Urien, Lord of Catraeth

I’ve been thinking today about the claim that Urien is Lord of Catraeth. Wherever Catraeth is doesn’t matter for the moment. What has struck me as strange is that the British attacked Catraeth. The point of the battle of Catraeth was to take it away from its Lord, and the Britons lost. Other references to Catraeth in British poetry make the hero one of the attackers at Catraeth.

The great early Old Welsh poem Y Gododdin is a series of eulogies to the men who died failing to take Catraeth. John Koch in his modern edition of Y Gododdin has hypothesized that Urien, Lord of Catraeth and ally of Deira, was the target of the battle of Catraeth. We know that Urien fell to a coalition of British kings/warlords while besieging Lindisfarne. Poetry claims that many British heroes hunted down Urien’s sons. This speaks of great resentment from Urien’s neighbors and perhaps vassels. What does it really mean that Urien is called Lord of Catraeth?


17 thoughts on “Urien, Lord of Catraeth

  1. Making sense of the various Catraeth references is no easy task. In simple terms they can be broken down like this:

    ‘Y Gododdin’ poem
    1. Catraeth is on the border of Gododdin.
    2. It seems to be in English hands.
    3. The king of Gododdin sends an army to attack Catraeth.
    4. The Gododdin army is decisively defeated.

    Taliesin poems
    1. Urien is lord of Catraeth. Its warriors owe military service to him.
    2. Catraeth is one of several territories under Urien’s lordship.
    3. Catraeth is distinct from Urien’s core territory of Rheged.
    4. Many of Urien’s enemies are Britons, including those of Gododdin.
    5. After his death his sons are attacked by other British kings.

    (The poem ‘Moliant Cadwallon’ refers to Catraeth as the site of a famous battle but there are now serious doubts as to the poem’s alleged 7th century date of composition)

    Several different scenarios can be inferred from the poetry. The simplest of these make no assumptions about the precise location of Catraeth and avoid any notions of ethnic conflict. Here is one I sometimes run with:

    1. In the late 6th century Catraeth is a territory within Urien’s hegemony or “personal empire”. It is on the border of Gododdin.
    2. Urien fights many wars to defend and extend his hegemony.
    3. He is one of four British kings who (separately?) fight Theodoric of Bernicia. There is no evidence of these kings acting in coalition.
    4. After Urien’s death (c.590) his hegemony disintegrates into its constituent parts, which are then fought over by neighbouring kings. His sons retain the family’s core territory (Rheged) but other districts, such as Catraeth, are up for grabs.
    5. An English king claims lordship over Catraeth. His claim is challenged by the king of Gododdin.
    6. The Gododdin challenge is repulsed in a decisive battle.
    7. Tales or heroic poems about the battle become popular among the Britons during the 7th century.

    This is just one possible scenario. I like it because it is fairly simple, unlike the weirdly complicated “Catterick” theories.

  2. That works for me. (Occam’s razor is such a nifty tool.)

    As for Catraeth, I’ve never seen it as ‘Catterick’. I think of it as a line, a border–mostly imaginary but occasionally a series of strategic trenches (lots of trenches and ramparts etc. in Y Gododdin)–running diagonally cross country from northeast to southwest, with the unbowed Britons on one side and the British/Anglo-Saxon alliances on the other. I have zero evidence for this apart from the emphasis in the poem itself on fighting in the fosse (which, I admit, could have many explanations).

  3. Except that Urien would have died in the 570s not the 590s. Theodoric’s reign is all in the 570s and Theodoric’s nephew Æthelfrith became king in 592. We have another king and then Hussa who reign after Theodoric before Æthelfrith. The 570s also fits with the the Annals Cambriae entries of the men who attacked Urien’s sons and the battle of Arthuret.

  4. I think Urien must be dated to the end of the 6thC to the early 7th as he is placed by his earliest reference in the HB to fighting with Hussa (died 593). A version of the HB (late 7thC) now destroyed in the 2nd world War was also attributed to his son which means he must have lived sometime towards the end of the 6th or probably well into the 7thC. I think the chronology of the early Saxons kings (and Briton kings) of the 6thC may be suspect.

  5. It really is like a breath of fresh air, so much common sense! Absolutely spot-on Gododdin is not the hinterland around Edinburgh and Catraeth (Cattraeth meaning the battleground on the shore) was not Catterick, in fact the entirety of the traditional interpretatations for Dark Age History are false. Gododdin is very precisely ….. ….. alongside which Urien had his ‘northermost’ territory. The dates too are out of synchronisation, Urien’s birth in AD 791 has been claimed to be wrong but fits perfectly into his real place in history and geography, his connection to Ussa is a falsehood (work out the dates of Ida’s descendants). Urien’s suggested death in 576 can be corrected to his murder in AD 548. The dividing line Nicola suggested is not a guess but an actuality as the Brythons to the west of that border were defending themselves against the Angles, Picts, and Scots (Goedels) to the east. If you can work that out you will also have the real location of ‘Manau Guotodin/Gododdin
    I cannot go further into detail as it would pre-empt the publication of my book ‘Arthur: A Dark Age Revisited’.

