THE BRITISH KINGDOM OF ELMET
West Yorkshire after the Romans
No one is sure what happened to the area which is now West Yorkshire in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. In some parts of the country people seem to have reoccupied the hillforts that were built in the pre-Roman Iron Age and which were largely abandoned during the period of Roman rule. This does not seem to be the case in northern Britain, where there are fewer hillforts than in southern and western England. Here such structures seem to have remained unoccupied. This may be the case with the two examples in West Yorkshire (Castle Hill, Almondbury and Barwick in Elmet, (both of which are worth visiting) but there has been insufficient modern archaeological work at either site to resolve the uncertainty.
This might suggest that the Roman provincial system of government lasted longer in the North than the South, perhaps under the control of a strong military leader, based at York. Eventually, the system collapsed (probably some time in the mid-5th century) and a number of smaller British sub-kingdoms emerged. We know almost nothing about the history of these kingdoms until they are mentioned by Anglo-Saxon writers from the 600s onwards.
The Kingdom of Elmet
The area, which is now West Yorkshire, comprised the core of what was once the British kingdom of Elmet. Historians are not sure of its exact dimensions, but some indications can be gained from the number of place names ending with the phrase 'in Elmet'. Only two of these have survived into modern usage: Barwick in Elmet and Sherburn in Elmet. In medieval times several other villages in the region were also described as being 'in Elmet'. These included Burton Salmon, Clifford, High Melton, Micklefield, Saxton, South Kirby and Sutton. All of these lie to the east of what is now West Yorkshire and probably got the 'in Elmet' part of their name at a time when the Anglo-Saxons were beginning to expand out of East Yorkshire. Thus they were defined as being in British territory and not in the Anglo-Saxon held area. To the north-west, Elmet bordered on Craven, another small British kingdom that was over-run by the Anglo-Saxons earlier than Elmet. It is not clear precisely where the boundary between the two may have been, but this too may have lain in West Yorkshire along the river Wharfe.
The names of some of the people of Elmet may have survived as place names. Dewsbury, for example, means 'Dewi's fortification'. (Dewi is the equivalent of David in Welsh, an early form of which was spoken by the people of Elmet.) It is not clear where this fortification lay, but early maps of Dewsbury show two areas of initial focus for development. One is adjacent to the Minster, but what may be the fortified site is in the area now known as Boothroyd where field-name evidence suggests the existence of a fortification here or close by, possibly on the Dewsbury Moor/Daw Green spur. Such a position could command both the ecclesiastical focus in the valley bottom and the ford across the Calder at Thornhill Lees (now the site of Cleggford Bridge).
The defences of Elmet
To the east of Temple Newsam is a linear earthwork, which runs north from the river Aire and has been traced for several miles. This is known as Grim's Ditch and some archaeologists have suggested that it might be the last defences of the beleaguered kingdom of Elmet against the incoming Anglo-Saxons. If the eastern part of the territory had been lost a defensive earthwork in this area might be seen as guarding the heartland. Archaeological evidence for the theory is slight. Grim's Ditch has been sectioned in a number of places but few datable finds have been made. Recent work during the building of the M1-A1 Link Road established an early to mid-Iron Age date with a possible redefinition in the late Roman period. There was no evidence to suggest use in the early medieval period. Some of the small east-facing dykes in North Yorkshire, close to Aberford, may be more plausible defences.
Leeds, a capital city
Archaeologists are uncertain of the location of a town called Cambodunum by the Romans and Campodonum by Bede, but somewhere in the area of modern Leeds seems probable. After his conquest of Elmet in 617 King Edwin of Northumbria built a royal residence in Campodonum, and Paulinus built the first Anglo-Saxon church in the north of England there (this would have been in wood). It seems reasonable, therefore, to suppose that this was the capital of the former independent kingdom.
At least some of the people of Elmet and the other British Kingdoms were Christians, although this fact is not often stressed by authors such as Bede, who is more interested in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon elite. Bede would hand all the credit for the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria to Paulinus, but one of the versions of Nennius says that the first mass baptism of Anglo-Saxons was carried out by Rhun, son of Urien. Both these names are British, which suggests that the British may have played a role in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons.
