History Files


Post-Roman Britain

The Ancient Kingdom of Elmet

Reproduced from The Barwicker No 39 by Tony Cox
Additional italicised comments made by Richard Watson, 11 March 2003

'This Manor hath an especial addition of Elmett, why so called we could not be sure.'

This was the record of representatives of the City of London when they undertook a survey in the autumn of 1628. Nearly a thousand years earlier, they would have encountered the local 'Elmed Saetna', the Elmet settlers, a name applied to the former inhabitants of the ancient kingdom of Elmet.

Elmet was one of a number of small independent states to emerge at the end of the Roman period. Embracing the present West Riding of Yorkshire, at the height of its powers the region is believed to have extended from the headwaters of the Humber across to the Pennine foothills in the west, with its southern border reaching to the banks of the River Sheaf ('Sheaf' meaning 'boundary' and from which Sheffield derives its name) and the River Don. High Melton-in-Elmet (see below) lay just north of the River Don. The short-lived British state of Dunoting (Craven) is believed to have formed the north-western boundary of Elmet (see Elmet in the 'related links' in the sidebar for a more detailed examination of Elmet's borders).

Elmet may have come as far south as the River Don which is the most probable southern boundary of Northumbria (after the amalgamation of Deira, and the conquest of Elmet). In that context, the line of Grimes or Grim's Dyke can be traced to the Iron Age fort at Winkobank or the nearby Roman fort at Templeborough Rotherham on the River Don. John Warburton's map of 1720 shows this as a Roman road and the 1854 Ordnance Survey shows the line of the dyke north of Woodlesford as a Roman road running along Street Lane.

At its greatest extent Northumbria may have reached Whitwell Gap to the west of Worksop. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 942 tells of King Edmund overcoming Mercia as far as Whitwell Gap, Dore (near Sheffield) and the River Humber. From the low hills near Whitwell Gap it is possible to see Dore on the high land to the north-west, and the hills which overlook the Humber to the north-east. This would make a good visual boundary between Mercia and Northumbria. The village of Wales a few kilometres to the south of the river Don, close to Morthen, shows that the British Celts were present in that area for many years.

Evidence of the one-time kingdom is relatively sparse, something which is typical of early medieval history in this dark age, basically deriving from the interpretation of literary sources, place names and limited archaeological findings. Original literary knowledge of the period has been gleaned from the writings of Gildas (a British monk - see sidebar link), Nennius (a British scholar to whom the Historia Brittonum - the History of the Britons - is attributed - again, see sidebar link), and poems of the British bards such as Taliesin and Aneirin, a king and a court poet, together with the writings of the Venerable Bede of Jarrow (AD 673-735).

River Idle near Bawtry
The River Idle, just south of Bawtry, which connected to the River Don until 1628 (the year of the survey mentioned in the first paragraph, above), was the scene of the final battle for Elmet's free British warriors

Grim's Ditch

Grim's Ditch, to the east of Leeds, photographed from the air by (and copyright held by) R E Yarwood and the West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service

The period was one of migration, settlement and the eventual colonisation by the English-speaking Anglo-Saxons; one of the outcomes of which was the renaming of the country to 'England', the 'land of the Angles'. One scribe describes the events of those times:

'The rivers united in the estuary of the Humber led like open highways into the heart of Britain, and it was by this inlet that the great mass of invaders penetrated into the interior of the island. Those warriors who had entered the Humber turned southwards by the Forest of Elmet which covered the district around Leeds.'

In the sixth century, those Angles who were occupying territory to the east of Elmet (the East Riding) founded the kingdom of Deira, those to the north founded Bernicia, whilst the more-slowly forming kingdom of the Angles of Mercia lay to the south and in the Midlands. Elmet was for some time, then, a frontier state as far as British territory was concerned, forming a bridgehead which separated the Angles of the Midlands from those occupying the Plain of York.

It is claimed that the westward expansion of the English was long delayed by the Britons of Elmet, and it was not until the early part of the seventh century that the Angles were able to continue their westward migration to settle in the valleys of the Aire and Wharfe. For a period Elmet was sufficiently powerful to withstand Anglian pressure, whether from Deira, Bernicia or Mercia.

