Elmet was a British kingdom located in the area around what is now Leeds in the early seventh century. What do we know about it?
The name ‘Elmet’ is retained in the modern place names of Barwick-in-Elmet and Sherburn-in Elmet, east of Leeds.
Map link: Barwick-in-Elmet
Map link: Sherburn-in Elmet
If these names were given to stress that the areas in question belonged to Elmet, it may indicate that they were located in a region near the edge of Elmet, where territorial affiliation might be in doubt. If so, this would be consistent with the kingdom having been bounded on its north-eastern side by the natural barrier of the River Wharfe and the River Ouse.
To the west, the Pennine chain of hills and moors running north-south through Yorkshire and Derbyshire forms a natural barrier that is a likely candidate for the western boundary of the kingdom of Elmet. See Wikipedia for a relief map.
One of the three main routes from west to east across the Pennines is the valley of the River Aire, which runs through Leeds. Following the river upstream, north-west, brings you to Bradford, Keighley, and then to a small town called Sutton-in-Craven.
Map link: Sutton-in-Craven
On the same logic as the –in-Elmet place names mentioned above, the –in-Craven suffix is presumably there to indicate a regional identity. If so, the north-western boundary of Elmet may have been somewhere in the Keighley area.
The River Sheaf, which flows into Sheffield from the south and gives its name to the city, has an Old English name meaning ‘boundary’ (Room 1993).
Map link: River Sheaf, Sheffield
It formed the boundary between the counties of Derbyshire and the old West Riding of Yorkshire (see Wikipedia for a map of the location of the West Riding). ‘Riding’ is a Norse word meaning ‘a third part’ (the other two were East and North), so the Ridings date back a long time. If the West Riding was derived from an earlier region, then the River Sheaf may have also formed the boundary of the earlier region, and it is thus a possible candidate for the southern boundary of Elmet.
Edwin, son of Alla, reigned seventeen years, seized on Elmete, and Expelled Cerdic, its king.--Historia Brittonum ch. 63, available online
616 Ceredig died.--Annales Cambriae, available online
617 Edwin begins his reign.
Assuming that the Ceredig who died in 616 is the Cerdic, king of Elmet, mentioned in Historia Brittonum, Annales Cambriae seems to have got the events the opposite way round. Ceretic is a common Brittonic name and Annales Cambriae may be referring to a different individual. If they are the same, it is possible that Edwin (Eadwine) expelled Ceredig/Cerdic before beginning his own reign, or perhaps as part of the same campaign so that events followed close on one another and their order later became confused.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History
Bede specifically mentions Elmet once in his Ecclesiastical History:
A basilica was built at the royal residence of Campodunum, but this, together with all the buildings of the residence, was burned by the pagans who killed King Edwin and later kings replaced this seat by another in the vicinity of Loidis. The stone altar of this church survived the fire and is preserved in the monastery that lies in Elmet Wood and is ruled by the most reverend priest and abbot Thrydwulf.
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book II ch.15
Loidis is modern Leeds. The site of Campodunum is uncertain. The two leading candidates are Doncaster and Slack, near Huddersfield, both the sites of Roman towns or forts. The Roman name of Doncaster, Danum, could be related to the second element of Bede’s name Campodunum. Both are within the boundaries of Elmet as suggested above. Bede uses the name Elmet not as the name of a region or province, but as the name of a forest, Elmet Wood. This may indicate that the name Elmet could refer to a specific locality, possibly part of a larger territory.
Bede also refers to a Brittonic king called Cerdic, ruling in around 614. If this king Cerdic is the same individual as the Ceredig recorded in Annales Cambriae at about the same time, and also the same individual as the king of Elmet recorded at about the same time in Historia Brittonum, then this also refers to events in Elmet:
….a dream which her mother Breguswith had when Hild was an infant, during the time that her husband Hereric was living in banishment under the protection of the British king Cerdic, where he died of poison.--Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV ch. 23.
