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 sources are thin on the ground; secondly, so many people have decided that they’d like him to be King Arthur that it all gets rather tired and emotional; and thirdly, a Certain Local Tourist Attraction.
In reality, it goes likes this. Sometime in the early 6th century, Urien was born. He was a brythonic (a form of old Welsh)-speaking Briton, 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 gained 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. Not only that: here is where we first see a datable King Arthur. His battles are mentioned in the Historia Brittonum (‘Nennius’), which was also written in Wales, some time in the early 9th century, although the writer seems to suggest that the events described took place three hundred or so years before, in the 5th or 6th centuries, making this Arthur a contemporary of Urien. If you’re not an Arthur aficionado, let me spell out the implications: there are no contemporary references to Arthur at all – yes, really – I know that seems incredible given what we sometimes hear – whereas there are for Urien.
It gets trickier. Many, many years later, a number of medieval writers fell for stories about King Arthur because they seemed to fit their values of nobility and chivalry. They went digging for information about people we know for a fact really did live in 5th/6th century Britain in order to flesh out Arthur’s tale because history hadn’t given them enough to work with. And so, Urien of Rheged was re-written in the 15th century as Uriens of Gore4, a knight of the round table with a city (possibly) at Sedbergh, and a wife called – wait for it – Morgan Le Fay. That’s right – the high medieval character, Uriens (who, remember, is not the historical Urien) 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. The historical Urien of Rheged, the famous 6th century warlord, would not have thought it odd to cement a political relationship by marrying an ally’s sister. Sedbergh, in south-east Cumbria, also links up with other geographical assumptions about the historical Urien and Rheged. Taliesin’s Urien (the real one) also has a son called Owain7 – a name with the same linguistic root as the fictional 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 of Arthur – he was, after all, Urien’s chief recorder of events for posterity – 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 (remember, there are no contemporary sources) 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, although it remains extraordinary that the great bard, Taliesin, did not see fit to mention either the battle, his boss’s role in it, nor the man who became enormously famous a few hundred years later.
So where does that leave us? Unlike Arthur, Urien of Rheged is an historically attested person. We know for a fact that he lived, led his people, defended them against military threat, and died tragically. We don’t need the frills and furbelows of high medieval fictional stories, written many hundreds of years after Urien’s life, to know he was important. Let’s be proud of Urien, a real man, who does not need to borrow someone else’s name to be important.
- 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.
- I strongly recommend Professor Guy Halsall’s Worlds of Arthur (2013) for those interested in the historicity, or otherwise, of King Arthur.