Lost Kingdom of the Month (LKM): Elmet

Elmet was a British kingdom located in what is today West Riding Yorkshire, with its core functions in the district of Loidis (Leeds) bounded by the Rivers Ouse and Aire. Jones suggests that the western border of Elmet reached all the way to the Peak district and bordered on Craven to the northwest. The district of Hatfield was its southern border and the British city-state of York/Caer Ebrauc was its northern border. It is possible that the Roman city of Cambodunum is the modern city of Leeds, and possibly the British capital.

Elmet appears to have been a triangle shaped kingdom with its point on the Humber estuary. Its southern border may have went as far south as the River Don. Elmet extending so far south goes a long way in explaining the Northumbrian opinion that a significant amount of land south of the Humber belonged to them. It is possibly the furthest eastern British kingdom known to have co-existed with English kingdoms in the early seventh century. It is significant that a British kingdoms survived so close to York and the River Humber as late as 616.

Placename studies and archaeology show that Christianity survived well in Elmet through the British to English period. The landscape is dotted with eccles- placenames and holy wells favored by the British. Dedications to St. Helen (mother of Constantine, who was raised to the purple at nearby York) are common.

Elmet first appears in, not surprisingly, Cambro-Latin and Old Welsh sources. According to the Historia Brittonum, Gwallawg was one of the allies of Urien Rheged’s during his seige of Bernician King Theodoric on the isle of Lindisfarne in the 570s. Gwallawg may have joined those who assassinated Urien because the Llywarch Hen corpus of poetry refers to him chasing down the sons of Urien. The Song of Lleenawg from the Book of Taliesin is about Gwallawg.

In Welsh genealogies, Gwallawg is the father of Ceredig, the last British king of Elmet. He is also featured in other Old Welsh poetry and one elegy for Cadwallon of Gwynedd refers to Gwallawg at Catraeth (the battle in Y Gododdin). According to the Bonedd y Sant, Gwallawg’s daughter Dwynai married King Dunod ap Pabo Post Prydain (Pillar of Britain) and they are the parents of St Deiniol of Bangor.

The end of the British kingdom is referenced in three historical sources.

  • Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: St. Hild’s father Hereric was poisoned in the court of British king Cerdic of Elmet while her mother Bruguswitha was pregnant with Hild. According to Bede’s dates for Hilda, she was born in 614. It seems likely that “Cerdic” gave into the demands of Æthelfrith to assassinate one of the Deiran princes in exile. Æthelfrith would have also needed to cross Cerdic’s kingdom to reach his last battle on the River Idle and probably crossed Elmet to reach Chester a year or so earlier. Therefore, it is likely that Elmet had come to an accomodation with Æthelfrith that allowed them to survive. Although Bede claimed that Æthelfrith conquered more Britons than any other English king before him, he clearly allowed some neighboring British kingdoms to survive.
  • Historia Brittonum (c. 830) records that King Edwin of Deira forced Ceretig (Cerdic) of Elmet out of his kingdom and annexed it to Deira. It seems likely that Hereric’s assassination was a pretext to Edwin’s final annexation of Elmet.
  • The Annals Cambriae records the death of King Ceredig in 616. Given the accuracy of the Annals Cambriae, this is the right time for Edwin’s return to the throne. The AC claims that Edwin came to the throne in 617, but as these two entries probably come from separate sources and with the overall (in)accuracy of the AC, I don’t think the one year difference is significant.

After Edwin seizes the kingdom, Elmet is mentioned a few more times. Interestingly, Bede places one of Edwin’s royal dwellings at Cambodunum in the region of Loidis (Leeds), a former Roman city and likely a major British city. Here, Edwin built one of the few churches that was erected during his reign. [Note that Bede says that churches were not erected at Catterick on the River Swale or anywhere in Bernicia.] Bede says that it was burned along with the buildings of the royal dwelling by those who killed Edwin. Although Bede says it was burned by pagans, it seems likely that Cadwallon would have been the one to consider a English royal dwelling in Cambodunum to be the most offensive. It seems likely the entire royal complex was targeted rather than just the church. Bede recorded that the stone alter survived and was currently found in Abbot Thrythwulf’s monastery in the forest of Elmet. It is perhaps worth noting that rallying poem for Cadwallon’s final assault on Edwin in October 633 calls Britons to ‘meet in Elmet’. The proposed site of the battle of Hatfield Chase is, indeed, near the border of Elmet.

Tim Clarkson recently suggested that the battle of Maserfelth may have been located on the border of Elmet, where transport St Oswald’s body to Bardney in Lindsey would not have been a major trip. He notes that Bede claimed that a Briton was one of the first to report a miracle at the site of Oswald’s death.

Elmet was the site of a second major battle when Penda of Mercia (Cadwallon’s former ally) was slain by King Oswiu of Bernicia/Northumbria at the battle of Winwæd near Leeds in November 655.

Lastly, Elmet is included within the tribal hinge with an assessment of 600 hides. This is the equivalent of a small kingdom and may only refer to the district of Leeds. This evaluation is also probably influenced by the quality of the swampy land where all the rivers merge into the Humber estuary. Some of Elmet may have also been a relatively uninhabited frontier between Northumbria and Mercia.

