‘The Calder valley, west of Halifax, was the last ditch of Elmet, the last British Celtic kingdom to fall to the Angles. For centuries it was considered a more or less uninhabitable wilderness, a notorious refuge for criminals, a hide-out for refugees. Then in the early 1800s it became the cradle for the Industrial Revolution in textiles, and the upper Calder became “the hardest-worked river in England”. Throughout my lifetime, since 1930, I have watched the mills of the region and their attendant chapels die. Within the last fifteen years the end has come. They are now virtually dead, and the population of the valley and the hillsides, so rooted for so long, is changing rapidly.’ Ted Hughes, Preface to Remains of Elmet (1979)
Ted Hughes’s remarkable ‘pennine sequence’ celebrates the area where he spent his early childhood. It mixes social, political, religious and historical matter – a tapestry rich in the personal and poetic investment of a landscape that both creates and is inured to its people, whose moors ‘Are a stage for the performance of heaven. Any audience is incidental.’ Remains of Elmet is one of Hughes’s most personal and enduring achievements.
Elmet (Cymric: Elfed) was an independent Brittonic or Old British 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. 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 (Deifr) 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 (Devon), and to the south of those in the Hen Ogledd (“Old North”). As one of the southeasternmost Brittonic regions for which there is reasonably substantial evidence, it is notable for having survived relatively late in the period of Anglo-Saxon or English settlement of Britain.
Elmet was invaded and conquered by the Kingdom of 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 Brittonorum 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 Brittonic realms in the Hen Ogledd – what is now northern England and southern Scotland – during the Early Middle Ages. Other kingdoms included Rheged, the Kingdom of Strathclyde, 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 region of Elmet probably 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 Ecclesiastical History of the English People says that Hereric, the father of Hilda of Whitby, an important figure in the Christianisation of the English, was killed at the court of Ceretic. It is generally presumed that Ceretic/Certic was the same person known in Welsh sources as Ceredig ap Gwallog, king of Elmet. However, Bede does not speak of Elmet as the name of a kingdom but rather of the silva Elmete “forest of Elmet”. He mentions that “subsequent kings made a house for themselves in the district, which is called Loidis”, and the battle of Winwaed was 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 later Dyfed was also named Elfed, the regular Cymric reflex of earlier Elmet. A number of ancestors of Ceretic are recorded in Welsh sources: one of Taliesin’s poems is for his father, Gwallog ap LLeenog, who may have ruled Elmet 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 English 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.
After the unification of the Anglian Kingdom of Northumbria, the Northumbrians invaded and overran Elmet in 616 or 617. It is not known definitely what prompted the invasion, but it has been suggested that the causus 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 for harbouring him.
After the conquest of Elmet, the realm was incorporated into Northumbria on Easter in 627 and its 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 Scandinavian York and the Britons of the Kingdom of Strathclyde: if this refers to Leeds, it suggests that some or all of Elmet may have been returned to Brittonic rule for a brief period in the first half of the 10th century before Anglo-Saxon reconquest, but not as an independent state.
According to a genetic study published in Nature (19 Mar 2015), the local population of West Yorkshire is genetically distinct from the rest of the population of Yorkshire, and indeed the rest of England, suggesting that families in West Yorkshire who have been in the area for many generations are descendants of the original Elmetsæte.