Some of the characters from the Arthurian legends can be identified as definitely historical figures. One of Arthur’s most famous knights, Sir Uriens of Gorre, is one of them. Let us take a look at some of the historical facts about this character, as well as the way he is presented in the legends.
The Historical Person
Scholars widely recognise Urien as having been a real person because he appears in a number of early sources, such as poems that seem to be contemporary and also the Historia Brittonum. The description of Urien in the latter source is the clearest and most straightforward. In a section dealing with the post-Arthurian period, the writer describes several wars that took place between the Britons and the Saxons.
In these wars, Urien appears to have been the supreme British king – or, at the very least, one of the most powerful kings at that time. He is described as fighting against the Saxon kings Theodoric and Hussa.
When He Lived
This information, along with some other details contained in the Historia Brittonum, help us to securely fix Urien in time. This source lists the kings who succeeded the Anglian king Ida in the kingdom of Bernicia, as well as how long their reigns lasted. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states when Ida’s reign began, so combining that information, we know when Theodoric and then Hussa were reigning.
Therefore, the historical information testifies to Urien being active in battle in the 570s (against Theodoric, who reigned from 572 to 579) and some time between 585 and 592 (when Hussa was king). However, he cannot have been particularly young at the start of these wars, for he is described as having a son, Owain, who also fought against Theodoric (and obviously Owain must have been an adult at the time). So if we go back 20 years from Theodoric’s reign to get to the latest possible birth for Owain, then that brings us to the 550s. If Owain was born then or earlier, then Urien must have been born at least 20 years earlier still. This brings us to the 530s at the latest for Urien’s birth. But he could easily have been born somewhat earlier than that.
So we can see that Urien was a mid- to late-sixth century king. This is interesting, because it means that he may not actually have been able to have been one of Arthur’s allied kings. At best, he could have been about 20 years old when Arthur died according to the traditional dates (which place Arthur’s demise in c. 540). Or, according to the revised dates of many modern scholars, who push back the Arthurian dates by about 20 years, it could easily have been the case that Urien was not even born by the time Arthur died.
This means one of two things. It could mean that the legendary association of Arthur with Urien is completely fictional. Or, alternatively, it could mean that Arthur himself actually lived later than is commonly believed. This second possibility would tie in better with the evidence that the Arthurian enemy Cheldric was based on Cerdic of Wessex (see the article ‘Cerdic of Wessex’).
However, the conclusion that is most commonly reached by most scholars is simply that the association between Arthur and Urien is fictional, probably arising due to writers wanting to connect Arthur with other famous characters from that general period.
So, apart from when he lived, what else do we know about the historical Urien?
As is indicated by the fact that he fought against Anglian kings from the northern kingdom of Bernicia, Urien was based in the north of Britain. The exact extent of his kingdom is unknown, but the name of it was ‘Rheged’, possibly derived from ‘Brigantes’, the name of the tribe that lived in that same area in pre-Roman and Roman times (however, some scholars question whether Rheged was actually the name of the kingdom or whether it was just one area within it).
Using the information available, it is generally believed that the southernmost extent of his kingdom reached no further than north Wales, around where Cheshire is today. The northern extent is unclear. The later legendary material (such as the Historia Regum Britanniae) makes him the king of regions as far north as the Orkneys. However, in the earlier and more reliable Welsh material (such as the poems mentioned earlier), there is no indication that his dominion extended that far.
It seems likely that his kingdom did not encroach much on Pictish territory in Scotland, certainly not going beyond or probably even as far as the Antonine Wall. In fact, it most likely did not extend much further north than Hadrian’s Wall. Nonetheless, it can be seen that Rheged was certainly a very sizable kingdom, one of the largest of all the kingdoms of Britain at that time.
However, it should be noted that it did not cover the entirety of that section of Britain, from north Wales to somewhat beyond Hadrian’s Wall. It only covered the western side of that section of the country. The Anglian kingdom of Bernicia covered much of the eastern half of northern England. This being so, it was one of Rheged’s closest neighbours, so it is no surprise that the two kingdoms clashed swords on a number of occasions.
