02 March, 2013

Owain son of Urien

Owain map Urien (Owain son of Urien) was a warrior-hero of the royal house of Rheged in the late sixth century.  He appears in some of the poetry attributed to Taliesin, and later became a hero of medieval Arthurian romance.  What can we say about him?


Although his father Urien (Urbgen) is mentioned in Historia Brittonum, there is no mention of Owain in Historia Brittonum or Annales Cambriae.  More surprisingly, he also makes no appearance in the Harleian or Gwyr y Gogledd genealogies, which terminate with Urien as the last generation.  Owain son of Urien is known from poetry, mainly the group of poems attributed to Taliesin and preserved in a medieval Welsh manuscript, from the Triads, a collection of aides-memoires for poets and storytellers also preserved in medieval Welsh manuscripts, and from the legends surrounding the conception and birth of St Kentigern.


The Harleian genealogy for Urien terminates with Urien and does not list any offspring

[U]rbgen map Cinmarc map Merchianum map Gurgust map Coilhen

--Harleian Genealogies, available online 

The Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd genealogies (Descent of the Men of the North) contain a very similar genealogy, also terminating at Urien

Vryen uab Kynuarch m Meirchavn m Gorust Letlvm m Keneu m Coel

--Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd, available online 

In the Bonedd Y Seint genealogies (Descent of the Saints), Owain appears as the father of St Kentigern

Kyndeyrn m. Garthwys, m. Owein, m. Vryen, a Denw, verch Lewdwn Lwydawc o Dinas Eidin yn y gogled, y vam.

--Bonedd y Seint 17, available online 

The Peniarth manuscript triad mentioned below refers to “Cyndeyrn Garthwys the chief bishop”, suggesting that Garthwys is an epithet or nickname, so this would translate roughly as ‘Kyndeyrn Garthwys, son of Owein son of Urien, by Denw daughter of Lewdwn.’

The Death-Song of Owain

The soul of Owain, son of Urien […]
There will not be found a match for the chief of the glittering west
When Flamdwyn killed Owain, there was not one greater than he sleeping
A wide number of Lloegyr went to sleep with light in their eyes
Owain valiantly chastised them, like a pack of wolves pursuing sheep

--Book of Talieisin 44, available online

Translations vary; an alternative translation has Owain slaying Flamdwyn ‘When Owain slew Flamdwyn it was no more to him than to sleep’.  Either version is compatible with the subject matter of the poem.  If Flamdwyn killed Owain it could be a description of the circumstances of Owain’s death, if Owain killed Flamdwyn it could be a description of a famous earlier deed performed by Owain before he died.  It could even be both, if they killed each other in a cataclysmic battle.

The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain

Flamdwyn called out again, of great impetuosity
Will they give hostages? are they ready?
Owain answered, Let the gashing appear
They will not give, they are not ready
And Ceneu, son of Coel, would be an irritated lion
Before he would give a hostage to anyone

--Book of Taliesin 35, available online 

Again, translations vary; the phrase ‘Ceneu son of Coel’ has been translated as ‘a whelp of Coel’, i.e. a descendant of Coel’s line.  For more information on Coel, founder figure of a number of royal genealogies, see post on Coel Hen.


Three Fair Princes of the Island of Britain
Owain son of Urien, Rhun son of Maelgwn, Rhufawn the Radiant son of Dewrarth Wledig.

--Red Book of Hergest, available online 

Three Tribal Thrones of the Island of Britain
Arthur the chief lord in Penrionyd in the north, and Cyndeyrn Garthwys the chief bishop, and Gurthmwl Guledic the chief elder.

Peniarth manuscript 54, available online


The story of King Urien and Modron tells how Urien Rheged came to a ford haunted by a mysterious supernatural force that made all the locals fear to approach it. There he found a woman washing cloaks, and lay with her. Afterwards she blessed him and told him

“I have been fated to wash here until I should conceive a son by a Christian. And I am daughter to the King of Annwfn, and come thou here at the end of the year and then thou shalt receive that boy." And so he came and he received there a boy and a girl: that is, Owein son of Urien and Morfudd daughter of Urien.

--King Urien and Modron, available online

Owain appears as the hero of the medieval Welsh romance The Lady of the Fountain, and as an antagonist of Arthur in the medieval Welsh tale The Dream of Rhonabwy, both in The Mabinogion.

