Owain map Urien (Owain son of Urien) was a warrior-hero of the royal house of Rheged in the late sixth century. He appears in some of the poetry attributed to Taliesin, and later became a hero of medieval Arthurian romance. What can we say about him?
Although his father Urien (Urbgen) is mentioned in Historia Brittonum, there is no mention of Owain in Historia Brittonum or Annales Cambriae. More surprisingly, he also makes no appearance in the Harleian or Gwyr y Gogledd genealogies, which terminate with Urien as the last generation. Owain son of Urien is known from poetry, mainly the group of poems attributed to Taliesin and preserved in a medieval Welsh manuscript, from the Triads, a collection of aides-memoires for poets and storytellers also preserved in medieval Welsh manuscripts, and from the legends surrounding the conception and birth of St Kentigern.
The Harleian genealogy for Urien terminates with Urien and does not list any offspring
[U]rbgen map Cinmarc map Merchianum map Gurgust map Coilhen
--Harleian Genealogies, available online
The Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd genealogies (Descent of the Men of the North) contain a very similar genealogy, also terminating at Urien
Vryen uab Kynuarch m Meirchavn m Gorust Letlvm m Keneu m Coel
--Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd, available online
In the Bonedd Y Seint genealogies (Descent of the Saints), Owain appears as the father of St Kentigern
Kyndeyrn m. Garthwys, m. Owein, m. Vryen, a Denw, verch Lewdwn Lwydawc o Dinas Eidin yn y gogled, y vam.
--Bonedd y Seint 17, available online
The Peniarth manuscript triad mentioned below refers to “Cyndeyrn Garthwys the chief bishop”, suggesting that Garthwys is an epithet or nickname, so this would translate roughly as ‘Kyndeyrn Garthwys, son of Owein son of Urien, by Denw daughter of Lewdwn.’
The Death-Song of Owain
The soul of Owain, son of Urien […]There will not be found a match for the chief of the glittering west[…]When Flamdwyn killed Owain, there was not one greater than he sleepingA wide number of Lloegyr went to sleep with light in their eyes[…]Owain valiantly chastised them, like a pack of wolves pursuing sheep
--Book of Talieisin 44, available online
Translations vary; an alternative translation has Owain slaying Flamdwyn ‘When Owain slew Flamdwyn it was no more to him than to sleep’. Either version is compatible with the subject matter of the poem. If Flamdwyn killed Owain it could be a description of the circumstances of Owain’s death, if Owain killed Flamdwyn it could be a description of a famous earlier deed performed by Owain before he died. It could even be both, if they killed each other in a cataclysmic battle.
The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain
[…]Flamdwyn called out again, of great impetuosityWill they give hostages? are they ready?Owain answered, Let the gashing appearThey will not give, they are not readyAnd Ceneu, son of Coel, would be an irritated lionBefore he would give a hostage to anyone[…]
--Book of Taliesin 35, available online
Again, translations vary; the phrase ‘Ceneu son of Coel’ has been translated as ‘a whelp of Coel’, i.e. a descendant of Coel’s line. For more information on Coel, founder figure of a number of royal genealogies, see post on Coel Hen.
Three Fair Princes of the Island of BritainOwain son of Urien, Rhun son of Maelgwn, Rhufawn the Radiant son of Dewrarth Wledig.
--Red Book of Hergest, available online
Three Tribal Thrones of the Island of BritainArthur the chief lord in Penrionyd in the north, and Cyndeyrn Garthwys the chief bishop, and Gurthmwl Guledic the chief elder.
Peniarth manuscript 54, available online
The story of King Urien and Modron tells how Urien Rheged came to a ford haunted by a mysterious supernatural force that made all the locals fear to approach it. There he found a woman washing cloaks, and lay with her. Afterwards she blessed him and told him
“I have been fated to wash here until I should conceive a son by a Christian. And I am daughter to the King of Annwfn, and come thou here at the end of the year and then thou shalt receive that boy." And so he came and he received there a boy and a girl: that is, Owein son of Urien and Morfudd daughter of Urien.
--King Urien and Modron, available online
Owain appears as the hero of the medieval Welsh romance The Lady of the Fountain, and as an antagonist of Arthur in the medieval Welsh tale The Dream of Rhonabwy, both in The Mabinogion.
Life of St Kentigern
A Life of St Kentigern, now surviving only in part, was commissioned in the twelfth century by Herbert, Bishop of Glasgow. It names Owain son of Urien as Kentigern’s father and recounts a legend in which Kentigern is conceived as a result of the seduction of Kentigern’s mother Denw (also spelled Taniu, Teneu, Thaney, and many other variations), daughter of the King of Lothian, by Owain map Urien. For a summary, see Whiddon Green, 1998 (Part 2). A longer and slightly later Life of St Kentigern written by the twelfth-century monk Jocelyn of Furness recounts a clearly related tale about Kentigern’s birth (with much tut-tutting about fantastical fables), but does not mention the name of Kentigern’s father (translation available online).
Owain is clearly portrayed in the poetry as a warrior-hero, fighting and winning battles.
The phrases 'chief of Rheged' and ‘chieftain of the glittering west’ in The Death-Song of Owain are also consistent with Owain having been a king in his own right. They may indicate that he was a sub-ruler of part of Rheged (the lovely phrase ‘the glittering west’ immediately calls to mind the Lake District, or the coastlands of Cumbria and/or Galloway, although this is pure speculation on my part and I do not know how reliable the translation is), or that he succeeded his father Urien as king of Rheged, or both.
