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.
Urien and other nearby warlords including Rydderch Hael of Strathclyde, Gwallawg of Elmet and Morcant Bwlch combined to defend their territories against the Angles of Bernicia during the third quarter of the 6th century, culminating in a three-day siege at Lindisfarne. Here, a jealous Morcant sent a hired hand by the name of Llofan Llaw Difro to kill Urien.
Urien’s death at the height of his military success sent Rheged into disarray; it limped on for another few decades until his great-granddaughter Rieinmelth’s marriage to Oswy of Northumbria effectively handed Rheged into Urien’s enemy’s hands. Rheged was no more.
It’s not certain that Rheged was northern Cumbria, with a bit of south-west Dumfries and Galloway, as is popularly repeated. This is based on a 12th-century poem which mentions Carlisle1, an iffy 14th-century translation of Taliesin which changes the word, ‘don’ to ‘idon’ (Eden)2, and Taliesin’s mention of Urien’s palace at Llwyfenydd, which sounds like Lyvennet, a river south of Penrith. Historians have tried to place him elsewhere3, but it remains that there is no certain alternative location, and Urien was definitely a northern British ruler who did not rule Northumbria. Perhaps it’s not so unreasonable to carry on assuming that territory included much of Cumbria.
The reason that Urien gains such scale in popular imagination is that Taliesin’s poetry struck a patriotic note in Wales in the 9th century. Wales needed a heroic figure to gird their loins in their own battles against the English, and Urien fitted the bill. Welsh writers lauded Urien and claimed ancestry from him in order to improve their own reputations.
From here, it gets tricky. A number of medieval writers fell for stories about King Arthur, and went digging for ‘contemporaries’ to flesh out the tale. And so, Urien of Rheged becomes Uriens of Gore4, a knight of the round table with a city (possibly) at Sedbergh, and a wife called – wait for it – Morgan Le Fay5. That’s right – Uriens is married to the sorceress sister of King Arthur. Uriens and Morgan have a son called Yvain6 who has adventures of his own, and is also a knight of the round table.
It some ways, it’s not as bonkers as it at first seems. Urien of Rheged was a famous warlord and near-contemporary of Arthur, and there’s nothing odd about cementing relationships by marrying your sister to your allies in this period. Sedbergh, in south-east Cumbria, also links up with other geographical assumptions. Taliesin’s Urien has a son called Owain7 – a name with the same linguistic root as Yvain – and it wouldn’t have been strange for a warlord to send his son to an allied king’s court in his youth. Where the theory all falls down is Taliesin’s silence on the subject and a closer examination of dates.
The historical Urien’s death is reasonably securely dated to 580-590CE, and we know from Taliesin that he lived to be a white-haired old man, so we can guess a birth date of 510-520CE. Arthur is traditionally said to have been born in around 465CE, and to have died at the Battle of Camlann in 537 CE. Morgan Le Fay, Uriens of Gore’s supposed wife, is Arthur’s older half-sister, so she would have been around 45 when Urien was born. If Uriens had his son, Yvain, when he was 20, the oldest that Yvain could have been at Arthur’s death in 537CE is seven. This Yvain could not have been one of Arthur’s knights.
These dates do not exclude the possibility that a young Urien was at the Battle of Camlann in 537CE. Perhaps he did marry a female relation of Arthur; some sources say that Morgan was actually Arthur’s niece, although even that extra generation stretches likelihoods; other sources suggest another candidate for Urien’s wife.
So where does that leave us? We can safely decide that Urien is not Arthur, and he probably wasn’t married to Arthur’s sister. Urien was a real person, and probably a famously heroic one, and he probably did rule much of Cumbria from 535-c580CE. So we can still call him our own, and be proud.
- Hywel ab Owain
- Sir Ifor Williams’ translation of The Battle of Gwen Ystrat, The Poems of Taliesin (1975)
- The Men of the North by Tim Clarkson, p68 ISBN 978-1-906566-18-9
- Le Morte D’Arthur, Thomas Malory, published 1485
- First named by Geoffrey of Monmouth, c.1136. Geoffrey is contentious amongst historians. Here’s a good post on the Badonicus blog about him.
- Yvain by Chretien de Troyes, 12thc
- Owain, son of Urien, is not the Owain who fought at the 10th-century Battle of Brunanburh. The Owain supposedly buried at the Giant’s Grave in Penrith is also more likely to the be the later, 10th-century Owain, as the stones around the grave are of similar date.
Interested in the ‘real’ Arthur story? The check out the Badonicus blog.