Ancient Peoples in Yorkshire

Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons and Danes

Yorkshire is a historic county of England, centred on the county town of York.

The region was first occupied after the retreat of the ice age around 8000 BC. During the first millennium AD it was occupied by Romans, Angles, and Vikings. The name comes from “Eborakon” an old Brythonic name which probably derives from “Efor” or “the place of the yew-trees.”

…The name “Yorkshire”, first appeared in writing in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1065. It was originally composed of three sections called Thrydings, subsequently referred to as Ridings.


My old Grammar School “Houses” were named after the original Celtic settlements and the Angles, Saxons and Danes who invaded the north of England after the Romans left in the 5th Century.

Ancient Celts

Northern Celtic Tribal Regions [CC BY-SA 3.0]

There is evidence of occupation of the British Isles including the region which was to become Yorkshire, after the retreat of the last ice age around about 10,000-15,000 years ago. Known as the Magdalenians, these groups probably crossed a land bridge called “Doggerland”, that stretched across the North Sea, giving access to Britain from modern Belgium, Netherlands and Denmark. They were almost certainly following the movement of herds of large animals, such as wild horses and reindeer, which they hunted for food. Hollowed out cups from the period, made from the bones of human skulls, have been found in caves and it has been suggested that these migrants may have been cannibalistic.

As the forests grew, the early migrants were followed by small populations with an entirely different diet, the hunter-gatherers, who travelled by boat from south-east Europe. These nomadic people have not left any remains of permanent settlement.

Bronze-Age (3300-1200 BC) tribes also migrated to the British Isles, by boat, from mainland Europe. The remains of five boats from the period have been excavated in the Humber estuary at Ferriby. Permanent settlement and agriculture now appear and soon afterwards burial sites, such as earth mounds, wooden or stone henges. Hundreds of “cup and ring” carvings have been identified in West Yorkshire, giving evidence about the populations who lived here in the Bronze Age.

From 2000 BC, sheep were kept in Yorkshire, and the inhabitants wove fleece into textiles and developed dyes from locally sourced insects, minerals and plants. Bronze Age people kept animals to provide milk, meat and hides. Cattle could also be used to pull ploughs. Domestic horses and dogs appear in excavations. From the late Bronze Age, there is evidence that more people are living in village communities, like one identified at Stanwick in North Yorkshire. Each tribe settled in a specific area…and evidence found of manufacture of military equipment suggests that they were also warlike and territorial.

So we find Celtic tribes known as the Parisii (who may have been of French origin) controlled the East of what was to become Yorkshire, later to become the East Riding. The west of the territory, which became the Kingdom of Elmet (believed to have been centred on Loidis (Leeds) was occupied by people descended from the tribe of the Corieltauvi/Coritani, and this was to become the West Riding. The North Riding was occupied by people descending from the Brigantes.


In both 55 and 54 BC, Julius Caesar invaded Britain with the aim of conquest. But revolt in Gaul had called him away before he had beaten the Britons. The Roman conquest of Britain was a gradual process, beginning in AD 43, under Emperor Claudius, when 40,000 Imperial soldiers landed in Britain under Aulus Plautius. 

The Romans gradually made inroads and ruled a large area of the island of Great Britain but their grip on Yorkshire was mainly in the east and north.

It is thought that the West of Yorkshire did not become Romanised to any great extent. There is some archaeological evidence of Romans around Leeds, especially at Adel, and also at Tadcaster but much more has been found at York.

The Romans built a fort along their road from Chester via Manchester to York, at Castleshaw, on the Pennine crossing at Saddleworth. I have a particular interest in part of the Chester to York Road, the section known as RR712, Manchester to Adel (Leeds), because, in the right light, I can see the route of the road, which is still visible in the fields near where I live, near High Moor Quarry. From the Castleshaw Fort in Saddleworth, the road passed over the Pennines, via Delph and Pule Hill, towards Marsden, past the fort at Slack, near Outlane (Huddersfield), then by some route, as yet unconfirmed, to Adel, near Leeds.

