Urien (also spelled Urbgen or Uryen) was king of the territory of Rheged, somewhere in what is now north-west England and/or south-west Scotland, in the late sixth century. For more information, see my earlier post ‘Urien Rheged’. The surviving sources all portray him as a successful warrior and military leader. What can we say about his military career?
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 poems ‘The Battle of Gwen Ystrad’ and ‘The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain’ each describe a single battle. These may have been especially important battles in Urien’s career, since a whole poem is devoted to each (although, more prosaically, they could just be chance survivors of a larger number of poems describing Urien’s battles).
‘Argoed Llwyfain’ translates approximately as ‘By the Elm Wood’, and ‘Gwen Ystrad’ as ‘White Valley’, which are unfortunately rather too general to locate either battle precisely. There were probably many places that could have been described as a ‘white valley’ (the limestone dales of northern England spring to mind), and many places that were ‘by an elm wood’.
One of the poems attributed to Taliesin gives a list of battles:
A battle in the ford of Alclud, a battle at the Inver.
The battle of Cellawr Brewyn. The battle of Hireurur.
A battle in the underwood of Cadleu, a battle in Aberioed.
He interposes with the steel loud (and) great.
The battle of Cludvein, the affair of the head of the wood.
--A Song for Urien Rheged (4), available online
It also says:
Until Urien came in the day to Aeron.
He was not an aggressor, there appeared not
The uplifted front of Urien before Powys.
--A Song for Urien Rheged (4), available online
Another describes what seems to be a sizeable cattle raid:
Purposing the affair of Mynaw.
And more harmony,
Advantage flowing about his hand.
Eight score of one colour
Of calves and cows.
Much cows and oxen.
--A Song for Urien Rheged (3), available online
Lindisfarne (Holy Island) is off the coast of what is now north-east England.
Some of the names in the Taliesin poetry are identifiable. Alclud is ‘The Rock of Clyde’ and refers to Dumbarton Rock on the Clyde estuary. Presumably the ‘ford of Alclud’ was a crossing-place nearby.
‘Cellawr Brewyn’ means ‘the huts of Brewyn’. Brewyn could refer to the Roman fort of Bremenium at modern Rochester in Northumberland, on the major Roman road of Dere Street.
‘Inver’ is the Gaelic equivalent of Welsh ‘Aber’, meaning ‘mouth’ or ‘confluence’. The name is too general for the location to be identified. It presumably refers to a location at or near a river-mouth or river confluence in a Gaelic-speaking area, which could be almost anywhere – perhaps in Ireland, or the kingdom of Dal Riada in the south-west Highlands (roughly modern Argyll), or possibly a Gaelic-speaking area on the Irish Sea coast of modern Cumbria or Galloway. (Edit: My thanks to Beth (see comment thread) for pointing out that 'Inver' is a doubtful translation and may not be a place name at all).
Mynaw (Manau) could refer to either the Isle of Man or the area around Stirling. Stirling is perhaps a more likely location for a cattle-raid, as retrieving a large number of cattle from an island might be a troublesome business. Conversely, the Isle of Man is not that far from the coast of north-west England/south-west Scotland, and not necessarily inaccessible if Rheged was a maritime power with access to shipping.
Powys was a kingdom in what is now north-east and mid-Wales, and may also have extended into the lowland areas that are now Shropshire and Cheshire (see earlier article on ‘Early medieval Powys’ for more detail). Aeron may refer to the area around Ayr in south-west Scotland. The poem seems to indicate that Urien’s presence in these areas was not hostile, since it says ‘he was not an aggressor’ (caveat that I do not know whether alternative translations are possible; some of the Taliesin poems are problematic and translations vary). This could perhaps indicate that Urien was considered the rightful ruler, defending his territory. However, Powys had its own royal dynasty, recorded in genealogies and with some of the kings mentioned in sources such as Annales Cambriae, so it is difficult to see how Urien could have been considered the rightful ruler of Powys (unless perhaps as some sort of over-king). If he was not an aggressor, perhaps the suggestion is that he was present as an ally of the local king. If so, this would fit with the interpretation of the ‘four kings’ who fought Theodric in Historia Brittonum as an alliance, and may suggest that Urien was also capable of operating in alliances elsewhere.
Of the names that are identifiable, all except Powys are in what is now northern England or southern Scotland, suggesting that this area was the focus of Urien’s activity (caveat that the unidentified names could be in different areas).
The names cover a wide area, from Dumbarton Rock on the west coast to Lindisfarne on the east coast and from Stirling (if Manau is Stirling) in the north to Powys in the south. If they represent the locations of battles or campaigns in which Urien fought, they suggest that Urien was capable of campaigning over considerable distances. If Manau is the Isle of Man, it may indicate that he had campaigned by sea as well as by land. This is consistent with Urien having had a long and successful military career.
Interestingly, all the places except Powys are north of Hadrian’s Wall. This may indicate that the core of Urien’s territory was also north of Hadrian’s Wall. Alternatively, if the battles were mainly fought against rivals and neighbouring kingdoms outside his home territory, their locations may indicate that Urien’s core territory was elsewhere, perhaps south of Hadrian’s Wall.
Taliesin, A Song for Urien Rheged (4), available online
Taliesin, A Song for Urien Rheged (3), available online
Historia Brittonum, available online