The fact that poetry survives about him suggests that he was of sufficient status to support a bard. His presence in the medieval romances and the Triads suggests that there were more poems and stories about him that have not survived, which in turn suggests that he was considered an important figure and a worthy hero to tell stories about. (I should perhaps add the obvious if unromantic caveat here that it is possible that the romances were drawing on poems and stories that were originally about several different figures called Owain, and were only later aggregated around a single character).
It is not known how long Owain’s career lasted. If he was fighting Flamdwyn when his father Urien was alive, and was himself killed by the same Flamdwyn, that may be a tenuous indication that he did not long outlive his father.
The poetry is clear that Owain was a son of Urien, who was King of Rheged some time in the second half of the sixth century (more about Urien and Rheged in later posts).
The story that Owain’s mother was Modron, the daughter of the King of Annwfn (Annwfn is the Welsh name for the Otherworld), may be no more than a late legend, invented after Owain had become a key figure of Arthurian tales to provide a supernatural origin suitable for a legendary hero. There may also be a possibility that it could have slightly more prosaic roots, perhaps indicating that Owain’s mother was thought to be non-Christian. At least some of the Picts were non-Christian at the time of St Columba’s visit to King Bridei in the 560s, approximately contemporary with Urien, and the early English kings and aristocrats converted by St Augustine’s Roman missionaries in and after 597 AD were (presumably) non-Christian prior to that. Possibly there were high-status non-Christians in other kingdoms too. It may be that Urien married a non-Christian lady, perhaps as part of a dynastic alliance, and that this was later developed into a supernatural liaison long after all other details had been forgotten. This is pure speculation on my part.
The Life of St Kentigern commissioned by Bishop Herbert dates from the twelfth century, over half a millennium after the events, so should be treated with caution. It is possible that the story was invented wholesale to provide St Kentigern with a royal parentage and suitably exotic conception story, with Owain’s name simply borrowed out of the romances as a worthy hero to father an important saint. That said, a dynastic marriage between a prince of Rheged (in what is now south-western Scotland/north-western England) and a princess from the kingdom of Lothian in what is now south-eastern Scotland) is plausible, and the date of Kentigern’s death in Annales Cambriae does not contradict the (limited!) evidence about the likely date range for Owain. So it is also possible that the story contains a kernel of truth. No other children of Owain son of Urien are mentioned in the surviving sources.
Owain’s father Urien is stated in Historia Brittonum to have fought against Theodric of Bernicia, one of the sons of Ida of Bernicia. Theodric’s reign is not precisely dated, but it falls somewhere between the end of Ida’s twelve-year reign (which, according to Bede, began in 547) in 559 and the twenty-four-year reign of Aethelferth of Bernicia that began in 593 (for a discussion on the dating, see my article ‘Origins of Northumbria: Two Aethelrics?’). So Theodric ruled some time between 559 and 593. As Urien is said to have fought against Theodric, it can be inferred that Urien was militarily active at some time in the same period, i.e. in the second half of the sixth century. Urien and Theodric need not have been exact contemporaries, of course; all that is needed for consistency with Historia Brittonum is that their reigns overlapped long enough for at least one battle.
As Urien’s son, Owain belongs to the next generation and therefore is likely to belong to a later period, perhaps in the last quarter of the sixth century. Urien and Owain are shown fighting together in The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain, indicating that their fighting careers overlapped.
Unfortunately, Owain’s and Urien’s adversary Flamdwyn cannot be certainly identified. The name Flamdwyn is a nickname, meaning something like ‘Firebrand’ or ‘Flamebearer’. The next line in Owain’s death song refers to ‘the men of Lloegyr’, and as Lloegyr is a common medieval Welsh name for the lands that became England, this is consistent with Flamdwyn as a leader of an English kingdom. The obvious candidate is Theodric of Bernicia, since Historia Brittonum explicitly says that he fought Urien, but it could be another king, either of Bernicia or of another kingdom.
Taniu and her father Lewdwn do not appear in Historia Brittonum, Annales Cambriae or genealogies other than Kentigern’s, so they do not add any independent dating evidence.
Annales Cambriae enters the death of Kentigern in 612. If Kentigern was really Owain’s son, this is also consistent with a date for Owain in the late sixth century.
For such an important figure in Arthurian legend, Owain map Urien is surprisingly poorly recorded in historical sources (though the same could be said of Arthur himself, so Owain is in illustrious company there). Taking the Taliesin poetry at face value, it seems reasonable to infer that Owain son of Urien was a warrior hero in the late sixth century, that he and his father fought at least one famous battle against a (probably) English warlord, and that Owain ruled at least part of Rheged, possibly only briefly. Whether he had a non-Christian mother, and whether he also entered into a liaison or marriage with a princess of Lothian and fathered a famous saint is open to interpretation, though there seems no obvious reason why these would be impossible.
Owain and Taniu's story is imagined in Kathleen Herbert’s novel Bride of the Spear (first published under the title Lady of the Fountain), based in part on the earlier Life of St Kentigern and The Lady of the Fountain. Trifolium Books UK plan to bring out a new edition of Bride of the Spear in June 2013. For more details, see the Trifolium Books blog.
Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd, available online
Bonedd y Seint, available online
Harleian genealogies, available online
Life of St Kentigern, by Jocelyn of Furness. Translated by C Whiddon Green, available online.
The Dream of Rhonabwy. In: The Mabinogion. Translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones. Everyman Classics, 1989. ISBN 0-460-15097-9
The Lady of the Fountain. In: The Mabinogion. Translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones. Everyman Classics, 1989. ISBN 0-460-15097-9.
Whiddon Green, C. Saint Kentigern, Apostle to Strathclyde: A critical analysis of a northern saint. 1998, available online.