The Romans clearly maintained a significant presence in West Yorkshire and, while it has been suggested that some indigenous Celtic tribal groups continued to defy Roman Rule via hill forts across the north, many leaders would have “paid tribute” to the Roman Empire in order to be left in peace. It appears that the Romans mainly used Yorkshire as a buffer zone between the more “refined” areas of the south, to protect them from the marauding tribes of the far north, which they struggled to subdue.

Roman Soldiers – an artist’s impression

The Romans began to leave parts of Britain in 383 AD. By 410 AD, all the Romans-held territories in Britain had been relinquished, as they retreated to defend their European territories against an army of Visigoths (northern European “barbarian” tribesmen), who were attacking other parts of the Roman Empire. This left the inhabitants of Britain to fight the invading Jutes, Angles and Saxons on their own.

The Romans having now withdrawn their Forces and abandon’d Britain, the whole frame of affairs fell into great disorder and misery; Barbarians invading it on one hand, and the Inhabitants breaking out into factions on the other; whilst each one was usurping the Government to himself…

Britannia, first published in 1586 by William Camden, Second Edition translated and revised by Edmund Gibson 1722

Re-emergence of the Celtic Kingdoms of Yr Henn Ogledd (The Old North)

Yr Hen Ogledd (“The Old North”) was a collection of small Celtic Kingdoms that re-emerged in the post-Roman Age and spanned from modern Lancashire and Yorkshire up to the Lothians and Strathclyde. They shared customs and a Common Brittonic language from which Welsh is descended. Some place names in West Yorkshire, even now, are consistent with modern Welsh.

After the decline of the Roman Empire, large parts of the Britain were gradually taken over by “barbarian” tribes of Germanic descent, the Jutes, Angles and Saxons, later to be called “Anglo-Saxons”.

When the Romans left in 410 AD, it was the Celts of Yr Henn Ogledd who re-possessed many parts of the north and Celtic tribal cultures, which had stretched back before the Iron Age, now began to re-assert themselves.

During the Roman occupation, many of the existing Celtic leaders had “paid tribute” to the Roman Empire and in return had been allowed to enjoy their former rights and jurisdictions. Tribute would take the form of gold, silver or goods paid to the Romans in exchange for certain rights or freedoms. Tribute enabled the Celtic chieftains to retain their social hierarchies, both during and after the occupation. Therefore, in immediate post-Roman Britain, the Celtic tribes were able to quickly re-emerge and take control of many parts of the region. The Ebruac ruled territory around York and the short-lived Kingdom of Dunoting existed around Craven. Across the north-west was the Kingdom of Reghed. Beyond Hadrian’s wall was a Britonnic tribe, known as the Gododdin, whose territory extended northwards beyond Edinburgh. In the South Pennines were the Pec-sætna, or “Peak dwellers”…whose territory was what we now term the “Peak District”. These Post-Roman Celtic Kingdoms included the Britonnic Kingdom of Elmet, which is where we now turn our attention.

The Britonnic Kingdom of Elmet

The Celtic Kingdom of Elmet, an independent Britonnic kingdom, re-emerged in about 410 AD. It lay in the area that is now West Yorkshire and would have had a distinct tribal identity before the Romans came, which allowed it to re-emerge as soon as Roman rule collapsed.

Brittonic Kingdoms of the Old North, Yr Hen Ogledd

The population here, the “Elmed Saetna”, or “Elmet dwellers”, had evolved in isolation from the tribes that had occupied the surrounding regions. Elmet’s territory was descended from that of the tribe of the Corieltauvi (Coritani), with the northern part coming from the Brigantes.

Elmet was centred around Loidis (modern Leeds) and was to become one of the last strongholds of the ancient Celtic Britons in the north. “Elmet sætna”, the Elmet dwellers, would have traded with other Celtic tribes, even as far as Wales.

An early inscription on a grave found in Gwynedd, Wales, reads “ALIOTVS ELMETIACOS HIC IACET”, or “Aliotus the Elmetian lies here”.

Elmet’s territory extended…

…from modern Ilkley and Tadcaster in the north, from the headwaters of the Humber (near Goole), across to the Pennine foothills in the west, with its southern border reaching to the banks of the River Sheaf (Sheaf meaning boundary and from which Sheffield derives its name) and the River Don. 

