The name ‘Owain’ resonates in Cumbria, especially in the Eden Valley. If you ask someone, they might mention that he was a great warrior. They’ll say that they think there’s a connection to King Arthur, and that he’s buried at the Giant’s Grave in Penrith (although the evidence leans towards it being the grave of a different Owain1).
Towards the end of May in 1834, a farmer digging for peat at Seascale Moor found human remains just one foot below the surface. The bones had been dissolved by the acidity of the moss, but the same process had tanned the skin like leather. The man was naked and buried with a long hazel rod. No one knows what happened to the remains.
On 25th May, 1845, a man was digging peat for his fire at Scaleby Moss, north of Carlisle. At a depth of nine feet, he came across human remains.
Next to the legendary kingdom of Urien‘s Rheged lay another, smaller kingdom. We don’t know what it was called, but in the third quarter of the 6th century, north-west Cumbria and the Solway area were ruled by a man called Gwenddoleu.
Investigating Gwenddoleu is like looking through cracked bottle-glass windows: you see a flash here, a hint there. Sometimes you see something clearly, and sometimes you squint and turn and it’s still just a suggestion. There are several sources which mention Gwenddoleu – the Annales Cambriae; the Welsh Triads and genealogies; the Merlin poems of the Black Book of Carmarthen; the Chronica Gentis Scottorum – but the references are veiled, fleeting, and sometimes of dubious date.
So, this is my 22nd post on this blog, and I’m only just attempting Urien. The reasons for this are several: firstly, it’s so long ago that there are no truly reliable sources; secondly, so many people have decided that they’d like him to be King Arthur that it gets subjective; and thirdly, a Certain Local Tourist Attraction.
In reality, it goes likes this. Sometime in the early 6th century, Urien was born. He was one of the old-Welsh-speaking Britons, and he ruled over a small kingdom called Rheged. Urien had a court bard, Taliesin, who recorded Urien’s wars in a series of poems which became very popular in Wales in succeeding centuries.