02 May, 2013

Urien Rheged

Urien (also spelled Urbgen, Uryen) was a warrior-king of the royal house of Rheged some time in the late sixth century.  He appears in Historia Brittonum, various genealogies and some of the poetry attributed to Taliesin and Llywarch Hen.  Later, as King Uriens of Gore, he became a secondary character in medieval Arthurian romances.  What can we say about him?



Both the Harleian genealogies and the Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd (Descent of the Men of the North) genealogies contain a very similar genealogy for Urien tracing his descent from Coel Hen:

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

--Harleian Genealogies, available online 

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

--Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd, available online 

Historia Brittonum

Adda, son of Ida, reigned eight years; Ethelric, son of Adda, reigned four years. Theodoric, son of Ida, reigned seven years. Freothwulf reigned six years. In whose time the kingdom of Kent, by the mission of Gregory, received baptism. Hussa reigned seven years. Against him fought four kings, Urien, and Ryderthen, and Gualllauc, and Morcant. Theodoric fought bravely, together with his sons, against that Urien. But at that time sometimes the enemy and sometimes our countrymen were defeated, and he shut them up three days and three nights in the island of Metcaut; and whilst he was on an expedition he was murdered, at the instance of Morcant, out of envy, because he possessed so much superiority over all the kings in military science.

 --Historia Brittonum, chapter 63, available online

Metcaut is the island of Lindisfarne (Holy Island), off the coast of what is now north-east England.

Taliesin poetry

The Book of Taliesin is a medieval Welsh manuscript containing 56 poems, of which eight are poems in praise of Urien:

The Battle of Gwenystrad

A Song for Urien Rheged (1)

A Song for Urien Rheged (2)

A Song for Urien Rheged (3)

The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain

A Song for Urien Rheged (4)

The Spoils of Taliesin, a song for Urien

The Satisfaction of Urien
--Book of Taliesin, available online

You can read translations of the poems, as well as the original text, on the linked site.  The poems describe Urien’s exploits as a cattle raider and successful warrior in a number of battles (more about the battles and their locations in a later post).


Three Savage Men of the Island of Britain, who performed the Three Unfortunate Assassinations:
Llofan Llaw Ddifro who slew Urien son of Cynfarch

Three Battle-Leaders of the Island of Britain:
Selyf son of Cynan Garrwyn, and Urien son of Cynfarch, and Afaon son of Taliesin

--Red Book of Hergest Triads, available online


Historia Brittonum says that Urien 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 at some time between 559 and 593. 

As Urien 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. 

Status and career
Historia Brittonum, the Triads and the Taliesin poetry are all consistent in portraying Urien as a powerful king and an effective military leader.  (I should add the usual caveat that they may not necessarily be independent sources, and the apparent consistency may be because they all copied from each other).

The Taliesin poetry shows Urien Rheged in the traditional roles of heroic poetry, as a successful warrior and cattle raider.  According to Taliesin, Urien was a great king, warrior and hero.  I would be cautious about reading too much into that; extravagant praise of one’s patron was expected of a bard.  However, it is consistent with the Triads and Historia Brittonum.

Urien is said by Historia Brittonum to have besieged Theodric of Bernicia on the island of Metcaut or Metcaud (now known as Lindisfarne, or Holy Island).  This siege was presumably an important and/or famous event since Historia Brittonum describes it specifically.  If it means that the Bernician king and his warband(s) were really driven out of all their territory except Lindisfarne, even temporarily, it indicates that Urien was an effective and powerful military leader.  Historia Brittonum’s comment about the motive for Urien’s assassination ‘out of envy, because he possessed so much superiority over all the kings in military science’ is also consistent with Urien having been an exceptionally able commander. 

Historia Brittonum’s list of ‘four kings’ who fought against Theodric can be interpreted as indicating that Urien was the leader of a united coalition of Brittonic rulers fighting against Anglian Bernicia, and/or that Urien was some sort of over-king or High King.  However, this is not the only possible interpretation.  The line in Historia Brittonum does not specify that all four kings fought against Theodric at the same time, or that they formed an alliance; it is also possible that the four kings fought against Theodric of Bernicia independently at different times.  If the four kings did fight together, it may have been no more than a temporary alliance to campaign against a common enemy. Such an alliance need not necessarily have long-term political implications, any more than the joint attack by Penda of Mercia and Catwallaun of Gwynedd on Northumbria in 633, or Penda’s alliance with 30 Brittonic leaders at the Battle of Winwaed in 655, necessarily imply long-term political unity between Mercia and Gwynedd. 