Recent archaeological work has identified that not all Elmetians were Christian. Excavation work North of Garforth on the line of the new M1 extension discovered seven inhumations. These were radiocarbon dated and of the seven, three were definitely of post-Roman date and six of the seven may have been 5th or even 6th-century in date. One of these skeletons had had her head removed (probably after death) and placed beneath her feet, where hobnails were also recovered from sandals. Both these features are typically seen as a late Roman pagan burial rite and probably indicate the continuation of a pagan sub-Roman existence in West Yorkshire into the 5th and possibly 6th centuries AD.
No British churches have been identified in West Yorkshire, although one documented possibility is Llan Llennog. This is a place mentioned in a eulogy of Gwallog, one of the later princes of Elmet, by the Welsh poet Taliesin (writing at the end of the 6th century). Llan is the Welsh word for an enclosure, usually associated with a church, or monastery, and Llan Llennog may therefore have been an early monastery. Gwallog seems, however, to have been wide ranging in his activities: Pictland, Edinburgh and York are all mentioned in the same poem. There can therefore be no certainty that Llan Llennog, whatever its status, was actually in West Yorkshire.
Other clues as to the location of British churches come from Place Name evidence. The Saxon word eccles is used to indicate a British church. It forms an element in such West Yorkshire place names as Eccleshill (Bradford), Exley (Southowram) and Exley Head (Keighley). The only archaeological evidence for a possible British church in West Yorkshire is at Bramham where aerial photographs show the churchyard to be oval in shape, and at Hemsworth, where early mapping shows the same. Oval churchyards are thought by some archaeologists to be an indicator of a British foundation.
There are a number of holy wells recorded in the modern county of West Yorkshire. The most famous of these was St Helen's Well which formerly existed at Thorp Arch near Wetherby. Another holy well was situated near Eccleshill in Bradford. A chapel is recorded as having stood near St Helen's well and a fragment of Anglo-Saxon stone sculpture was found near the site. The eccles part of the place name Eccleshill also suggests a British church.
It is often suggested that dedications to such saints as St Helen represent the Christianisation of wells that were formerly dedicated to a pagan British deity with a similar name. This is assumed to have happened at some time during the later Roman Empire after the conversion of Constantine the Great (significantly perhaps, Hemsworth parish church is dedicated to St Helen). These re-dedicated wells were then adopted by the Anglo-Saxon church. In this form, it is argued, they survived into modern times. Such a sequence can be demonstrated at, for example Buxton in Derbyshire, but cannot be documented for any of the holy wells in the current county of West Yorkshire.
St Helen herself was the mother of Constantine the Great and popular myth ascribed her a British origin, although she was probably of Middle Eastern descent. In the medieval period St Helen was believed to have found the True Cross on which Jesus had been crucified. Her name is therefore a popular dedication for churches (Hemsworth and Sandal Magna) and for holy wells.
The End of Elmet
Elmet acted as a buffer between the two large Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia. When King Edwin, of Northumbria, conquered Elmet this buffer was removed and it was inevitable that the two Anglo-Saxon states would clash. Penda of Mercia slew Edwin at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 633 and later burnt down the city of Campodunum. In 655 Penda himself was later killed at the Battle of Winwaed, which some people believe to have taken place at Whinmoor on the edge of Leeds (although another candidate is found in the Wakefield District near Ackworth). This supposition has given rise to the road named Penda's Way.
Place Name Evidence
Almondbury: Castle Hill
Almondbury: Castle Hill from the air
Temple Newsam: Grim's Ditch from the air
Faull, M. L. and Moorhouse, S. A. (eds), 1981, West Yorkshire: An Archaeological Survey to A. D. 1500 Volume I
Roberts, I., Burgess, A. and Berg D., 2001, A New Link to the Past: the Archaeology of the M1-A1 Link Road