British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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Appendix 7: Urien and his Legends

Fabio P. Barbieri

In Book 7, chapter 4, I tried to remove from the picture of British history the supposed siege of Lindisfarne by a coalition of northern chieftains.  The glorious Urien leads his coalition to victory against the Angles till they are besieged in an island: at which point, with final victory within their grasp, the coalition collapses because the evil Morcant is jealous of Urien!  I find it incredible that textbooks respected and deserving of respect, such as for instance, Nora Chadwick's Celtic Britain, take the legendary Nennian account of Urien as the golden champion of British power, betrayed by the Judas-like Morcant, with complete seriousness, including the supposed siege of Lindisfarne - a place that did not gain any importance until decades after Urien's time.  Chadwick is simply haunted, consciously or not, by the notion of the clash of British and English, and must make the facts fit her theory.  Meirion Pennar, the latest translator, simply cannot rid himself of the notion that Urien was a hero of the struggle against the English, in spite of having translated the damn things himself; and the brilliant Molly Miller, in an article otherwise radiant with learning, sense and insight[1], just takes the historicity of the "siege" for granted; I suggest, with the greatest respect, that we relegate it to the world of legends.

To begin with, it only mentions persons known from other sources, which is suspicious in itself; and it mentions them in characters that are superficially similar, and yet, to closer attention, thoroughly contradictory to the data to be recovered from better sources.  Urien leads three other kings, Gwallawg, Rhydderch and Morcant: Rhydderch and Morcant are the Good and the Bad King in the legend of St. Kentigern, and Gwallawg is the Gwledig of Elemet in the historical Taliesin's poems - as if a gwledig would resign command of a major war to a mere teyrn such as the historical Urien!  As for Strathclyde, if - as I think likely - there is any history in the legend of Kentigern, then Morcant (Morken in the Latin life of the saint by Jocelyn of Furness) died before the young Rhydderch became king of Stratchlyde.  Rhydderch seems to have taken part in the battle of Armderydd, which is dateable to about 584, and by then he must already have been a king; he died in 616, 30 or more years later.  If these data are correct, he must have been quite young when he won the kingship; and by then Morken must have been already dead, since he died, according to the Life of St.Kentigern, before the Saint was driven into exile - from which Rhydderch recalled him.  On every account, the likelihood of Morken/Morcant fighting side by side with Rhydderch as confederate kings must rate at less than zero.  His traitorous role in the coalition is clearly the counterpart of his villainous role in the life of the Saint, and as I regard the latter as the earlier legend of the two – with probably at least one foot in history – I consider his role in the Siege of Metcaud derivative.

Besieging an evil invader in an island till ruin befalls citizens and enemies alike is an old feature of Celtic legend, found in particular in the Irish story of the siege of Conan's Tower, in which the Irish of Nemed's people assault the tower of their Fomoire enemies till both besiegers and besieged are overwhelmed by the sea.  But a considerably closer to the tale of Urien is that of Vortimer, who drove the English from Britain and besieged them in an island three times, until he was treacherously killed.  The island where he is supposed to have besieged them is said to be Thanet; but as we have seen that the connection of the legendary Hengist with Thanet depends on that of the historical St.Augustine, there is no particular need to believe that this identification is primitive.  On the other hand, Nennius does mention a definitely legendary island in connection with this legend, namely the supposed home of the Saxons, insula Oghgul.  No such island ever existed; and given the parallel of the siege of Conan's Tower, in which it was the native Irish who sailed to besiege their enemy, it does not seem unlikely that it was originally insula Oghgul that Vortimer besieged, until Thanet was intruded in Hengist's legend, and Hengist's whole legend into Vortigern's.

The moral of the story is clear - rather too clear for real life: the British could overwhelm the English as long as they kept united; disunity and jealousy had doomed them.  But the North Britain it depicts is one in which the class distinction between kings, very clear in the historical Taliesin, have already broken down, in which all kings are seen as equal and every attempt to fight the national enemy must take the form of a coalition between independent and proud British monarchs with no duties to one another or to higher authorities, in which, indeed, the impossibility of a gwledig like Gwallawg giving way to a teyrn like the historical Urien is not felt at all - not even to the extent that some story is concocted to explain it away.  In short, this account preserves no memory whatever of the Gildasian age; and that being the case, we can trust our instinctive reaction that the whole story of a coalition of four kings coming within an inch of victory and failing because the worst of them was jealous of the best, is not history but a fable with a moral.