Austerfield in the district of Hatfield is right on the border of Elmet, so that the Synod of Austerfield (c. 702-703) was held on the border between Northumbrian Elmet and the Mercian district of Hatfield. The Synod of Austerfield is only described in Stephan’s Life of Bishop Wilfrid.

References and suggested reading:

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book II Chapter 14, Book IV Chapter 23

See also Historia Brittonum, chapter 63

See also, Annals Cambriae, anno 616

Nick Higham. (2006) “Northumbria’s southern frontier: a review” Early Medieval Europe 14(4):391-418.

Tim Clarkson (2006) “Locating Maserfelth” The Heroic Age Issue 9

R. Geraint Gruffydd (1994) “In Search of Elmet” Studia Celtica 28: 63-79.

CM Taylor. (1992) “Elmet: boundaries and Celtic survival in the post-Roman period” Medieval History vol. 2: 111-129.

John Koch. (1997) The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark-Age North Britain. Celtic Studies Press.

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10 thoughts on “Lost Kingdom of the Month (LKM): Elmet

  1. Aethelfrith’s route southward to fight his final battle on the River Idle may have skirted the eastern frontier of Elmet without having to pass through the kingdom. The Roman road running north-south may have been recognized as a boundary, especially if the Becca Banks and other nearby earthworks originated in this period. I recall seeing a suggestion that this impressive network of ditches and ramparts might have marked Elmet’s northeastern border in the 6th-7th centuries. The reference could be the Taylor article but I’m not certain.

  2. “The proposed site of the battle of Hatfield Chase is, indeed, near the border of Elmet.”

    This site is well open for contention – as noted in the article Hatfield was a large Hundred which went into North Nottinghamshire, Oswaldbeck was also in this area (now Bassetlaw, both getting absorbed in the 15th century.

    The historian who decided it was at Hatfield Chase (can’t remember his name) changed his mind and decided it was more likely at Cuckney in Notts (the find of 600 bodies in a mass grave under the church when the buildings foundatations were being underpinned due to mining subsidence help to substanciate this although the Church of England refused to let archaeologists examine the bodies and reburied them straight away. These bodies could however have been ‘dumped’ when the illegal castle was built on the site during the time of King Stephen.

    His initial reasoning was the road called ‘Slay Pits Lane’ but there are also other ‘…pits…’ in the area. Also place name evidence such as Edwinstowe and a small chapel dedicated to Edwin close by. You’ll also need to ignore Edenthorpe in Doncaster as possible evidence as the was called Streethorpe until recent times.

  3. The exact location of the ‘Battle of Hatfield Chase’ is interesting, but I think that the broad area is more significant. Clearly, both the battle that began Edwin’s reign and the battle that ended it were in the same broad area, vis across the southern end of the only viable land route east of the Pennines between Deira and Mercia, running into Deira through Elmet (c.f. the water route across the Humber and through Lindsey).
    However, there was also a western route running broadly through what is now Manchester. I have always wondered why Cadwallon et al took the eastern route (necessitating co-operation from Penda) when they attacked Edwin. Why not take the western route, which would have surely been logistically simpler, whether most of Cadwallon’s supporters (as is traditionally assumed) were from Gwynedd or whether they were opponents of Edwin from more northerly kingdoms, as suggested by Alex Woolf.
    Any thoughts?

    1. I suppose there are a few possibilities. 1) Cadwallon is chasing Edwin and this is where they meet up. Calling allies to meet him along their trajectory. 2) Cadwallon could have landed from Ireland further north and actually been chasing Edwin south out of Deira. According to legend, Cadwallon had been in exile in Ireland before his last campaign against Edwin. If this is true, then he could have been meeting his troops coming from Wales in Elmet, before the final push to take Edwin out before he got lost in the maze of the marshes in Lindsey and the Wash.

      Also at Elmet’s greatest size before it was split between Deira and Mercia, I believe it went as far south as the River Don, so they could have come from the west and met in Elmet.(?) I think there is some reason to think that Deira and Mercia nearly split Elmet in half.

      I haven’t looked at this in a while so that’s all I can suggest off the top of my head.

  4. The chasing Edwin south idea is interesting. I had not thought of that. It would imply that he was already ‘on the ropes’ so to speak and cut off from any help from the core of Deira. He might have been heading for Lindsey. Or, thinking about that further, Cadwallon et al might have come down through Elmet, while Edwin had crossed the Humber and come down through Lindsey, before turning west and crossing the Trent. Thank you. A helpful idea.

  5. The Welsh Triads (edited by Rachel Bromwich) have quite a few hints about the relationship between Cadwallon and Edwin, I think the idea that Cadwallon was exiled to Ireland comes from the triads. Cadwallon may well have planned and coordinated his last campaign against Edwin from Ireland.

  6. I’m afraid the University of Queensland library doesn’t run to the Bromwich edition of the Triads. The only translation I have seen is the one in Celtic Literature online. But the Bromwich edition gets such rave reviews that I suppose I will have to bite the bullet and fork out for it through Amazon, rather than order it through inter-library loans. Ho hum.
    Meanwhile, yes, there is stuff there, however gnomic (and late) about what at least some of the Cymry believed happened. Evidence to be handled with extreme care, though, I feel.

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