Life of St Kentigern

A Life of St Kentigern, now surviving only in part, was commissioned in the twelfth century by Herbert, Bishop of Glasgow.  It names Owain son of Urien as Kentigern’s father and recounts a legend in which Kentigern is conceived as a result of the seduction of Kentigern’s mother Denw (also spelled Taniu, Teneu, Thaney, and many other variations), daughter of the King of Lothian, by Owain map Urien.  For a summary, see Whiddon Green, 1998 (Part 2).   A longer and slightly later Life of St Kentigern written by the twelfth-century monk Jocelyn of Furness recounts a clearly related tale about Kentigern’s birth (with much tut-tutting about fantastical fables), but does not mention the name of Kentigern’s father (translation available online).  


Owain is clearly portrayed in the poetry as a warrior-hero, fighting and winning battles. 

The phrases 'chief of Rheged' and ‘chieftain of the glittering west’ in The Death-Song of Owain are also consistent with Owain having been a king in his own right.  They may indicate that he was a sub-ruler of part of Rheged (the lovely phrase ‘the glittering west’ immediately calls to mind the Lake District, or the coastlands of Cumbria and/or Galloway, although this is pure speculation on my part and I do not know how reliable the translation is), or that he succeeded his father Urien as king of Rheged, or both. 

The fact that poetry survives about him suggests that he was of sufficient status to support a bard.  His presence in the medieval romances and the Triads suggests that there were more poems and stories about him that have not survived, which in turn suggests that he was considered an important figure and a worthy hero to tell stories about. (I should perhaps add the obvious if unromantic caveat here that it is possible that the romances were drawing on poems and stories that were originally about several different figures called Owain, and were only later aggregated around a single character).

It is not known how long Owain’s career lasted.  If he was fighting Flamdwyn when his father Urien was alive, and was himself killed by the same Flamdwyn, that may be a tenuous indication that he did not long outlive his father. 

The poetry is clear that Owain was a son of Urien, who was King of Rheged some time in the second half of the sixth century (more about Urien and Rheged in later posts). 

The story that Owain’s mother was Modron, the daughter of the King of Annwfn (Annwfn is the Welsh name for the Otherworld), may be no more than a late legend, invented after Owain had become a key figure of Arthurian tales to provide a supernatural origin suitable for a legendary hero.  There may also be a possibility that it could have slightly more prosaic roots, perhaps indicating that Owain’s mother was thought to be non-Christian.  At least some of the Picts were non-Christian at the time of St Columba’s visit to King Bridei in the 560s, approximately contemporary with Urien, and the early English kings and aristocrats converted by St Augustine’s Roman missionaries in and after 597 AD were (presumably) non-Christian prior to that.  Possibly there were high-status non-Christians in other kingdoms too.  It may be that Urien married a non-Christian lady, perhaps as part of a dynastic alliance, and that this was later developed into a supernatural liaison long after all other details had been forgotten.  This is pure speculation on my part.

The Life of St Kentigern commissioned by Bishop Herbert dates from the twelfth century, over half a millennium after the events, so should be treated with caution.  It is possible that the story was invented wholesale to provide St Kentigern with a royal parentage and suitably exotic conception story, with Owain’s name simply borrowed out of the romances as a worthy hero to father an important saint.  That said, a dynastic marriage between a prince of Rheged (in what is now south-western Scotland/north-western England) and a princess from the kingdom of Lothian in what is now south-eastern Scotland) is plausible, and the date of Kentigern’s death in Annales Cambriae does not contradict the (limited!) evidence about the likely date range for Owain.  So it is also possible that the story contains a kernel of truth.  No other children of Owain son of Urien are mentioned in the surviving sources. 

Owain’s father Urien is stated in Historia Brittonum to have fought against Theodric of Bernicia, one of the sons of Ida of Bernicia.  Theodric’s reign is not precisely dated, but it falls somewhere between the end of Ida’s twelve-year reign (which, according to Bede, began in 547) in 559 and the twenty-four-year reign of Aethelferth of Bernicia that began in 593 (for a discussion on the dating, see my article ‘Origins of Northumbria: Two Aethelrics?’).  So Theodric ruled some time between 559 and 593.  As Urien is said to have fought against Theodric, it can be inferred that Urien was militarily active at some time in the same period, i.e. in the second half of the sixth century.  Urien and Theodric need not have been exact contemporaries, of course; all that is needed for consistency with Historia Brittonum is that their reigns overlapped long enough for at least one battle. 

