Wednesday, 29 November 2006
The humble leek: Tudor propaganda or devious Welsh camouflage
THERE'S NOT much wrong with the leek as far as I can see. It's a wholesome, robust and flavoursome vegetable that offers some potential as a weapon, but why it symbolises Wales is anyone's guess.
Information Wales says it is a 'fact' that Saint David had his countrymen wear leeks in their caps at the battle of Heathfield in 633 to distinguish themselves from their Saxon foes.
However, according to the 11th-century Welsh monk Rhygyfarch, Dewi Sant died on 1st March 589 — the date being the reason why we celebrate Saint David's day on 1st March — 44 years before the battle of Heathfield. Whatever, perhaps he appeared at Heathfield in a vision or something? Information Wales doesn't say.
It is an amalgamation of these 'facts' that causes Welsh soldiers to wear leeks on Saint David's Day each year. Have you ever tried wearing a leek in your cap? Me neither.
Some writers suggest that the battle took place in a field of leeks, presumably inferring that the wearing of leeks in caps was a devious Welsh form of camouflage.
Yet these accounts of leeks as a Welsh emblem all seem to stem from the English poet Michael Drayton (1563-1631), a contemporary of Shakespeare, suggesting that the association of leeks with Wales might be some sort of Tudor propaganda, the meaning of which has long been forgotten. It could possibly relate to concerns about the legitimacy of Queen Elizabeth or to ensuring Welsh loyalty at a time of war with Spain.
The fact that Shakespeare's Henry V feels the need to mention he is "wearing a leek, for I am Welsh, you know, good countryman," should be enough to make you wonder whether Shakespeare, an accomplished propagandist for the English cause, just might be blowing smoke up your arse.