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.
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)
- A Song of Urien Rheged
- The Spoils of Taliesin, a Song of Urien
- The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain
- The Satisfaction of Urien
- Welsh Traids (of Urien and his children)
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.