LKM: The Realm of Rheged

Finally getting back to my lost kingdoms series of posts, I’ve been putting off Rheged for some time now. Looking for Rheged is always risky. It is the epitome of the lost kingdoms. It appears just as it is about to be blotted out by a growing regional power, Bernicia. Not unlike Beowulf being the story of his kingdom’s demise and the end of the Geats, stories of Rheged’s demise and it’s heroes have survived among others longer than the original kingdom lasted. More than any other lost kingdom, Rheged excited the imagination of poets and it became a frequent site for heroic adventures, and some of its historic heroes became mythic superheroes; Arthurian worthies and perhaps equals as in the Dream of Rhonabwy. It is quite possible that at one time Owain ap Urien was a more popular hero and king than Arthur himself.

Finding Rheged

As near as we can tell, Rheged (or Reget) was actually fairly close to Heavenfield, somewhere in the Border Country (around Hadrian’s Wall and south of Scotland). It has been localized to the Carlisle area, Rhinns of Galloway, middle area of the Border Country (general region of Melrose) immediately to the west of the core of Bernicia, and in the middle of the Pennines (old Brigantia). In other words, it existed somewhere that Northumbria swallowed up, north more likely than south. The best clues we have are that Urien Rheged is said to be Lord of Catraeth, usually taken to be Catterick. Yet, Catraeth is the location of one of the most famous and most legendary battles in Old British history, so saying Urien in Lord of Catraeth may be metaphorical. Other locations in the Urien cycle of poetry seem to be just south of Carlisle in the Lake district and the mountains just to the east, which would indeed be just west of Catterick. The Carlisle region also fits with the Mabon imagery associated with Urien’s son Owain, given that the area just north of Carisle has the most placename and archaeological evidence for a cult of the Celtic god Mabon.

Urien Rheged and his dynasty

There really isn’t any evidence that the realm of Rheged existed separate from the dynasty of Urien Rheged. There are no placenames, or literary references to the land of Rheged.

Urien’s claim to historicity comes from the Historia Brittonum:

63. 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 Guallauc, 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 [Lindisfarne]; 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. Eadfered Flesaurs reigned twelve years in Bernicia, and twelve others in Deira, and gave to his wife Bebba, the town of Dynguoaroy, which from her is called Bebbanburg [Bamburgh].96 Edwin, son of Alla, reigned seventeen years, seized on Elmete, and expelled Cerdic, its king. Eanfled, his daughter, received baptism, on the twelfth day after Pentecost, with all her followers, both men and women. The following Easter Edwin himself received baptism, and twelve thousand of his subjects with him. If any one wishes to know who baptized them, it was Rum Map Urbgen [Rhun son of Urien]:97 he was engaged forty days in baptizing all classes of the Saxons, and by his preaching many believed on Christ. (Historia Brittonum)

Rhun son of Urien is mentioned once more in some prefaces of the Historia Brittonum as a source for material in it. Oswiu of Bernicia’s first wife Rhianmellt daughter of Royth son of Rhun is usually accepted to be a great-grandaughter of Urien Rheged, equating her grandfather Rhun with Rhun ap Urien. After this brief historical mention in the Historia Brittonum, Rheged is not mentioned again. In fact, Rheged is not mentioned in the Historia Britonnum. Rheged must be inferred by consulting Old Welsh poetry. The mention of Rhianmellt’s marriage to Oswiu is the last mention of Rheged in the historical record, all other outcomes are spectulation.

Of Urien’s children, Rhun is the only one mentioned in historical texts (Historia Brittonum). The others sons, Owain, Pasgen, Rhiwallawn, and a daughter Morfudd are mentioned in literature and legend. The story of King Urien and Modron daughter of Avallach tells of the mythical origins of Urien’s family. Modron is the conversion of the celtic goddess Modron, the divine mother, into history. Avallach is the King of the Otherworld who produces daughters who are linked with British heroes as consorts or mothers.  Modron’s divine son Mabon is sometimes equated with Urien’s son Owain.

Urien is best known because his chief bard was Taliesin, known as the Chief Bard of Britain (of all time). Urien is the focus of several of his surviving songs, including: (unfortunately not the best translations)