Historia Brittonum says that Urien was a king.  It does not name his territory, but presumably he was king of the ‘Rheged’ mentioned in the Taliesin poetry.  The location and extent of Rheged is uncertain, although it was probably somewhere in what is now north-west England and/or south-west Scotland (more about Rheged in a later post).  If Urien was indeed the leader of an alliance of four kings, this suggests that he was able to command a position of seniority. This in turn may indicate that he was exceptionally effective as a military leader, or that he ruled a kingdom with great military power, or that he held a dominant position, perhaps as an over-king, and was able to compel other kings to fight under his leadership.  Or any combination thereof; these would tend to go together in an age where kings were constantly seeking to extend their power at the expense of their neighbours and rivals.  Conversely, if Urien was able to besiege Theodric of Bernicia with just his own military resources, this also implies that he ruled a very powerful kingdom and/or had considerable military skill.

Urien’s death appears in the Triads as one of the ‘Three Unfortunate Assassinations’, and Historia Brittonum describes it as ‘murder’ and attributes a base motive (envy) to the instigator, identified as Morcant (presumably the same Morcant who is mentioned earlier in the same section as one of the four kings who fought against Theodric).  This suggests that whoever compiled these sources regarded Urien’s death as a bad thing.  As far as I know, no surviving source gives Morcant’s side of the story; if Urien held a position of dominance over less powerful kings, it is possible that this was resented and his assassination was seen in some quarters as the overthrow of a tyrant.

The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain clearly shows Urien and his son Owain together as leaders of a war host, indicating that Urien’s career was long enough for at least one of his sons to have grown up and reached fighting age.  This in turn suggests that Urien’s military career extended at least into middle age.

The genealogies trace Urien’s ancestry back to Coel Hen, a founder figure in several royal pedigrees (see earlier post on Coel Hen for more information).

Urien’s father is named in both genealogies as Cynfarch (Cinmarc, Kynuarch). Cynfarch is not mentioned in his own right in the sources.  The Cynferchyn (‘people of Cynfarch’) appear in a triad in the Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd:

The 300 swords of the Cynferchyn, and the 300 shields of the Cynwydion, and the 300 spears of the Coeling; on whatever expedition they might go together, they would never fail

-- Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd, translation available online

as one of three groups of warriors who were seen as natural allies, but apart from that Cynfarch appears only in the genealogies.  There is no body of surviving poetry praising his exploits, as for his famous son and grandson.

This may be pure chance.  The allusions in the Triads hint at a vast shadowy hinterland of stories that have not come down to us.  Perhaps Cynfarch’s bard was not as famous or as popular as Taliesin and any verses he composed in honour of his patron were lost before they were written down.  This prosaic explanation is the simplest and perhaps the most likely.  However, the lack of surviving stories about Cynfarch is also consistent with the possibility that he may have been a less significant figure than his famous son.

The story of ‘King Urien and Modron’ is a supernatural tale, telling how the daughter of the King of Annwfn (=The Otherworld) bore a twin son (Owain) and daughter (Morfudd) to Urien.  For details, see the earlier post on Owain ap Urien). As discussed there, it may indicate that Urien was thought to have married a non-Christian queen.  As it includes only Owain and Morfudd, and does not mention Urien’s other children (see below), it may indicate that Urien’s other children had a different mother. 

Or, more prosaically, the story may be a late legend invented to provide a suitably supernatural origin for Owain after he had become established as a legendary hero of medieval Arthurian romance.  This could also explain the omission of Urien’s other children. Morfudd daughter of Urien appears as the lover of Cynon ap Clydno in the Triad of the ‘Three Ardent Lovers’ (text available online). This may indicate that Morfudd was the heroine of a romance that has since been lost, and as such she may have been given a suitably exotic origin by storytellers.  If Urien’s other children (see below) had not become established figures in romance, there may have been no need to give them a supernatural origin.