In the sixth century, Anglo-Saxons occupying territory to the east of Elmet formed the kingdom of Deira, those to the north, Bernicia, whilst the Angles of Mercia lay in the south and Midlands. Elmet was then, for some time, at the forefront of British territory, forming a bridgehead separating the Angles of the Midlands from those occupying the Plain of York.

From: The History Files

Threat from the Anglo-Saxons

CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For more than 200 years, Elmet was sufficiently powerful to withstand invasion from the Anglo-Saxons. Meirchion Gul succeeded to the throne of the neighbouring territory of Rheged in the north west of Britain in c470 and his younger brother Mascuid was granted the Kingdom of Elmet, linking and strengthening the Celts of Rheged and Elmet.

However, by the 6th Century, the indigenous Celts of Yr Hen Ogledd were constantly threatened by invading Angles, Saxons and Jutes from across the North Sea. These invading tribes, sometimes called “Barbarians” eventually became referred to collectively as the “Anglo-Saxons”.

Towards the end of the 6th century AD, the whole of the east of what would become Yorkshire and the Kingdom of Ebruac, around modern York, were being attacked by the Angles from the Schleswig-Holstein peninsula. By 580, Ebruac and territories to the east had already fallen to the Angles, who named the area they conquered “Deira, Deifr or Dewyr” and re-named Eboracum (York) as “Eoforwic”. Now Elmet’s north-eastern border was exposed to attack.

Celtic Alliance of the Old North

In 590, in order to better resist Anglo-Saxon attacks, Elmet, Dunoting and Rheged formed an alliance of Celtic kingdoms in the north, though it was only to last for five years. Its failure was due to in-fighting between its own kingdoms of Dunoting, led by Dynod Fawr, and Rheged, under their king Urien Rheged, grandson of Meirchion Gul. Urien Reghed was assassinated by a rival Celt in 590 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Owain mab Urien.

The Old North [CC BY-SA 3.0 (

As the Celtic alliance weakened, Dunoting (Regio Dunotinga) fell to the northern barbarian-held Bernicia in 595, driving a wedge between Reghed and Elmet. Owain mab Urien continued to lead Reghed’s fight against the north-eastern Angles of Bernicia but was killed in battle against his father’s murderer, Morcant, also in 595. This effectively marked the beginning of the end of Reghed’s power in the region.

About the same time, the small Celtic Kingdom of Pec-sætna (“Dwellers of the Peak”), who inhabited the South Pennines on Elmet’s southern borders and which we now call the “Peak District”, also fell to the invaders. This left Elmet’s southern borders unprotected.

In 597, Rheged was attacked but survived. The same year, Catreath, thought to be the stronghold of Roman Cataractonium (Catterick) in North Yorkshire, was attacked and defeated. Celtic territories were shrinking fast and being separated from each other in a “divide and conquer” campaign. The Angles were making huge in-roads into Celtic territories and now had total victory in sight.

Y Goddodin

Around 598 AD, in the face of the continued expansion of the Angles, the remaining independent tribes of the Celtic Old North combined under the Goddodin, a Britonnic Celtic tribe situated in the present Scottish lowlands. The Gododdin king, Mynyddawg Mwynfawr of Caereidyn, Lord of Eidyn, planned a major last-ditch attempt to keep the Celtic territories geographically connected. He summoned all independent Celtic tribes to help him to mount an attack to re-capture Catraeth (Catterick). Celtic warriors from various tribes of the north, including those from North Wales, Reghed and Elmet, agreed to join Mynyddawg and fight with him. Their plan was to defend the remaining Celtic territories from the encroaching Angles of Bernicia (Brynaich) and Deira (Deifr) and attempt to regain their lost territories.

Between three and four hundred Celtic warriors gathered at the hill fort of “Din Eidyn” (possibly either the site of Edinburgh Castle or at “King Arthur’s Seat”). It seems that there was no hurry to go to battle though, as it was recorded contemporaneously in the Welsh language bardic poem “Y Gododdin” that “Mynyddawg feasted them royally for a year, as was the custom”.

