20 November, 2013

The children of Urien Rheged

Urien (also spelled Urbgen, Uryen) was a warrior-king of the royal house of Rheged some time in the late sixth century (see post on Urien Rheged).  One son, Owain, was celebrated in the poetry attributed to Taliesin and later a hero of medieval Arthurian romance (see post on Owain son of Urien). Another son, Rhun or Rum, is mentioned in Historia Brittonum in a context that suggests he was an important figure in the Christian church (see post on Rhun son of Urien). What can we say about Urien’s other children?



Both the Harleian and the Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd (Descent of the Men of the North) genealogies end with Urien and do not mention any descendants:

[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 

Llywarch Hen poetry

The medieval manuscript ‘The Red Book of Hergest’ contains several poems attributed to Llywarch Hen (Llywarch the Old).  According to the genealogies, Llywarch was a cousin and approximate contemporary or Urien, and the poem ‘The Death of Urien’ describes Llywarch carrying Urien’s severed head after Urien had been assassinated.  The poem also mentions warfare in the aftermath of Urien’s death:

Dunawd, the leading horseman, would drive onward,
Intent upon making a corpse,
Against the onset of Owain.

Dunawd, the chief of the age, would drive onward,
Intent upon making battle,
Against the conflict of Pasgen.

Gwallawg, the horseman of tumult, would drive onward,
Intent upon trying the sharpest edge,
Against the conflict of Elphin.

--Llywarch Hen, The Death of Urien, available online

Owain is identified as a son of Urien in the poetry attributed to Taliesin.  The similar structure of the verses suggests that Pasgen and Elphin are also to be regarded as sons of Urien in this poem.  A Pasgen son of Urien is identified in the Welsh Triads.


Three Fettered Warbands of the Island of Britain
And the second, the War-Band of Rhiwallawn son of Urien when fighting with the Saxons

Three Arrogant Men of the Island of Britain:
Sawyl High-Head, and Pasgen son of Urien, and Rhun son of Einiawn.

Three Fair Womb Burdens of the Island of Britain:
The second, Owain son of Urien and Mor(fudd) his sister who were carried together in the womb of Modron daughter of Afallach

Three Lovers of the Island of Britain:
Cynon son of Clydno (for Morfudd daughter of Urien);
and Caswallawn son of Beli (for Fflur daughter of Ugnach(?) the Dwarf);and Drystan (son of Tallwch, for Essyllt, the wife of his uncle March).

-- Triads, available online 

A variant of the Three Fair Womb-Burdens triad adds ‘Anarun archbishop of Llydaw’ to Owain and Morfudd. This may be a mention of Rum or Rhun ap Urien who appears as a churchman in Historia Brittonum.  Whether it represents an independent tradition, or just a note added by a scribe who had read Historia Brittonum, is open to interpretation (see post on Rhun son of Urien).


Between them, the various sources list five sons of Urien, Owain, Pasgen, Elphin, Rhiwallawn and Rhun, and a daughter, Morfudd.

Owain is celebrated in Taliesin’s poetry, where he is described as fighting alongside his father Urien and as a chief in his own right (see article on Owain son of Urien for more details). This is consistent with Owain being regarded as Urien’s second-in-command, heir and successor. In turn, this is consistent with Owain as the eldest son, although this is not definitive.

Rhun (also spelled Run, or Rum) is the only one of Urien’s children to be named in Historia Brittonum. He is described in a context that suggests he was an important figure in the Christian church, although a verse in the Llywarch Hen poetry also describes him as a secular ruler and warrior. He may have held both roles at different times (see the post on Rhun son of Urien). If he was a king of Rheged, it is not known whether he ruled alone or jointly with one or more of Urien’s other children.

Morfudd appears in two Triads.  In one she is said to be the twin of Owain.  As Owain was evidently an adult of fighting age before Urien’s death, Morfudd would also have been an adult before Urien’s death.  She would therefore have been of marriageable age, and may well have been married.