    1. Brian, am interested in your book ‘Arthur: A Dark Age Revisited’. Your interpretation of Mount Agned is spot on and should be subject to further investigation. Kind regards, Steve Mawer, Lampeter.

      1. Stephen thanks for your input. have moved on since then, have had to re-write history back to King Cappor of the Druids, Traditional history is not just a mess but an almighty ‘mock-up’. New email ‘arthurofwales@yahoo.co.uk

  6. I wonder if Catraeth was on the Tweed, around Melros. To its west is a place called Caddonfoot. Cad (cat/cath)=battle+don=hill+foot=bottom of. It sits beneath Caddonlee and Caddon Shank.

    However, WILLIAM JOHN ROBERTSON in his ‘PLACE-NAMES OF SCOTLAND’ has this to say:

    CALLANDER (S. Perthsh. and Falkirk). The parishes of Fal-
    kirk, Polmont, and Muiravon were once called Calatria,
    in Ir. annals Calathros, and by Britons Catraeth or
    fort of Che (G. catliair Caith, c lost through aspiration).
    Calatria is commonly supposed = Callander ; but c. 1190

    I’ve know idea where his “…and by Britons Catraeth…” comes from.

    1. Just a quick addition here. The poem makes it sound as if the battle is fought on a river called Aled. Unfortunately, the only river of that name is in North Wales. Interesting that the poem happens to be talking about the men of Gwynedd when it mentions it.

      Unstemmed the tide’s flow to each shore: to Hafal, the same profusion.
      Rent his buckler’s front, impulsive, angry, Rhywoniawg’s guardian.
      Once more were seen on Aled’s banks war-horses with bloody harness.
      Let them be steadfast, let their gifts be great,
      Savage fighters when they are roused.
      Stern in strife, he’d slash with his sword: sharp tokens of war
      a hundred would bear.
      He’d shape song for New Year’s; there go up to the flawless lad,
      There go up to the haughty boar, like a girl, maiden and monarch.
      And since he was son of a true king, Gwynedd’s lord,
      Cilydd Gwaredawg’s blood, before earth covered his cheek,
      Bountiful, prudent, fearless, quick with present and praise.
      A grave has Garthwys Hir of Rhywoniawg.

      (Joseph Clancy’s ranslation)

      1. Could the poet mean that Garthwys assembled warhorses of Gwynedd by the banks of the Aled, in Gwynedd/Rhywoniawg before his troops rode them to Katraeth? Rather than the Aled being by Katraeth

  7. There is one slight fly in the ointment with a northern placing of Catraeth (Katraeth) and that is Urien Rheged’s overlordship of it and the Battle of Gwen Ystrad (Gwen Valley). This battle is identified with Wensleydale, just south of Catterick, which makes sense if Catraeth is Catterick. However, it could simply be because of the supposed Catterick connection. If Catraeth is where Skene thought it to be, or on the River Tweed, for example, then a different location of Gwen Ysrad needs to be found. Winsterdale in Cumbria has been suggested, but this makes no strategic sense to me.

    This means trying to find a River White/Gwen/Wen/Finn somewhere near and, so far I haven’t been able to find any, unless Urien did travel all that way to Wensleydale or to the River Gwenfro near Wrexham, otherwise he’s have to go to the Isle of Sky to find a River Finn. There is another explanation: ‘Gwen’ is the name of the valley but, as mentioned in the poem, ‘Garanwynyon’ is the name of the rive (garan=heron+wyn=white+yon=?) which could, conceivably, be the River Carron (Scottish Gaelic: Abhainn Carrann) – near Falkirk… right on the border with the Gododdin.

    1. If Rheged includes Cumbria, which most of us accept, then Wensleydale is adjacent. It would have been an obvious target for an expansionist king such as Urien is portrayed as. Let’s leave Taliesin’s Ystrad Gwen as Wensleydale.

  8. Taliesin identifies Katraeth as in “doleu defwy”, “the meanders of the [River] Defwy”. There are plenty of meanders to support the suggestion that the R. Defwy is the one we now call the Swale. That said, an even better fit than Catterick for a British stronghold (as you all say, east of his main territory of Rheged) in the area is Maiden Castle (the one in Swaledale). Significantly, this major fortress is 1 mile from the village of Reeth. Katraeth therefore meaning “the Battle of Reeth”.

    The date of 590 for Urien’s death may be only approximate, but it is consistent with Taliesin’s dates (b. 536 – derived from his being 12 or 13 years old when Maelgwn died in 548). The last reference to Taliesin as a living person is in the Marwnat which is very soon post-Katraeth and so very consistent with Katraeth being in c594.

    This also fits the English chronology, with the original Deira being the East Riding (successor state to the civitas of the Parisii) and with York being added to it c560/80 and both York and Leeds being in Edwin’s kingdom before 610.

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