by Edward Dawson, 29 January 2012
The exact boundaries of the kingdom of Elmet at any
particular time cannot be known for certain.
Much, however, can be deduced from the names used
in the region. Much can also be deduced from economic and military
realities, and indeed as these relate to the terrain.
First let us be clear about rivers. Rivers are not
barriers and therefore not solid borders; they are in fact often
used for travel and for moving goods. River valleys therefore can be
regarded as single possessions of their controlling rulers or
Britain of this dark age was in the middle of a
climactic downturn in temperatures and an increase in cold and rain
across northern Europe. Uplands which had been arable during the
'Roman Warm Period' became useable only for grazing, and poor grazing
at that. The control of river valleys where grain (early wheat
varieties, and barley) could be planted were vital for survival.
Therefore any river valley was controlled on both banks of the river,
unless marshes (as in the case of the lower Trent) made the area
impassable an/or unusable.
The north-eastern border of Elmet can be deduced
with a fair level of certainty - following a rough line along the
River Wharfe (which is shown on the map below, flowing through
Calcaria and Olicana).
Introduction to Celtic Devon
The Ancient Kingdom of Elmet
The Kingdom of Brittany
RULERS OF BRITAIN:
Old Tykes - Elmet Heritage
Site (dead link)
Atlas of Ancient & Classical Geography
Hipkiss' Scanned Old Maps
Anglo-Saxon Index at
www.trin.cam.ac.uk (dead link)
Ancient British Kingdom of Elmete
Archaeology West Yorkshire JS
(Borders on the map are conjectural.)
The exact boundaries of Elmet cannot be known for certain, but this
map attempts to show the regions involved (the deep pink area is the
probable extent of Elmet in its final twenty years, the carnation pink
area is made up of low-habitation zones, and the light grey area is the
probable extent of British territories which formed Elmet) (click on map
to view in a separate window)
The question is, who controlled the Wharfe river valley? Given its
proximity to Eborac (or Ebrauc, modern York), and the fact that a
forest lay between it and the royal residence of Elmet, there is
a good chance that it belonged to the British in Eborac before
Eborac fell to the Angles of Deira. If this was not the case then
it was almost certainly settled by the Angles before Elmet fell.
Therefore the conclusion can be drawn that the main
border of northern Elmet was the Forest of Elmet (shown above
separating Loidis from Calcaria), and also the marshes which stretched
from the east of the forest to the River Don.
Olicana (known today as Ikley - the same name but
mangled by Old English pronunciation), and Calcaria (modern Tadcaster)
downriver from it, show altered British/Roman names. From this it can
be guessed that they were perhaps inhabited by Britons, although they
were definitely under Deiran control by the late sixth century. There
is of course a possibility that an armed truce existed between Deira
and Elmet, allowing each to till their side of the river. This would
be therefore an economic border of sorts but would not prevent raiding
by either side. The effective military border of Elmet would be the
Forest of Elmet just south-west of the river.
The Ancient Kingdom of Elmet
Elmet Place Names & Earthworks
When looking at the map, the deep pink area is what
should be regarded as the probable extent of Elmet in its final twenty
years, the period between the death of its great champion, Madoc, at
Catterick in 598 and the fall of Elmet when Edwin invaded in 617.
This deep pink area contains many names that are of
Romano-British origin, some of them containing the name of the region
in various forms, and including the largest city in the area today:
Note that it was in the general proximity of the River
Idle - which today flows into the Trent, but until 1628 joined the Don
close to Hatfield Chase - that Northumbrian King Aethelfrith was
patrolling in 616. Presumably this was along the edge of his territory,
and it was here that he encountered the East Angle army under King
Raedwald and his new friend, Prince Edwin of Deira, and was killed. This
then, in the vicinity of the Idle and Don rivers, would have been the
south-eastern border of Elmet in its final years, a nation that was
already tributary to Northumbria.
As an aside, the ruler of Elmet had already murdered
his guest, Prince Hereric of Deira, undoubtedly at Aethelfrith's command.
This automatically made 'King' (in reality a magistrate) Ceredig ap Gwallog
subordinate to Aethelfrith. A ruler is supreme, and to obey another is
to become subservient to that other. This made Elmet part of Aethelfrith's
domain, which he was patrolling. In that sense alone we can date the
'fall' of Elmet as an independent kingdom to the death of Hereric.
Returning to the map, the deep pink area is full of
Brythonic names and combined forms (Brythonic+Anglian), such as Leeds,
Doncaster, Burton Salmon, Ecclesfield, Ledsham, Ledston, Barwick-in-Elmet,
The lighter, carnation pink area is made up of uplands,
marshes, swamp, fens, and fen carr (wet forest). This would be marginal
land not controlled by the Angles, but only marginally inhabited by Britons,
such as at Misson, a town still bearing the district's name to this day.
