These were three blessed womb-burdens of Britain, according to the triads.
Urien might mean “privileged” or “exalted” birth. There are no surviving legends about him as a youth. No prodigious feats. It would be surprising it such tales hadn’t existed at some point, but even if they had, that wouldn’t make them true.
Taliesin is the closest we can find to an eyewitness. The Book of Taliesin contains many poems which are unlikely to be the work of the historical Taliesin, but it contains twelve which might be. Of those, eight concern Urien, and one is an elegy for Owein, his son.
Taliesin describes a few battles – one at a place called Gwen Ystrad (the white strath) that could be anywhere, another at Catraeth, almost certainly Catterick, which Urien seems to have held for a time. In The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain, Taliesin tells how Urien and Owain refuse the demand for hostages, from the Angle leader, Fflamddwyn, giving battle and defeating him, instead. Flamddwyn, meaning “flame bearer” – probably known for burning the settlements of the Britons. “The hounds of Coel’s litter would be hard-pressed indeed before they’d hand over one man as a hostage,” asserts Owein, invoking his ancestor, Coel Hen. “I shall plan a whole year for my victory song,” boasts Taliesin, at the end of the story.
All this is something of a preamble. The final chapters of Urien’s life are not told by Taliesin. Nennius takes up the tale, briefly, to give us a more Saxon viewpoint –
Half a year ago, I made a little video about Taliesin – talking both about the story of Cerridwen and the shape-shifting episode, and also about the historical Taliesin and his relationship to Urien. Something got inside me when I was working on that. I needed to know more about Urien of Rheged. There were no books about him, but a great deal of tangled conjecture on the internet.
I started reading the scholarly material, most of which referred me back to the few written resources available. Nennius, Taliesin, the Welsh Triads, genealogies, and the Llywarch Hen poems. I was amused by the honest, self-deprecating remarks of different Celticists as they introduced their topics. The consensus: we don't know.
Increasingly, though, I knew I wanted to tell Urien’s story. Laugh, if you must, but sometimes I felt Urien looking over my shoulder, asking me to write it. But how? I’m not a fan of the historical/fantasy novel, with lots of romance, adventure, and material made-up for effect. On the other hand, I’m no historian, and by this time I had established that there wasn’t enough historical material to make a story.
Then, I remembered who I am. Someone who loves myth and poetry and legend, as well as history. I began to wonder whether there was enough material in the poets, and other sources I mentioned above, to piece together Urien’s story. Not a story of historical fact, not a fanciful story fleshing out the few facts we have, but a simple stitching together of the early texts. It worked. The old texts created a rich picture of Urien’s life, and I swear I glimpsed a nod of thanks out of the corner of my eye.
I feel like writing this changed something. Changed me. It felt like a privilege to reweave the tradition of Urien, rather than try to answer historical questions. And it was a joy to discover that far from making stuff up out of whole cloth, as the saying goes, I found a cloth that was already surprisingly whole.