There are several characters from the Arthurian legends who can be identified as real individuals of the fifth and sixth centuries. Owain is one of these individuals. He appears in the legends as one of Arthur’s allies, generally known as ‘Sir Ywain’ in the later romances. Let us now take a look at what we know about him historically and what the legends claim about him.
The Historical Figure
Owain was the son of Urien, the powerful king of the northern kingdom of Rheged. This kingdom is believed to have stretched from roughly the border of north Wales to beyond Hadrian’s Wall. It did not stretch from the east coast of Britain to the west coast, but only covered the western half of Britain from north Wales to beyond Hadrian’s Wall. Nonetheless, it was a very powerful kingdom, the most powerful of all of the northern kingdoms.
Thus, Owain was a prince of the highest order. But he was not just a passive member of royalty, benefiting from his father’s accomplishments and power. Rather, the sources show that Owain himself was a mighty warrior who fought for the benefit of his kingdom.
For example, there are a number of early Welsh poems that possibly date right back to the late-sixth or early-seventh century. They were purportedly written by Taliesin, apparently the chief bard of Urien’s royal court, and the archaic language used in the poems indicates that this claim may well be legitimate. These poems are the primary source of historical information about Owain, since they are by far the earliest sources that mention him.
Given that they were written to celebrate the achievements of the bard’s masters, we find reports in these poems of battles that Urien and his son Owain engaged in. Significantly, a comparison of these poems with the Historia Brittonum’s account of Urien indicates that Owain fought against the Saxons during his father’s lifetime (and one of the poems by itself makes this explicitly clear as well).
In fact, Owain was likely one of the chief warriors of his father’s army, if not the one who was actually leading the armies (one poem portrays Owain as the one who gave a reply to the Anglo-Saxon king after he demanded hostages from Rheged, rather than Urien being the one to reply).
So Owain definitely existed, and he was definitely a warrior, but did he actually have any connection to Arthur? As far as most scholars are concerned, the answer is a firm ‘no’. The reason is because of certain chronological issues. Arthur lived in the late fifth or early sixth century, according to most scholars. In contrast, Owain must have lived about half a century or more later than that.
As is explained more fully in the article ‘Urien Rheged’, the Historia Brittonum informs us that Urien fought, along with his sons (including Owain), against the Anglian king Theodoric. This must have been in the 570s, when Theodoric reigned. So Owain must have been an adult and old enough to engage in warfare by the 570s. Yet he cannot have been very old, because his father Urien was still engaging in warfare against the Angles as late as c. 590.
Therefore, Owain must have been relatively young when he fought against Theodoric in the 570s, perhaps being in his twenties or thirties. This would suggest that he was born in, perhaps, the late 540s.
This being the case, he would likely not have even been born before Arthur’s death. This puts an alliance between the two completely out of the question. While there is some evidence that Arthur lived much later than commonly believed (such as the Life of St Gildas, which places Arthur in the 560s or early 570s), the vast majority of scholars hold to the more traditional dating of the late fifth or early sixth century.
If this is correct, then the sources that describe Owain and Arthur serving together must be nothing more than later, mistaken, tradition. Nonetheless, we will go on to see what the legends claim about his connection to Arthur, after first examining what we can say about his reign historically.
As we have seen, Owain was not passive while his father was king. He built up a reputation for himself as a powerful warrior against the foreign enemies. It appears that there were at least three Anglian kings that he and his father fought against:
- Theodoric (572-579)
- Frithuwald (579-585)
- Hussa (586-592)
Going by this information, the kingdom of Rheged was apparently in constant conflict with the Angles. Theodoric is Owain’s most notable enemy, since a surviving Welsh poem allegedly composed by Urien’s bard Taliesin seems to describe part of the conflict between Theodoric and Owain. In this poem, called ‘Gweith Argoed Llwyfain’ (which translates as ‘The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain’), Owain’s enemy is given the poetic title ‘Fflamddwyn’, meaning ‘Firebrand’. This enemy is commonly identified with Theodoric.