The poet Taliesin writes in praise of a number of British rulers, including Guallauc, named as a magistrate (sometimes mistakenly translated as 'judge' but in effect the ruler in any real sense) over Elmet: 'A skilled warrior, allied with other British kings in the north against the English'. Said to be beloved by his retinue, 'He inspired terror from Dumbarton [the capital of the kingdom of Alt Clut] to the borders of mid-Wales and, according to Taliesin, also vexed the inhabitants of York'.

Around AD 600, a warband of some three hundred (or 363 - references quote both figures) nobles and warriors, plus foot soldiers, including a certain Madog of Elmet, and drawn from numerous British regions, assembled at Edinburgh (in the region of the Gododdin). This force attempted to recapture Catterick, and thereby prevent the merger of the English kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira. The disastrous defeat of the British, who were annihilated in the encounter, by the larger heathen force, is lamented in the Gododdin, an elegy composed by the poet Aneirin.

Thereafter, with its military power considerably weakened, Elmet became isolated and more vulnerable; its fate virtually sealed when the Angles of Deira and Bernicia united to form the powerful kingdom of Northumbria, which extended its influence across the Pennines. The eventual demise of the British state of Elmet is recorded by Nennius: 'Edwin, (ruler of Northumbria)... reigned for seventeen years and he occupied Elmet and expelled Ceretic (son of Guallauc), the king of this region'.

Britons versus Angles
The attack against the Angles at the end of the sixth century appears to have been a last-ditch attempt by the semi-Romanised Britons to rid the land of these invaders - and it failed, albeit gloriously

A factor which contributed to Elmet's downfall is attributed to a feud between its ruler, Ceretic, and the Northumbrian King Edwin. Edwin's nephew, Hereric, having been driven into exile is alleged to have died of poisoning while taking refuge within the kingdom of Elmet. Whether the annexation of Elmet was motivated by revenge and/or territorial gain, its existence as an independent kingdom ceased in AD 617.

Edwin, baptised by Paulinus (an emissary of Rome and a prominent British ecclesiastic) at York on Easter Day in AD 627, became the first Christian king of Northumbria. He was later killed at the Battle of Hatfield Chase, against the Mercian ruler, Penda, in AD 633. Thereafter it is recorded that 'Penda took over Edwin's lands and reigned there for some twenty years'.

A struggle for supremacy ensued between the Mercian king, Penda, and the rightful ruler of Northumbria, which ended when Penda was decisively beaten by Oswiu at the Battle of Winwaed in AD 654 (see The Barwicker No 1). According to Bede, 'King Oswiu brought the campaign to a close in the "regio Loidis" in the thirteenth year of his reign'.

Elmet's eventual decline in regional importance has been assessed from the contents of a seventh century document, The Tribal Hidage (see sidebar links), which has been attributed to the Mercian ruler Offa. This provides a list of folk-groups or tribes which had been incorporated into the Mercian kingdom; each group being assessed for payment of dues or taxation, at a round number of hides, a primitive form of land division. The group occupying the former Celtic kingdom of Elmet - the Elmed Saetna, the Elmet settlers - was rated at 600 hides, being placed with the Peak settlers with 1200 hides and 'the men of Lindsey-with-Hatfield' with 7000 hides. It has been estimated that at the time of the assessment, Elmet was much reduced from its former regional extent and had also become subject to Mercian rule, as a result of that kingdom's increased supremacy.

That Elmet continued to be recognised as a region long after AD 617 is confirmed by entries which are contained in a directory which was written in Italian text, circa 1315. This document is located in one of the Florentine libraries, and it deals with the English wool trade, in particular that aspect concerning monasteries and Yorkshire abbeys, an undertaking of national importance. A list of towns and regions is recorded, with these presumably being markets through which wool was traded which was surplus to the needs of the abbey and monasteries. The list includes:

d'Elmetta (Elmet) 11 marks per sack
Di Ledesia (Leeds) 12 marks per sack
di Tresche (Thirsk) 10 marks per sack
de Vervicche (York) 10 marks per sack.

A mark was nominally 13s 4d (thirteen shillings and four pence in pre-decimal coinage) and a sack was a unit of weight which equalled 165 kilos (26 stone or 364lbs) of wool.

