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.

3 comments:

Rhys Wynne said...

Diolch am y ddolen

(Thanks for the link)


Are you re-posting articles from your website onto your blog? I like the one about the 3-feathers - something I've noticed in the south (not so much in the north thankfully) is the use of this symbol by businesses and individuals (on tattoo's) to show off their Welshness, while it's a symbol of the English monarchy.

Martin Davies said...

Yes, a site entitled 'Welsh Foodie' put the leek thought in my head this morning (and not in a positive way).

Thanks for your thoughts, Rhys.

I have sympathy with anyone who expresses pride in their Welshness, especially in the form of a permanent mark on their skin. The problem is that, as a people, we have been fed corrupt iconography and false mythology by successive generations of English overlords going back for six hundred years. You can't fault anybody for the education they've been given.

I am trying to debunk the propaganda and deconstruct the mythology without ramming what I personally believe to be right down people's throats. I'm not doing this with a negative objective although I do want it to contribute to my mortgage. I want to break all of the rubbish we’ve been fed so that we can consciously put it all back together in our own image, rather than in one that has been applied to us.

I would love to make such thinking fashionable amongst the majority of the people, and the discovery of a true Welsh identity to be entertaining and empowering for us all.

This process has to be unifying – you refer to the difference in attitude between the North and the South – and it is essential we adopt an identity we all feel comfortable with, whether we speak Welsh or English as a first language.

Maybe we want to keep the leek as a national emblem? I don’t know what relevance it really has to us but, as with so much of this stuff, I guess it’s useful for selling tat to tourists.

It seems to me that an examination of our national identity is an essential precursor to nationhood, something we have never really had but could have in our lifetimes. All we’re missing is enlightened, charismatic leadership. Hopefully it will emerge from the next generation of politicians.

Diolch yn hwyl fawr, M.

Afagddu said...

The Leek was worn all over Northern Europe as the mark of a boy passing into adulthood. The phallic shape of the vegetable symbolised his entry to sexual maturity and therefore his eligibility to fight in battle. It's far from a purely Welsh tradition as the Scandinavians, Germans and the English practiced this too.

For some reason it survived more visually in Wales, though the original symbolism was covered by the Church because of the sexual, pagan influenced nature of the symbol.