Urien of Rheged: Not Cumbria’s Arthur

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.

Yr Hen Ogledd (The Old North) c.550- c. 650: peoples and sites in Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, John T. Koch, ed. (2005), isbn 9781851094400.

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.

Book of Taliesin

Book of Taliesin

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.

 Notes:

  1. Hywel ab Owain
  2. Sir Ifor Williams’ translation of The Battle of Gwen Ystrat, The Poems of Taliesin (1975)
  3. The Men of the North by Tim Clarkson, p68 ISBN 978-1-906566-18-9
  4. Le Morte D’Arthur, Thomas Malory, published 1485
  5. First named by Geoffrey of Monmouth, c.1136. Geoffrey is contentious amongst historians. Here’s a good post on the Badonicus blog about him.
  6. Yvain by Chretien de Troyes, 12thc
  7. 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.
  8. I strongly recommend Professor Guy Halsall’s Worlds of Arthur (2013) for those interested in the historicity, or otherwise, of King Arthur.

 ©Diane McIlmoyle 01.03.11

Edited 03.03.14

Advertisements

42 thoughts on “Urien of Rheged: Not Cumbria’s Arthur

    • Thank you 🙂 The thing about early medieval history is that there are so few records, all the more so for the Britons who subsequently subjugated by the English 😉

      • We can safely decide that Urien is not Arthur

        In historical terms, I absolutely agree with you, but it’s interesting, and perhaps helps to explain the later confusion, that the Welsh Triads (a set of bardic mnemonics that we have in two sets of manuscripts, one probably from a seventh-century archetype and one from a ninth-century one) actually replace Urien with Arthur in several of the triads between the two archetypes. I suppose that the bards wanted a hero who’d finally won for their stories, even if he was fictional!

        (Sent here by Tim Clarkson’s recent mention of your blog, which I’d missed; very impressive!)

        • Glad you like the blog and thanks for visiting!

          Your example is probably the first of many where poor old Urien has been overwritten by Arthur. Living in Cumbria, I do wish that people could be proud of the hero we’ve got, rather than forever trying to make him into someone else!

          Nice blog, btw – I’ve added it to my blogroll. There are all sorts of interesting historical blogs around now I’ve started looking!

  1. A long time ago, so long that I can’t remember the author or title, I read a book by an English traveller in Brittany who found the names of Arthur’s battles in an area of Brittany. He had been interested in the speculations about Arthurian place names, as some of the suggested battle sites seemed too far distant from the putative Camelot. He thought that if Arthur ruled in Brittany, it solved the geographical problems. The place names in Brittany that corresponded to Arthur’s battles and Camelot etc, were not the names on the map, but names he had been told by the old men who lived there so it could be very hard to check it out. But it is an interesting idea.

    • It is. There is a whole school of thought that Arthur ruled around Cumbria and southern Scotland, as in Alastair Moffatt’s Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms. I don’t agree with him – I think a lot of it is just based on the fact that there was a lot going on up here in the 5th and 6th centuries, and the final realisation that Cumbrians, Bretons and Welsh all spoke a variant of Brythonic. It’s a shame that ‘they’ have to turn Urien into Arthur. Urien was heroic enough in his own right! Thank you so much for commenting.

  2. Pingback: Battle of Brunanburh, 937CE | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

  3. Pingback: Gwenddoleu and the Battle of Arthuret, 573CE | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

  4. Pingback: Lailoken, or Myrddin, or Merlin | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

  5. Pingback: Arthurian links « Senchus

  6. Pingback: Owain map Urien, King of Cumbria c.590-597CE | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

  7. Pingback: Eveling: Cumbria’s Faerie King, or Celtic God? | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

  8. Hi there, I found this blog once, then lost it. Took me forever to occur back and find it. I wanted to view what comments you got. Very good blog by the way.

  9. Pingback: Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore | Not Found

  10. Pingback: Carlisle’s ancient British heritage: Luguwalos | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

  11. Pingback: Queen Alchflaed « Senchus

  12. Pingback: Uther Pendragon, c. 440CE – c. 500CE | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

  13. Nice to see the probably real Urien getting some of the airplay that is usually only reserved for the quite possibly not real Arthur!

    Are we sure that Owain survived him? Owain’s Death Song has been preserved (although how authentic it is is up for question) and there appears to be no mention in Canu Taliesin of the death of Urien.

    It’s fashionable to see a much reduced Rheged struggle on until the marriage of Riemmelth. Assuming the marriage story to be a) true and b) dynastic, Rheged had to be a prize worth having, even though hubby wasn’t really expected to be the heir to the Bernician throne (if the king lists etc are correct, he was a younger son).