Having pinned down the existence of Elmet, it would be a good idea to consider some of its features in more detail.

1 Loidis and Campodonum

The regional name of Loidis is preserved in the place name 'Leeds' and forms an element in the names of Ledston (tun - a settlement in Loidis), Ledsham (ham - a homestead in Loidis), and possibly Lead. Loidis as a region is believed at one period to have formed an administrative sub-division of Elmet, comparable in area to the combined wapentakes of Skyrack and Barkston Ash. The term 'wapentake' (of Scandinavian origin) was used in the north to refer to an administrative or regional unit. Bede on writing of Paulinus' activities, states:

'...in Campodonum, where there was then a villa regia, he (Paulinus) built a church which was afterwards burnt down, together with the whole of the buildings, by the heathens who slew King Edwin. In its stead, later kings built a dwelling for themselves in the region known as Loidis. The altar escaped from the fire, because it was of stone, and is still preserved in the monastery of the most reverend abbot and priest Thrythwulf, which is in the forest of Elmet.'

In this account Campodonum is named as the site of a church built by Paulinus and of a villa regia (a royal villa), probably established by Edwin. These buildings were burnt down by Penda of Mercia (described by one scribe as a 'convinced pagan') after his defeat of Edwin in AD 633.

The whereabouts of Campodonum and Thrythwulf's monastery has been the subject of much scholarly debate. There is evidence to suggest that Campodonum could have been located in or near Leeds. The disposition of Grim's Ditch earthworks (see Part 3, below) a possible Anglo-Saxon burial, and the application of the district name 'Loidis' to Leeds as a place name, all tend to indicate that the place was occupied, and was of some importance in the seventh century, and so would seem the best candidate for the site of Paulinus' church and Edwin's villa regia of Campodonum. If, however, Leeds is considered to have been one of the major centres of Elmet, the possibility of uncovering archaeological evidence is now remote.

2 The importance of water and holy wells

The Celts observed the practice of regarding water and in particular wells, (believed to give access to the underworld) as having sacred qualities. With the conversion to Christianity, the pagan deities to whom the wells were dedicated were 'converted' to Holy Wells and replaced by a Christian saint - St Helen and Our Lady being popular names. St Helen's Well at Thorp Arch, for example, continued to be venerated until recent times. Others included Lady Well Close, Roundhay, and Holywell, Shadwell.

There is a St Helen's well at Monk Bretton near Barnsley, and the ruins of a St Helens Chapel or chantry at Barnborough, to the east of Barnsley. Close by there is a Ludwell Hill, probably relating to the Celtic deity Lud. There is a Lady Well mentioned at Brierley in Richard Watson's own online Booklet, Brereley, a History of Brierley.

3 Earthworks

The disposition of a series of major linear earthworks (shown on the map - see sidebar links) within the region, in particular the Aberford Dykes and Grim's Ditch, are considered to have possible associations with territorial conflicts of the period. The Aberford Dykes to the east of Barwick, considered to be some of the most impressive monuments in Yorkshire, comprise 'The Ridge/Becca Banks', 'South Dyke', and 'The Rein', the overall complex totalling 7.2 kilometres in length. Grim's Ditch, a linear bank and ditch, extends for about 8.9 kilometres in a north-south alignment, from near the River Aire at Swillington, bypassing Temple Newsam, Colton, and Austhorpe, to cross Whinmoor and beyond. Both series of earthworks are scheduled ancient monuments.

Aberford entrenchments
The Aberford entrenchments consist of three individual earthworks: the Becca Banks and the Ridge, plus the South Dyke, and the Woodhouse Moor Rein. According to dendro-dated wood deposits, they were probably built in the sixth century, or at least repaired

The main component of the Aberford Dykes is the Ridge/Becca Banks, an extensive ditch and embankment which follows the northern side of the Cock Beck from the outskirts of Barwick across the (A1) Great North Road to the east of Aberford, a length of nearly five kilometres. This dyke is formed by a ditch, rock-cut in places, with a stone revetted embankment rising some 7.6 metres above the dyke bottom.