No poem of Taliesin even hints that Urien ever took part in coalitions against the English, and in fact the only coalition he might possibly have joined - and it was not a success - was with one individual called Ulph - obviously a Teuton of some sort  - against the kingdom of Alclud (Strathclyde) - where both Morcant and Rhydderch reigned!  In point of fact, this suggests a reason for the rise of this legend: quite simply, to claim the poetic heritage of Taliesin and the enduring fame of Urien for an alliance with Strathclyde, against the English.  As for Urien, he was made the hero of the fable, quite simply, because he was known to have been a great king and a great warrior; and he was known to have been a great king and a great warrior because the songs of Taliesin made him so – and they had done it so well that even now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, their power can still be felt like a distant trumpet.  But neither Urien, nor any of the other three famous kings he is supposed to have led to the siege of Metcaud (Lindisfarne), can have done what they are said to have done: the contradictions are blatant; and for that matter, is it possible that Lindisfarne could have played such a part, when it did not become a place of any importance until St.Aidan - following Irish precedent - chose it to establish his monastery?

In fact, there are no less than four or five separate and incompatible legends of the hero's wars and death: one or two, as everyone knows, in the Arthurian cycle; one in the Llywarch Hen cycle, which, as N.J.A.Williams has pointed out[2], shows signs of having been as omnivorous in its time as the Arthurian; one, probably of Welsh origin, that made him the victim of two well-known heroes, Clytno Eidyn and Dyfynnwawl mab Mynedawc Eidyn[3]; and the one of decidedly northern (Strathclyde Welsh) origin, which made him the victim of the jealous Morgan as he was about to eliminate the English of the north from northern history altogether.  Through all this there run a thread of mythology, not clearly assigned to any particular legend, in which Urien becomes the lover of Modron or Matrona, an acknowledged goddess; Owain is the incarnation of her son Mabon or Apollo Maponos; and Urien himself is slain by Llovan Llawdyvro, who sounds suspiciously like the supreme Celtic pagan god Lleu Llawgyffes, at Aber Lleu, the river-mouth of Lleu.  Clearly, everyone had a different idea of who or what Urien was, what he did, and why he died.

Finally, there is the small matter of his death.  By the time of Dadolwch Urien, the old man was unable to pick up his weapons and fight, and was having to endure his own sons throwing hazel sticks at him.  Yet every legend of his death we have makes him a vigorous warrior at the height of his powers, either killed by known champions or murdered by stealth by a jealous rival.  And there are, as we have seen, no less than four.  The attempt to bring together the best-known two - his killing Morcanto destinante in Nennius, and his death at Llovan Llawdyfro's hand at Aber Lleu - by making Llovan the henchman of Morcant, and identifying the supposed river Lleu with a Northumbrian stream near Lindisfarne, falls apart for a number of reasons: first, it tries, without any evidence, to identify Llovan with the unnamed murderous cousin of the Llyvarch Hen poems; who, second, has little or nothing to do with the figure of Lleu, the divine avenger and supreme god - true, he is an avenger, but the tragic and unhallowed vengeance so well teased out of the Llywarch Hen poems by N.J.Williams is as far as possible from the splendid and glorious figure of celestial heroism I have shown Lleu to be[4]; and third, it ignores the existence of another version, in which Urien was killed by the historical figures Cynon mab Clytno Eidyn and Dyfynnwawl mab Mynedawc Eidyn.  This last fact is important because, by showing that (to quote Williams, who saw the importance of this): " would appear that as late as the fifteenth century [when the Peniarth text of the Triads was written down] the identity of the killers of Urien had not yet been definitely settled".  This removes any reason to try and harmonize the Morgan and Llovan stories (which, in point of fact, have nothing in common), since he only reason to try to harmonize the various “deaths of Urien” was if we had any reason to believe that a standard account of Urien's death existed, and that what we have are either variants or fragments; but what Williams has shown (though, alas, he does not seem to have seen the full implications of his argument) is that no such thing existed, and that any death legend could and did get attached to Urien.