None of Urien’s children appear in the genealogies, which stop with Urien as the last generation.  This may indicate that they were derived from a source compiled in Urien’s lifetime and were not extended by later scribes, or that Urien was considered to be the last member of the family to have wielded notable political power.

Other sources identify Urien as the father of Owain, famous as a warrior-hero in later medieval romances (see post on Owain son of Urien for more details on Owain’s career).  Historia Brittonum mentions another son of Urien, Rhun map Urbgen, who would therefore have been Owain’s brother or half-brother (more about Rhun in a later post). 

The Triads mention another son of Urien, Rhiwallawn, and a daughter, Morfudd.  The poem The Death of Urien attributed to Llywarch Hen mentions two more sons, Pasgen and Elphin.


It seems clear that Urien was a powerful king and warlord in the late sixth century who fought numerous battles, including at least one celebrated campaign against the Anglian king of Bernicia in what is now north-east England.

The absence of references to Urien’s father Cynfarch may indicate that Cynfarch was a less famous or important figure than his son.  If this is so, Urien may have established or considerably extended Rheged’s power.  This is a plausible scenario if he was a highly effective warrior.  Success in war could bring a king status and access to additional resources in the form of the spoils of battle and tribute payments rendered by less powerful and/or defeated rivals, which in turn could allow him to support a larger warband, bringing more success in battle, and so on.

Urien fathered at least two sons (Owain and Rhun).  His dynasty may have lasted at least a few more generations, as a lady named Rhianmellt daughter of Royth son of Rhun married Oswy of Bernicia some time in the 630s. If Rhianmellt’s grandfather Rhun was the Rhun son of Urien named in Historia Brittonum, Rhianmellt was Urien’s great-grand-daughter (more about Rhianmellt in a later post).

It may be significant that the genealogies stop at Urien, even though the medieval Welsh scribes who wrote them down had access to information about Owain, Rhun and Rhianmellt in the Taliesin poetry and Historia Brittonum.  This may be because the genealogies derived from a sixth-century source, perhaps a king-list complied in Urien’s lifetime, which stopped at Urien when it was composed and was not extended or updated later. It could also indicate that Urien was regarded as the last really powerful ruler of Rheged, and that his descendants wielded less political power than Urien himself.  If he was also the first really powerful ruler of Rheged, this would be consistent with Rheged itself being quite short-lived as an important power.  Combined with the comment in Historia Brittonum about Urien’s exceptional military skill, one can imagine a scenario in which Urien’s personal military prowess briefly made Rheged a significant regional power, only for its dominance to collapse or fade away after his death.  If Rheged was indeed a short-lived military empire built up by one man and lasting only the length of his active career, this could explain why the kingdom is poorly documented in the surviving sources.  Historia Brittonum does not mention Rheged by name, although it does name other contemporary kingdoms such as Elmet and Gwynedd, and Rheged’s location is uncertain.  (More about Rheged and its possible location in a later post).  If Urien gained his power through military success at the expense of rival neighbouring kings, it would also provide an obvious context for his assassination by a disgruntled rival, as stated in Historia Brittonum.  I need hardly add that this is speculative, and other interpretations are possible.

Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd, available online 
Harleian genealogies, available online 
Historia Brittonum, available online
Llywarch Hen, The Death of Urien, available online 
The Book of Taliesin, available online http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/llyfrtaliesin.html

Map links


Beth said...

Aha - I've been waiting for this post. :)

Ifor Williams painted Urien as a tyrant in every sense, even with respect to his own people, though I can't see that's something we can ever really know. But it isn't hard to see other kings regarding him in this light - indeed, Taliesin not-so-subtly reminds him of the 'fellow kings [who] do not love him', which seems pretty unequivocal and fits in well with Morcant's resentment.

That Urien continued fighting into (past?) middle-age is also evidenced by mentions of his hoary/white hair in the poems, of course.

As for Cynfarch, I think it's notable that the dynasty was named after him and not his more famous son, which could imply that he was of some importance - just not as illustrious as his descendants, as his epithet 'Oer' (cold/dismal) does suggest. ;) Like you, I tend toward the idea (and it's the one I've used in my writing) that Rheged rose in fortune under Urien and declined after his death, since for one thing it would, as you point out, explain the absence of much in the way of records about the region.

