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).
In reality, like all these early medieval kings, facts are had to come by. Owain was the son of the famous Urien of Rheged, and he inherited his father’s kingdom, and his father’s wars. His prowess in battle was well-recorded by his father’s bard, Taliesin, who name-checked him in the Battle of Argoed Llwyfain of c.580CE, where Owain roused the Cumbrians against the Bernicians and killed their leader, Theodoric ‘Fflamddwyn’ (‘fire-stealer’).
He met his end when Rheged was attacked by three neighbouring rulers; Dunant Bwr from Dunoting (Pennines), Gwallac Marchawc Trin of Elmet (Yorkshire) and Morcant Bwlc of Bernicia (Northumbria). Morcant, who was behind the assassination of Owain’s father Urien, killed Owain in battle.
Owain’s first extra-curricular mention in folklore is in the story of his birth. Welsh sources2 say that his father Urien came across Modron, washing in a river. He had his wicked way with her, and she thanked him because a prophecy said that she wouldn’t be freed until she conceived a child by a christian. She gave birth to Owain and his sister, Morfydd.
Modron is the name of a Celtic river goddess, and she is said to be the daughter of Afallach, an orchard god associated with the Celtic afterlife. Here we get an unexpected Cumbrian connection; the village of Ravenglass on the western coast has long been associated with faery stories featuring the King of the Faeries, Eveling (pronounced ever-ling). ‘Eveling’ is derived from the old Welsh ‘Afallach’. Perhaps Ravenglass was a centre for the worship of Modron and Afallach – certainly, Rheged and Cumbria are associated with the worship of Modron’s other son, Mabon3 – or perhaps a more pedestrian explanation would be that Owain’s mother hailed from Ravenglass.
The romantic Arthurian writers of the later medieval period added a lot of detail to the slim facts of the historical Owain’s life. Chretien de Troyes, who wrote in the 12th century, and an 11th-century tale in the 14th-century White Book of Rhydderch have similar tales: ‘Yvain, the Knight of the Lion’ and ‘Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain’. The tale in the White Book is probably based on Chretien, who in turn appears to have used earlier Welsh sources, but many elements are clearly fantastical and allegorical.
The Owain/Yvain of these tales sets out on a quest to defeat a knight who bested his friend Cynan. The knight was as tall as two men, with one leg, and one eye in the middle of his forehead. Despite his fearsome appearance, he was a gentle man whose role was to protect and rule over the animals of the forest. The giant directed Owain to a mound in a clearing, where he said Owain would find a fountain, a great stone, and a silver bowl. If he took water in the bowl and poured it on the stone, there would be a great storm; thunder and hail would risk the lives of men, beasts and trees. At this point, said the one-eyed giant, the knight who defended the place and who had defeated Cynan would appear.
Owain went to the mound and did as instructed, causing great destruction in the forest and barely escaping with his life. The knight duly appeared, and Owain struck a blow which mortally wounded him. Owain followed the dying man to his city and eventually managed to persuade the knight’s wife that she should marry Owain so that he could defend her kingdom. Owain married the Lady of the Fountain, and stayed there for three years.
At the end of this period, King Arthur went in search of Owain, and persuaded him to return to court. Owain had many adventures and forgot about his wife until her maid arrived to reclaim the ring that represented his link to the lands of the Fountain. Owain was overcome with shame and exiled himself to live a wild life in the forest.
Although weakened by hardship, Owain gained a right-hand man in the form of a white lion, when he rescued it from attack by a snake. Owain and the lion had various knightly adventures, until he finally restored his honour and returned to live happily with the Lady of the Fountain.
Owain also appears in the White Book’s Dream of Rhonabwy, where Owain and King Arthur play a board game whilst dismissing calls to help their warriors, who were locked in a terrible battle against each other. It is a theme of 8th and 9th-century Welsh re-writing of earlier history that the Celtic nations caused their own defeat by in-fighting when they should have united against the invading Anglo-Saxons.
Leaving literature and folklore behind, the dates of the historical Owain do not match up to those suggested for an historical Arthur ; they are at least two generations apart. It’s more likely that Owain gained a reputation as a powerful ruler and warrior in his lifetime, with the assistance of his father’s bard, Taliesin, and this led later Welsh writers to add flourishes to his name. This, in turn, inspired the medieval romantic writers. The real Owain may well have fought in many battles, but he had a very short reign and was thoroughly overcome by neighbouring kingdoms.
Rheged faded rapidly from this point, finally disappearing when his great-niece Rieinmelth married Oswy of Northumbria, transferring the kingdom to Owain’s enemy.
1. Owain map Urien, is probably not the Owain buried at the Giant’s Grave in Penrith. It is more likely to the be grave of the later, 10th-century Owain, as the stones around the grave are of similar date.
2. Triad 70 and Peniarth 147.
3. Interestingly, Modron is also said to be the mother of Mabon, a Welsh name rooted in the Celtic god, Maponos. Cumbria was a centre of the worship of Maponos, with inscriptions found at Carlisle and Brampton. Taliesin, Urien’s bard, also associated Rheged with Mabon.