Becca Banks must have presented a formidable obstacle in its original state, especially as additional heightening could have been achieved by surmounting the bank with a timber pallisade. In fact, narrow trenches have been revealed suggesting possible slot holes for the placement of timber uprights, providing extra protection for defenders.

South Dyke extends for about a thousand metres along the southern edge of the Cock Beck, being intersected by the Rein which is aligned in a south-easterly direction and is 1.5 kilometres in length. Becca Banks and the Rein both face south and the South Dyke faces north. Much of Grim's Ditch is now badly degraded by weathering and ploughing. The best-preserved sections have a bank some 2.4 metres high with a ditch varying from nine to twelve metres wide.

The northern length of the dyke has been obliterated by housing and other development. The name 'Grim' is associated with many prominent earthworks. It was an alias or by-name for the principal Norse god Woden, from whom the royal house of Mercia claimed descent.

The origin and dating of these earthworks is the subject of some speculation. The Rein, for instance, is thought not to be contemporary with the other elements of the Aberford Dykes, but is instead an Iron Age boundary dyke with no military function. Grim's Ditch, which faces east, and the South Dyke, which faces north, are considered by some learned bodies to have comprised defence works for Elmet against the Angles in the early seventh century.

Grim's Ditch may have formed part of the overall system of earthworks or, because of its more westerly location, a late boundary defence line. If the main earthworks are early medieval in date, then the centre to which they appear to strategically relate is Leeds, lying directly behind Grim's Ditch. It is hoped that further research will eventually reveal the history of these impressive ancient monuments.

4 Village place names

There appears to be no consensus in regard to the origin of the regional name 'Elmet'; although considered to be British, its derivation remains obscure. The affix has been identified with the Welsh 'Elfed', the name of a cantred, or county division in Carmarthen, and possibly based on an old Welsh tribal name. A popular alternative of uncertain concept is the meaning 'elm-wood'. In addition to Barwick, and Sherburn, the 'in-Elmet' affix was applied, at one time, to the West Yorkshire townships of Burton Salmon, Clifford, High Melton, Kirkby Wharfe, Micklefield, Saxton, South Kirkby, and Sutton (see the map via sidebar links).

It is significant that practically all save one of these 'in-Elmet' place names are located on, or in the vicinity of, a narrow north-to-south aligned band of Magnesian Limestone outcrop of the Permian Series, centred some nineteen kilometres to the east of Leeds. This strip of low-lying limestone, extending southwards from the Ripon area, comprises terrains of well-drained loamy soil and abundant springs and water courses, providing desirable conditions for sustaining early settlements. The western margin of the slightly raised escarpment would also be adaptable for defensive purposes.

At its most powerful, Elmet is thought to have extended some distance eastwards but the above place name evidence suggests that, for quite some time the strip of Magnesian Limestone formed the eastern division between the Britons of Elmet and the Angles who were able to establish their settlements up to but not beyond this boundary.

Place names with the element 'inga/ingas', 'ingaham', or 'ham', generally taken as an indication of early seventh century Anglian settlement, such as Collingham, Bramham, and Ledsham, are found to roughly coincide with the geographic distribution of the 'in-Elmet' place names.

5 Archaeology

Whilst there is evidence that Elmet was a realm of some importance at the height of its powers, practically no archaeological material originating from the region, other than the earthworks, has been discovered.

However, a link with the former kingdom has been traced as far away as the Llyn peninsula in north-west Wales. A two-line Latin inscription on a rough stone now preserved in Llanaelhaearn church (about 9.7 kilometres to the north of Pwllheli) reads: 'ALIORTUS ELMETIACO HIC IACET', recording the fact that Aliortus, the Elmetian or man of Elmet, lies here. Hugh Hawkins, a member of the Historical Society, visited the church in 1991 and photographed the unique inscription.

Lleyn peninsula
A link with Elmet can be found on the Llyn peninsula in north-west Wales - a two-line Latin inscription on a rough stone which reads: 'ALIORTUS ELMETIACO HIC IACET', 'Aliortus the Elmetian lies here

This early Christian memorial stone, ascribed to the late fifth or sixth century, was unearthed from a field near the church, known as the Gardd-y-Saint (the Garden of the Saints) and was subsequently set into the west wall of the church.