“Y Gododdin” was written about 600 AD, by Anuerin, a survivor and witness to the battle of Cattraeth, himself from the Gododdin of the Strathclyde area. It tells the story of the Brittonic Kingdom of Gododdin and of its allies who fought the Angles of Deira and Bernicia at Cattraeth. His poem is written in a Common Brittonic language and is often referred to as a “Welsh poem”. Aneurin appears to have been present at Cattraeth in the capacity of a Bard, a professional story teller (an embedded journalist). Though not a warrior, he tells that he was wounded and imprisoned in chains during the conflict, until rescued. A first translation of his work was made in c1200.

The combined Celtic army comprised more than three hundred chieftains wearing their golden torques, each with his own retinue of fighting men. In support was the army of the “Elmet sætna” (the Elmet dwellers), their nobles and warriors plus foot soldiers, under the leadership of Modog of Elmet. In a 19th century publication of a translation of the poem, the accompanying notes tell us:

Mynyddawg’s retinue consisted of “three hundred”; there were “five battalions of five hundred men each”, “three levies of three hundred each”, “three bold knights” had each “three hundred of equal quality” thus averaging about four hundred for each commander, which, multiplied by three hundred and sixty three (commanders), would exhibit an overwhelming army of a hundred and forty five thousand, and two hundred men!

From “A Poem on THE BATTLE OF CATTRAETH, by ANEURIN, a Welsh bard of the sixth century, with an English Translation”; Published 1852.

Around the year 599-600, the Gododdin and their allies marched to Catraeth, where there was a Roman Fort of Cataractonium held by the Angles. In their encampment, the night before the battle, the Celts drank plenty of wine and distilled mead. The bard makes much of their drunkenness the next morning. “The heroes marched to Cattraeth, filled with mead and drunk”. They attacked at dawn, led by their bejewelled King Mynyddawg, the Lord of Eidin, who was adorned in golden armour and torque, wearing a wreath on his head and with expensive amber beads woven into the ringlets encircling his temples. The chieftains would be on horseback but the common soldiers on foot.

The Celtic armies met the superior forces of the Angles. The fighters must have included some women as Aneurin mentions a woman “Bradwen” who was “equal to three men”, and an archer named “Gwen”, whose only son was killed. The fighting lasted for a week…

A page from the Celtic poem Y Gododdin

The engagement commenced on a Tuesday, and continued for a whole week, the last four days being the most bloody. For some time both parties fought gallantly, and with almost equal success; fortune perhaps upon the whole appearing to favour the Cymry (Celts), who not only slew a vast number of their adversaries, but partially succeeded in recovering their lost dominions. At this critical juncture a dwarfish herald arrived at the fence, proposing on the part of the Saxons a truce or compact, which, however, was indignantly rejected by the natives, and the action renewed. The scales now rapidly turned. In one part of the field such a terrible carnage ensued, that there was but one man left to scare away the birds of prey, which hovered over the carcases of the slain.

From “A Poem on THE BATTLE OF CATTRAETH, by ANEURIN, a Welsh bard of the sixth century, with an English Translation”; Published 1852.

The Celts were disastrously defeated and most of their 363 chieftains were slaughtered on the red-stained field of Cattraeth. One by one, by name, Aneurin describes the death of the Celtic chieftains and comes back again and again to the fact that the Celts were drunk on mead and that was their downfall. He tells that only one man in a hundred escaped the rout.

Three hundred and sixty three gold-torqued men attacked,
Guarding their land, bloody was the slaughter,
Although they were slain, they slew;
And until the end of the world they will be honoured…

…But three escaped by valour from the funeral fosse.

“Y Goddodin”

How many common soldiers were killed is not known. So far, no archaeological evidence of the burial site has been discovered.

Elmet’s chieftain, Madoc, was among the dead, and it seems that Elmet’s territory was reduced in size to territory between Danum (Doncaster) and Loidis (Leeds). Elmet remained partially independent for now, but had lost the vast majority of its leaders and fighting men. That year, the Angles of Deira and Bernicia brought the Goddodin under their rule. Elmet and Reghed were now the only Celtic Kingdoms to continue to hold out against the invaders.