The Superhero of Rheged

Owain son of Urien, the equal of Mabon ap Modron, left no mark on the ‘historical sources’ of Rheged. He is not listed with his father in the Historia Brittonum or in the Annals Cambriae. The opponent of Urien’s forces in ‘The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain’ is an Englishman nick-named Flamdwyn (the Flame-bearer) and he is claimed to the slayer of Owain in his Death Song of Owain. Who is Flamdwyn? What a good question! No one knows for sure. He fought a battle against Urien and killed his son Owain, but Owain is inferred in his death song as a king in his own right. If so, then he probably died after his father, perhaps soon after. If that is so, then it must be Theodoric of Bernicia, the only northern English king who faced Urien and his successors. If Owain died before his father, then it could be Æthelric, brother of Theodoric and father of Æthelfrith (r. 592-616), who had a very short 4 year reign. Poetry does seem to give Owain a very short reign as king after his father, beset by all the British kings who viciously fall upon the princes of Rheged after Urien’s death, which suggests Urien may have created his realm amongst great British opposition. Its interesting that in some Welsh triads (and elsewhere) British men are claimed to be Owain’s killer. It really infers an ethnically mixed northern zone. Rheged is clearly said to oppose the Saxons (Bernicians) but they fight as many or more Britons. Its quite possible that early Bernicia was an Anglo-British kingdom in the 6th century. Y Gododdin may imply that as well.

Owain made the real leap into superherodom when he became incorporated in Arthur’s realm of heroes. He is the focus of two Welsh Arthurian stories: Dream of Rhonabwy and Owain, or the Lady at the Fountain. The Dream features Owain’s famous ravens in otherworldly, supernatural size. Owain’s ravens (war ravens) are often mentioned in short references in Welsh poetry as a reference to a successful warband or army. The story of the Lady at the Fountain may have some ties to the hagiographical legend that Owain is the father of St Kentigern, by the daughter of King Lot of Lothian. St Kentigern is the patron saint of Glasgow and the kingdom of Strathclyde. Owain is also the source behind Yvain in French Arthurian literature. He is sometimes said to be son of Morgan le Fay in Arthurian literature, which may be a late medieval version of the otherworldly Modron.

23 thoughts on “LKM: The Realm of Rheged

  1. Yes, I think Y Gododdin indicates the Bryneich as Bad Guys alongside the Angles. In the poem we have these two lines a (78, 79):

    If I had judged you to be of the tribe of Bryneich,
    Not the phantom of a man would I have left alive.

    (Ar deulu brenneych beych barnasswn
    Dilyw dyn en vyw nys adawsswn)

    And I seem to recall that British bards, from the mid 6th C on, used ‘Bryneich’ almost like ‘Quisling’ (though I don’t have any references to hand, sorry, so it’s entirely possible this is one of those instances of my novelist brain just, ah, making things up).

    As for Edwin’s baptism, I don’t know what to make of the Rhun business so I tend to ignore it. I find I quite enjoy Rheged being lost and mysterious…

  2. Marvellous stuff, carefully handled. And I can add a very little: when you say, “It’s quite possible that early Bernicia was an Anglo-British kingdom in the 6th century”, not only do I agree with you, but Brian Hope-Taylor, who dug Yeavering, said more or less the same in the final, synthetic, chapter of the site report. He argued that the apparent adoption of a working British site at Yeavering, and other Northumbrian parallels, suggested that perhaps Ida’s forebear was installed in Bamburgh as the Anglian head of a freshly-imported garrison and by the time it came down to Ida the government, of this functioning British sub-kingdom, was military and therefore ‘Anglian’. Fits quite well as an idea with your reading of the sources, and Nicola’s of Y Gododdin (and to think David Dumville’s argued for an early dating of that because it doesn’t mention Bernicia! Told me off for not knowing that, too! Criticisms within criticisms!), but of course alternative datings of the Yeavering phases have since been proposed. If you would like references for all this, I can dig them out…

  3. I think Bernicia was a very Anglo-British kingdom. The very fact that Bamburgh, a hillfort, was their captial or residence of their king makes them stand out. In the south, Anglo-Saxons left British hillforts stand empty even though they generally occupied better locations than the Saxon settlements. Bernicia occupied many British hillforts, Bamburgh, Coldingham, Dunbar, and lets not forget Stirling where Oswiu was besieged by Penda in 655. Indeed Oswiu survived at least two sieges by Penda in former British hillforts.

    I’ve read quite a bit about Yeavering, including the recent book. Check out this interview on Bamburgh’s cemetery

    I tend to think that Bernicia was allied with the Gododdin… there are sons of Englishmen (presumably half-British) warriors among the eulogized. Craig Cessford also wrote a paper talking about a high status Anglican female burial in Lothian, possibly an intermarriage with a British king or noble, buried in the way of her people and not in a Christian cemetery.

  4. Hi! Just commenting on your statement “There are no placenames, or literary references to the land of Rheged”, if you search for “Rheged” and “Reged” in Google Books, you will find a host of literary references to Rheged in the 18th and 19th centuries, and also in the original Welsh poetry that came out of The Old North (Yr Hen Gogledd) and which derive by large from the 6th and 7th centuries.

    And of place-names, I know of two but can only recall one at the moment, Dunraggit is very often cited as being the hill of Rheged.

