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
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.
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