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Post-Roman Britain

What's in a Name - Elmet

by Edward Dawson, 6 December 2023

The origin of the name 'Elmet' is not easy to deduce, and that deduction is rather tortuous.

The name appears to bear no relation to that of the earlier tribe around the Loidis area which is known to have removed itself from the confederation of the Brigantes in the second century.

What's more, unlike Rheged and perhaps Bernaccia, it is not descended from the name 'Brigantes'.

In attempting to analyse the name, a back-to-front approach seems to work best.

The Britons in Roman Britannia appear to have habitually dropped the ends off names. The '-us' and '-um' at the end of Latin names vanished.

In knowing this, a search for possible suffixes for '-et' and '-ete', plus another as yet unknown element produces '-etum', a Latin suffix which denotes a grove: '-etum' (plural '-etums' or '-eta' - from Latin '-etum', also meaning 'garden' (pinetum, arboretum, palmetum)).

This brings up a possible link to 'elm grove'. Old English 'elm' comes from the proto-Germanic *elmaz (which also supplies the Danish 'elm', Old Norse 'almr', and Old High German 'elme').

This perhaps stems from a proto-Indo-European root of *el-, meaning 'red', 'brown' (see 'elk'); which is cognate with the Latin 'ulmus', Old Irish 'lem'. German 'ulme', Dutch 'olm', all of which are from or influenced by the Latin word.

Notice that the Irish Gaelic spelling is 'lem', using an 'e', with position swapped with the 'l'. The insular Brythonic form is unknown, but the suspicion is that the local pronunciation stuck the 'e' in front.

This supplies the possibility that the local Brythonic used an 'e', perhaps meaning that Elmet had been settled by Celts whose language had been altered by strong contact with Germans, in other words, Belgae.

Then there is the statement in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal:

This hilly limestone region, between the Wharfe and the Aire, was once a great forest of elm-trees. It was the Elmet of remote times...

So Elmet was indeed an elm forest.

(Borders on the map are conjectural.)

Map of Elmet
The precise boundaries of Elmet cannot be known for certain, but this map attempts to show those regions which appear to have been 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 or tap on map to view in a separate window)

Alani & Roxolani
Frey & Freya
Picts & Caledonia
Sakas & Scythians

The modern Welsh word for elm is 'llwyfen' ('llwyfanen'). The 'f' in the word was once an 'm', and the 'll' was once a single 'l', giving 'lwymen', a sequence which is similar to the Irish Gaelic.

But modern Welsh is descended from Gaulish speech, not from Belgic, so perhaps the Belgic used a German loan word. Combine the two parts above and Elmet would mean simply 'elm forest'.

As for the later descent of the name, by the rules of Welsh consonant shift an internal 'm' becomes a 'v' sound (spelled 'f' in Welsh), and the hard 't' on the end softens to 'd', and then becomes a voiced 'th'.

Then from contact with the English, this voiced 'th' would either vanish or be replaced by an 's' sound.

This is seen in the Welsh and Cornish version of the name David, which became Dafydd in modern Welsh but which the English turned into Davey in Cornwall, and Davis on the Welsh border.

It was through this latter transformation that 'Elmet' as a proper name became famous in the twentieth century - as the 'Elvis' in Elvis Presley!


Main Sources

The Venerable Bede - A History of the English Church and People (Leo Sherley-Price translation - revised by R E Latham)

James Ingram - Annales Cambriae (taken from the Harleian manuscript, the earliest surviving version, London, Everyman Press, 1912)

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

A H Smith - Place Names of The West Riding of Yorkshire (1971)

Online Sources

Brittonic Language in the Old North

Suffix Dictionary

Online Etymology Dictionary

The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler & Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.