Two of the poems by Taliesin make mention of a place called Llwyfenydd, which is generally held to be the area of the River Lyvennet in Cumbria. The poems mentioning this location make it clear that this was Urien’s place of residence.
In view of the aforementioned evidence about Urien being sufficiently well along in years that he already had an adult son by the time he fought against Theodoric, it is interesting that there is no information at all about what events took place during his reign before the time of that war. At least, this is the case if we reject his being a contemporary of Arthur (and therefore reject all the stories about his activities during Arthur’s reign).
So, after several years of ruling about which we know nothing apart from what is recorded in connection with Arthur, he and his son Owain battled against Theodoric the king of Bernicia. The accounts do not state plainly who started the conflict or give much detail about it at all.
However, a Welsh poem makes it appear that Urien left his son Owain in general command of the fighting. This was written by Taliesin, seemingly the bard of Urien and Owain (and also the bard of King Arthur, according to some records). In this poem, a conflict between Owain and an enemy named ‘Fflamddwyn’ (Firebrand) is described. Fflamddwyn is generally identified as Theodoric. In the poem, he demands hostages from Owain, but Owain refuses. The fact that it is Owain, and not Urien himself, who addresses their enemy’s demand is what indicates that Urien gave general oversight to his son on this occasion.
In any case, the Historia Brittonum informs us that Urien’s forces pushed Theodoric and his army to Lindisfarne, where they then besieged them. According to Taliesin’s poem, Owain ended up killing Fflamddwyn, thus ending the war between Urien and Theodoric (if the identification of Fflamddwyn with Theodoric is correct).
Although not mentioned in the Historia Brittonum, there is a record in another Welsh poem of a battle known as the Battle of Alclud Ford. This was fought against the Anglian king ‘Ulf’ (or ‘Ulph’). He is identified by some scholars as the king known from other records as Frithuwald (also spelt ‘Frithuwolf’ and ‘Freothulf’, with the ‘Ulf’ of the Welsh poem evidently coming from the final part of this name).
Frithuwald was the king who reigned between Theodoric and Hussa, from c. 585 to c. 592. Later, during the reign of his successor Hussa, Urien again fought a campaign against the foreigners. No details are recorded concerning this battle, not even who the victor was. However, it is interesting to note the fact that Urien fought against Theodoric, Frithuwald and Hussa, three successive kings. This indicates that there was virtually constant conflict between Urien’s kingdom of Rheged and the neighbouring Anglian kingdom of Bernicia.
The death of Urien was an event so notable that it is singled out in the Historia Brittonum. This powerful king had allied himself with several other northern kings to wage war against the Angles. While engaging in battle against them (probably against Hussa, the latest king mentioned), he was assassinated by a ruler named Morcant, known in later records as Morgan Bwlch. While he was the one who arranged for Urien’s death, the man who actually killed him was named Llofan Llaw Ddifro.
According to the records, Morgan had Urien killed because he was jealous of that great king’s power. This assassination was such a notable and famous event that it came to be included in the Welsh Triads as one of the Three Unfortunate Assassinations of the Island of Britain. Evidently Urien was a king who was loved and respected by most.
The family of Urien was a very prestigious one. This is not surprising, given how powerful his kingdom was. His father was a man named Cynfarch Oer, a descendant of the famed Coel Hen (the ancestor of many of the royal families of the north of Britain). However, nothing really is known of Cynfarch other than his place in the genealogies.
Urien’s brothers are far more prominent in the records than his father. These brothers were Llew and Arawn. The name of Llew is spelt ‘Lot’ in the Historia Regum Britanniae, and he is best known as King Lot of Lothian. Lothian was a kingdom in southern Scotland and northern England. Presumably this had formerly been part of the kingdom of their father Cynfarch, but the kingdom was then divided between the three sons, with Urien apparently receiving the largest portion (or perhaps he expanded it through conquest during his reign).
