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 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.
In an earlier post, I discussed the location of other known kingdoms and the (limited) place name evidence, and came to the conclusion that Rheged was located somewhere in a large region on the west coast of Britain stretching roughly from Strathclyde to Lancashire. Can the poetry narrow down the location any further?
The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain
In the morning of Saturday there was a great battle,
From when the sun rose until it gained its height.
Flamdwyn hastened in four hosts
Godeu and Reged to overwhelm.
They extended from Argoed to Arvynyd.
--Book of Taliesin, The Affair of Argoed Llwyfain, available online
‘Argoed Llywfain’ translates approximately as ‘Near the elm wood’, which is not very helpful for specifying a location; there were a lot of elm woods in sixth-century Britain. The element ‘llwyf’, ‘elm’, is found in several modern place names spread over a wide area, including Ashton-under-Lyne (east of Manchester), Lympne (Kent), Leamington Spa (Warwickshire) and Lymington (Hampshire) (Room 1993). ‘Elm’ names may not be quite as ubiquitous as ‘derwent’ (‘oak’) names, but they seem sufficiently widespread to be little help in identifying a specific location.
‘Arvynyd’ looks to me like a compound of ‘Ar’ (near, adjacent) and ‘Mynydd’ (mountain), in which case it would translate approximately as ‘Near the mountain’, also too general to be helpful (caveat that I am not a linguist and it may mean something quite different). If it does mean ‘near the mountain’, the phrase may not refer to actual place names at all but may mean that the army being described was flanked on one side by woodland and on the other by high ground (quite a sensible position to take up before a battle). Or it may be a poetic construct in the same vein as phrases like ‘from the mountains to the sea’, perhaps to indicate that the army was so large that it filled the whole plain, or something similar.
‘Godeu’ is bracketed with Rheged and was presumably another region or kingdom. It could be an ally fighting alongside Rheged forces in the battle being described, or another target for Flamdwyn’s attacking army. Tim Clarkson says that ‘Goddeu’ or ‘Godeu’ means ‘the trees’ or ‘the forest’ (Clarkson 2010 p. 35). He suggests on linguistic grounds that it could have become Cadyow or Cadzow. This was the previous name of the modern town of Hamilton on the River Clyde south of Glasgow (Clarkson 2010 p. 36-7), and survives in the name of nearby Cadzow Castle. If correct, this may indicate that the Battle of Argoed Llwyfain was fought somewhere near this area; or that a kingdom in this area was allied with Rheged at the time; or that Flamdwyn was a threat to this area. If it is a general topographical place name indicating a wooded area (caveat that I do not know how secure the translation is), it seems to me that there may also have been other places with the same name.
The Battle of Gwen Ystrad
The men of Catraeth arose with the dawn,About the Guledig, of work a profitable merchant
This Urien[…]At Gwenystrad, continuously offerers of battle.[…]Hand on the cross they wail on the gravel bank of Garanwynyon.[…]I saw a brow covered with rage on Urien,
When he furiously attacked his foes at the white stone
Of Galystem. His rage was a blade;
--Book of Taliesin, The Battle of Gwen Ystrad, available online
‘Gwen Ystrad’ translates approximately as ‘white valley’. ‘Ystrad’ is cognate with the Scottish place name element ‘Strath’ and indicates a large, broad valley, rather than a narrow mountain glen. The phrase immediately conjures up an image of the wide limestone dales of Yorkshire with their white or grey rock outcrops, but many other places could be equally well be described as a ‘white valley’. ‘Garanwynyon’ is presumably a river name or a description of a river (and the river presumably had gravel banks), but if it has ever been identified I don’t know of it. Similarly, if the ‘white stone of Galystem’ has ever been located I don’t know of it.
‘Catraeth’ is traditionally identified with Catterick in Yorkshire. The identification is uncertain (I may come back to this question in another post). If correct, it would be compatible with a location for Gwen Ystrad somewhere in the Yorkshire Dales, as Catterick is at the mouth of Swaledale and on an important Roman road. However, it is worth noting that the poem refers to ‘the men of Catraeth’ fighting with Urien; it does not say that the battle of Gwen Ystrad was fought at Catraeth. In any case, early medieval armies were quite capable of fighting battles considerable distances from their home territories, so Catraeth (wherever it was) may not have been in Rheged at all.