    My guess is that these petty kingdoms did not have permanent defined boundaries. Each may well have been defined by the territory the king and his warband coud control. Tribute, federations and shifting alliances would muddy the waters further. Independent British power in the north (save for Strathclyde) was a dead duck by the time Edwin was at his peak, so rather than Rheged falling into the hands of “the enemy”, is it not equally possible that Bernicia was just the latest in a long line of dominant power blocks in the region. English penetration into Cumbria at that time was limited at best and there appears little reason to see these events in purely ethnic terms of Briton v Saxon.

    Regards,

    3P

    • Hi there – thanks for coming over. I can’t say that I’m really ‘sure’ about anything in this early medieval period, with records being so thin and so thoroughly fiddled with to suit various political agendas over hundreds of years! You certainly get a sense of Rheged just fading away, with fits with your view of Riemmelth’s marriage. I don’t doubt that borders wavered about, depending on the strength of personality of each regional leader. As with all early Cumbrian history, I just wish there were more written records!

      • Hi Esmerelda,

        True enough, but equally one gets the sense that Rheged rose up pretty quickly too. I’m not aware of any mention of it earlier than the praise poetry and everything else we have about Urien’s forebears comes from the (probably) later king lists. If (and it’s a big if) the Annales are right about Armterid being a real battle which took place in the mid to late 6th and if (another biggie) the English Place Name Society is right about the derivations of Carwhinley and Arthuret, then one can argue that the dominant power in the Carlisle area was, (until his demise), Gwenddoleu. That gives Rheged a scant 20 years before Urien falls (assuming, of course, that the HB is accurate on dates, which is the third big “if”). In other words, Rheged’s glory days as a political unit is centred on one rather expansionist man and his successful warband.

        Interestingly, it also puts Urien at Catreath. A couple of Taliesin’s bromances refer to Urien as having authority in Catreath and if Koch and others are right about the dating, and given that Urien is apparently knocking heads together in the far north east at the time he dies, it suggests quite strongly that Urien was the victor at Catreath. Which, in turn, suggests that it was a battle between Britons, not between Britons and Angles. To push it beyond snapping point, could the Battle of Gwen Ystrad be Catreath as seen from the winner’s podium?

        Regards,

        3P

        • I don’t doubt you! It’s the Catterick reference that has a few people saying that Rheged wasn’t really Cumbria, isn’t it? And I guess we know that the slightly later Welsh were highly hacked off with these centuries’ powerful and charismatic leaders fighting each other, rather than the incomers from that Triad about ‘futile battles’. Perhaps, as you say, Catterick was just another.

          Gwenddoleu is another of those characters who is frustratingly shadowy. He does seem too large in scale for tenancy of such a small piece of land, if we believe he just had a bit of northwest Cumbria and southwest Scotland. I know the coastal areas were more interesting, trade-wise and people-traffic-wise than we naturally assume now, but it does seem that the bulk of the reported action happened further east. Perhaps this is just the period at which our mental maps changed away from the super-highway that was the Irish Sea and Solway Firth to today’s road-centred perspective.

          As for dates? Heavily firtled with, and never to be taken very literally, I think! And ‘bromances’? Lol 😉

  14. Hi Esmerelda

    I’m not unduly worried about linking Urien to Cumbria. If the poems are even half accurate (which, of course, they may not be), it’s pretty clear that Catreath is not Urien’s homeland. He is referred to as the ruler of the civilised plain and Catreath is described as being “beyond the plain”. What’s more, Owain ap Urien is described as a chief of the “glittering west”. Urien himself is praised for his fighting against Bryneich (Bernicia) and is clealy not above looting in Strathclyde and North Wales. He has valleys, mountains and fordable rivers in is land and also a substantial body of water called the Sea of Rheged. Lyvennet also survives as a name – not much in itself, but taken with all the other clues, he almost has to be in Cumbria. Catreath is also highly strategic to a Cumbrian kingdom – straight along the old Roman road, now the A66.

    I agree about Gwenddoleu. I suspect that his demise (if it is historically accurate) left a vacuum which near neighbours were able to exploit.

    Regards,

    3P

    • Ah, now I know the Lyvennet area quite well. There have been some relevant archaeological discoveries, and it is an interesting location, at the foot of the Eden Valley, with a river (obviously – the Lyvennet!), woods and where five ancient roads met.

      I’m glad there are lots of reasons not to put Urien in Catterick, except as an incoming warrior!

      The Roman road is not entirely along the A66 – the road was raised up the mountainside when it was modernised when the railway came out. It also used to hang a left near Greystoke and up to Hutton-in-the-Forest, in the old royal forest of Inglewood. At that point it more or less intersects with the old Roman road which is very roughly the A6, at what is now known to be the remains of a Roman station at Castle Hewen. Details, I know, but I can see you like detail 😉

  15. Hi Esmeralda,

    Thanks for this. I do indeed rather like the detail!