It is this poem which speaks of hostages, referred to earlier. According to this source, the Anglian king had surrounded the seat of power in Rheged and demanded hostages. Owain refused to give any (suggesting that he had a senior position in his father’s army) and then the forces of Rheged fought back against the Angles. Eventually, in the resultant fighting, Fflamddwyn (Theodoric) was killed.
According to Taliesin’s elegy to Owain, it was Owain himself who killed Fflamddwyn. The fact that Taliesin considered this Anglian king worth mentioning in Owain’s death poem solidifies him as the Rheged prince’s most notable enemy, perhaps because he was the only one whom Owain directly killed. Or alternatively, it may have been that Theodoric was the king who caused Owain (and Rheged as a whole) the severest problems.
But Taliesin did speak of other enemies in different poems. He mentioned the Anglian king ‘Ulf’ (probably a shortening of ‘Freothulf’, a variant of the name ‘Frithuwald’). This king is mentioned by name in a poem about Urien, but the battle at which they fought is called the Battle of Alclud Ford in the poem. This same battle is referred to in a separate poem by Taliesin about Owain. The enemy is not named in this poem about Owain, but the earlier poem about Urien (which refers to the same battle) makes it clear that it must have been Ulf.
There does not appear to be any specific reference to Hussa in the poems of Taliesin, but given that the Historia Brittonum claims that Urien fought against him, there is every reason to believe that Owain (as a senior commander under his father) also fought against that Anglian king.
Notably, during the reign of Hussa, Urien died and Owain succeeded him as king. By all accounts, it seems that Owain’s reign was a short one. Almost immediately after becoming king of Rheged, several British kings attacked his kingdom. One was a king named Dunawd Bwr, whom Owain is recorded as fighting against (with help from his brother Pasgen). The one who finally ended Owain’s reign completely and caused his death was Morgan Bwlch, the same man who had caused the death of his father Urien. With the death of Owain, the kingdom of Rheged ceased to be an effective power and quickly dissolved into non-existence.
Interestingly, Owain’s burial place is recorded in the Stanzas of the Graves. In one place in the poem, the grave of Owain ap Urien is clearly said to have been in ‘Llan Morvael’. In modern Welsh, this would be ‘Llanforfael’, yet no such place by that name is known to exist. However, one tradition claims that he was buried in St Andrew’s Church at Penrith. This northern location would fit what is known about Owain. Nevertheless, other evidence indicates that this may be the grave of a different Owain who lived several hundred years later.
As we have already touched on, Owain’s family was a powerful and prestigious one. His father Urien was the most powerful king of the north of Britain. Owain had an uncle, Urien’s brother, Lleudun, who ruled a neighbouring kingdom and also appears quite prominently in the records (though often under shortenings of his name, such as ‘Lot’ and ‘Llew’).
A second uncle was Arawn. Interestingly, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae states that Owain succeeded this uncle (whom Geoffrey calls ‘Augusel’) after he was slain during Arthur’s civil war against Mordred. Urien was still alive at this point. The extent and even position of Arawn’s kingdom in relation to Rheged is unclear, but since Urien was clearly the most powerful of the three brothers, perhaps Arawn’s kingdom was relatively small. It would therefore not be anything astonishing or in conflict with the more reliable records to suppose that Owain may well have succeeded to the throne of a small neighbouring kingdom while still being a prince of Rheged.
Of course, the fact that this claim appears in the HRB in a passage about Arthur’s war against Mordred makes it suspect, in view of the earlier information about it being unlikely that Owain’s and Arthur’s lives overlapped.
But despite the apparent chronological difficulties, Owain’s family allegedly had a lot to do with Arthur and his reign. For example, two of Owain’s cousins appear prominently in the Arthurian tales: Mordred and Gawain. They were both allies of Arthur at first, with Gawain being one of his most famous and loyal knights. Mordred, of course, later rebelled and brought about the downfall of Arthur’s kingdom.
Another Arthurian connection is found in Owain’s mother, Modron. She was the Welsh equivalent of the character of Morgan le Fey in the later romances, the lover of Urien. Notably, the romances portray her as the half-sister of King Arthur. However, the Welsh sources never describe her as such, and instead she is called the daughter of King Afallach (‘Afallach’ being the Welsh form of the name ‘Avalon’, just as Morgan was said to have been a princess of Avalon in the HRB).