    On another point, there are natives in Cumberland today (Cymry) who hold that Rheged is the native name for Cumberland (which is important to realise as they have the right of “correspondence” under the Human Rights Act), and if you follow its decent from the marriage of Rhiainfelt the heiress of Rheged to Oswy, in 638 AD, then it clearly comes down in continuity to the present day. The only reason that it hasn’t a duke is that because the Dukedom of Cumberland was suspended around 1917 because of the Duke’s German interests, however the right of restoration is vested in The Prince of Hanover, which after 3 generations, is due to be restored.

  5. “Clearly comes down in continuity”? Michelle will know this better than I but I thought the royal line of Northumbria disappeared in confusion in the eighth century. I can’t imagine there’s any clear continuity through that.

    On the other hand, I had never before spotted that obvious etymology of Cumberland.

  6. (To Jonathon) Yes, I agree, the precept of “Continuity” is an important one, but in my own mind it is significant at the Anglo-Saxon High King level rather than the Northumbrian level, and this I mean in the sense of what the Anglo-Saxon High King’s themselves saw as being articulated to the High King office, rather than the office of the King of Northumbria.

    The (exciting) thing about this, is that the 7th Anglo-Saxon High King was Oswy, King of Northumbria, who married Princess Rhiainfelt the heiress and Queen of the Kingdom of Rheged, by which Oswy became the King of Rheged and continued so after Rhiainfelt’s death, and although Northumbria itself was subjugated, the interesting thing is that when the King of Wessex became the 8th Anglo-Saxon High King, he marched into Cumberland (‘Rheged’) and sought its peaceful submission to him by the right of Rheged having been articulated to the context of the 7th Anglo-Saxon High King, as opposed to the context of the King of Northumbria.

    On one hand, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles support this, on the other hand there has been absolute continuity of the 8th Anglo-Saxon High King right down to Elizabeth today!

    Anyway, these are the broad mechanics as I see them!

    Oh yes, the etymology is fabulous, and the etymology of the word Cymry itself is even more fabulous!

    The Cym in Cymry comes from Cyn, which broadly means “first, indiginous, &c”, implying that Cumbric is the first, that is, indigenous language of The Old North!

    And this is why the Cumbric Revival excites me, as it was the language of The Old North prior Scots Gaelic and English becoming language veneers upon it: there’s a nice video on the CumbricRevival channel on YouTube!

    1. I was very interested in your second paragraph. Particularly the second sentence about Rheged being articulated to the 7th AS High King, as opposed to Northumbria. I’ve never come across this. Would you be kind enough to let me know where to find this reference so that I can extract it and hang on to it. Yours sincerely, Mike hancox

      1. There is no reason to believe that Oswiu gained control of Rheged because of his marriage to Reinmellt! Kingdoms are not guven in dowelry or suitable inheritence. There is no reason to think that REheinmellt didn’y have brothers or cousins to continue the kingdom. If anything the marriage may have allowed the British ruling family to last longer.

  7. For Michelle. Thank you for your reply. We don’t know whether, in some circumstances, lands might not have been joined, not so much as dower land, but part of a diplomatic solution; diplomatic solutions, such as kingly succession in Mercia, agreed by Northumbria, are not unknown. Another Michelle (was it you?) wrote on another site about weakness in the Rheged dynasty. This is all a puzzle. There is no sign, in any of the histories or annals, of any major battles which might have signified the takeover of lands. There are reports of wasting, but they are not specific and could have involved Strathclyde, Rheged, or both. One thing of interest is that Oswy was a Christian of the Irish type, as confirmed by Bede. To be a Christian of the Irish kind was the same as the Christianity of the Britons. It seems completely improbable to me that a large polity such a Rheged could have gone down in blood without its end being eulogised by other British kingdoms in, what is now, Wales. If I’m not mistaken, Rhianmellt’s brother was a priest and it was not unknown, even then, for priests to be celibate. I have often thought, and other sources suggest it, that Rheged was not a monolithic kingdom, more a confederation, such as the Brigantes, held together by one powerful line. A failure of the main line of Urien Rheged could have had more profound consquences than are currently apparent. The marriage of a Christian, Bernician king to the last of the line of Urien might have been seen as entirely suitable, especially as I have the feeling that Cumbria, at least, was under pressure from Bernicia That is why I’m scratting around for any pointers which folk might have picked up in their searches of Welsh, or other, annals.

    1. A British kingdom would not have “gone down in blood” without being eulogized by other British kingdoms? Really, how about all those kingdoms in what was the Anglo-Saxon east. Archaeologically there was a late surviving British polity around St Albans that went down without a word in literary records. Mercia formed rather late from British polities that also when down without a written reference. Elmet when down with very little and confused references. The end of Dumnonia and Strathclyde are not clearly recorded. It seems likely that the end of most British kingdoms when down without written records.