Edwin chased the king and his
knights to the River Don in 617, where they finally stood and
fought for a while. This would be the action of an army forced
to the border of its country, and to go farther would be to
leave that country.
As you can see, this pink wetlands area merges into light
grey wetlands as it nears the Trent, a river that appears to have been
controlled on both banks in a military sense by the Angles in its upper
valley (south of the River Idle), but which was too marshy for the Angles
to want to settle on both banks north of the Idle.
Remnant British settlements seemed to have continued there,
such as Burton upon Stather (a 'burton' is a word often used by the
Saxons/English to refer to a British settlement - ignore the conventional
explanation of burh+tun). Anglian settlement seems to have reached north
as far as Littleborough (in Nottinghamshire) on the west bank, and
Gainsborough at a ford on the east bank. Ergo, Britons lived in the
pink-grey mixed region, but were probably under the overlordship of the
Angles of Lindsey.
The light grey block of colour on the map is the probable
extent of British territories which possibly became Elmet, soon after Roman
administration was kicked out in AD 409, although it cannot be said for
certain to which territory it all belonged. It may have been part of Elmet;
and there is a good chance of this. Or it may have been included in the
southern Pennines kingdom. We are assuming here that it was part of early
Elmet, but that may not be correct. The presence of Anglian settlements
with Anglian names along both banks of the upper Trent and deep into the
territory, such as Nottingham, Sheffield and Balderton, point to an early
takeover of the river valley and arable land over to the Pennines by the
Angles of Lindsay or Mercia. Indeed, the grey area is full of Germanic
names for towns, much more so than Brythonic.
Another consideration is ethnic identity. Though all were
under Roman rule during the period of empire, tribal identity appears to
have survived into the post-Roman dark ages.
The Britons in the deep pink area seem to have been
Brigantes. The Britons in the grey area were definitely Corieltavi. The
Britons in the mountains (south Pennines) just to the west of the grey
area were also Corieltavi. This would be another pointer toward the
possibility that the grey area was part of the south Pennines and not
Elmet at all.
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
For the sake of convenience,
the whole district around Misson is given that name here, due to
the existence of other, similar names in the region, and on both
sides of the river: Misson, Misterton and Messingham. Since the
Anglo-Saxon '-ing' ending appears to be the normal substitution
for the Brythonic '-ion' or '-on', then the original name of
that town appears to have been Messon or Mession. Given that
'-ion/-on' is a Brythonic plural it implies that a tribe or
sub-tribe of the name Miss or Mess lived there. Modern Welsh
uses '-ion' but Brythonic/ Old Welsh and Pictish appear to have
favoured the '-on' ending.
Could the eastern area between the Pennines and the River Trent have
been settled by Mercians (specifically the Lindsey Angles) earlier
than 590? It is certainly possible that the grey area on the map was
part of Elmet despite its different minor ethnicity. This has happened
before such as, for example, when the Dumnonii tribal kingdom (in Devon
and Cornwall) annexed most, if not all, of Dorchester before losing it
gradually to the West Saxons. So an Elmet centred on a southern group
of Brigantes could certainly have controlled a Corieltavi ethnic area.
But keep in mind the certainty that these Corieltavi had relatives
living under the authority of the Angles of Lindsey; how hard would
they have fought to stay free if the Lindsey Britons were being treated
A tidy solution would have the hero, Madoc of Elmet,
as a lord of this southern area, under the overall authority of the
ruler of Elmet, and that upon his death at Catterick, the Bernicians
took over his lands. Unfortunately this is sheer speculation with no
supporting evidence whatsoever, despite being quite an attractive
In conclusion, what is fairly clear based on local
names, and post-conquest borders, is that th e deep pink area is
approximately the extent of Elmet in its final years.
James, Edward - Britain in the First
Millennium: From Romans to Normans (Britain and Europe),
Bloomsbury Academic, 2000
Aberforth Entrenchments Map - Old Tykes,
Elmet Heritage website, by John Davey, reproduced by kind
permission of Lynne Spedding
Butler, Samuel - The Project Gutenberg
EBook of The Atlas of Ancient and Classical Geography, Ernest
Rhys (Ed), (EBook #17124), November 2005
Hipkiss' Scanned Old Maps
Lillian Goldman Law Library - The Avalon
Project Gutenberg - Map of Roman Britain
Science Daily - Climatic Fluctuations in
Last 2,500 Years Linked to Social Upheavals, January 2011
Trinity College, Cambridge - Anglo-Saxon
Way Back Machine Internet Archive - Ancient
British Kingdom of Elmete
Text copyright © Edward Dawson. An original
feature for the History Files.