As Urien’s son, Owain belongs to the next generation and therefore is likely to belong to a later period, perhaps in the last quarter of the sixth century.  Urien and Owain are shown fighting together in The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain, indicating that their fighting careers overlapped.

Unfortunately, Owain’s and Urien’s adversary Flamdwyn cannot be certainly identified.  The name Flamdwyn is a nickname, meaning something like ‘Firebrand’ or ‘Flamebearer’.  The next line in Owain’s death song refers to ‘the men of Lloegyr’, and as Lloegyr is a common medieval Welsh name for the lands that became England, this is consistent with Flamdwyn as a leader of an English kingdom.  The obvious candidate is Theodric of Bernicia, since Historia Brittonum explicitly says that he fought Urien, but it could be another king, either of Bernicia or of another kingdom. 

Taniu and her father Lewdwn do not appear in Historia Brittonum, Annales Cambriae or genealogies other than Kentigern’s, so they do not add any independent dating evidence. 

Annales Cambriae enters the death of Kentigern in 612.  If Kentigern was really Owain’s son, this is also consistent with a date for Owain in the late sixth century.


For such an important figure in Arthurian legend, Owain map Urien is surprisingly poorly recorded in historical sources (though the same could be said of Arthur himself, so Owain is in illustrious company there).  Taking the Taliesin poetry at face value, it seems reasonable to infer that Owain son of Urien was a warrior hero in the late sixth century, that he and his father fought at least one famous battle against a (probably) English warlord, and that Owain ruled at least part of Rheged, possibly only briefly.  Whether he had a non-Christian mother, and whether he also entered into a liaison or marriage with a princess of Lothian and fathered a famous saint is open to interpretation, though there seems no obvious reason why these would be impossible.

Owain and Taniu's story is imagined in Kathleen Herbert’s novel Bride of the Spear (first published under the title Lady of the Fountain), based in part on the earlier Life of St Kentigern and The Lady of the Fountain. Trifolium Books UK plan to bring out a new edition of Bride of the Spear in June 2013.  For more details, see the Trifolium Books blog. 

Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd, available online 
Bonedd y Seint, available online 
Harleian genealogies, available online 
Life of St Kentigern, by Jocelyn of Furness. Translated by C Whiddon Green, available online.  
The Dream of Rhonabwy. In: The Mabinogion. Translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones. Everyman Classics, 1989. ISBN 0-460-15097-9
The Lady of the Fountain. In: The Mabinogion. Translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones. Everyman Classics, 1989. ISBN 0-460-15097-9.
Whiddon Green, C. Saint Kentigern, Apostle to Strathclyde: A critical analysis of a northern saint. 1998, available online.


Beth said...

I love the image of the glittering west and the idea of it being the Lake District. The general consensus in the translations I have seems to be not that (sadly) but 'bright/resplendent Llwyfenydd'; but that does at least still perhaps offer a Cumbrian location. :)

Must say I'm looking forward to seeing the new edition of Bride of the Spear!

Constance Brewer said...

Thanks for the links to online resources. I love reading poetry I'm not familiar with. "The Death-Song of Owain" caught my interest. :)

Carla said...

Beth - that was the first image that came into my mind when I read the phrase. It's an apt poetic description of the Lake District, when you look out from one of the summits on a clear day and see the lakes and tarns sparkling among the fells, and Morecambe Bay and the Solway gleaming in the distance. Unless Owain had a very restricted territorial domain, there's no reason why he couldn't have been lord of the Lyvennet valley (if that's where you're placing Llwyfenydd) and lord of areas further west as well.

Yes, I am looking forward to the new editions too. I'll post more information here as it becomes available, and a review in due course.

Constance - thanks, I am glad you found it interesting. You might like to search through some of the other pages in the linked site for more related poetry. Worth looking out for alternative translations, too, because they do vary, and perhaps also for the originals - even if you don't speak medieval Welsh, the language has its own rhythms and as a poet those might appeal to you.

Rick said...

Is it a given that Owain outlived his father? (Not much in this period *is* a 'given', is it?)

If Owain died before Urien it would explain why he didn't get in the geneologies - presumably they were strictly speaking king-lists, and strictly speaking he never became king. It wouldn't preclude him acquiring a notable reputation before that possibly unfortunate encounter with Flamdwyn.

