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by Lance Corporal D G Griffiths
Welsh Guards

Heraldry is defined as the system by which coats of arms and other armorial bearings are devised, described, and regulated. In this instance, heraldry in the Welsh Guards has to do with the research behind the design and display of our Colours and, in particular, Company Colours.

‘A moth-eaten rag on a worm-eaten pole, It does not look likely to stir a man’s Sole, ‘Tis the deeds that were done ‘neath the moth-eaten rag, When the pole was a staff, and the rag was a flag’.  Sir Edward Hamly on seeing the old Colours of the 32nd Foot in Monmouth Church.

The Welsh Guards are the youngest regiment in the Household Division and share many traditions with the Grenadier Guards. Our immediate history may not be as long as the history of the six other regiments that wear the blue-red-blue. However, it is no less glorious. Through the veins of the Welsh Guards run stories, legends, and traditions that are more ancient than any regiment currently serving the Crown: that of the Welsh people. This is where heraldry comes into play and makes the Welsh Guards amongst one of the most unique regiments in the British Army.

The designs for the first eight Company Colours of the 1st Battalion were hastily approved by King George V not long after its formation in 1915 and were first described in full by Major C H Dudley-Ward’s History of the Welsh Guards, published in 1920. Through researching and rediscovering the history behind our Company Colours, all sixteen of them, I have rediscovered Wales and all of the stories and tales that go with it. They do not belong to us, these colours. Once, many centuries ago, they were flown as coats of arms, on shields and flags, and on the fields of battle. One of them was flown at the Battle of Agincourt, others belonged to Owain Glyndwr and to Sir Rhys ap Thomas, who delivered the fatal blow that ended the reign of King Richard III. One of the colours, perhaps most unique amongst them, belonged to Llywelyn the Great, whose coat of arms has long-since been adopted and included in the Royal Coat of Arms of the Colonel of the Regiment, HRH The Prince of Wales.

’Gwyr ynys y cedyrn’. ‘The Men of the Island of the Mighty’ Vert three eagles displayed in fess or

What makes our Company Colours unique? It is said that Gruffudd ap Cynan and Bleddyn ap Cynfyn, amongst others, made broad searches for the coats of arms and pedigrees of their ancestors. What they found became the colours, guidons and standards of the Five Royal and Fifteen Noble Tribes. Many centuries later, when researching Welsh standards and coats of arms, it was through the studies of people like Gruffudd ap Cynan, that the arms of the Five Royal Tribes, along with those of Owain Gwynedd, Owain Glyndwr and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd that these eight coats of arms were approved as the first eight Company Colours. Later, when the 2nd Battalion was formed in 1939, additional colours were required. What was planned and achieved was the adoption of numerous colours that were researched and chosen to represent Wales as a whole, on a geographical level. Some represent the north, some the south, and some the central part of Wales.

Owain Gwynedd in battle with his Coat of Arms upon his shield

The illustrations in this article are some examples of why Welsh Guards Company Colours are so unique, and how they represent not only the history of the Regiment but also the Welsh nation itself. They belong to ancient Kings and Princes, ancient rulers of ancient lands and are, historically, representative of all Welshmen. Heraldry in the Welsh Guards, I aim to show, is most unique for that reason.

Bias prompts me to begin with my own Company, Number 2 Company the Men of the Island of the Mighty. Our Company Colours were borne by, and representative of, Owain Gwynedd who was the son of Gruffudd ap Cynan, founder of the First Royal Tribe and King of Gwynedd. His arms were adopted by the Prince of Wales’s Company.

Owing to Gruffudd’s old age and ill health in the latter part of his reign, his three sons were dispatched as conquerors around the Principality, and upon his death his Kingdom was split between his two surviving sons, Owain and Cadwaladr. Shortly after ascending to the throne, Cadwaladr was implicated in the murder of the ruling monarch of Deheubarth (South Wales) and Anarawd ap Gruffydd, a key ally of Owain’s who was about to marry Owain’s daughter. In response. Owain sent his son, Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd, to seize Cadwaladr’s lands and burn his castle at Aberystwyth. From then on Cadwaladr was driven into exile, leaving Owain as the sole ruler of their Kingdom.

