LKM: Craven

This month’s lost kingdom is the British kingdom of Craven. It has been identified by placenames only and its existence as a distinct district in the Domesday Book. The district of Craven is to the north-west of Elmet reaching to the rivers Ribble, Wharfe, and Aire. Note that in the past, most of Craven has been referred to as southern Rheged. So, now we know that this was not part of Rheged.


Wood asserts that the name Craven is Old Welsh from crafu ‘to scratch or to scrap’, meaning scraped land. This fits the faults, the rock formations, of this mountainous region. A large portion of Craven was in the Pennine mountains.

Wood describes Craven as “a large district in Anglo-Saxon times, controlling the upper dales of the Wharfe, Ribble, and Aire, and containing two possible shires in the eleventh century.” It seems to fit what Bede and contemporary writers called “regions” within the “provinces” (kingdoms). Wood notes that these “regions”, where evidence exists, appear to have once been independent tribes, clans or kingdoms.

Places in the region of Craven are mentioned once in Anglo-Saxon literature. When church of Ripon is consecrated, Bishop Wilfrid reads out a list of lands given to him by Kings Ecgfrith and his brother King Ælfwine. These lands were “holy places in various parts of the country which the British clergy, fleeing from our own hostile sword, had deserted….They gave Wilfrid land round Ribble, Yeadon, Dent, and Catlow” (Farmer, p. 124). These lands all fall in the district of the proposed kingdom of Craven and therefore date its transfer to Northumbria, probably recently under Kings Ecgfrith and Ælfwine in the early 670s. Expanding ‘Northumbria’ east of the Pennines appears to be Ecgfrith’s primary areas of conquest, probably against relatively minor opposition (compared to Mercia south of Elmet or the Picts north of Lothian).

Most English kings prior to Ecgfrith appear to have been willing or compelled to be satisfied with hegemony over their British neighbors. It may be that they simply didn’t have enough English retainers to fill all the necessary administrative positions within an enlarged kingdom. Yet, the last significant British power within what we normally consider Northumbria fell with Cadwallon at the battle of Denisesburna against Oswald in 634. The Bernician dynasty was still too weak in 634 to occupy and expel the British aristocrats. There is reason to think that, like his father Æthelfrith, Oswald was willing to work with British kingdoms, as evidenced by the marriage of his brother Oswiu to Rheinmellt great granddaughter of Urien Rheged. Likewise, Oswiu seems to have been satisfied by exerting hegemony over most of the northern British kingdoms. Although Oswiu exerted hegemony over distant kingdoms (Pictland, Dalriada, Strathclyde, Lindsey, and elsewhere), Ecgfrith is the first credited with expanding direct control over more British territory. Gododdin, their nearest northern neighbor, is the only region that Oswald and Oswiu seem to have annexed directly into Bernicia. Likewise, Edwin is only credited with permanently annexing Elmet.

References and suggested reading:

PN Wood (1996) “On the Little British Kingdom of Craven” Northern History 32: 1-20.

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

Farmer, David (ed and trans) (1988) “Eddius Stephanus: Life of Wilfrid” in The Age of Bede. Penguin.

9 thoughts on “LKM: Craven

  1. “So now we know that this was not part of Rheged.”

    Oof. I bet there were times when it was you know. This is part of the problem with reconstructing this stuff; in an era of competing warlords and ill-defined territory nothing stays the same for long; so at what point was one’s evidential snapshot taken? I suspect Urien’s Rheged of being much larger than some other versions of Rheged.

    Of course, I have no evidence either 🙂 It’s the nature of the game here.

  2. That’s how “Rheged” got that far south! 😉

    Well, I think as late as the seventh century kings had a right to rule their core territory, for example, Oswiu in Bernicia (642-655) but his hegemony was far greater. Until the seventh century, its seems to me that kingdoms had fairly fixed boundaries but kings didn’t, so that a king might rule more than one kingdom, like Æthelfrith king of Bernicia and Deira. Bernicia didn’t get bigger, Æthelfrith just ruled two kingdoms. So Urien Rheged may have ruled or had extensive hegemony over multiple kingdoms, but “Rheged” was still a fairly defined place. At least in my opinion for what that is worth, which is not much! 🙂

  3. I think there’s room for a lot of different opinions about early medieval territories, and I’m sure it differs from place to place. At the moment I’m inclined mostly to believe that people knew of certain places in what area they belonged, although that could be changed by takeover; for example, whether or not Carlisle is in Rheged or not… But mainly I think of it as connections not boundaries between zones. I’m sure that at times, in disputes and so on, lines were drawn: Offa’s Dyke for one! But when a king takes over an area, he has the options either of annexation, of saying `these centres now belong to Bernicia’ if he can get his way on the ground, or of imperium, of saying, `I now rule these centres of this other polity’. I guess both have their political points if correctly spun.

    What the peasant holdings and grazing between the centres think is a different question though. Who turns up to claim their sheep under menaces is probably the main question there. Or, if you prefer, to what centre do they go when they need a dispute settled or to beg protection from cattle-thieves? That way one can define where somewhere belongs, but even if you can do that over a large area, it can change so quickly, and it’s still not the same as a line on a map…

  4. I think the difference is that your taxes and local protection go to one of your own people or an agent of a distant king. The locals may be too removed from the ways of power to know or care who the local Lord pays. It just matters who the local Lord is, a fellow Briton (who somehow got power by the local system) or an agent of the English king placed there over riding local systems. The administrative districts seem to be remarkably stable, its just lordship over those districts that changes, that is why they seem to change hands in blocks.

    Leadership in the church seems directly dependent on the local lords, so that the British churches are abandoned when the British lords loose direct control over the area of Craven. Those churches were occupied while Craven was under Northumbrian overlordship, but not direct rule. We know that the monasteries became agents of the local lord in the area, re-enforcing his rule and no doubt preaching that the locals should obey him. They were his eyes and ears and particularly good at regulating traffic on borders and creating a peaceful buffer zone between kingdoms. We see Gateshead controlling an important river crossing, Hartlepool on the border between Bernicia and Deira, and several examples of monasteries placed between the border of British Dumnonia/Cornwall and Wessex.

  5. Monasteries can certainly do that, but it’s a quid pro quo; you can think of as many examples as I can of abbots or bishops defying the lords of the land when it suits them better! So the lord needs to stay friendly. Of course, in cases like Wilfrid, the churchman is as lordly as the lay lords if not more so…

    Church foundations are also good on borders because they have existing capital and labour, so they can take over territory and organise on a scale that lay settlers often can’t.

    1. Although Wood asserts that the name Craven is Old Welsh from crafu it could equally derive from the Welsh word for Garlic ‘Craf’ which in its wild form grows abundantly in the area today.

      Despite being distinct from Rheged it is likely Craven shared a brythonic language (Cumbric) which some argue may have been quite distinct from Welsh. For example Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methera, Pim (Known cumbric) compared to Old Welsh “Un, Dou, Tri, Petwar, Pimp”.

  6. I am seeking a map of the boundaries of ‘ancient’ Craven. I am writing a history of the village of Oakworth and would like to know whether it was in Elmet or Craven in the 7th Century prior to annexation bt Northumbria. Can any one supply a map. I recognise the boundariesmay not be that specific.

  7. Terryoak: Your best bet is to get hold of a copy of Wood’s article “On the Little British Kingdom of Craven” mentioned above. A copy can be got from here, but it isn’t free.

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