A Song for Urien Rheged
To me has been extended.
The lofty Llwyvenydd,
--Book of Taliesin, A Song for Urien Rheged, available online
The Satisfaction of Urien
Urien will not refuse me
The lands of Llwyvenydd.
--Book of Taliesin, The Satisfaction of Urien, available online
The Spoils of Taliesin, a Song to Urien
Like a wave that governs Llwyvenydd.
--Book of Taliesin, The Spoils of Taliesin, a Song to Urien, available online
These poems imply that Llwyvenydd is an estate or territory controlled by Urien, where Taliesin is made welcome. Llwyvenydd contains the same Brittonic place-name element ‘llwyf’ (elm) as Argoed Llwyfain.
The River Lyvennet near Penrith has a name that looks as though it might be a modernised form of ‘Llwyvenydd’. Tim Clarkson is of the opinion that the resemblance is no more than superficial (Clarkson 2010, p.73). I am not a linguist, so I have to take his word for that. He does not suggest an alternative derivation for Lyvennet, so presumably it could be derived from ‘llwyf’. As discussed above, ‘elm’ place names are widespread, so the name element is too general to be much help with identification. However, although ‘elm’ place names are widespread, the name ‘Lyvennet’ itself is unusual; it is much closer to ‘Llwyvenydd’ than the ‘Lyne’ or ‘Lym’ forms of other ‘elm’ place names. This is far from conclusive, but it is at least a straw to clutch.
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
--Book of Taliesin, The Death Song of Owain, available online
The lovely phrase ‘the glittering west’ immediately calls to mind the Lake District, or the coastlands of Cumbria and/or Galloway. This is pure speculation on my part, and I do not know how reliable the translation is.
Other Taliesin poems
Other poems attributed to Taliesin give a list of battles and a description of what appears to be a sizeable cattle raid. Not all of the places mentioned can be identified. However, of those that are identifiable, all except Powys (in what is now mid-Wales) are in what is now northern England or southern Scotland, suggesting that this area was the focus of Urien’s activity. See earlier post ‘The battles of Urien Rheged’ for more details.
It seems clear that Rheged was located somewhere in the region bounded approximately by Strathclyde on the north, the Pennine chain on the east, Lancashire or possibly the Mersey area (depending where one places the kingdom of Craven) on the south, and the Irish Sea coast on the west. This region was not the core territory of known early medieval kingdoms, but centres of high-status early medieval occupation have been identified by archaeology at Birdoswald and Trusty’s Hill. It seems a likely setting for the various un-located kings and kingdoms named in poetry and genealogies, including Rheged.
Urien’s military career was associated mainly with northern England and southern Scotland, as far as can be judged from the place names that are identifiable. His son Owain and (probable) great-grand-daughter Rhianmellt were also associated with the north of England and/or southern Scotland. Given that early medieval armies could campaign over considerable distances (see earlier post on campaigning ranges), this is consistent with the broad geographical region described above, but does not necessarily narrow it down much.
Unfortunately, the names in the Taliesin poetry are also too general to definitively locate Rheged. ‘Llwyvenydd’ and ‘the glittering west’ are clearly identified as places where Urien and Owain lived and ruled, as distinct from somewhere they fought battles, which makes them the most interesting for identifying Rheged’s core territory. ‘The glittering west’ could apply to anywhere on the west coast if it refers to the gleaming sea (assuming the translation is accurate). ‘Llwyvenydd’ contains the place-name element ‘llwyf’, ‘elm’, which occurs widely in place names. The resemblance of ‘Llwyvenydd’ to the modern name of the River Lyvennet near Penrith may be significant, or may be chance. Even if Lyvennet is derived from ‘Llwyvenydd’, there may have been other places called ‘Llwyvenydd’ in the sixth century whose names have now been lost.