Owain Gwynedd is best remembered for his successful campaign against King Henry II, who invaded North Wales in 1157 with the backing of Madog ap Maredudd of Powys and Owain’s disgraced brother Cadwaladr. King Henry II’s army ravaged Eastern Gwynedd, destroying many places of worship. In July of that year the two armies met at Ewole, a small wood outside Flint. Henry had sent his naval forces around the coast to Anglesey, in an attempt to cut off Owain’s supplies. He did not discover until after the Battle of Ewole that this plan had failed, and that he had been defeated on both sides, having himself narrowly avoided capture when Owain’s forces ambushed the Royal army in a narrow valley.

Madog ap Maredudd died in 1160, allowing Owain to regain territory lost in the east. A few years later, an alliance was formed with the Prince of Deheubarth to challenge English rule. King Henry II again tried to invade, eight years after his previous attempt, but was met by an alliance of all the Welsh Princes, with Owain as their undisputed leader, and was repelled back into England by vicious Welsh weather that we Welsh Guardsmen know well. In his anger, Henry had many Welsh prisoners violently murdered and mutilated, amongst them some of Owain’s sons.

Owain, like his father before him, died an old man and was buried in Bangor. In Welsh folklore it is said that one of his sons, Prince Madoc, left Wales and travelled to America, some 300 years before Christopher Columbus.

‘Fy Nuw, Fy Ngwlad, Fy Mrenin’ – ‘My God, My Land, My King’

The heart of Gwynedd, it is said, is Snowdonia, the Welsh name which translates roughly to ‘nest of eagles’ or ‘the place of the eagles’. It is said that Owain’s motto was ‘Eryr eryron Eryri’ which translates to ‘The Eagle of the Eagles of Snowdonia’. Eagles play an important role in the history and flags of North Wales, owing perhaps to the Roman conquest there and the creation of Ancient Rome’s most westerly outpost, Segontium, just outside Caernarfon. Eagles are historically a Roman symbol, used as their standards or colours in battle, each legion possessing its own, known as an aquila. It was said of Snowdonia that if the eagles flew high, then you would be victorious in battle, while if they flew low, the Gods were not for you that day.

On becoming Emperor of the French, Napoleon adopted the Eagle as a French standard, and many of these were captured by British regiments during battle. Chief amongst these victories perhaps is one captured at Waterloo in a charge led by Captain A K Clark against the French 105th Infantry. Captain Clark, of the 1st Royal Dragoons, captured an eagle with the number 105 on it and that eagle now forms part of the uniform worn by the 1st Royal Dragoons’ successor, The Blues and Royals.

It is said that Welsh archers and soldiers who fought under King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt did so under a banner of three golden eagles on a green field, in tribute and in honour of Owain Gwynedd. His arms are seen as representing those from Caernarfonshire, which adopted the design as its official flag in 2012. Members of Number 2 Company feel a strong affiliation with Caernarfon and, historically, with North Wales in general, counting many native Welsh speakers amongst its ranks.

The motto of Number 2 Company, ‘gwyr ynys y cedyrn’, is taken from the Mabinogion, the main source of Welsh myth and legend and the oldest prose stories written in Britain. One of the stories, of Branwen, daughter of Llyr, concerns the marriage of Branwen to the King of Ireland, who treated her unkindly. So that she could avenge her wrongs at the hands of the King and his court, the Men of the Island of the Mighty sailed to Ireland to bring her home to Wales. The Men of the Island, in this case, are not from Anglesey, as is often thought, but are the Men of the Isle of Britain. Thus, the majority of Welsh Guardsmen past and present can claim to be Men of the Island of the Mighty.

The arms of Number 3 Company, the Little Iron Men, belonged to Llywelyn ap Iorweth, or Llewelyn the Great, who was a grandson of Owain Gwynedd. Upon the death of his grandfather, his two uncles had split the Kingdom between them and ruled as two separate leaders but, by birth right, Llywelyn had a strong claim to be ruler of all. By the time he was twenty-seven, he was sole ruler of Gwynedd and had good relations with King John, marrying his daughter Joan.

King John invaded Gwynedd in 1211, breaking a peace that had lasted a decade. After an initial loss and having given up lands east of the River Conwy, Llywelyn pushed back and recovered his losses in alliance with the other Princes of Wales. By 1216, a year after the signing of the Magna Carta by King John, Llywelyn was the dominant power in all Wales and the remainder of his rule was characterised by small battles and treaties until his death in 1240, three years after suffering a paralytic stroke following the death of his wife. Until 1230, Llywelyn had styled himself Prince of Wales but from that year onwards had been known as Prince of Wales and Lord of Snowdonia, thus ensuring his precedence over all Welsh Princes.

