Rheged (also spelled Reged, Reget) was a kingdom in early medieval Britain. Its most famous king, Urien, was active some time in the late sixth century. He is recorded in Historia Brittonum and royal genealogies, and was lauded in the poetry attributed to Taliesin. However, the name of the kingdom itself is known only from the poetry; Historia Brittonum describes a military campaign by Urien against the kingdom of Bryneich (Bernicia) on the coast of what is now north-east England, but does not name or locate Urien’s kingdom. Where might the kingdom of Rheged have been located?
Location of other kingdoms
It seems quite clear that Rheged was somewhere in the north of Britain. Urien’s genealogy is in the Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd (Descent of the Men of the North), and the one mention of him in Historia Brittonum describes him fighting against the king of Bernicia at Lindisfarne, in what is now north-east England (see earlier post on Urien Rheged for details). Urien’s son and probable successor Owain is associated in a medieval tale with the northern saint Kentigern and the daughter of the King of Lothian in what is now south-east Scotland (see earlier post on Owain for more information). According to Historia Brittonum, Urien’s (probable) great-grand-daughter Rhianmellt married the brother of the king of Northumbria in what is now north-east England (more on Rhianmellt in a later post).
Consideration of the known locations of other kingdoms in the north of sixth-century Britain may help to narrow down the area in which we can look for Rheged. See the sketch map here.
North of the Firth-Clyde isthmus, in what is now north and north-east Scotland, was the kingdom of the Picts. Argyll, the Kintyre peninsula and nearby islands such as Mull and Iona were part of the kingdom of Dal Riada. The area around the Clyde valley and modern Glasgow was the kingdom of Strat Clut or Alt Clut (Strathclyde). One of Taliesin’s poems mentions a region called ‘Aeron’, which may have been the area around modern Ayr. The area around Edinburgh and what is now Lothian in south-east Scotland was the kingdom of Gododdin.
What is now north-east England from the river Tweed to the Humber estuary was split between the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira (which merged to form Northumbria in the seventh century). How far they extended west is not known, but the great natural barrier of the Pennine chain is a likely border. The area around Leeds was the kingdom of Elmet (see earlier article on Elmet for more details.
West from Elmet, a handful of place names indicate a possible kingdom called Craven located in the western foothills of the Pennines. Its extent is (as usual) uncertain, although the weapontake of the same name in Domesday Book extended west to the Lancashire coast. South of the Mersey, the Chester area and what is now Cheshire and Shropshire may have been part of the kingdom on Powys (see earlier post on early medieval Powys for more details).
This leaves a big void on the map on the western side of what is now northern England and southern Scotland, stretching from Ayr or Strathclyde in the north down to Lancashire (if Craven extended to the coast) or perhaps as far as the Mersey (if Craven did not extend to the coast) in the south.
There was certainly occupation in this area in the fifth and sixth centuries, including some inhabitants who apparently controlled substantial resources and may have been chieftains or kings. For example, someone built two successive very large timber halls in the Roman fort at Birdoswald (see earlier articles for more information on the halls and the dating). The coastal promontory fort of Trusty’s Hill on the north shore of the Solway was occupied by someone who could afford fine metalwork and luxury imports (see earlier article on Trusty’s Hill). Radiocarbon dating has suggested that Trusty’s Hill was occupied from approximately the late fifth century to approximately the early seventh century (see Galloway Picts site, 2 May 2013). Unfortunately, there were no inscriptions to name the people or dynasties who ruled from these places, or to name the areas they controlled.
So there is a large area on the western coast roughly from Strathclyde to Lancashire with clear archaeological evidence of local or regional rulers in the early medieval period but no associated names. Conversely, there are named kings and kingdoms in the genealogies and the poetry with no associated locations. It seems reasonable to put the two together, and to surmise that the un-located kings and kingdoms of the poetry, including Rheged, were probably to be found somewhere in this large region.
The name Rheged does not seem to have survived in modern place names. Rochdale in Lancashire was recorded in Domesday Book as Recedham, and the first part of the name looks similar to ‘Rheged’. However, it could be derived from the Old English word ‘raeced’ (a hall or large building) (Room 1993), or from some compound of Brittonic ‘coed’ (wood) (Clarkson 2010, p.72).
Dunragit in Galloway has a second element (-ragit) that looks similar to ‘Rheged’, which would give the romantic translation ‘Fort of Rheged’. However, Tim Clarkson suggests that it may be derived from Gaelic and may have no connection with Rheged (Clarkson 2010, p.71).
Even if one chooses to accept these rather tenuous connections to the name ‘Rheged’, the two names are at almost opposite ends of the void on the sixth-century map identified above. So they still do not help much in identifying the location of Rheged.
Can the poetry help to narrow down the location of Rheged? More on this in the next post.
Historia Brittonum, available online
Room A. Dictionary of Place Names. Bloomsbury, 1993. ISBN 0-7475-1511-5.
Clarkson T. The Men of the North. Birlinn, 2010. ISBN 978-1-906566-18-0.