The whole business about Modron puts me in mind of Melusine. Though she was the progenitress of a dynasty, while Modron apparently came near the end of one.

What happened to Rheged after this time, anyway?

Could Kentigern have been an inconvenient royal, bundled off to a monastery? It was fairly common practice at the time, though I don't know if it is attested in Britain. Perhaps he got a sort of 'revenge' by becoming a saint!

Finally, Theodric is an interesting name at this time - granted that it is also a standard Germanic name, and need not have been connected to any Ostrogoth.

Carla said...

Rick - Not a given, no. As you say, very little is. An obvious interpretation of 'chief of Rheged' and 'chieftain of the glittering west' is that Owain was king of Rheged, and the most obvious (though not the only) inference from that is that he succeeded Urien. The poem The Death of Urien, attributed to Llywarch Hen, also refers to attacks on Owain after it has described Urien's death, so if the order of events reflects the order of the poem that might indicate that Urien died first. Although given how allusive and elliptical poetry can be, I don't think it's impossible that a poet might describe events out of order for dramatic or poetic effect. The Llywarch Hen poetry is also thought on linguistic grounds to be later than the Taliesin poetry. However, even if Owain did outlive Urien your point still stands, if Rheged fell apart quite quickly and Urien was remembered as its last truly independent king. I shall have more to say about some of Urien's other descendants in another post(s) in due course.

The difference between Modron and Melusine may not be as stark as it appears at first glance. If the story developed after Owain had become a hero of Arthurian romance, Modron can be seen as a supernatural progenitress of Owain.

As to what happened to Rheged and when, it's not really known. (Surprise!) Some of Urien's descendants are recorded - more on this in another post - so the dynasty continued and retained status for another couple of generations at least - but exactly what power they held and what had happened to Rheged as a political entity by then is mysterious. As are most things about Rheged, even its location is uncertain. I'll come back to Rheged in more detail in another post.

If you've glanced at the summary of the Life's description of Kentigern's conception and birth, you'll see that he seems a very inconvenient baby indeed... I guess you mean, could he have been an unwelcome rival claimant, sent off to a monastery to keep him out of the way (and/or out of danger)? If his parentage is accurately recorded (a big if, given the lateness of the source), yes, there may well have been other claimants to Rheged and/or Lothian/Gododdin who would have been happy to have him out of the way, although the political situation of both Rheged and Lothian/Gododdin in the late sixth/early seventh century is sufficiently unclear that this is speculative.

Theodric of Bernicia was active in the second half of the sixth century, so could have been born at about the right time to have been named after Theodoric the Great. It seems likely that news travelled between Britain and Europe - along with imported treasures like some of the items at Sutton Hoo - and that kings and would-be kings in Britain had probably heard about Theodoric the Great. Though as you say it's a standard Germanic name and he could just as well have been named after an obscure great-grandfather.

Rick said...

I was just struck by another reason why the genealogies might end with Urien, not Owain: If they were first composed when Urien was still king, or at least when 'everyone knew' that Urien was Owain's father.

Especially if the purpose was to tie Urien, or the 'house of Urien' back to Coel Hen.

More sheer speculation, to be sure, but that's half the fun! (Though when you come to discuss what happened to Rheged, that may provide some more context.)

Chief of the glittering west.

Forgot to mention what a wonderful line that is!

Carla said...

Rick - that may be a possibility. The genealogies are written down in medieval manuscripts, but when they were composed is a different matter. The Taliesin poetry clearly brackets Owain and Urien together, so if the genealogies date from when the poems were in wide circulation it may well have been the case that 'everyone knew' that Owain was the son of Urien. I think that's still consistent with Urien being regarded as the major figure.

Yes, isn't it a lovely line? It immediately conjures up the Lake District to me.

Beth said...

I'm rather chuffed that I'll be seeing the glittering west again this summer. :) Yes, I was thinking of the Lyvennet connection, but as you point out, there's no reason Owain couldn't, being lord of Rheged, have held territory elsewhere.

It's interesting about the geneaologies just stopping. The same seems to happen with some of Owain's contemporaries (broadly speaking) like Guallauc and Peredur - even though sons are mentioned in other sources.

Carla said...

Beth - Have a good trip! I hope the weather is kind. Are you going to do Cat Bells again, or going somewhere different?