Quarterly or and gules four lions passant guardant countercharged Coat of Arms of The Prince of Wales, featuring in the centre, beneath the crown, the coat of arms of Llywelyn the Great and the House of Gwynedd

During the last decades of his life, Llywelyn the Great’s military campaigns were not his only source; he was also much troubled by his wife, Joan. In 1228, Llywelyn engaged in war with Hubert de Burgh, who had been given the Lordship and castle of Montgomery by the King and had been stretching himself and his men into Llywelyn’s territory. The King raised an army to assist Llywelyn’s enemy and they attempted to build a castle at Ceri. In October 1228, however, the Royal Army retreated, and the King agreed to destroy the semi-built castle in exchange for the sum of £2000 from Llywelyn, a sum Llywelyn raised by demanding the same amount for a prisoner he had in his charge. During the fighting Llywelyn had taken a prisoner, William de Braose, Lord of Abergavenny.

William de Braose was an unlucky member of the House of Braose, a family of Marcher Lords, a family of nobles appointed as protectors of the border between England and Wales. He was born in that place so familiar and so loved by soldiers of all regiments and corps, Brecon, and married the daughter of the 1st Earl of Pembroke, who gave him four daughters. During his captivity William de Braose decided to align himself with Llywelyn and denounce the King. To seal their new alliance, a marriage was planned, between Llywelyn’s heir Dafydd and Braose’s daughter, Isabella.

At Easter 1230, now a free man and aligned with Llywelyn, William de Braose visited the Welsh Prince’s court. During his visit he was discovered in the Prince’s bedchambers with the Prince’s wife, by the Prince himself. His wife, the daughter of the King of England, was imprisoned and William de Braose beheaded, probably at Bala. A letter written by Llywelyn to de Braose’s wife questions whether the marriage between their children should still go ahead, but it did. Joan was later released back into Llywelyn’s favour with the status as Princess of Wales.

Llywelyn the Great’s arms, so unique amongst Welshmen, are the traditional arms of the Royal Family of Gwynedd and of the Princes of North Wales and are, it could be argued, amongst the most Welsh of Welsh Guards Company Colours. Over the centuries they have endured and are now used, in a smaller fashion, emblazoned upon the Coat of Arms of the current Prince of Wales.

‘Heb nefol nerth nid sicr saeth’ – ‘Without heavenly strength the arrow flieth uncertain’

Sir Rhys ap Thomas, KG, is one of the more famous names associated with the Company Colours of the Welsh Guards. He was head of the family of Dynevor and certainly was the most powerful man in South Wales during the reign of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Legend has it that it was he who, at the Battle of Bosworth, delivered the fatal blow with a poleaxe that killed Richard III.

He was born to Thomas ap Gruffydd of Llandeilo and Elizabeth, daughter of Sir John Gruffydd of Abermarlais, and was known for his unflinching loyalty to Henry Tudor, who should have been his enemy. When Henry entered Wales at Dale, on his way to confront King Richard III, it was suggested that to show his loyalty, Sir Rhys should lie down and allow Henry to walk over him. Fearing this would embarrass him in front of his men, he instead stood under Mullock Bridge while Henry and his men crossed it.

Henry and Sir Rhys marched separately through Wales towards Bosworth. Henry had set off from France and already had with him an English and French army, and when they regrouped at Welshpool, Sir Rhys had recruited an army that in size could have ‘annihilated’ Henry’s. During the battle that followed, when Henry was unhorsed and surrounded, Sir Rhys delivered the fatal blow, thus winning the battle and ending the War of the Roses. He was knighted on the field of battle for his accomplishments and was later given lands and offices in South Wales. During the course of his later life he also showed great loyalty to Henry VII’s son and heir, Henry VIII, and was a Privy Councillor and a Knight of the Garter. He died at Carmarthen Priory in 1525.

Sir Rhys ap Thomas held many high offices and great estates in South Wales, giving rise to the saying ‘the King owns the island except what belongs to Sir Rhys’. His descendants, who spell their names both Rhys and Rice, have served in the Regiment throughout its history. Major General R H Talbot Rice CBE, former Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion, is one of these descendants.



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