I like both your explanations of the Modron story; the second one would certainly make a lot of sense in view of the later romance tale.

Look forward to your post about Rheged!

Rick said...

Does the name Rheged have any (known) meaning? Probably not, or at least not a relevant one, or it would get mentioned.

I love the bit about 'military science' - it has wonderfully formal, Sandhurst-ish tone.

My gut feeling is that the four kings who fought Theodric were probably allied, whether or not Urien had any formal primacy.

In general, it seems plausible that Rheged's scale of power was transient. Conditions in the 6th century plainly did not favor extensive political units. 'Petty kingdoms' is a bit of a sneer, but trying to hold lots of territory together did not work out well.

Rick said...

A little formatting question that you probably explained in a post that I missed:

In quoted texts or titles you sometimes have a red initial letter, at times in [brackets]. Do these represent illuminated capitals in a source text, or is the significance more mundane?

Carla said...

Beth - Hope it was worth the wait :-) I agree, I don't think we can really know what Urien's rule was like (which is what historical fiction is for). In Kathleen Herbert's Bride of the Spear Urien is a benign and wise ruler who makes at least as much use of diplomacy as war, and Morcant's jealousy is just that. It's not hard to imagine a scenario of dozens of little kingdoms, all of whom know they would be stronger if they worked together, and each of whose kings are vaguely in favour of co-operation - as long as they're the one in charge. Something of this dynamic can be seen in medieval Wales with the two Llewellyns, and you can draw parellels with the Arthur legends.

Yes, if Urien was the one who established Rheged as a major power, one might expect the dynasty to be named after him. Perhaps Cynferch started the process and Urien continued it. I do wonder where Cynferch's nickname came from!

Rick - John Koch in the Celtic Encyclopaedia says it is related to the word for 'gift'. It's curious that it doesn't seem to have survived into modern place names, as Elmet and Craven have, which may also be consistent with it having been relatively short-lived. I wonder if 'Rheged' was a new coinage in Urien's day for an enlarged or combined territory. Bede has to explain 'Northumbria' several times as 'the land of the people north of the Humber', suggesting that he expected that a lot of his audience would not be familiar with the name, which in turn suggests that it may have been a relatively recent invention to refer to the combined territory of Bernicia and Deira. I wonder if 'Rheged' was a similar newly invented name, but happened not to survive.

'Military science' is the phrase chosen by the translator - how well it captures the tone of the original Latin I don't know. Like you, I tend to the idea that the 'four kings' were allied, which would explain why they were specifically bracketed together. Though I'm cautious about interpreting such an alliance as indicating a formal High King structure. I'm inclined to see it more as a temporary matter of expediency.

Some sizeable political units did manage to consolidate in the late 6th C or early 7th C and stay consolidated, e.g. Northumbria, probably also Mercia (depending how one interprets the Tribal Hidage). Perhaps Urien was a generation or two ahead of his time. Or perhaps Urien's Rheged was closer to the 'imperium' held by various of the early English kings according to Bede (sometimes called Bretwaldas), which seems to have been a personal rule over a large area that didn't outlast the ruler's death.

The red initial letters are from the source websites in the links. There's an explanation about them for the Harleian genealogies here. Not illuminated capitals as such, but initial capitals in red ink.

Rick said...

I'm curious - what was Ifor Williams' basis for saying that Urien was a tyrant? I don't know anything about this milieu, but 'famous warrior' doesn't sound like a particularly bad press.

I agree that an alliance need not imply a 'high king.' An alliance that persists for a long time may evolve into a political structure, but the alliance against Theodric probably wasn't all that long term.

If Rheged were fairly transient, that would be a good reason for the name not to survive in modern place names!

And perhaps Urien was indeed ahead of his time!

Also, thanks for explaining the Mystery of the Red Initials!

Beth said...