    I was thinking more of the A66 east of Penrith, where it cuts across Bowes Moor to Scotch Corner. Eirik Bloodaxe came unstuck there, so presumably it also existed as a major transpennine route in Urien’s time. Control of Catterick arguably gives you control of the main road into Rheged. If I were Urien, I’d want to be sure that whoever held Catterick was not hostile to me. I do wonder whether the Battle of Catreath needs to be seen in this context.

    Castle Hewen is an interesting place in mythjological terms, is it not?

    Regards,

    3P

    • Yes, Stainmore was the main route in from the east for much of history – even the prehistoric stone axes went that way! It’s a pretty wild place even now, and is regularly cut off with snow. There’s actually a gate on that part of the A66 which is brought down during high winds and snow – for surprisingly large parts of the year!

      Castle Hewen is downright weird. Everyone and his dog has had a theory about it, and speculation continues even after the dig demonstrated its Roman roots. Mind, being built by the Romans doesn’t mean nothing interesting happened during the early medieval period, eh?

  16. Pabo wrote:
    ‘In other words, Rheged’s glory days as a political unit is centred on one rather expansionist man and his successful warband’

    Much ink would be saved if our history books included this wise comment on 6th-century North British politics.

    Incidentally, seeing Pabo’s name prompts me to ask Diane if something on the Pabo/Papcastle theory might be on her list of future blogposts.

  17. Pingback: The Cappel: Cumbria’s spooky black dog | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

  18. Pingback: Scary, Scarier and Scariest: Halloween Lanterns | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

  19. Pingback: Eveling, Cumbria’s faery king and Celtic god | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

  20. I disagree. Urien is listed as one of the three bull protectors of Britain in the Welsh Triads. The evidence for the centre of Rheged being based in Carlisle is good enough for Tolstoy (see The Quest For Merlin) and the kingdom was certainly not small. It covered the whole of modern day Galloway (Dun Ragit) and Cumbria and beyond as far as Yorkshire. It was his success as military leader that led to his assassination as ordered from the jealous factions of the British military elite. Urien ranged far and wide battling other Britons (Powys/Gododdin) and getting their submission as well as all but driving the Angles out of Bernicia. I don’t think you’re doing this great King justice. As far as Arthur goes I have read that one of Urien’s epithets was ‘Arth y gogledd’ or bear of the north. Personally I don’t believe there ever was an Arthur but as composite characters go I think a large part of that myth is owed to Urien.

    • Mighty, I’m not sure whether you’re aware but you’re debating there with a couple of PhDs in medieval history (none of which are mine!). Which is why I rifle through ideas, listen to those kind enough to comment, consider, and propose my own perspective on this blog.

      There simply isn’t enough information for anyone to be absolutely sure what Urien’s territory was, although I want to believe the the evidence in support of Cumbria (but not necessarily Yorkshire (see Pabo’s comment above)). And I agree – as Jonathan implicitly supports in his comment – that it seems apparent that a lot of Arthur’s story used Urien material.

      Ref. centre of Rheged, I don’t align with Tolstoy. Interestingly, there’s been a bit of a suggestion – but only a suggestion – recently (see Dinogad’s Smock post) that it might have been centred around Borrowdale. And then, of course, people have been suggesting the Lyvennett area for donkey’s years.

      I don’t know whether you’re aware, but Tim Clarkson, author of Men of the North and one of those commenters, doesn’t believe that Rheged, and hence Urien, were in Cumbria at all. Perhaps you should go debate with him at http://www.senchus.wordpress.com

      In that context, I think I’m one of the few people who actually does support Urien as a grand Cumbrian hero. Which makes you and I allies, I think 😉

      PS. Please can you direct me to your blog – I’d like to read. Thank you 🙂

      • Only just come across this Diane. Nice blog and a great bunch of comments and debate.

        There is one other Arthurian connection put forward by several scholars and that it that Arthur’s supposed battle at Bregion/Breguoin/Bregonium was a borrowing from Urien’s battle at ‘cellawr Brewyn (cells of Brewyn), possibly Bremetennacum (Ribchester, Lancashire) or, better etymologically, Bremenium (High Rochester, Northumbria). However, ‘cells of Brewyn’ suggests monks cells and, whilst they did set up shop in old Roman forts, there’s no sign of them in either of these sites.

  21. Pingback: Lailoken, or Myrddin, or Merlin | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

  22. Thanks so much for the reminder of this. It’ll help in the research for a writing project I mentioned to you a while back and which I’m gradually getting closer to as I work through other projects. I’m vague on a lot of history, I’m afraid, but this is a fascinating era which fires the imagination.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s