Yes, it is interesting that several of the genealogies seem to stop at roughly the same time in the sixth century. If they were compiled from surviving poetry, or from the body of lost poetry and saga that presumably underlies the references in the Triads, one might expect that the genealogies would include famous heroes such as Owain. It suggests to me that at least some of the genealogies may be based on something like king lists, which would naturally stop with the last important/independent king (as Rick suggested above), or may have stopped being kept up to date after a kingdom or dynasty declined in power.

Beth said...

Thanks! Yes, hopefully the weather we're having now isn't heralding a miserable summer! We haven't really got any firm plans yet - I'd like to do the full Cat Bells walk, but Helvellyn is still calling too...

Agreed, were the genealogies relatively late you might expect them to be longer. As far as that goes, I wonder if at least some were viewed as 'fixed', immutable in some way, since later writers didn't elaborate on them even in the light of the extra material you mention. (Although there's a list of Urien's sons in a sixteenth century manuscript, a list is all it is - not a genealogy.) Certainly the possibility that the genealogies were no longer added to once a kingdom or dynasty began to falter/was felt not to have a truly independent king is an attractive one. Even if we see Rheged as still retaining some power in the generation after Urien - I'm thinking as much of Rhun as Owain, in this case - maybe it wouldn't have been considered necessary to make that 'update' to the genealogies within their lifetimes; and by the time it was, Rheged had dropped (although I do acknowledge that they were still important enough to make a marriage alliance with Northumbria) in the power stakes and it was no longer appropriate. (You'd have thought that nobles would still have wanted to claim links with illustrious kings of yore, for all that, but I guess there may have been other factors in play, including ones that might be invisible to us today.)

Carla said...

Beth - hopefully not, although the weather is a law unto itself! The full Cat Bells walk is a lot shorter than Helvellyn, and has glorious views over Derwentwater. If you're staying in Keswick it can also be combined with a trip on the launch to Lodore Falls on the other side of the lake, and/or a walk along part of the lake shore.

The fact that the genealogies don't seem to have been extended or updated by later writers may be consistent with them being derived from an older written source, that was copied out faithfully by generations of scribes.

It may be possible that some nobles did claim descent from illustrious kings of yore, but that those claims haven't come down to us. The Viking raids can't have done record-keeping in the north much good (!). As you get later, and further away from the time when Rheged flourished, the Rheged kings may have become too distant to have much appeal to nobles looking for illustrious ancestors.

Rick said...

Cat Bells

The Ministry of Quaint Placenames strikes again!

On the genealogies, I wonder if Beth hit on something about them becoming 'fixed' in literary tradition. This could be due to non-literary events, such as political changes.

Or they might be internal to a literary tradition - a body of material becomes rich enough to jell into a canon, perhaps, which thenceforth can be drawn on but no longer reworked.

Carla said...

Rick - like many names, it's more prosaic than it looks. 'Cat' means what it says, probably referring to wildcats rather than the domestic moggy, and 'Bells' is derived from 'belde', meaning either a hut or shelter, or an animal's den. So most probably Cat Bells = 'the wildcat's den', no doubt a useful landmark. Or possibly 'the hut/shelter near where the wildcats live', which might have been a way of differentiating it from other huts/shelters in the vicinity.

Yes, the idea of the genealogies having become 'fixed' so that they were preserved but not added to is consistent with what one might expect if they were derived from an older written source, such as a group of king lists. It's not hard to see how such a document might have been copied and recopied, if it was vaguely recognised as 'official' in some way (to make sure it hadn't been lost in case someone ever asked for it), but perhaps was no longer considered 'relevant' enough to be reworked. The Tribal Hidage may have survived in a similar way. Anyone who has ever tried to rationalise the contents of a filing system will have encountered documents that make you think 'I don't know what that is but it looks official so I'd better keep it in case it's important'.

Beth said...

Yes, I liked the Cat Bells view, although it wasn't half windy at the top! We did manage to get to Lodore last year, on foot, but the weather meant that part of the path alongside it was blocked - mind you, at that point it looked pratically vertical, so I'm not sure we could've gone much further anyway! It's a stunning waterfall, though.

As regards the genealogies, absolutely. It actually reminds me of something I read about historical fiction - that is, that periods which can't easily be tied to a famous person or place are neglected by publishers as they're considered less marketable, and are therefore under-represented.

Carla said...

Beth - indeed. I have a feeling that early medieval bards encountered exactly the same attitude, and that might explain why historical figures like Owain and Peredur were turned into King Arthur's knights.