Yes indeed, I enjoyed reading it. :) I do recall diplomacy being one of Urien's defining characteristics in Bride of the Spear, a nice change from Ifor Williams' tyrannical war-monger who was assassinated because, alas, he wouldn't have known diplomacy if it jumped up and whacked him in the face. As usual, there were probably all sorts of tensions thrown into the mix that we now know nothing of, although of course jealousy on a personal level and/or resentment of a more powerful kingdom are both good prompts for what happened. The Arthur legends show that kind of shifting alliance very well, don't they? And Sutcliff delineates them nicely in Sword at Sunset, I think.

Cynfarch's is a somewhat unusual nickname. Molly Miller tackled the epithets of the family, and I believe she interpreted them as indicative of less than illustrious forebears, but I haven't actually been able to get hold of her article. Still, there are other Men of the North with unflattering names - Bran Caled, whose name can be translated as 'stingy', is the first who comes to mind...

You make some good points about the name 'Rheged' perhaps only being used in Urien's time, by the way - I'd certainly accept that as a strong possibility.

Carla said...

Rick - indeed, an alliance that lasts a long time may end up turning into a formal confederation or a unified polity, but that doesn't happen overnight.
Maybe Beth can provide more details about Ifor Williams' portrayal of Urien?

Beth - I think I first encountered Urien as a fully rounded character in Bride of the Spear, and that's probably coloured my mental picture of him ever since. Uriens of Gore turns up in a bit part as Arthur's enemy in some of the legends (e.g. in TH White's Once and Future King he only gets a fleeting mention, but it's as something of a pigheaded thug, if I remember rightly). I wonder how much of that was derived from stories about the historical Urien (one imagines that Talisein would have had a somewhat, ahem, partisan view of his patron), and how much just from narrative dynamic as the Arthurian romances developed - if Arthur is the Hero, Arthur's opponent must be the Villain. How Urien found his way into the Arthurian myths anyway is another puzzle, since he was a couple of generations later than the gap in history into which the historical Arthur (if there was one) must fit, so they would never have interacted. Perhaps Urien was just a famous name for a storyteller to pinch, or perhaps there was a contemporary of the historical Arthur with a similar name.

If Rheged was a transient name coined in Urien's time but not outlasting it, that solves a lot of problems, like its absence from Historia Brittonum or (clear) modern place names. So I like that idea. I also confess that the idea of Rheged as a brief blaze of glory under Urien's rule, like a comet that appears, dominates and then is snuffed out, has a rather romantic appeal :-) (Caveat that Rheged's 'glory', if such it was, may well have come at the expense of someone else who found it a lot less than glorious).

The unflattering nicknames are a bit of a contrast with epithets like 'Hael', 'generous', applied to Rhydderch in Alt Clut, aren't they? I wonder if that could be deliberate on the part of the composers of the genealogies and/or whatever stories and poems they were based on? Rhydderch Hael was a contemporary (and possibly a rival) of Urien; maybe the genealogies were composed in Alt Clut and were deliberately having a dig at a rival dynasty? Who knows?

Beth said...

JMy pleasure; here you go:

According to Williams the Taliesin poems show 'a warrior who fought to the end, to grey-haired old age, yes...a 'tyrant' who was not prepared to brook any rivalry or competition, who excited fear both inside and outside his own land...he did not know how to use the weapons at the disposal of the cunning and subtle diplomat; his weapons were the ones he had learnt to use in continual warfare with the enemy.'

The first two points could be supported by the poems depending on how you choose to interpret them. Taliesin's conciliation poem can be seen as evidence that he offended Urien by praising his 'rival' Gwallog; and though I can't remember for sure, I believe the idea of Urien as someone who 'excited fear both inside and outside his own land' comes from another poem telling of the 'terror' experienced on beholding him. Williams' judgement of Urien as unsubtle seems to derive largely from his interpretation of him as nothing more than a hard-bitten fighter (fair up to a point, as this is what the poems often imply), and a belief that, had the man possessed any diplomacy, he would not have 'excited the...enmity of his own allies'. On the whole I think Williams' comments are interesting but, bearing in mind that I am, possibly (just possibly) a little biased myself, I'm left with the feeling that a pinch of salt is necessary given how much we don't know and can't unequivocally ascertain.