Owain had a number of brothers and sisters. One of them was Pasgen, mentioned earlier. According to some traditions, he was forced out of the north of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons and settled in south Wales. It was evidently prior to this that he helped his brother Owain in the fight against Dunawd Bwr. Another brother was Elffin, who had to contend against the forces of a British king named Gwallog ap Lleenog shortly after Urien’s death.
Another brother – the most famous of Urien’s sons after Owain – was Rhun. He is actually the only one of Urien’s sons to appear in the Historia Brittonum itself, and he is mentioned more than once. He also appears in the Annales Cambriae, unlike Owain. However, he is not very prominent at all in later records, while Owain only grows in prominence. He was said to have become a bishop and to have baptised Edwin of Northumbria, an Anglian king.
In addition, Rhun’s granddaughter Rheinmellt married Oswiu of Northumbria. This is fascinating in view of how persistently Owain’s family had fought against the Angles just a few decades earlier.
Owain is also recorded as having a sister, Morfydd. She appears in Culhwch and Olwen as one of Arthur’s allies, again emphasising the connection that Owain’s family allegedly had with Arthur. She also appears in the Welsh Triads, where she is described as the twin sister of Owain and also as the lover of Cynon ap Clydno.
Regarding his own household, Owain is recorded in a number of sources as being married. For example, the Triads mention him having a wife named Penarwen, and this is also the wife who appears in some versions of the story of the life of Kentigern (also known as ‘St Mungo’). Allegedly, while married to Penarwen, Owain had an affair with a woman named Teneu (though the earliest surviving version describes it as a rape). This woman was the daughter of Lleudun, Owain’s uncle, thus making Owain and Teneu first cousins.
Nevertheless, the two were in love, at least according to some versions. After Owain got Teneu pregnant, her father Lleudun separated the two lovers and banished his daughter. Her child then grew up to be Kentigern, or Mungo, a famous saint of Scotland. Eventually, after the death of his first wife Penarwen, Owain and Teneu were reunited and got married to each other. It is likely that these events eventually found their way into the Arthurian legends, as we will see further down.
As noted earlier, Owain features very prominently in the Arthurian tales, especially the medieval romances. He first appears in connection with Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s HRB. He does not appear as an ally of Arthur throughout the latter’s reign, but he appears just once during Arthur’s final war. After his uncle ‘Augusel’ (Arawn) was killed, Owain succeeded to his kingdom, as mentioned earlier. But he is shown to not just be a child at the time this happened, because he is then said to have ‘afterwards performed many famous exploits in those wars,’ that is, against Mordred.
So we can see that Owain was portrayed as one of Arthur’s allies at least as early as 1137, when the HRB was written. And although the account only mentions him in this final part of Arthur’s reign, halfway through the war against Mordred, it is evident that he was already accompanying the armies and fighting alongside Arthur. Otherwise, he would not have been able to immediately succeed his slain uncle and then continue the fight against Arthur’s enemy, Mordred.
This shows that, according to the HRB, Owain was in Arthur’s service from at least some time prior to this event, at least as early as the start of his campaign against Mordred. In fact, because this battle took place while Arthur’s forces were trying to fight their way back onto the shores of Britain, Owain already being with Arthur shows that he must have come with the king to Gaul (otherwise he would not now have been with Arthur while he was trying to get back to Britain).
So, in fact, Owain must have joined Arthur’s service at least as early as partway through the Gallic campaign. But other than that, exactly how early he became Arthur’s ally (at least according to the HRB) is impossible to say.
As the legends spread and grew, Owain is seen to become more and more prominent. Chretien de Troyes, writing later in the 12th century, wrote the famous poem Ywain, the Knight of the Lion. In this, his connection with Arthur is not stressed, but it is nonetheless present in the poem. It is more about Owain’s personal adventures involving him and the woman he loves.
