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 that overlook the Humber to the north-east. This would make a
good visual boundary between Mercia and Northumbria. The village of Wales
a few miles 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 that 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).
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
The Kingdom of Brittany
The Kings of Northern Britain
The Kingdoms of Northern Britain
Southern Britain's Lost Kingdoms
RULERS OF BRITAIN:
Barwick-in-Elmet Historical Society
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
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
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'.
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,
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 that 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 that
was surplus to the needs of the abbey and monasteries. The list
The Tribal Hidage
Map of Elmet
d'Elmetta (Elmet) 11 marks per sack
Di Ledesia (Leeds) 12½ marks per sack
di Tresche (Thirsk) 10½ marks per sack
de Vervicche (York) 10½ 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'
'...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,
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.
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 (four
and-a-half miles) in length. Grim's Ditch, a linear bank and ditch,
extends for about 8.9 kilometres (five and-a-half miles) 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.
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
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 (three miles).
This dyke is formed by a ditch, rock-cut in places, with a stone revetted
embankment rising some 7.6 metres (25 feet) 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
South Dyke extends for about a thousand yards 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 (one
mile) 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 eight feet
high with a ditch varying from thirty to forty feet 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 (twelve miles)
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.
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
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 (six miles) 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.
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'. 
 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
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 that can be recognised by the close grouping of place names.
'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
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
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
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.