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King Urien Rheged - © Nash Ford PublishingUrien Rheged,
King of North Rheged

(c.490-590)
(Welsh: Urien; Latin: Urbgenius;
English: Orian)

He was perhaps the most famous of the Kings of the North, and possibly one of the earliest Christian Kings in Britain. One of the sons of Cynfarch Oer, Urien appears to have united a Kingdom that was originally either divided between, or shared with his brothers, Llew and Arawn. These latter appear to have held sway north of the Solway Firth, probably in Galwyddel (Galloway) - where Din-Rheged (Dunragit) still stands - and the area where King Gwenddoleu later ruled. Urien's power-base was at Caer-Ligualid (Carlisle), though he also had a palace at Llwyfenydd on the River Lyvennet, and probably at Caer-Brogwm (Brougham) and Pen Rhionydd (possibly near Stranraer) too. The heart of his kingdom was modern Cumbria, which even today is named after the British Cymri, though his Kingdom, at one time, was said to have stretched as far north as Murief (Moray). Tradition asserts that his court played host to the High-King Arthur whenever he was travelling through the North, and Urien is thought to have married Arthur's half-sister, the enigmatic Morgan Le Fay. The King of Rheged, however, must have been something of a toy-boy, even if Morgan was the High-King's niece as some sources insist. A genealogical based birth date of AD 490 for the king is historically unacceptable. It is possible, even probable, that Urien's wife was a different lady, Modron ferch Afallach, though this name has unfortunate immortal overtones.

There is some controversy as to whether or not Urien Rheged should be identified with the literary King Uriens of Gore. Goodrich thinks that Gore was an area of Ynys Manaw (Isle of Man) that the King of North Rheged conquered, though her reasoning is flawed. Bruce makes a good case for it being the whole Island of Man based on Chrétien's geography and description. The name may derive from the French or Welsh words for Glass, indicating an underworld connection. The identification with Gwyr (Gower) in South Wales is probably derived from the fact that Urien's son, Pasgen, later settled there. Urien was a great patron of the arts, particularly the works of his personal bard, the famous Taliesin.

Throughout his time as King, Urien's relations with his fellow British monarchs were erratic. He made many raids on rival kingdoms as far north as Manau Gododdin and once captured King Selyf Sarffgadau (Battle-Serpent) of Powys in battle. However, towards the end of a long reign, Urien led a coalition of British Kings against the expanding Saxons. His allies included Kings Riderch Hael (the Generous) of Strathclyde, Gwallawc Marchawc Trin (the Battle Horseman) of Elmet and, probably, Morcant Bulc of Bryneich. Many battles were fought including Gwen Ystrad and the Cells of Berwyn. This latter, probably fought at the Roman Fort of Brememium (High Rochester) may have later been turned into High-King Arthur's supposed 11th Battle, of Breguoin. After the defeat of the Yorkist Kings, Peredur Arueu Dur (Steel Arms) and Gwrgi, by the Bernicians in AD 580, Urien was quick to claim the strategic region around Catraeth (Catterick), before the Saxons of Bernicia and Deira were able to secure the area and unite their two peoples. This struggle may have culminated in the Battle of Argoed Llwyfein (Leeming Lane, Yorks). It was at this battle that King Theodoric Flamddwyn (the Firebrand) of Bernicia was killed by Urien's son. The British probably held both the old Roman fort of Catraeth itself and the hillfort site at Richmond.

By around AD 590, the Bernicians under Hussa were almost totally defeated. Pushed back to the sea's edge, the British besieged them on Ynys Metcaut (Lindisfarne) for three days, while Irish allies, under King Fiachna of Ulster, ousted the Saxons from Din-Guardi (Bamburgh). However, before Urien could seize victory and finally rid Britain of the Saxon scourge, he himself was treacherously assassinated at Aber Lleu (Ross Low). His assassin, a nocturnal foreigner by the name of Llofan Llaf Difo (Severing-Hand), cut-off Urien's head at the instigation of the King's own ally, Morcant. The latter was, apparently, jealous of Urien's victories, and thought that he should lead the push to rid his own kingdom of the Saxon menace. His plan, of course, completely backfired and the Saxons soon re-asserted their stranglehold on the North. Urien was succeeded by his son, Owein.

NB. Urien's date of birth is highly problematic. As the grandfather of St. Kentigern, a birth date of circa AD 490 would seem appropriate. However, if he was truly the husband of Morgan Le Fay, a date nearer AD 470 would be better. Opposing these views, is his death date which seems to be accurately recorded as AD 590. This would indicate that he led his troops into battle when he was well over one hundred years of age!

 

    © Nash Ford Publishing 2001. All Rights Reserved.