Kingdom of Northumbria

Anglo-Saxon King Æthelfrith was able to unite Deira with the northern Kingdom of Bernicia, forming the Kingdom of Northumbria in about 600 AD. Its capital was at Eoforwic (York). Æthelfrith was killed in battle in 616 and was succeeded by King Edwin.

Edwin and his army now pushed westwards towards the Pennine region of Northumbria finally invaded Elmet in 617. The Elmetians, led by King Ceretic, fled south-east towards Danum (Doncaster), where they made a stand at Bawtry. The Anglo-Saxon force defeated the forces of Elmet and Ceretic was expelled. Edwin incorporated Elmet into Northumbria, finally bringing it under Anglo-Saxon Rule.

Edwin, (ruler of Northumbria) reigned for seventeen years and he occupied Elmet and expelled Ceretic (son of Guallauc), the King of this region.


Elmet was the last Celtic Kingdom in Yorkshire to become incorporated into Northumbria.
Rheged, in the North West, also succumbed within a generation.

Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria (Bernicia and Deira) from Britannia Saxonica

Although under Anglo-Saxon rule, it seems that the Elmet-sætna continued to reside in what is now West Yorkshire, remaining as a distinct genetic group throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, until it became part of the Danelaw under the Vikings. More than a thousand years after the Vikings left, Elmet’s genetic footprint has survived in the people of West Yorkshire, to the present day.

Recent DNA studies indicate a striking correlation between the inhabitants of Elmet, in the "Dark Ages", and genetic characteristics in West Yorkshire today, where Britons are "still living in the same 'tribes' that they lived in during the 7th Century". See "Who do you think you are?" at this link.   

Struggles between Northumbria and Mercia

In 633 AD, Edwin was killed at the Battle of Hatfield Chase, near Doncaster. Of his two grown sons by his first wife, by Cwenburh of Mercia, Osfrith was killed in the battle and Eadfrith was captured by Penda of Mercia (and later killed).

Northumbria was again divided between its constituent kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira. Eanfrith, a son of the former king Æthelfrith, returned from exile to take power in Bernicia, while Edwin’s cousin Osric took over Deira.

Bede tells us that Penda of Mercia took over Edwin’s lands, probably in 642 after the battle of Maserfield. This whole period is characterised by the struggles for territority between Mercia and Northumbria, culminating in the Battle of Winwædfield, which was fought in West Yorkshire in 655 AD.

Battle of Winwædfield

The Battle of Winwædfield is thought to have taken place near Leeds, possibly at Whinmoor, where there was a fast-flowing beck, or alongside the River Aire. Another suggestion is that it took place in a marshy area between York and Tadcaster and that the translation would mean “white-water”.

In the year 655, when the winters of eighty years had bleached the head of the warlike and ferocious Penda, he again participated in a tremendous conflict which took place on the Field of Victory, or Winwædfield, on the northern bank of the Aire, near Leeds.

The occasion of the war was as follows: Adelwald, King of Deira, was threatened by Oswy, King of Bernicia, and perceiving that he could only hope to retain his crown by compassing the ruin of that powerful monarch, he formed a league with the Kings of Mercia and East Anglia, and declared war against Oswy, who, dismayed by so powerful a coalition, strove, by every possible means, to avert the bursting of the storm. All his efforts proving futile, he humbled himself in fervent supplications for victory on the solemn eve of the impending battle, and recorded a religious vow that, in the event of his being delivered from his enemies, his infant daughter, Elfleda, should be devoted to the service of the Holy Church.

While Oswy was buried in supplication, the shrewd brain of Adelwald was busily revolving the position. Should Oswy be defeated, he would be at the mercy of his allies of Mercia and East Anglia, and his own destruction and the division of his kingdom might be anticipated. To obviate such a disastrous result Adelwald resolved to reserve his own forces, and leave his allies to deal with Oswy, when he might reasonably hope to secure his kingdom against the decimated army, or armies of the victor.

