History Files

Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain


MapElmet (Elmetia / Elfed)

Feature FeatureMuch about the existence of the Romano-British kingdom of Elmet is shrouded in mystery or vague fact, although tantalisingly less so than with many of its peers. It was located in South Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, along with eastern Derbyshire and with extensions into West Yorkshire and lower North Yorkshire. Bordering it to the east was Lind Colun (which very early on became Lindsey under the Angles), Caer Lerion to the south (also quickly overrun by the Middil Engle), the 'Kingdom of the Pennines' to the west and north-west, and Ebrauc to the north and north-east.

FeatureElmet (or Elmetia in its Latinised form, and Elfed as perhaps a later Brythonic form) apparently emerged in the late fifth century as a result of the fragmentation of the powerful 'Kingdom of Northern Britain'. This had been formed of the territory between the River Humber and Hadrian's Wall, with some extensions northwards of that, and primarily it seems to have been a continuance of the Roman military command of the north. Elmet's territory was descended from that of the tribe of the Corieltavi, with the northern part coming from the Brigantes and perhaps centred on Loidis (Latin Campoduno, modern Leeds). In fact, Loidis may have formed the core of Elmet, and the last part of it to fall. Elmet was a bulwark of the defence of lower northern Britain, and once it did fall, so too did any realistic British hope of holding onto the Pennines.

The origin of the name Elmet has not been easy to deduce, and the deduction is rather tortuous. It seems to bear no relation to the earlier tribe around the Loidis area (modern Leeds) which is known to have removed itself from the confederation of the Brigantes in the second century. What's more, unlike Rheged and perhaps Berneich, it is not descended from the name Brigantes. In attempting to analyse the name Elmet, 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. Knowing this, a search for possible suffixes for '-et' and '-ete', plus another as yet unknown element produces '-etum', a Latin suffix denoting 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, the 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. 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 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 (by this latter transformation, Elmet as a proper name is famous in the twentieth century as the first name of Elvis Presley!).

Within the kingdom's borders, the region of Mission gained its name from the Brythonic word 'magestu', meaning 'open land', an expanse relatively free of trees. This area had been wooded until the Romans burned it down during their invasion of the Corieltavi lands in AD 46. The woods gradually regenerated, but were devastated by a flood, probably in the late fourth century. This knocked down all the trees, which were later found in the bogs with their tops pointing downstream. From that point on, the area was mostly open with a little wetland forest lying in spots across open fens. Nearby Messingham probably gained the first and oldest part of its name for the same reason; 'mess'. The Brythonic word 'magestu' evolved into the Old Welsh plural 'maessid' and 'mais' and then the Middle and Modern Welsh 'maes', showing a development that could easily be interpreted by the Angles of the Lindisware or Mercia as 'mess', to which they appended 'ing' to denote the people who settled the area.

MapInterestingly, following Elmet's fall, its population of Britons might have stayed put (royal family aside) and maintained a strong presence in the area. Later Anglo-Saxon names such as Barwick survive (berewic is Old English for 'corn farm'), in this case as Barwick-in-Elmet, as if the locals were determined to maintain the memory of the fallen kingdom. The incoming Angles became known as the Elmed Saetna, or Elmet settlers, so it is clear that the name was well enough established with the invaders to survive its own collapse.

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from A History of the English Church and People, The Venerable Bede (Leo Sherley-Price translation - revised by R E Latham), from the Annales Cambriae, James Ingram (taken from the Harleian manuscript, the earliest surviving version, London, Everyman Press, 1912), from Early Territorial Organization in Gwynedd and Elmet, G R J Jones (1975), from Place Names of The West Riding of Yorkshire, A H Smith (1971), and from External Links: Brittonic Language in the Old North, and Suffix Dictionary, and Online Entymology Dictionary, and The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal. The notes on Elmet's demise have been greatly enhanced by M R Watson.)

fl c.470

Mascuid / Masgwid Gloff (the Lame)

Son of Gwrast Lledlwm, king of Rheged.


Mascuid is granted the territory of Elmet by his father, Gwrast Lledlwm, king of Rheged. Loidis (Leeds) may form his capital, but this is far from clear. It may even be a separate region or sub-kingdom of its own. This event seems to coincide with the death of Mor ap Ceneu, 'King of Northern Britain', and the subsequent division of his north-eastern territory into Ebrauc to the east of Elmet and the 'Kingdom of the Pennines' to the west. This would probably leave Elmet permanently cut off from Rheged and perhaps even in danger of annexation, so it is in Gwrast's interests to ensure that one of his sons is in command of the territory. The territory at this time is at its greatest extent, probably extending as far south as the point at which the Derwent joins the River Trent.

Map of Elmet
A map showing Elmet's probable borders during its greatest extent, with the grey areas being lost first, and the deep pink area last, in 617 (click or tap on map to view full size)

fl c.495

Llaenauc / Llaennog ap Masgwid



Although Llaenauc has been linked by some to territories further to the north, the fact that his father has clear associations with the founding of Elmet ties him to this territorium. It has been suggested that he is the founder of an early sixth century British kingdom which is centred on Lennox (now in southern Scotland), and giving his name to the town. No evidence exists to support this theory and it seems much more likely to be an attempt to explain the town's name by linking it to a known British ruler.

fl c.500

Einion ap Masgwid

Brother. The first of four 'Princes of Elmet'.

fl c.500

Arthuis ap Masgwid

Brother. Often confused with contemporary, High King Arthur.

FeatureArthuis' role in Elmet is unclear. As a younger son of Mascuid he is unlikely to inherit the kingship, but could the Celtic habit of dividing territories amongst all surviving sons mean that he holds power in an Elmetian sub-territory? The period in which he flourishes, at the end of the fifth century, is also contemporary with the most probable period in which the better known Arthur is dux Britanniarum and possibly even an emperor of Britain in the style of several Romans before him, meaning that the two are often confused (see feature link).

fl c.500

St Cynllo ap Masgwid


fl c.500

Ceredig ap Masgwid


c.540 - aftr 590

Guallauc / Gwallog Marchod Trin

Son of Llaenauc. Identified with Elmet via 2 surviving poems.


Guallac is appropriately nicknamed 'Marchod Trin' ('Battle Horseman') in early material that survives by being transported to Wales. There are two surviving poems concerning him, one of which calls him a 'judge over Elmet', suggesting he is not so much a king, more a commander-in-chief or even a magistrate (a Roman position of governance that seems to have been strongly maintained in the south in the fifth century but is seemingly unheard of in the sixth).


The Angles of Deira assert their full independence at the same time as Ida of Bernicia dies, raising the threat of invasion into Ebrauc or Elmet by hostile former mercenaries.

c.570 - 580

FeatureThe Deirans continue to gain ground in neighbouring Ebrauc. Although by now they seem to have already captured the coast by about 570, the city of Ebrauc (York) is known to have fallen later, between about 570-580, so it seems likely, given their dates of death (Annales Cambriae), that the sons of Eliffer had been fighting on from their capital until overrun. The loss of Ebrauc to the Deirans leaves Elmet's long north-eastern border exposed.

Sancton Saxon cemetery, East Yorkshire
The cemetery at Sancton in East Yorkshire was created by the pagan Saxons of Deira in the sixth century, situated close to two Roman roads which would have been in use at the time, albeit in a declining state of repair


FeatureGuallauc allies himself to his cousin, Urien Rheged. A confederation of British kings is formed from this alliance, primarily based and operating in the north. The dispossessed Morcant Bulc of Bernaccia and Rhiderch Hael of Alt Clut both join the confederation in operations against Anglian Bernicia, and are present at the siege of Ynys Metcaut (Lindisfarne) in this year. The Bernicians are almost driven out of Britain but the confederation falls apart when Morcant Bulc has Urien Rheged assassinated, fearing his great power should the Britons win the war against the invaders. His act fatally weakens the British cause in the north.

c.590 - 617

Ceretic / Ceredig ap Gwallog

Son. Possible High King. Died in exile c.619.


The fall of Dunoting, and probably The Peak at the same time, leaves Elmet surrounded on all sides by its enemies from the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia. They are growing increasingly powerful at the expense of the remaining 'Men of the North'. Ceretic himself is sometimes mistakenly called the nephew of 'King Arthur', thanks to his great-uncle being Arthuis, 'Prince of Elmet'. His name, Ceretic or Caradog, means 'beloved of Dagda', Dagda being Dag, the solar god who is cognate with English 'day', plus 'da', meaning 'good' - 'good Dag', in the same way that Christians might say 'blessed lord'.


The Battle of Catreath is a disaster for the Britons. The flower of the northern British warrior class is decimated by the superior numbers of the Bernician Angles. Guotodin, as well as the other kingdoms of the North, probably including Elmet, are all fatally weakened by the defeat. Elmet's greatest champion, Madoc, is certainly numbered amongst the casualties, and it seems likely that Elmet's borders are reduced around the same time to a core territory lying between Danum (Doncaster), Legiolium, and Loidis (Leeds), all west of the final stretch of the River Don before it meets the Humber. This is most likely to be due to an opportunistic raid by Deira, and it may also suggest that Elmet becomes tributary to the dominant Angles around this time.

616 - 617

As recorded by Bede, Saint Hilda is born in 614 as a member of the royal family of Deira, which had been driven out in 593 by Ęthelfrith of Bernicia. Hilda grows up under the protection of Ceretic, whom Bede describes as 'King of the Britons', suggesting that he is a candidate for the high kingship (and a viable one that fits into the chronology under the name of Keretic).

In 616, Edwin is restored in Deira and invades Bernicia to become ruler of all the Angles north of the Humber. He begins a push westwards that will gain him the entire Pennine region, and in 617 he uses the poisoning of Hilda's father, Prince Hereric, as a pretext for invading Elmet, holding Ceretic responsible. As Ceretic had been on peaceful terms with Ęthelfrith, it is possible that the death was to appease the Bernician king. The Elmetians are outnumbered by Edwin's host and are chased to the River Don (probably the southern border of the kingdom) where they finally make a stand. The doomed stand is defeated in a battle fought near the former Roman settlement of Bawtry (approximately ten kilometres (six miles) south-east of Danum (Doncaster), on the Roman road to Linnuis (Lindsey). Edwin is able to subdue the kingdom and its last native king, Ceretic, is expelled and dies around 619.

River Idle near Bawtry
The River Idle, just south of Bawtry, which connected to the River Don until 1628, was the scene of the final battle for Elmet's free British warriors

617 - 634

High King Cadwallon (and probably his father, too) already holds a claim to the crown of Deira as part of his domains. He now apparently includes Elmet in this claim, and this is enforced when Cadwallon and Penda of Mercia kill Edwin of Bernicia in 633 at Hatfield Chase. When Cadwallon himself is killed at Heavenfield in 634 by Oswald of Bernicia, that claim probably dies with him.

634 - 655

FeatureMapPenda of Mercia may have inherited his former ally's claim to Elmet, but his death at the hands of Oswiu of Northumbria at the Battle of Winwaed marks a definite demise for Elmet. Whin Moor near Leeds is the reputed site of the battle, with Penda's forces being driven back to the River Air, probably at Woodlesford. Much of Elmet appears to fall under the control of Northumbria, although at least a small slice of its southern territory is in the hands of the Mercians by the late seventh century, as witnessed by the 600 hides attributed to it in the Tribal Hidage document.