Llew, or Lot, was allegedly the father of Mordred (if we accept Mordred as a real person). This makes Urien the paternal uncle of the man who betrayed Arthur. Yet, Lot and Urien, along with their brother Arawn, were all allies of Arthur (according to the legends, which it should be remembered do not work according to the chronology of most modern scholars).
Not very much is known about Urien’s brother Arawn other than his supposed alliance with Arthur. His territory was apparently made up of the area immediately north of Urien’s kingdom.
The wife of Urien is particularly notable in the surviving sources; she is far more than just a name in the records, unlike many wives of this era. Although there are no references to her that could be termed ‘historical’ (such as in a record like the Historia Brittonum), she appears in Welsh tales and legendary material.
Her name was Modron. She is the equivalent of the famous Morgan le Fey in the Arthurian romances (except the Welsh Modron is never described as a relative of Arthur). She appears in the Welsh Triads, where her children by Urien are mentioned: Owain and Morfudd. There is an actual story in which the meeting of Modron and Urien is described. Supposedly, Urien met her one day by a ford in Denbighshire. After they have relations, she states that she had been condemned to stay at that ford until she had conceived a son with a Christian. Urien returns at the end of the year and finds his two children.
Regarding Urien’s children, Owain was his eldest son. Thus, he was the one who succeeded him in his kingdom. However, he was immediately beset with troubles. After just a short reign, he was killed by Morgan Bwlch, the same king who had assassinated his father Urien.
As regards Urien’s daughter Morfudd, she appears as one of Arthur’s allies in the early Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, indicating in this Welsh source a potential alliance between Arthur and Urien (although Urien himself does not appear in this tale). However, besides this, not a great deal is known about her.
After Owain, Urien had at least four other sons:
Not much is known about most of these sons, but at least one of them was active in battle along with Owain and their father Urien, since the Historia Brittonum mentions that the Anglian king Theodoric fought against Urien ‘and his sons’, meaning that a son other than just Owain had to have been involved as well.
According to the available records, Rhun chose to pursue a religious life rather than one of rulership. He is mentioned in the Annales Cambriae as the bishop who baptised Edwin king of Deira. This same event is also mentioned in the Historia Brittonum. In fact, Rhun is mentioned two other times in that same source.
According to one manuscript version of the Historia Brittonum, it was Rhun himself who wrote the document. This is not possible, due to chronological reasons, but this fact along with the others just mentioned demonstrates that Rhun was apparently quite prominent as a religious leader (although this fame seems to have died down in later centuries).
So, one of Urien’s sons became a mighty warrior and succeeded him as king, while another son became a prominent religious leader.
Not much is known about Urien’s other children. The kingdom of Rheged ceased from being an effective power after the death of Owain, so apparently none of the sons took up the leadership of the kingdom – or at least, if they did, they did not rule with much power.
In the Legends
Urien is a prominent character in the legends of King Arthur. As we have already discussed, the probable lifespan of Urien as determined by the information in the Historia Brittonum does not really allow for him to have been a contemporary of Arthur, unless the dates assigned to Arthur by most modern scholars are too early by several decades. Nonetheless, let us examine what the legends claim about Urien with respect to Arthur, without too much concern for the historical accuracy.
Urien first appears as one of Arthur’s allied kings in the 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae (however, as noted previously, his daughter was shown to be an ally of Arthur in an earlier Welsh tale). He is shown as being particularly close to Arthur’s family, with his brother Lot actually marrying Arthur’s sister.
Near the start of Arthur’s continental campaigns, there is an episode involving Urien’s brother being dispossessed of his kingdom. Arthur aids him in reclaiming the throne. Bizarrely, the kingdom that was said to be Lot’s was the kingdom of Norway. There is no historical connection between Norway and Urien’s family in the post-Roman era. In reality, it is almost certain that this comes from a mistranslation of the Welsh word ‘Llychlyn’, which was sometimes used for Scotland and sometimes used for Scandinavia.