Let us put it this way.  Wales knew a number of legend cycles and legendary figures: the Arthurian cycle, the Llywarch Hen cycle, the legends of the Gododdin and the other Men of the North, and a number of stories connected with recognizable pagan gods and heroes (such as the Mabinogi).  Urien has a death-story connected with a god, Lleu.  He has two death-stories connected with the men of the North, that of Morcant at isle of Metcaud, and that of Cynon mab Clytno Eidyn and Dyfynnwawl mab Mynedawc Eidyn.  He has one death story in the Llywarch Hen cycle.  He has at least two death stories connected with the Arthurian cycle - either as a hermit, or at the last battle, Camelot[5].  (Some Arthurian texts also connect him with the great dynasty of the Grail, a most Arthurian concern.)  In other words: every legend cycle worth speaking of has appropriated Urien; and every death story of Urien we have relates to the concerns of the cycle itself - i.e. is most likely to be mythological.

This is scarcely novel.  In the Arthurian cycle we even have a mythological story applied to two quite different, unrelated and uncontemporaneous historical heroes: the tale of marriage gone wrong and heroic resolve attributed on the continent to Erec (that is Waroch, the sixth-century founder of one of the Breton kingdoms in Armorica) and in Wales to Geraint ap Erbin, king of Devon (died in battle, 711).  I do not think that the fact that Geraint was commemorated in a contemporary praise poem - which also calls Geraint's troops "soldiers of the Emperor Arthur" - is unrelated to this.  My view is simple: praise poems for historical figures outlive the memory of their deeds (in so far as they are historical, that is, in so far as they are true), so that at some point in history the bards of Wales, Strathclyde and Brittany find themselves with a heritage of great songs in praise of people of whom, apart from the poems, they knew nothing: and they applied to them some of a store of traditional plots and story ideas.  We have seen that Celtic authors were not shy of applying to historical figures such as Vitalinus/Vortigern, Germanus of Auxerre and Patrick one of a certain amount of stock plots.  The difference between the use of Vitalinus, Germanus and Patrick and that of Geraint and Waroch is that while the reason for the use of a particular interpretative legend in the former's case is obvious, it is not terribly clear why the story of Enid's troubled marriage should have been attached to either of the latter.  But there is no reason to doubt that pre-existing stories could be deliberately attached to the names of great heroes of the past.

If we had the sense to go purely by Taliesin's own poems, we would regard Urien as a big, brave northern raider who fought battles as far as Catterick and Ayr (Aeron) and led an unsuccessful assault against Strathclyde, but who, on the other hand, managed to repel any assault aimed at his own territory of Rheged, and inflicted a notably bloody nose to the king of a stronger territory - Fflammddwyn, lord of Lloegr - who had demanded tokens of submission which the independent-minded and swaggering Urien and his equally bloody-minded son Owain were not minded to give.  They seem to have clashed more than once, and the matter was apparently settled when Owain killed Fflammddwyn in battle and destroyed his host.  By this time, Urien was probably old and unable to fight for himself, and his sons showed him no respect.  A hero by the name Owain is subsequently mentioned among the heroic retinue of the great king Gwallawg, which may mean that he had found it either politic or unavoidable to submit to the army and fleet of the powerful gwledig of Elmet; Owain then died - probably not in battle, and probably still quite young - and the last we hear of it is Taliesin's prayer that God should take care of his soul.

Only one of the nine poems dedicated to praising Urien and Owain has anything to do with fighting the English, and what it describes is no more than a raid.  Elsewhere there is an unclear mention in Rheged arise in which the English seem to appear - under someone called Ulph - as Urien's own allies in the unsuccessful raid on Strathclyde, where they apparently rescue the army of Rheged from complete destruction.  A brief mention of Fflammddwyn protecting them manages, extraordinarily, to metamorphosize into a description of Fflammddwyn himself as an Englishman in every scholar I have read.  To be fair, Fflammddwyn is the lord of Lloegr, which in later Welsh certainly is the name for England; but there is nothing in the poem itself to demonstrate that this obviously originally Welsh name had already been transferred to the territory of the Saxons.  Indeed, the impression that Taliesin's words leave on me is that Urien has made Fflammddwyn's "protection" of the English a casus belli against this lord, who - by one of those enchanting coincidences that lend so much point to the old gibe about patriotism being the last refuge of a scoundrel - also clearly had a claim for hostages and tribute over Urien himself.  How pleasant and useful that Urien should be able to claim that his probably legitimate overlord had disgraced himself by protecting the English!