Crikey, it's been ages since I read T.H. White, and I didn't even remember that Uriens was in it. Not that I've ever watched the film Excalibur in its entirety, but I seem to recall his role being somewhat similar in that - unsurprising I suppose since, as you say, the legends paint him as an enemy of Arthur, at least at first. How any of these figures got into the legends is a mystery, as several of the more prominent ones (Owain, Gwalchmai, Peredur) are potentially based on men living even later than Urien. I'd go with the 'famous name' theory, except that I believe Urien is usually correctly linked with Owain, which seems to suggest that whoever composed the tales knew who they were talking about. A totally random thought, but perhaps we're looking at a genesis for those tales not long after the generation of Owain, Peredur, et al, which is why they were incorporated? I have no idea if that's actually possible, though.

I can live with the blaze of glory suggestion. ;)

Well, inventing embarrassing nicknames would certainly have been a creative way to give your rival dynasties a poke in the eye!

Carla said...

Beth - One of the Taliesin poems says
'When he is looked upon,
Very great is the terror.'
Could that be the poem that Ifor Williams interprets as showing that Urien 'excited fear both inside and outside his own land' ? I read it more as poetic convention on the attributes expected of a successful warlord.

By 'incurring the emnity of his own allies' I assume he's referring to Morcant's assassination in HB? I suppose one could argue that a successful diplomat/politician would have managed to keep Morcant onside somehow, but that strikes me as a bit simplistic. It only takes one side to make a conflict. If Morcant was motivated by some sort of implacable personal hatred (with or without cause) he might have been irreconcilable whatever Urien did, especially if there was a matter of 'honour' involved that had to be avenged, whatever the wider cost.

TH White has Uriens as one of the confederation of kings of the north who rule by force and who fight Arthur in the early days of his reign. Merlin says, 'Look at Lot and Nentres and Uriens and the rest of them fighting against you for the Kingdom. [...] They have rebelled simply because the throne is insecure. This is their chance to pay off scores and to have some blood-letting as sport, and to make a bit of money in ransoms.'
I don't know if Uriens actually makes a personal appearance; if he does, it's only a walk-on part.

If the Taliesin poetry is genuinely old, then tales about Urien and Owain were composed during or shortly after their lifetimes (probably there was a similar body of material about other figures e.g. Peredur, Gwenddoleu et al). It's notable that the Taliesin poetry doesn't clearly identify Urien's enemies - 'Fflamdwyn' is named, but it's not unequivocal which historical king he is (if any). For what it's worth, my guess is that it wouldn't be hard for the romance storytellers - writing centuries later when all the actual events and personages had become misty - to conflate one set of stories with another unrelated set and re-cast Urien's unidentified enemy(ies) as Arthur (or indeed anyone else; but if Arthur made good box-office then as now, his name would be a popular choice).

Beth said...

Yes, that's the poem; only I can't remember whether it's Williams' sole evidence for his assumption that Urien was universally terrifying. As you say the phrase could well be poetic convention. In addition, it doesn't actually go into specifics, so it seems a bit of a leap to say that the subject instilled fear even in his own people. Not that he needn't have done, but I'm not sure that's what's being said in the poem, and I'd have preferred a little more objectivity.

I've assumed that the 'enmity of his allies' must refer to Morcant, since Williams closes his analysis by quoting the relevant passage of HB (although he may also be thinking of Gwallog's attack on Urien's sons after Urien's death, reported in the Llywarch Hen poems). Again, it seems a somewhat sweeping statement or, as you succintly put it, a bit simplistic. You can't blame Williams for trying to pull a solid character out of the morass, but in places it does seem to be based on what he personally believed the evidence demonstrated, which is not the only interpretation possible; and it would've been helpful if he'd acknowledged that.

Interestingly the surviving poetry from the Old North rarely does seem to mention who the subject was fighting (except the generic 'Saxons' or 'Picts/Britons'). Sometimes I've wondered if there was some kind of unspoken agreement that you didn't mention personal names. (Even Fflamddwyn, after all, is usually taken to be a nickname.) Having said that, there are a lot of place names, and perhaps that would have been all the audience needed. Of course that makes it possible, as you point out, to substitute whoever you want, and if various tales were conflated, it's easy to see how several of the northern kings 'became' enemies of Arthur, especially as he began to edge out the competition as far as being a Brittonic hero went.