The second Triad refers to a great love between Morfudd and a man named Cynan ap Clydno. A warrior called Cynan ap Clyddno appears as a hero in Y Gododdin. A man named Clyddno Eidyn appears in the Harleian and Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd genealogies, traced back to Coel Hen (see earlier article on Coel Hen) in one, and to the king of Alt Clud, Dyfnwal, in another.  His epithet ‘Eidyn’ suggests an association with Edinburgh. Exactly how Cynan and Clyddno fitted into the plethora of kingdoms in sixth-century northern England/southern Scotland is open to interpretation.  However, if either or both were important figures in the kingdom of Gododdin and/or Alt Clud, Cynan ap Clyddno would not be an implausible candidate as a husband or lover for the daughter of Urien. The Triad may refer to a marriage between Cynan and Morfudd, perhaps to seal an alliance or agreement between Rheged and one of its northern/north-eastern neighbours. Or, given that it shares a Triad with the famous romantic tragedy of Drystan and Essyllt (better known as Tristan and Isolde), perhaps it refers to a star-crossed romance between them.  The Triad may refer to a story or poem about their relationship that was once well known but has now been lost.  More prosaically, Morfudd and Cynan may have been fictional characters from a medieval romance, who were given suitably romantic family connections by medieval scribes who thought it appropriate that a romantic hero and heroine should belong to lost sixth-century royal dynasties.

Pasgen is mentioned fighting against a warrior and/or king called Dunawd in the Llywarch Hen poetry. Owain is also mentioned fighting against the same adversary in the previous verse.  These verses occur after Llywarch’s lament for Urien’s death, so if this represents the order of events, the conflict with Dunawd was thought to have followed Urien’s assassination.  This is plausible; if Urien was a powerful ruler of a large territory, his sudden death may have been regarded by rivals and neighbours as an opportunity to try grabbing parts of the territory for themselves.  If Urien’s realm of Rheged was a relatively recent creation, perhaps put together in part by conquest and coercion, subordinate kings and chiefs might also see his sudden removal as an opportunity to regain their independence.  Unless Owain and Pasgen fought Dunawd in conflicts widely separated in time (which is possible), the description of them both fighting the same adversary may indicate that they were both of fighting age at the same time, and may have been approximate contemporaries.  Pasgen also appears in the Triads as one of the ‘Three Arrogant Men’, which may indicate the existence of a now-lost story about him.

Elphin also appears as a fighter in the Llywarch Hen poetry, but his adversary is named as Gwallawg the horseman.  This may refer to Guallauc ap Lleenauc, another late sixth-century king of somewhere in what is now northern England/southern Scotland (see post on Guallauc ap Lleenauc for more information). He may be the Gwallawg who campaigned against Bernicia at the same time as Urien.  If so, and if this was the same campaign in which Urien was assassinated at the siege of Lindisfarne, this may be a context for a conflict between Elphin and Guallauc.  Or Guallauc may simply have been an ambitious neighbour looking to extend his territory at Rheged’s expense after Urien’s death.

Rhiwallawn does not appear in the Llywarch Hen poetry.  He is mentioned in the Triads as the leader of a warband fighting the Saxons, which may indicate that he was also thought of as a warrior-hero.


Owain and Rhun can be accepted as historical figures on the basis of the Taliesin poetry and Historia Brittonum.  The other children of Urien appear only in the later Llywarch Hen poetry and the Triads.  These are later sources and may therefore be less reliable. However, what they say about the children of Urien is not implausible, and Morfudd, Pasgen, Elphin and Rhiwallawn could have been siblings of Owain and Rhun.

All of Urien’s sons are described as warriors (Owain in the Taliesin poetry, Rhun, Elphin and Pasgen in the Llywarch Hen poetry, and Rhiwallawn in the Triads).  This may just reflect a conventional assumption about the appropriate job description for any son of a famous warrior-king, or it may reflect lost material about their careers. 

It is not known whether any or all of Urien’s sons succeeded him as Kings of Rheged.  If they did, it is not known whether they ruled sequentially or jointly, in what order, for how long, or with what degree of success.  Owain and Rhun are both described in the poetry as rulers (chiefs), suggesting that they held some political power, at least for a time.  Pasgen, Elphin and Rhiwallawn are not so described. This may just be an arbitrary choice on the part of the poets, or it may indicate that they were not regarded as rulers in their own right. 