In the same sprit, it is only in this poem that Taliesin's Owain makes any claim to noble descent; a generic claim on the distant and prestigious Coel, ancestor of everyone with claim to Gododdin blood.  This claim gave pedigree writers trouble.  Molly Miller makes some deadly observations: "The pedigree of Urien stands apart...[the evidence suggests] that he was made king by the warband [that is, that he was in no sense born from noble ancestors such as Coel]... Urien's immediate ancestors do nothing but acquire the epithets of ragged, lean and dismal" - which strongly suggests that he was understood to be from very inferior forebears, later artificially connected with the majestic lineages of Coel and Cunedda.  It is significant that never, in all his oceans of praise, does the historical Taliesin say a word about the forebears of Urien and Owain, except here; whereas he is full of appreciation for the royal forebears of Cynan Gawryn of Powys and for the father of his other maecenas, Gwallawg son of Lleenawg.  This strongly suggests that Urien was a nobody who had carved his way to a lordship.  The point of it being Owain - rather than his father - who publicly claims Coeling descent (there must have been a few stifled gasps among his own followers, and open laughter in the enemy ranks), is that by the time this happened, Urien had adult sons - not one, but many - capable of fighting, and, according to Taliesin, of fighting well: in other words, his succession, however he had established his throne, was assured.  Now the issue became one of claiming equal rank with the other lords of the area; and that was done by a rather fantastic claim of Coeling lineage.

We have seen what Gildasian Britain thought of jumped-up nobodies carving their way through the world with fire and sword; and Urien clearly was one such.  In which case, there are exactly two chances that the rank-conscious lords of the Welsh would ever have accepted him as supreme commander in a war against the English: fat and slim.  If there is one great patriotic deed which he may quite possibly be ascribed, it is not the mythical siege of Lindisfarne, but the expulsion or submission of the west Wigtownshire Irish.  If we do not believe in the myth of Urien as national war-leader fighting the English all over north Britain, then there is no particular reason to place Rheged - as people still try to do - in the area of Carlisle, or even of Rochdale; and that being the case, the claim for the area around Dunragit - obviously Dun Reged, the fortress-capital of Rheged, like Dumbarton is the fortress-capital of the Britons (of Strathclyde) and Dunkeld of the Caledonians - becomes irresistible.  Archaeology tells us that this area was, until well into the sixth century, settled by a small but solid Irish community that left a considerable amount of Gaelic place-names and even one recognizably Irish monastic enclosure.  This little settlement vanished without leaving written trace.  Within a few decades at most, we find Rheged ran by a Welsh-speaking warrior chieftain with no illustrious antecedents and every sign of having fought his way up from nowhere, already ageing and even white-haired, though still vigorous, when the great poet who was to make his name immortal made his way to him.

Two and two have a habit of making four, when there is no extra digit to confuse the calculations: thus, while we cannot be sure that Urien had first made his reputation and his fortune by destroying the independence of the Galloway Irish, it certainly seems less unlikely than the evident legends still peddled as history in respectable textbooks under the dominant idea that, just because the English conquest appears to us today as the chief event of later sixth-century British history, therefore it must have left a correspondingly large mark on contemporary documents and correspondingly dominated contemporary minds.  Facts deny the first theory; and the notion that the arrival of the barbarians meant more to a cateran like Urien than, say, his determination not to submit to Strathclyde or "Lloegr" - wherever that was - overlordship, simply seems to me to ignore everything we know about brave bandits of his kind.


[1]BBCS 26 (1975) 255-280

[2]Llywarch Hen and the Finn Cycle, in Aestudiaethau ar yr Hengerdd, ed. Rachel Bromwich, Cardiff 1979.

[3]BROMWICH, Trioedd, Triad 70.

[4]BARBIERI, Indiges op.cit., passim

[5]CARLOS ALVAR: Dizionario del ciclo di re Artý (Italian translation from Spanish), Milan 1998, s.v. Urien, 296.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright © 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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