Carla said...

Beth - many thanks! If it's the sole evidence (and there's not a great deal of evidence about Urien apart from the poetry and the snippet in HB) it seems capable of other interpretations. Arguably a ruler would need to instil a certain amount of fear in at least the top brass of his own kingdom, otherwise one of them would be after his job...

I'd interpret the attacks on Urien's sons in the Llywarch Hen poetry as the various kings taking opportunities to grab power/territory for themselves from a weakened rival (possibly to grab it back, if Urien's Rheged had previously expanded at their expense). If Urien was indeed an exceptionally able commander then regression to the mean would indicate that his sons may not have been in quite the same league, and if Rheged's territory was partitioned between them (as was prescribed by medieval Welsh law) then they would each have been quite small targets individually (even if they didn't fight amongst themselves).

I guess if the focus of the poem is to praise the hero and his great victories, it doesn't much matter who his enemies were, only that he won. (There is a wry line in Paths of Exile to this effect, which comes from the same observation :-) It may be a convention, as you say, or it may reflect something prosaic like availability of information; a poet on one side may not actually have known many of the names of the warriors in the opposing army.

Beth said...

Agreed - in fact it rather reminds me of studying Shakespeare, where it's possible to come up with (at least) two completely different interpretations based on exactly the same words; it all depends on how you choose to approach the evidence. Yes, mustn't go letting these top brass get any ideas. (The realisation of that potential danger is actually what I chose to open the novel with, as it happens.)

I'd also seen the attacks on Urien's sons as less a comment on other kings' opinions of him personally and more a case of opportunism, as you say.

Hmm, yes, I remember that observation. :) Clearly someone like Taliesin, who bounced from kingdom to kingdom, might have had the opportunity to learn names, but possibly thought discretion was the better part of valour in case he ever had to return to a kingdom he'd served previously. (As it seems he may have done with Rheged.) And other bards, as you point out, may simply not have known. Maybe that's how Fflamddwyn acquired his nickname.

Carla said...

"(The realisation of that potential danger is actually what I chose to open the novel with, as it happens.)"
Sounds like a good starting point!

Assuming the poems were composed broadly contemporarily with the people and events described in them, most of the audience would have been familiar with the background, so the slightest allusion would have been enough for them to recognise. Quite a different matter now, where we don't really know what the allusions mean, or even whether they refer to stories from literature or to real events (and they might have had more than one meaning, of course), and consequently they can be interpreted in many different ways.

HB has a few nicknames for Anglian kings, e.g. Flesaurs for Aethelferth, and Lamnguin for Oswald, plus Cadafael Catguommed, and there are more in the genealogies. (A tradition that had a long history ahead of it, cf Aethelraed Unraed in the ASC). Nicknames seem to have been quite common. Perhaps they acted a bit like kennings in saga and poetry.

Good point about the potential diplomatic advantage of never being too specific about the loser! Having composed praise poetry for a lot of clients, including some of your current/prospective patron's enemies, is one thing, but having actually rubbished your current/prospective patron would be quite another.

Anonymous said...

"How Urien found his way into the Arthurian myths anyway is another puzzle, since he was a couple of generations later than the gap in history into which the historical Arthur (if there was one) must fit, so they would never have interacted."

It's ages since I read the Welsh Triads, but wasn't it one of Bromwich's arguments there that Arthur had replaced Urien in several of them between recensions? I have tended to read this as evidence that the early Triads really are, since it seems to me that the motive for that replacement must be the wish to compare people to a successful ruler, not one who ultimately died in vain, and so if he was in the Triads at all, they must be close to Urien's glory days. As to what he's doing in the Arthurian myths, I think The Once and Future King demonstrates it perfectly: find a space for every known name somewhere! :-)

One thing I'd never picked up, or if I had had long forgotten, is the name `Gurgust' for Urien's grandfather. That tweaks my interest because of course it's one of the few names we can say are Pictish (see the Pictish kinglist). I know there are some traditions that make Coel Hen a Pict, at variance with the `early' evidence, but I wonder if this might not be where that association came from.

Carla said...

