Why is the leek associated with Wales?

The leek has been a national symbol of Wales for thousands of years, but how did the connection begin? Learn the story behind one of Wales's most treasured emblems.

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Why is the leek associated with Wales?
A Welsh rugby fan celebrates by triumphantly waving leek after Wales beats France 19-13 in the 1957 Five Nations. © Getty

Although the daffodil has been associated with Wales since the 19th century, the leek pre-dates it as a national symbol by thousands of years. It can be seen proudly pinned to the shirts of Welsh rugby fans at matches all over the world. But how did the leek become such iconic symbol of Wales?

 

Victory over the Saxons

The most famous story pertains to a battle between the Welsh and the Saxons in the 6th century. Before the fighting began, a celtic monk called David (later Saint David) convinced the Welsh soldiers to fasten leeks to their helmets so that they would be able to tell friend from foe. Soldiers believed it was the leeks which had allowed them to gain victory. There are different versions of this story. Another tells that King Cadwaladr of Gwynedd led the battle against the Saxons, and that it was he who ordered the soldiers to wear the leeks.

 

A cure for all ills

The link may date all the way back to days of the Welsh druids, who worshipped trees, flowers and plants. The reputation of the leek in these times was extremely powerful. It was believed that leeks could cure common colds, alleviate pain during childbirth, ward against wounds in battle, protect against lightning strikes and keep evil spirits at bay.

 

Husband hunting

Or was the relationship with the leek one of romance? It was believed that the leek could help a maiden learn who would become her husband – all she had to do was sleep with a leek under her pillow on St David’s feast day, and her beau-to-be would appear in her dreams.

 

Influences in Shakespeare

The Welsh connection even appears in Shakespeare. He refers to wearing a leek as a Welsh custom in his play Henry V, when the King tells the Welsh warrior Fuellen that he is wearing a leek “for I am Welsh, you know, good countryman”.

 

Words: Bethan O'Brien

 

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