Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Urien

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URIEN (fl. 570), British prince, is first mentioned in the tract known as the ‘Saxon Genealogies’ which is appended to the ‘Historia Britonum’ of Nennius in four manuscripts of that work, and is believed to have been written about 690. According to this, ‘Urbgen’ (the old Welsh form of what still earlier was ‘Urbigena’—see Rhys, Arthurian Legend, p. 242) was one of four British chieftains who fought (about 570?) against ‘Hussa,’ king of the Angles of Northumbria. He and his sons also waged war, with varying fortune, against Theodric of the same region. At last he was slain during an expedition which had shut up the English host in the isle of ‘Medcaut’ (probably Lindisfarne), at the instigation of a rival prince ‘Morcant,’ who was jealous of his military fame (Nennius, ed. Mommsen, p. 206). It is in favour of the trustworthiness of this account that the writer of the ‘Genealogies’ appears to have had a special interest in the family of Urien. The tenth-century genealogist of Harl. MS. 3859 makes Urien, conformably to Welsh tradition, the son of Cynfarch ap Meirchion (Cymrodor, ix. 173).

Like most of the men who took part in the early conflicts with the English, Urien became a hero of British tradition, and so shadowy is the part he and his family play in the mediæval poems and romances that Professor Rhys inclines to the view that the historical ‘Urbigena’ and a mythological ‘Urogenos’ have united to furnish the traits of the later ‘Urien’ (Arthurian Legend, pp. 242–3). In the ‘Triads’ he appears as one of the three ‘battle bulls’ of the isle of Britain (Myvyrian Archaiology, 1st ser. No. 12; Skene, Four Ancient Books, ii. 456); his death at the hands of Llofan Llaw Ddifro was one of the three atrocious killings of the islands (1st ser. No. 38; Four Ancient Books, ii. 462; Red Book of Hergest, i. 303). Of the poems printed by Skene in the ‘Four Ancient Books of Wales,’ eight from the ‘Book of Taliesin’ (ii. 183–93, 195–6) and two from the ‘Red Book of Hergest’ (ii. 267–73, 291–3) deal with the fortunes of Urien, who is variously described as ‘Lord of Rheged,’ ‘Lord of the evening’ (echwydd), ‘Ruler of Llwyfenydd’ (Lennox), ‘Prince of Catraeth,’ ‘Golden ruler of the North,’ and ‘Head of Scotland’ (Prydain). The poems thus agree with the ‘Saxon Genealogies’ in making Urien a powerful chieftain of the Northern Britons, and the statement of one of them that he was killed at ‘Aber Lleu’ (Skene, ii. 270) may be trustworthy, if the mouth of the river Low, opposite Lindisfarne, once bore that name (Stuart Glennie, Arthurian Localities, 1869).

The name ‘Urbgen’ was borrowed by Geoffrey of Monmouth for his ‘Urbgennius de Badone’ (x. 6, 9; cf. also ix. 12). But the real representative of Urien in his pages is ‘Urianus rex Murefensium,’ one of three brothers in the north to whom Arthur gave Scotia, the Lothians, and Moray respectively (ix. 9, 12). The latter district, which was Urien's share, is made in another passage to include Loch Lomond (ix. 6). From the narrative of Geoffrey, Urien passed into the realm of Arthurian romance, and finally appears in ‘Malory’ as King Vryens of the land of Goire, who married Morgan le Fay, Arthur's sister, and narrowly escaped being murdered by his wife. Glamorganshire antiquarians took ‘Goire’ to be Gower, and accordingly represent Urien as the means of driving out the Irish from the region between the Towy and the Tawy, which he thereupon received as a gift (anrheg) under the name of Rheged (Iolo MSS. 70–1, 78, 86). But the real situation of Rheged remains unknown.

[Skene's Four Ancient Books of Wales; Rhys's Arthurian Legend; Zimmer's Nennius Vindicatus, p. 95.]

J. E. L.