On the morning of the 15th of November, the four Kings marshalled their forces, spearmen, and other variously armed infantry and cavalry; and Penda, animated and impetuous, his fiery spirit undimmed by the four score years that had passed over his head, rushed to the attack, and the clash of arms and tumult of war resounded over the field as the troops of Oswy nobly sustained the fierce assault.

At this juncture, the crafty Adelwald, assured that the deadly game would be continued to the bitter end, began to retire his troops, and the Mercians, losing heart under the suspicion of his treachery, relaxed their efforts, and commenced a hasty and confused retreat. Penda and his numerous chieftains appealed to them, and strove to restore their broken ranks, but in vain. Oswy pressed them hard; smote them with fierce charges of cavalry, and with the rush of his serried spearmen bore down all resistance.

The Kings of Anglia and East Mercia were put to the sword, and their armies decimated and scattered. Oswy, secured in the possession of life and throne, exulted in the signal victory which had blessed his arms. Amid the lifeless thousands that encumbered the sanguinary field, twenty-eight vassal chieftains of the highest rank had fallen with their Kings. Oswy satiated his regal ambition by taking possession of the realms of his conquered adversaries, but he respected the crown of the crafty Adelwald, who retained the glittering bauble until his death, a few years later.

YORKSHIRE BATTLES published 1891

After Deira’s defeat, Northumbria became dominant again. The battle marked the end of Anglo-Saxon Paganism in favour of Christianity. Mercia was converted to Christianity and all the kings that came afterwards were Christian.

Danes and the Danelaw

Norsemen an artistic impression of a Viking Fleet

The Danish (Viking) period began in Britain about 787 when so-called Norsemen or Vikings crossed the sea and landed in Norfolk returning each summer to raid the coastal towns, especially monasteries and priories, which contained great wealth. The raids continued throughout the 9th Century and it became the custom to “pay the Norsemen off” in what was known as “Danegeld”. In 793, a raiding party attacked, plundered and destroyed the church of St Cuthbert at Lindisfarne, which sent shock waves as far away as the Frankish Kingdom of Charlemagne.

From the 850s, recent evidence suggests that the Vikings didn’t just raid, but began to stay over winter in some parts of the British isles.

In 865, a huge Scandinavian Viking force, said to be about 3000 men, landed in Kent and wintered in East Anglia, where they obtained horses then moved northwards by degree. The Norse sagas describe the invasion by this “Great Heathen Army” as being led by the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, who was said to have been killed by the Nothumbrian King Ælla. This remains a contentious story, even whether Lothbrok existed is in debate, as the sagas were written centuries afterwards.

However, it is known from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a contemporary source, that in 867, two rival Anglian kings of Northumbria (Osberht and Ælla) were killed and that the Vikings stormed Eoforwic (York) which they called “Jorvik“. They made Jorvik their power-base, establishing themselves along the coasts and along navigable rivers and building towns and villages, Some intermarried with the Anglo-Saxon population. They farmed the land and traded from the River Humber with all of the countries in which they had influence.

The north and east of the country became known as the Danelaw and was ruled by Danish Kings. The Danelaw, a term used to describe both the territories that the Danes commanded and the laws under which they lived, lasted for about two centuries. It comprised much of the modern shire counties of York, Lancaster, Nottingham, Derby, Lincoln, Essex, Cambridge, Suffolk, Norfolk, Northampton, Huntingdon, Bedford, Hertford, Middlesex and Buckingham. 

Britain in 886. West Yorkshire now lay in the Danelaw (Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons).

New rules were introduced into court procedure. Administrative areas came to bear Norse names, such as a “wapentake”, in the Danelaw. The new names and customs were eventually accepted as a part of the Anglo-Saxon-Norse legal system. In Norse legislation, there was less mercy than before…and punishments became more severe  e.g. exile, mutilation, or death.

An accused criminal would be brought before the court (or ting), where a jury of 12 decided the question of guilt. If found guilty, the convicted man would be fined or outlawed, when he was able to be hunted down and killed by his accusers. If the court should convict a man of a second offence, the penalty might be the loss of the hands or the feet, or of both. Further mutilation was decreed if the criminal should continue to commit grave offences. 

