ley-lines which link them. The druids used the smoke from the rowan tree fires to call up spirits. At Midsummer, travellers carried a V-shaped rowan twig, and those travelling on Midsummer Eve were advised to wear a rowan sprig in his hat, or in his horse’s bridle to protect against being carried off to fairyland. However the rowan is at its most splendid, around Lammas, when it is full of power and its berries are attractive to birds.
The colour red featured significantly in the last Invasion of Wales in 1797. The sight of a French ship approaching the rocky coastline of Fishguard Bay alerted the red-clad yeomen of Pembrokeshire that an invasion was eminent. Inside the ship was a force of French soldiers and convicts led by Colonel Tate, ready from a battle. The inhabitants of Pembrokeshire prepared to retaliate and three hundred troops led by Lord Cawder and advanced towards the shore. Men armed with scythes and pitchforks were on the shore ready for action, but behind them, led by Jemimah Nicholas, that great heroine of Welsh history, were hundreds of local women dressed in their traditional red flannel costumes. They wound their way in single file along the length of the cliff path in full view of the approaching enemy, giving the appearance of a never-ending army of yeoman. Alarmed by the endless trail of soldiers, the French troop soon abandoned their plan for attack thinking the place was heavily guarded.
In Wales there are many red haired men called Cap Coch – red top, and interestingly in the Cathedral in Brecon, the south transept is known as Capel-y-Cochiald – the Chapel of the red-haired men. Legend tells us that it got its name because it was once the burial place for a Norman garrison, although why they should all have red hair remains a mystery to this day. Who knows we can only surmise, but perhaps they all belonged to one family who were renowned for their distinctive red hair.
It is said that Saint Winifred, who was beheaded by Caradog after fighting off his amorous advances, had her head later rejoined by a Chieftain and her blood is said to have gathered and formed the red moss which grew in the water at Saint Winifred’s well.
Another legend associated with blood concerns the second yew tree on the right planted inside Nevern Churchyard, in Pembrokeshire. Yew trees were once considered to make the best long bows, which were used to such great effect at Crecy and Agincourt, and were often planted inside the churchyard for safety. Seven feet from the ground there is a deep gash in this tree, from which a tacky substance, resembling blood weeps out. Tradition states that a monk was charged with a terrible crime, although the nature of the crime as been lost in the mists of time. He naturally protested his innocence, but he was nevertheless condemned to death and hung from this tree. In desperation the monk claimed that, ‘If you hang me. Guiltless as I am, this tree will bleed for me’
A more sinister legend concerning red is the Plague of the Red Cap. Legend states that when seaman contracted the plague they were thrown overboard, often still wearing their red caps. Local resident’s who took a fancy to these caps retrieved them, and so became infected by the plague, which became known as the Plague of The Red Cap.
This is only a few examples of the colour red in the rich tapestry of Wales, but I am sure if we looked deeper we could come across many more examples of why the colour red is so important to the people of Wales.