Urien’s son Owain does not appear until close to the end of the Arthurian portion of the HRB. Here, he is shown as succeeding, not his father Urien, but his uncle Arawn (spelt ‘Augusel’ by Geoffrey of Monmouth) after he was killed in the fighting leading up to the Battle of Camlann. Urien himself is also shown to be present in that war, though nothing of note is recorded about him there.
In later sources, such as the Vulgate Merlin from the 13th century, Urien’s connection with Arthur is more complicated. When the young Arthur is crowned king, Urien takes objection to that, along with several other kings. They actually head out into battle against their newly crowned overlord. This civil war was eventually suppressed, with Merlin’s help, and Arthur regained control of the whole country. Urien then subjected himself to Arthur and became one of his most powerful knights. Specifically, Urien joined the order of the Knights of the Round Table after he proved himself valiant in battle when a coalition of kings invaded the Humber.
In these legends, Urien’s wife Modron does not appear, but her equivalent character does: Morgan le Fey. She was an enchantress and alternates between being fully good, ambiguous, or fully evil in the legends. In one popular version of the legend (such as in Le Morte d’Arthur), she attempts to kill King Arthur while on an expedition. After that fails, she attempts to kill her husband Urien in his sleep. However, their son Owain (spelt ‘Ywaine’, ‘Ywain’ and other variations in the legends) manages to stop her.
This event appears to have caused a permanent rift in the marriage of Urien and Morgan. Soon after this, she left the royal court and never returned.
Urien’s kingdom does not have the name ‘Rheged’ in the legends. Rather, it is known as ‘Gore’ (there are many different spellings of this across the different sources). This is apparently derived from the French ‘voire’, meaning ‘glass’. The origin of this name for Urien’s kingdom is found in the Arthurian place name ‘Inis Witrin’, meaning ‘Isle of Glass’. This is a prominent location in the territory of Melwas in earlier tales, who appears as Urien’s foe Meleagant in the later romances. Urien took over this territory, thus becoming ‘Urien of Gore’ – or in other words, Urien of Inis Witrin.
There are other theories that connect the name of Urien’s kingdom with ‘Gower’ in south Wales, but the derivation from ‘voire’ with the meaning of ‘glass’ is quite clear from the development of the records that mention the place. Nonetheless, there are strong traditions that Urien went to the Gower in south Wales and fought the Irish there.
Perhaps this could have taken place when Urien was said to have first become one of Arthur’s allies. Since Caerleon is presented as Arthur’s main court in the HRB and other records, and since the Gower is not far at all from Caerleon, it is conceivable that Urien ended up residing in the Gower for a while during the time he first joined Arthur’s forces.
An alternative possibility is that this tradition of Urien dwelling in south Wales for a time is simply based on a case of mistaken identity. The Life of St Cadoc makes mention of a king named Gwrgan living in Glamorgan in the sixth century. This name, ‘Gwrgan’, could conceivably have evolved into a name that was confused for ‘Urien’ over the centuries, since it was common for an initial ‘G’ before a ‘w’ to be dropped. This would leave ‘Wrgan’, which is quite similar to how Urien’s name is spelt in some older records (such as ‘Urbgen’). So perhaps the Urien of the Gower Peninsula in tradition was simply this Gwrgan from the Life of St Cadoc, and not the Urien from Rheged.
In summary, we can see that Urien was a historical figure of great importance to sixth century Britain. He was one of the most powerful kings of the era and definitely left his mark on the historical record. In many ways, he was quite similar to King Arthur. For example, he fought powerfully against the Anglo-Saxons for many years. He died by being betrayed by a fellow Briton. And then, after that, his kingdom never really recovered. He even, supposedly, was served by the same bard that Arthur was served by before him.
Whether there ever was any interaction, much less an alliance, between Arthur and Urien is something that we can only know if more contemporary evidence is discovered. Until then, the opinion of most scholars is that this famous Arthurian character has nothing more than a completely fictitious connection to the legendary king.