One of the poems describing Urien’s battle exploits says that he ‘came in the day to Aeron' and could imply that he was not an aggressor there (see earlier post on the battles of Urien Rheged). Aeron may be a reference to the region around modern Ayr. The mention of Godeu in ‘The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain’ may refer to the area around modern Hamilton. These may indicate that Rheged had some association with these areas, which may suggest a location in what is now south-west Scotland, perhaps on the southern border of Strathclyde. Such a location would be consistent with battles fought at Dumbarton Rock, Bremenium (High Rochester), Stirling and Lindisfarne. As the poem says that Urien ‘came in the day’ to Aeron, it may be an indication that Aeron was somewhere that he travelled to, rather than his home territory, and the mention of ‘Godeu and Rheged’ side by side suggests that they were considered separate areas. If so, this may indicate that Godeu and Aeron were regions in their own right, not considered part of Rheged, and that Urien’s home territory of Rheged lay elsewhere. It is unlikely to have been to the west, since Ayr is on the west coast, or to the north, since it seems unlikely that there was enough space for a substantial kingdom between Ayr and the territory of Strathclyde. It could have been to the east, in the upland area around Selkirk and Galashiels, or to the south nearer to the Solway Firth. Both these locations would be reasonably consistent with the identifiable locations of Urien’s battles. Selkirk is perhaps a better fit with the battles than Solway (although it is worth bearing in mind that there are other battles that have not been identified). Furthermore, someone raised a memorial stone with a Latin inscription in the Yarrow Valley near Selkirk some time in the sixth century. Unfortunately, the names on the stone bear no resemblance to the names in the Rheged genealogies (otherwise the mystery of Rheged’s location would be conclusively solved!), but it indicates that someone important was associated with the region at about the right time. Conversely, Solway is a better fit with the phrase ‘lord of the glittering west’, and the River Lyvennet is an obvious candidate for the Llwyvenydd place name.
So, although there are a few more clues in the poetry, they still do not give a conclusive answer. Rheged could have been anywhere on the western side of Britain from Strathclyde to Lancashire. Its position within this region, its size, its boundaries, and any changes over time, are all open to interpretation. The two strongest candidates are perhaps the area around Selkirk (which fits well with the locations of Urien’s battles), and the area around the Solway Firth, which fits with Llwyvenydd if this later became the River Lyvennet, and with the ‘glittering west’. But a case could be made for almost anywhere, as Tim Clarkson says (Clarkson 2010 p.74-5).
Personally, I like the idea that Rheged was located around the head of the Solway Firth, including at least the northern part of the Lake District, the Eden valley, and part of the north shore of the Solway. This forms a reasonably coherent region with Carlisle at its hub, potentially controlling access to the coast on both sides of the Solway, the Eden valley radiating to the south, Annandale and Nithsdale radiating to the north, and the Roman roads across the Pennines along Hadrian’s Wall or to Catterick. Water transport could also have connected both shores of the estuary.
The high ground of the Pennine spine forms a natural barrier to the east. The high ground of the Southern Uplands forms a similar natural barrier to the north. The ridge west of Nithsdale or the ridge of Cairnsmore of Fleet could form another natural barrier part way along the north shore of the Solway. To the south, the high ground of the central Lake District and Mallerstang at the head of the Eden valley could form another natural barrier. It may (or may not!) be significant that the historic county boundary between Lancashire and Cumberland ran through the middle of the Lake District, across the high ground of the central fells.
The many lakes and tarns of the Lake District and the gleaming sea and sands of the Solway could happily be described as ‘the glittering west’. The Lyvennet valley, a tributary of the Eden, is in this area and close to the Roman road over the Pennines to Catterick. Birdoswald is in the middle of this area. Trusty’s Hill might be within it, depending on the location chosen for the hypothetical western boundary.
The early medieval period was a time of flux, and kingdoms may not have stayed stable for long. Bernicia and Deira certainly combined, separated and recombined more than once before they eventually merged into a more or less united Northumbria, and kings fought and conquered each other regularly. Other kingdoms may have done the same. This suggested area for Rheged may have been divided into smaller units at times, or may have extended further at other times, especially under particularly successful kings.
As ever, other interpretations are possible.
Book of Taliesin, 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.