Monday, November 8, 2010

Urien of Rheged

In the search for the historical Arthur, there are at least twenty candidates various scholars have put forward. My own favorite doesn’t even have Arthur’s name. It’s Urien of Rheged.

For those of you who have read bits of my Arthurian trilogy, the name should sound familiar. Urien of Rhyged is the father of my heroine, and the antagonist in The Black Crown. His plotting leads to Arthur’s final battle.

You’ll notice I changed his name slightly – the historical Rheged became Rhyged. Mostly that was to give myself a bit more poetic license.

So who was the historic Urien and why did I pick him as a possible Arthur candidate?

Well, my first clue came from Gildas. Yes, that Gildas. In De Excidio Britanniae (On the Fall/Ruin of Britain), the source of invasions is the north. In other words, the invaders during that period are the Picts and the Scoti (Irish).

All right, I’ll acknowledge he does mention foreign “dogs” being brought into Britain in the east and rebelling against their British hosts.) But the big military threat comes across Hadrian’s Wall.

This is bolstered by the archaelogical evidence. During the fifth and sixth centuries, the abandoned Roman forts along Hadrian’s Wall were restored and reinforced. People were obviously trying to stop something from coming down from the north.

According to legend, Urien was the king of Rheged, one of the numerous late Celtic kingdoms that sprung up after the Roman armies withdrew from Britain. Rheged stretched down the eastern side of England from Hadrian’s Wall (and possibly further north) to Chester. That made it one of the largest kingdoms in the land.

Dating puts Urien in the 6th century – post Battle of Badon (and post-Gildas, as well.) But the parallels with Arthur are striking.
  • Urien is credited with fighting off the invaders from the North in a series of battles. He is supposed to have defeated the Angles, as well.
  • He united several kingdoms and possibly became “High King”.
  • He was married to a Morgan, who in later legends becomes Morgan La Fey.  
  • The famous poet Taliesin was his bard (later, Arthurian legend made Taliesin Arthur’s bard).
  • His capital was at present-day Carlisle, which has gone through at least four name changes. One of its names was Carduel, which the twelfth century poet Chrétian de Troyes, in his early works, called Arthur’s “seat”, until he later invented Camelot.
  • Depending on which version of Urien’s story you consult, he was either killed by his own son or by a retainer named “Morcant”.
A lot of the pieces fit. “Aha!” I thought. “Maybe I’ve found the inspiration for Arthur.”

Then I started picking the facts apart. To be continued…


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