A particular aspect of the inscription is the correct grammatical spelling of 'IACET', meaning that not only are the newcomer's remains authentically commemorated but due recognition is given to his distant homeland of Elmet.

6 Christianity in Elmet

Elmet is believed to have been of Christian faith at the time of the Anglian occupation, with established religious centres which continued to be used as church sites. Bede apparently knew there were (or had been) British Christians to the west of Northumbria, and that Elmet contained 'loca sacra' or holy places, '...if only as despised village churches of wood'. [1]

[1] This comment is a bit rich when compared to many Anglo-Saxon 'churches' of this period - little more than an open-air wooden cross on a previously pagan sacred site near a settlement, or perhaps a shabby wooden shelter.

A guide to potential early church sites are those which contain the element 'eccles' (from the British 'egles', meaning 'church'), used in Anglo-Saxon place names which refer to religious sites or establishments. All seven of the 'eccles' place names in the historic county of Yorkshire fall within the region of Elmet. They are; Eccleshill, 'Ecclesdo' in Kirkheaton, Exley in Southowram, Exley Head in Keighley, Eccles in Haworth township, Ecclesgrass Head in Horsforth, and Great Eccles in Allerton.

Other 'eccles' in South Yorkshire are: Ecclesfield to the north of Sheffield, and Eccleshall, to the west of Sheffield. There is also an Iccles near Templeborough Roman Fort at Rotherham.

The early British frequently adopted an oval shape for the churchyard, and All Saints Parish Church at Bramham is the classic example of this form. The height of the graves above the adjoining road suggests burials over a long period, with the site being the successor of earlier religious establishments.

An indication of Elmet's Christianity is gleaned from the story of the dedication of Ripon Minster in AD 670/671 (some fifty years after the conquest of Elmet). Reverend Colman quotes from Bishop Browne's Lessons from Early English Church History that 'Wilfrith then read out a list of places which had formerly been occupied by the British clergy, and of the lands which had been given to the church in days even then long gone by. If therefore, here in our Elmet in the seventh century, men could point out ancient possessions of the established church, it can be realised just how long and firmly Christianity had been established in this region'.

7 Elmetian sub-kingdoms

There are several small 'sub kingdoms' in the southern part of Elmet which can be recognised by the close grouping of place names. They are:

'Balne' with Balne, Balne Moor, Thorpe in Balne, and possibly Barnsdale. All are on the edge of a marshy area north of Doncaster. The area probably takes its name from the ancient spa at nearby Askern. The Latin balneum means 'bath'.

'Meisen' with Misson, Misterton, and the now dry lake of Meisen near Wroot in the marsh area south of Hatfield Chase.

'Morthen' to the south of Conisborough, with Morthen, Brampton en le Morthen, and Loughton en le Morthen.

Close to the south of Tickhill there is 'Lindrick' with Carlton in Lindrick. To the north of Castleford there is the district of 'Led' with Ledsham, Ledstone, and possibly Leeds.

There are a group Anglo-Saxon villages near the River Aire, to the north of Pontefract, which take their name from the people of Frisia (now part of the Netherlands), they are 'Fryston', Water Fryston, Ferry Fryston, and Monk Fryston. This area is on two sides of the river so there must have been a ferry, hence the name Ferry Fryston.


Christianity existed in post-Roman Britain, but apart from in a few converted stone temples worship would not have taken place in the relatively elaborate churches of the type at Bonchurch in Sussex


Main Sources

West Yorkshire; An Archaeological Survey to AD 1500 M L Faull & S A Moorhouse (1981)

Roman and Anglian Settlement Patterns in Yorkshire M L Faull (1974)

Early Territorial Organization in Gwynedd and Elmet G R J Jones (1975)

Anglo-Saxon England F M Stenton (1971)

Place Names of The West Riding of Yorkshire A H Smith (1928)

Aberford Dykes; the first defence of the Brigantes? Leslie Alcock (1954)

Yorkshire Abbeys and the Wool Trade Herbert E Wroot



Text copyright © The Barwick-in-Elmet Historical Society and Richard Watson. Reproduced with permission.