A law that was aimed at the ancient practice of blood feud provided that the crime of murder should also entail the loss of lands as well as of personal property.

The Danes divided the area now known as Yorkshire into three areas, North, East and West, so it must have been an area with a distinct identity already. The divisions were called “Ridings” which is derived from a Danish word “Threthingr” or “Thridding”, meaning “a third”. The villages that were to become the metropolitan area that we now call Kirklees, were formerly situated in the Kingdom of Elmet, which became included in the West Riding.

Daily life under the Danelaw is an interesting article off-site.

10th Century – Eoferwicscir

Danish colonisation was followed, in the 10th Century, by a more peaceful influx of Norwegian immigrant settlers, mainly to the North and West Ridings and that is evidenced by the Scandinavian origin of place names right across the county. In the Domesday Book, at the end of the 11th Century, 31% of all West Riding place names were attributed to Scandinavian origins and in the North Riding 46%, suggesting the pattern of settlement.

There was still no unifying King of all England. King Edgar, a great grandson of King Alfred the Great, was born in about 943 and was proclaimed King of Northumbria and Mercia, aged fourteen, when those regions revolted against his elder brother King Eadwig in 957. Edgar was to reign over a vast area in the East of Britain stretching from modern Scotland down to Wessex, including the territory that had been known as the Danelaw. In 959, he also succeeded to the West Saxon throne, when his brother Eadwig died. Edgar also died young, after an 18 year reign, in 975.

During his reign, Edgar brought in laws for his whole kingdom, which reduced the autonomy of the Danelaw, but recognised the best of their customs. In order to ensure that his laws were correctly enforced, courts were held regularly. Administrative districts known as Shires, Hundreds and Wapentakes (the latter name of Viking origin) enabled the King to keep administrative control of his subjects. In Eoferwicscir (the 10th century Anglo-Saxon name for Yorkshire), he retained the three divisions of Ridings that had originated with the Danelaw. Edgar’s known laws did not specify mutilation as punishment, but Lantfred of Winchester wrote of Edgar, shortly after his death :

‘At the aforesaid time and at the command of the glorious King Edgar, a law of great severity was promulgated throughout England to serve as a deterrent against all sorts of crime by means of a dreadful punishment: that, if any thief or robber were found anywhere in the country, he would be tortured at length by having his eyes put out, his hands cut off, his ears torn off, his nostrils carved open and his feet removed; and finally, with the skin and hair of his head shaved off, he would be abandoned in the open fields dead in respect of nearly all his limbs, to be devoured by wild beasts and birds and hounds of the night.’

Lapidge, ch. 26; Sauvage, pp. 409–10.

Unification in the 11th Century

The three Ridings were to become part of a unified England on the accession of the Danish King Cnut.

From 1016 to 1035, Cnut the Great ruled over a unified English kingdom, as part of his North Sea Empire, together with his kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and part of Sweden. Cnut was converted to Christianity and was acknowledged by the Pope as the first Viking to becoming a Christian King. He is sometimes referred to as the first King of England.

After the death of Cnut’s son and successor, Harthacnut, the kingdom reverted to a Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, who was the surviving son of King Ethelred and was a step-son to Cnut, through his mother Emma of Normandy.

The term “Yorkshire” is first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles towards the end of his reign in 1065.

Extract from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles 1065

After the death of Edward the Confessor, Harold Godwinson quickly seized the throne. The Viking Harold Hardrada invaded, with the help and support of Harold’s exiled brother, Tostig Godwinson, former Earl of Northumbria. Two battles were fought against Harold’s army, the first at Fulford on 20th September 1066 and the second at Stamford bridge, on 25th September After a defeat at Fulford, Harold assembled an army of 15,000 men in two days, marched 185 miles in four days to meet the invaders at Stamford Bridge, taking the Norwegians entirely by surprise. Harold’s decisive victory at Stamford Bridge could have been the most memorable battle of 1066, but it wasn’t! Three weeks later, William of Normandy, also of Viking descent, defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings and there begins another period in our history.

Updated April 2024