I discussed Hereric in an earlier post. Bede’s story suggests that Hereric’s death is likely to have occurred around the time of Hild’s birth in about 614, so Ceretic was reigning at that time.
The Tribal Hidage
The Tribal Hidage is a list of regions and the number of hides they contained. A hide was an Anglo-Saxon unit of land measurement, and roughly approximated to the amount of land required to support a household. Bede regularly refers to districts as “….the land of XXX families….”. Needless to say, the area of a hide would have varied enormously depending on the productivity of the land. The date and purpose of the Tribal Hidage are not certain (more on this in another post), but the various controversies need not concern us here. For the purposes of this post, the interesting part is the following entry:
Pecsætna twelf hund hyda. 1,200--Tribal Hidage, transcription available online
Elmed sætna syx hund hyda. 600
“Elmed” is a variant spelling of Elmet, and “saetna” is an Old English word meaning something like “settlers”. It appears several times in the Tribal Hidage as the suffix to a district name.
The immediately preceding entry, Pecsaetna, is the origin of the modern name ‘Peak District’, which refers to the uplands forming the southern end of the Pennines in modern Derbyshire, Cheshire and Staffordshire. Map on the National Park Authority website here. This is consistent with the suggestion above that Elmet bordered the Pennine uplands of the modern Peak District.
The small number of hides attributed to Elmet (600) is slightly surprising, given that it was important enough for Historia Brittonum to consider its ruler a king. Caveat that we are uncertain about what was meant by a king or what size of territory qualified as a kingdom. This may indicate that Elmet was smaller than implied by the boundaries suggested above, which in turn may suggest that Ceretic was a minor king or a sub-king. Or it may suggest that Elmet had changed in size when the Tribal Hidage was compiled, or that the name Elmet could be used to refer to a particular region within a larger territory, or that the Tribal Hidage records only part of the territory of Elmet.
The place names with the –in-Elmet suffix indicate that Elmet included the area east of modern Leeds. Its boundaries are conjectural, but the River Sheaf, the Rivers Wharfe and Ouse, the Pennine uplands and the district of Craven are reasonable candidates. Its boundaries may have fluctuated over time.
Elmet was a sufficiently important territory for its ruler to be considered a king by the compiler of Historia Brittonum. This seems inconsistent with the small size (600 hides) recorded in the Tribal Hidage. It may be that Elmet was a small territory and its king may have been more of a sub-king, or Elmet may have changed in size over time, or the Tribal Hidage may refer to only a part of Elmet, or the name Elmet may have referred to a particular region (Bede’s ‘Elmet Wood’, perhaps) within a larger territory, which may or may not have shared the same name.
The king of Elmet at the time of its conquest was Ceretic or Cerdig (more about him in another post). If he was the king referred to by Bede, he was a Brittonic king, and he certainly had a Brittonic name. This may indicate that Elmet was a Brittonic or predominantly Brittonic territory.
Elmet was conquered by Eadwine of Deira/Northumbria (reigned 617-633), probably near the beginning of his reign on the basis of the dates in Annales Cambriae. It presumably remained under Eadwine’s control until his death in 633. Bede’s statement that “later kings” (presumably kings of Northumbria given the context of the passage, though this is not specified) had a royal residence near Loidis suggests that Elmet, or at least the area of Elmet near modern Leeds, was also in Northumbrian control during the reigns of Eadwine’s successors as kings of Northumbria.
What happened to Elmet immediately after Eadwine’s death is not recorded. It may have stayed part of Northumbria throughout, it may have regained independence temporarily, in part or in whole, or it may have been temporarily taken over by another kingdom, peacefully or otherwise. Bede describes the year following Eadwine’s death as total chaos in Northumbria, and the same may also have applied in Elmet.
Annales Cambriae, available online
Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Historia Brittonum ch. 63, available online
Room A. Dictionary of Place Names. Bloomsbury, 1993. ISBN 0-7475-1511-5.
Tribal Hidage, transcription available online