The different adversaries assigned to Owain/Pasgen, Elphin and Rhiwallawn would be consistent with (but do not prove) partition of the territories of Urien’s Rheged between his sons after his death.  If the sons each had a separate area of territory to rule and defend, they might be expected to face different regional enemies. Conversely, the sons could have been defending different border areas of the same territory, or fighting successive enemies at different times.

Morfudd appears in the Triads as the great love of Cynan son of Clyddno, a warrior-hero mentioned in Y Gododdin.  She was perhaps the heroine of a lost romance telling their story. This would also be consistent with her other appearance in the Triads and in the Story of King Urien and Modron, as the twin sister of the hero Owain and the daughter of Urien’s possibly-supernatural queen (see post on Owain son of Urien for more details). It is possible that Morfudd was a fictional romantic heroine, who was later given a connection to other famous figures of legend, Urien and Owain, by a scribe or poet who felt that she should have a suitably romantic origin. However, there is no obvious reason why she could not have been a genuine historical figure. If she was, a relationship with a warrior-hero of Gododdin or Alt Clud, Cynan ap Clydno, would not be implausible. The Triad may refer to a dynastic marriage between them.  Conversely, given that it is bracketed with the romantic tragedy of Tristan and Essyllt, it may refer to a doomed love affair that did not end in a successful marriage, for whatever reason.

The evidence for Morfudd, Pasgen, Elphin and Rhiwallawn as historical figures is very limited, relying on late sources (the Llywarch Hen poetry and the Triads). However, what is said about them is not implausible for children of Urien Rheged. Whether they were genuine historical figures, and what roles they may have played in sixth- and seventh-century history, is open to interpretation.

Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd, available online 
Harleian genealogies, available online 
Historia Brittonum, available online
Llywarch Hen, The Death of Urien, available online 


Beth said...

Very impressed with how thorough you are here - it's great to see a summary like this. I know I always rattle on about differences in translations, but it is interesting to look at the verses you quote from the Llywarch Hen poetry, because in John Koch's translation they all contain the place name Erechwydd (and looking at the original Welsh, I can see the name is there), which isn't included in Skene's version. Of course this needn't imply that the brothers Owain, Elphin and Pasgen shared the territory, only that they were associated with it - wherever it was - in the mind of the poet. Still...who knows? There's also a 16th century genealogy which mentions an otherwise unattested son of Urien; I wouldn't bank on his having existed at all, but he's come in very useful for my writing. ;)

Constance Brewer said...

Hey, more props for poetry. Always appreciated. And I think poetry as a source was definitely more valid back then than it is now.

Carla said...

Beth - thanks! Yes, the differences between translations can be substantial. I tend to link to Skene's because it's available on the web, so readers who are interested can follow the link. It seems quite likely to me that all three brothers did share the same territory, either in the sense of joint rule, some sort of sub-king system, or as sequential rulers one after the other, in much the same sort of way as Alfred and his brothers all belonged to Wessex. I wonder why the Llywarch Hen poet didn't mention Rhiwallawn? Perhaps only for the prosaic reason that someone made him up much later for the Triads! Although if sixth-century Brittonic attitudes were similar to medieval Welsh conventions about sons, there may be a possibility that some of Urien's sons were born to different mothers, maybe not all in wedlock, and may have had different family connections and perhaps variable status that made each of them more or less interesting to different poets.

I think I've come across that 16th-C genealogy somewhere, but I admit I didn't pay it a great deal of attention because of the late date - a thousand years after Urien's time! Like you, I have my doubts about it (!). It could be a pure invention by some medieval or early modern family who fancied an exotic ancestor. But it could conceivably record another son of Urien who was missed from the poetry, perhaps one who was too young to play an active military and political role in events immediately after Urien's death, or maybe the son of an obscure mistress who wasn't important/wealthy enough to attract a poet's attention. Glad to hear he has been useful in your writing :-)

Constance - poetry is sometimes the only source we have, as in the current case. I do wish that the story of Morfudd's romance, whatever it was, had attracted the attention of the Taliesin or Llywarch Hen poets :-)