Tenthmedieval - Good point. Certainly there are some names in the Triads that have nothing to do with early medieval Britain, like Helen of Troy, and I think there's a twelfth-century Count of Brittany in there somewhere, so it's entirely possible that names were replaced over time (perhaps depending on who was felt to make better box-office).

There's a line in one of Terry Pratchett's novels somewhere, 'Names sell newspapaers'. Perhaps the same applied to the Triads! Earlier discussions here have suggested that a bard or storyteller might substitute a name that his audience had heard of, if he thought that might increase the value of the story to them.

Interestingly, both Arthur in the legends and Urien in HB could be said to have died in vain - neither of them left a kingdom or dynasty that endured, and both were killed by some treachery from their own allies not by enemy action. That could just indicate that one story grew out of the other. Or if both derive from genuinely early traditions and/or historical events, generations of bards may have recognised the parallels and linked the two.

A Pictish connection in Urien's family tree seems quite plausible to me, since wherever Rheged was, it was somewhere in northern England/southern Scotland. The Picts would not have been far away, and may have been neighbours.

One could speculate about a connection between Gurgust and the Pictish symbols at Trusty's Hill, especially now that the site has radiocarbon dates to the 6th C and high-status finds (see earlier post).

Although it's always assumed that the 'Picts' belong to the area north of the Forth-Clyde line, if 'Pict' is cultural, is there any reason why there couldn't have been people using Pictish symbols and Pictish names living in Galloway in the 6th C?

Anonymous said...

Absolutely! I am sure, myself, that the symbols were a branding which people were permitted to use, rather than anything more tightly linked to an identity. They are the only Pictish indicator that spreads anything like so widely and the natural conclusion of that, surely, is that the people using them aren't all Picts!

Carla said...

Perhaps the symbol indicated some tie to the Picts that could be extended to non-Pictish kingdoms. I've wondered before if the symbols might indicate a marriage alliance or a treaty of some kind, and if it was something like this that conferred 'permission' to use the symbol. Personally I quite like the marriage alliance idea, because if Pictish royalty did practise matrilineal inheritance (even if only sometimes), marrying a lady of the Pictish royal house would be rather different to marrying a lady in a patrilineal system, since her children would presumably have some official potential claim to the Pictish succession in the future (however it worked). Possibly the permission to use the symbol was a formal expression of such a potential claim?

Beth said...

Carla - You make a good point about the similarities between Urien and Arthur's stories - and one could see the fact that they share a battle at Bregouin/Agned as corroboration that early(-ish) storytellers saw that. Possibly the drawing out of such similarities, or name-swapping for the sake of the audience, is also what's going on in the story of Vortimer, who like Urien traps his enemies on an island and is later treacherously killed. (And there's the severed head aspect, as well.)

Carla said...

There's also the story about Catwallaun being besieged on Glannauc. Possibly island last-stands were a popular trope in saga, a sort of must-have for a legendary hero, or possibly just reflect the geography of conflict on an island with a long coastline and a fair share of offshore islands. Is Agned/Agnet the same as Bremenium? - I thought Agned was unlocated.

Was Vortimer treacherously killed? I thought HB just said that 'he died suddenly', which could be anything. It does say that he directed his followers to bury him on the shore so he could protect against invasion and they didn't do it, which has echoes of Bran the Blessed.

Beth said...

Indeed, it could be either; whatever the case, it would certainly add a good bit of interest for the audience, I'd think.

Yes, I believe as far as it's considered a separate battle from Breguoin, Agned is unlocated; but that there are suggestions Agned and Breguoin are the same place due to a gloss in one of the texts. I don't honestly know how likely that really is, I just appended it without really thinking about it. Sorry if I caused any confusion. That'll teach me to double-check my sources, as will the treacherous death of Vortimer I mentioned, because it happens to be from *ahem* Geoffrey of Monmouth. ;)

Carla said...

Oh dear - if Geoffrey said the sun rose in the east I'd want to check it :-) He had an eye for a good story, though. I think it's Mary Stewart who says somthing to that effect in her foreword to one of her Merlin trilogy, probably The Crystal Cave.

Beth said...

The Conn Iggulden of his day? ;)

Carla said...

I couldn't possibly comment :-)