      There is no evidence that Rheinmellt had a brother much less that he was a priest. There is some suggestion that Rhun, her reputed grandfather was a bishop. There is no evidence for Urien Rheged’s line after Rheinmellt. As far as we know for sure, Urien’s line ended by the 640s and any of Rheinmellt’s children would have been allied with their English relatives unless they managed to get themselves exiled. There is no evidence for a Rheged royal family outside of Urien’s line.

  8. I did post the following under ‘Cumbria-Galloway (Solway Firth)’ but, with your permission, will post it here too.

    Rheged’s location is based on several things: 1) Din-Rheged (Dunragit) in Dumfries and Galloway 2) Rochdale in Greater Manchester, recorded in the Domesday Book as Recedham 3) the poems of Taliesin, which tells us that Urien ruled over Catraeth, generally accepted as Catterick in Yorkshire. (I didn’t mention in the other post that I agree with others that I don’t believe Catraeth to be Catterick. It seems to be on the border with the Gododdin and Catterick certainly isn’t). I would also suggest that both Taliesin’s and Urien’s associations with Powys might indicate that it bordered it to the south. An even greater association with Powys appears with Llywarch Hen, Urien’s cousin and ruler of South Rheged. (It was supposedly divided c. 535AD into North and South Rheged, but if the poetry of Taliesin is anything to go by, Urien was still its overking). In short, it appears to be the western half of what was the Brigantian’s territory probably down to the Mersey.

    What is odd is that Rheged, along with the British kingdom or Brynaich (Anglo-Saxon Bernicia) in the east, both spanned Hadrian’s Wall. I say this is odd because recent archaeology indicates that the defenses were maintained probably up until the end of the 5th century. If your territory lies on both sides of the wall, why do you need defenses? Were they just being careful? It could be that Coel Hen took the territory north of the Wall during his ‘reign’ (whatever form that reign may have taken) doing what the Roman’s had done earlier and creating buffer states again against the Scots and Picts,.

    1. What needs consideration are that Bernicia and Rheged (if it straddled the Wall, or indeed existed at all) were polities of the mid- to late-sixth century. Therefore even if the Wall was occupied until the fifth century, it need have no bearing on the origins of either kingdom. It is, furthermore, highly doubtful that Coel Hen was an actual historical figure; rather he should be considered no more than a eponymous founder figure created in order to give cohesion to multiple unconnected lineages when genealogies started being recorded: this might late as the tenth century.

      The sources, whether poetry or genealogies, recording personages and events of the ‘northern heroic age’ need to be viewed rather less as history and more as later antiquarian creations rationalizing and embellishing pre-existing traditions that may or may contain elements of historical ‘fact’.

  9. Interesting, and exceedingly careful, post. You may discount it, but Lyvennydd may well be Lyvennet, which is south of Penrith, extending the territory of Rheged at least that far south.

    It amazes me that the etymology of Cumbria is so little known.

  10. What about the Kings of Rheged *before* Urien? Gwrast Lledlwm and Meirchion Gul for example?

  11. We don’t have any evidence of kings before Urien. He certainly had ancestors but we don’t know that they were kings or anything about them. Actually we don’t really have much evidence of “Rheged” outside of Urien’s immediate family.

  12. Hello, I’m not sure if anyone has flagged this up previously, but ‘Marwnad Owain’ states that Owain slew Flamdwyn not vice-versa!

    The tradition that Rhun ab Urien baptized Edwin of the Deiri must be considered a response by the Britons (of Wales or the North(?)) to Bede’s ( hence after c. 731) claim that the Britons did not preach or attempt to convert the Anglo-Saxons. Moreover, though Rhianmellt was undoubtedly an historical character recorded in the ninth-century Durham ‘Book of Life’, the possibility remains that the author of Historia Brittonum simply concocted the descent from Rhun and, ultimately, Urien in order to give her an impressive lineage.

    That Rheged does not appear in Anglo-Saxon sources is unremarkable, but its omission from Brittonic Latinate sources is perhaps more surprising, especially given the prominence of Urien and his kindred to the ‘Northern Section’ of that work. Indeed, it is quite possible that the name of Urien’s kingdom was unknown to the author of Historia Brittonum, especially given that he seemingly drew the name ‘Elmet’ from Bede and connected it to Ceretic, the rex Britonum expelled by Edwin c. 617 (as many historians have done since!). Hence uninformed of the political geography of north Britain, other than names available in other sources, the poet who composed the Taliesin poetry merely created an evocative name with which to associate the renowned hero of the ‘northern heroic age’.

Comments are closed.

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: