For other uses, see Elmet (disambiguation).
Kingdom of Elmet

circa 5th century–627
Yr Hen Ogledd (The Old North) c. 550 – c. 650
Capital Barwick-in-Elmet
or Leeds
Languages Cumbric
Religion Celtic Christianity
Government Tribal
 -  circa 460 – circa 495 Masgwid Gloff
Historical era Early Middle Ages
 -  Roman administration departed from Roman Britain 407
 -  Established circa 5th century
 -  conquered 616
 -  Disestablished Easter Day 627

Elmet was an independent Brythonic kingdom covering a region of what later became the West Riding of Yorkshire in the Early Middle Ages, between about the 5th century and early 7th century.[1] Although its precise borders are unclear, it appears to have been bounded by the River Sheaf in the south and the River Wharfe in the east. It adjoined Deira to the north and Mercia to the south, and its western boundary appears to have been near Craven, which was possibly a minor British kingdom. As such it was well to the east of other territories of the Britons in Wales and the West Country (i.e. Cornwall and Dumnonia), and to the south of those in the Hen Ogledd or Old North. As one of the southeasternmost Brythonic regions for which there is reasonably substantial evidence, it is notable for having survived relatively late in the period of Anglo-Saxon conquest.[2]

Elmet was invaded and conquered by Northumbria in the autumn of 616 or 626. The kingdom is chiefly attested in topographical and archaeological evidence, references in early Welsh poetry, and historical sources such as the Historia Brittonum and Bede. The name survives throughout the area in place names such as Barwick-in-Elmet and Sherburn-in-Elmet. A local parliamentary constituency is also called Elmet and Rothwell.


Elmet was one of a number of Sub-Roman Brythonic realms of northern Britannia that existed during the Early Middle Ages (often referred to as the Dark Ages). As well as Elmet, these included Rheged, Strathclyde, Ebrauc, Bryneich and Gododdin. It is unclear how Elmet came to be established, though it has been suggested that it may have been created from a larger kingdom ruled by the semi-legendary Coel Hen. The historian Alex Woolf suggests that the region of Elmet had a distinct tribal identity in pre-Roman times and that this re-emerged after Roman rule collapsed.

The existence of Elmet is attested in the Historia Brittonum, which says that King Edwin of Northumbria "occupied Elmet and expelled Certic, king of that country". Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum says that Hereric, the father of St Hilda of Whitby, was killed at the court of King Ceretic. It is generally presumed that Ceretic/Certic were the same person, otherwise known as Ceredig ap Gwallog. However, Bede does not speak of Elmet as the name of a kingdom but rather as that of a forest of Elmet, silva Elmete. He mentions that "subsequent kings made a house for themselves in the district, which is called Loidis" and the battle of Winwaed, also in the region of Loidis – probably the area covered by the present day City of Leeds.

Elmet appears to have had ties with Wales; an early Christian inscription found in Gwynedd reads "ALIOTVS ELMETIACOS HIC IACET", or "Aliotus the Elmetian lies here". A cantref (administrative division) of Dyfed was also named Elfed, the Welsh equivalent of Elmet. A number of kings of Elmet are recorded in Welsh sources. One of Taliesin's poems is for Gwallog ap Llaennog, who ruled the kingdom near the end of the 6th century.

Towards the end of the 6th century, Elmet came under increasing pressure from the expanding Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Deira and Mercia. Forces from Elmet joined the ill-fated alliance in 590 against the Angles of Bernicia who had been making massive inroads further to the north. During this war it is thought Elmet's king Gwallog was killed. The northern alliance collapsed after Urien of Rheged was murdered and a feud broke out between two of its key members. It appears that after this, and the subsequent unification of the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, Elmet was compelled to construct a series of defensive ditches to the north and west of Barwick-in-Elmet in an apparent attempt to provide an extra line of defence for their king's hill fort – the remains of which can still be seen in this village.

The Northumbrians invaded and overran Elmet in 616. It is not known definitely what prompted the invasion, but it has been suggested that the casus belli was the death by poisoning of the Northumbrian nobleman Hereric, who was an exiled member of the Northumbrian royal house residing in Elmet. It may have been that Hereric had been poisoned by his hosts and Edwin of Northumbria invaded in retaliation; or perhaps Edwin himself had Hereric poisoned and invaded Elmet to punish Ceredig ap Gwallog for harbouring him.

After the conquest of Elmet, the realm was incorporated into Northumbria – on Easter Day, 627[3] – and the people were known as the Elmetsæte. They are recorded in the late 7th century Tribal Hidage as the inhabitants of a minor territory of 600 hides. They were the most northerly group recorded in the Tribal Hidage. The Elmetsæte probably continued to reside in West Yorkshire as a distinct group throughout the Saxon period and may have colluded with Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd when he invaded Northumbria and briefly held the area in 633. The Life of Cathróe of Metz mentions Loidam Civitatem as the boundary between the Norsemen of Jórvík and the Brythonic Cumbrians of Strathclyde: if this refers to Leeds, it suggests that some or all of Elmet may have been returned to Brythonic rule for a brief period in the first half of the 10th century[4][5][6] before Anglo-Saxon reconquest, but not as an independent state.

The survival of the local Brythonic community is probably responsible for the large number of Brythonic-derived placenames in the area, and of Anglo-Saxon placenames beginning Eccles- (from Anglo-Saxon ecles = "church", in turn taken from Latin ecclesia)[7] and Wal- (from Anglo-Saxon wealh = "foreigner", "stranger", used to refer to a population of native Brythonic peoples – from which Welsh is derived).[8] The inhabitants of Elmet are believed[by whom?] to have called themselves the Loides, a name which is still reflected in placenames: notably Ledston, Ledsham, Leathley and the modern city of Leeds ("Ledes" in 1086 in the Domesday Book).

Kings of Elmet


The area is the subject of a 1979 book combining photography and poetry; Remains of Elmet, by Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin. The book was re-published by Faber and Faber in 1994 simply titled Elmet, and with a third of the book being new additional poems and photographs.


Further reading

External links

  • Echoes of Elmet group
  • The Elmet Trust - Ted Hughes Festival, Mytholmroyd
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