The story begins with Owain seeking to avenge his cousin Calogrenant (derived from Owain’s historical brother-in-law Cynon ap Clydno, mentioned previously). He defeats the knight who humiliated Calogrenant and then falls in love with the knight’s widow, Laudine. They get married, but then Owain leaves her to embark on knightly adventures, promising to return after one year. Unfortunately, he forgets and is then rejected by Laudine. The rest of the story is about him trying to win back his wife, which he eventually manages to do through his exploits (such as by saving Laudine’s servant from being burned at the stake).
This is the story that is possibly based on the events involving Owain and Teneu. Recall that the two were said to have fallen in love and had relations, but were then separated, before eventually being reunited some time later. Although the details differ, this is very reminiscent of the tale of Owain and Laudine. Furthermore, the name ‘Laudine’ is generally held to be related to the word ‘Lothian’, the kingdom from which Teneu came.
For good measure, let it be noted that Laudine’s father in the romance tales is called ‘Laudunet’, virtually certain to be derived from ‘Lleudun’, the name of the historical Teneu’s father. This supports the conclusion that this romance tale ultimately originates from the historical events involving Owain and Teneu.
In any case, this was the first story devoted to Owain (at least, among the surviving records), but he appears extensively in other Arthurian legends. For example, he appears in the romances as fighting alongside Arthur against the Romans (which was not explicitly mentioned, but strongly implied, by Geoffrey of Monmouth), as well as against the Saxons and against King Claudas and Lord Galahaut.
There is one legend that stands out from all the others. This is a legend which portrays Owain as an opponent to Arthur. In the Welsh tale The Dream of Rhonabwy, we find a description of Arthur and his forces getting ready to fight the Saxons at the Battle of Badon. At his camp, Arthur is portrayed as playing a game of gwyddbwyll (essentially an ancient Celtic version of chess) against Owain. As they play, Arthur’s men engage in battle against Owain’s forces. After some time, Owain’s army gains the upper hand and starts defeating Arthur’s forces. Eventually, Arthur loses his patience and crushes the pieces of the board game that they are playing, so much so that they become dust. With that, Owain’s men withdraw, the fighting stops, and peace is established between Owain and Arthur.
This is a bizarre tale, but it evidently suggests some kind of strife between Arthur’s kingdom and the kingdom of Rheged. This is especially interesting in view of the fact that the other records consistently speak of marriage and political alliances between the two kingdoms. In fact, the only time that Arthur was said to have been in conflict with Urien’s household was when Urien (along with many other kings) opposed the youthful Arthur’s appointment as high king in the romance tales. The dissenting kings fought against Arthur but were eventually defeated (this is discussed more fully in the article ‘King Arthur’).
Although it is only a remote possibility, perhaps this tale of Owain (who, as we have already established, seems to have historically been one of the chief leaders of Urien’s army) fighting against Arthur is derived from whatever historical event formed the basis for the romance tale of Urien and his associates rebelling against Arthur. Of course, this possibility is only an option if one accepts the minority viewpoint that Urien and Owain were historical contemporaries of Arthur.
As we have seen, Owain is one of the few firmly historical figures in the Arthurian legends. He was from one of the most famous families of the era, and many members of his family had a part to play in the Arthurian legends. We can see that he was a fierce warrior against the Saxons, yet he was not able to maintain the powerful kingdom that his father had established, due to being attacked by fellow British kings.
In addition, Owain played a prominent part in the legends of King Arthur. From an early stage, he is portrayed as one of Arthur’s allies, despite having lived decades later than Arthur did according to most scholars. Nevertheless, the historical element to the character of Owain is seen in particular from Chretien’s story Ywain, the Knight of the Lion. As we saw earlier, this tale of Owain and his wife Laudine is very likely derived from the historical events involving Owain and Teneu.
It is fascinating to see these historical elements (such as Owain himself and this tale in particular) in the Arthurian romances. And this is most ironic, given that the conclusion of most scholars is that Owain could not possibly have had any historical connection to Arthur.
Caleb Howells is a writer from the south coast of England. He has spent years researching various different myths and legends from around the world, with his primary area of interest being the legends of King Arthur. In May 2019, Caleb published King Arthur: The Man Who Conquered Europe, outlining his theories on the origin of the legend.