Introduction Sources of Evidence Late Roman Britain The British Kingdom of Elmet Anglo-Saxon West Yorkshire Religion in the Anglo Saxon and Viking period
Viking Rule in West Yorkshire The impact of the Norman conquest Timeline Photo Gallery


Anglo-Saxon cemeteries
Although isolated finds of early Anglo-Saxon material have been found in several parts of Yorkshire the earliest known large group of finds is from the cemetery at Sancton in the Derwent Valley (North Yorkshire). It was probably first used in the mid-5th century and continued to be used until at least 600. This would suggest that the earliest occupation of the kingdom of Deira (one of the post-Roman successor sub-kingdoms) may have been from the Humber estuary. It was only after the conquest of the kingdom of Elmet by King Edwin (of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria) in 617 that Anglo-Saxon cemeteries appear to have been established in West Yorkshire. The two cemeteries so far identified and excavated (at Addingham and at Pontefract) are both associated with churches which indicates a later, Christian settlement. Pagan Anglo-Saxons practised a number of burial rites including cremation as well as inhumation. No cremations of this date have yet been identified in West Yorkshire. There are a small number of pagan Anglo-Saxon burials known from the east of West Yorkshire. These are all concentrated on the Magnesian limestone ridge along which the main north-south route to the Kingdom of Northumbria lay (the old Roman road to the north, later the 'Great North Road'). The presence of these burials may indicate that this area was conquered by the Anglo-Saxons prior to Edwin's final conquest of Elmet.

Addingham was the site of a bishop's palace in the Saxon period. Bishop Wulfhere fled there from York in 867 to escape the invading Vikings. The present churchyard is large but excavations have revealed that it once extended beyond its present boundaries. The excavation revealed 52 grave cuts dating to the 8th century. Some of these were empty but the remains of 45 individuals were identified. The skeletons were aligned roughly east-west with the head at the western end. The absence of grave goods, the alignment of the bodies and the association with the churchyard strongly suggest Christian burials. The grave cuts were not parallel and seemed to converge towards a focus. What this focus might have been is unclear but it could have been a large churchyard cross, similar to the one proposed at Dewsbury. A fragment of cross shaft is preserved within the present church but it is unclear if this was the focus around which the graves were arranged. Addingham has one other item of possible ritual significance: a fragment of carved bone which was long thought to be part of a Saxon bone comb. A recent re-examination of the object has revealed that the object is not a comb but is in fact part of a decorative binding, perhaps for a box or part of a Bible. This would clearly have been an expensive object and its presence at Addingham can only reinforce the impression of the importance of the site which is given in the documentary sources.

The name Pontefract is a relatively modern one, meaning 'broken bridge' in Latin. To the Anglo-Saxons the town was known as Tanshelf (a name which still survives as the name of one of the local railway stations). It must have been a settlement of some importance as it was there in 947 that Archbishop Wulfstan of York and the Northumbrian witan (ruling council) pledged allegiance to King Eadred of England. Tanshelf is also the name by which the settlement is known in the Domesday Survey of 1086.

In 1985 archaeologists carried out a rescue excavation on an Anglo-Saxon cemetery on the Booths at the base of Pontefract Castle. The excavations revealed 70 skeletons and the foundations of a small church, which has since been conserved for public display.

As at Addingham the skeletons were aligned east-west with the heads at the western end. There were few grave goods, but many of the burials were associated with coffin nails and in a few instances the staining left by the decayed coffin could be seen. The full extent of this cemetery is not known but Anglo-Saxon burials have also been recovered from inside the castle itself. The present steep scarp of the castle defences is artificial and it is possible that burials could have been made all the way up the former slope and onto the summit of the hill.

The church itself was only small. The internal measurements of the nave were 6.50 x 4.50 metres and the chancel was 3.20 x 2.80 metres (though this does not represent its full extent as the eastern end has been removed at some point in antiquity). The foundations were of rubble stone laid in a herringbone pattern though some squared stone blocks were also recovered from the remaining portion of the wall. This would suggest that the building was made of rubble stone throughout shored up with stone blocks at the corners. This is the way it has been shown in the reconstruction drawing.

It is not known at what point the Anglo-Saxon church and cemetery went out of use at Pontefract. By the later medieval period All Saints had become the parish church for Pontefract, presumably under the influence of the new Norman landlords.

Photo Gallery
Addingham: the churchyard

Addingham: Anglo-Saxon book binding

Pontefract: The Saxon church under excavation

Pontefract: An Artist's impression of the church

Further reading
Wilmott, T., 1987, 'Pontefract' in Current Archaeology 106