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 settlements of Celts and the Angles, Saxons and Danes who invaded the north of England after the Romans left in the 5th Century.

self-created [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Ancient Celts

There is evidence of occupation of the British Isles including the region which was to become Yorkshire, which was first occupied after the retreat of the ice age around 8000 BC.

The early Celtic tribes in Yorkshire were the Brigantes and the Parisii, Bronze and Iron-Age people who migrated to the British Isles from mainland Europe from about 750 BC onwards. 

The Parisii (who may have been of French origin) controlled the East of the region, which was later to become the East Riding.

The Brigantes controlled the areas which later became the North and West Ridings of Yorkshire. Those areas were to become their main strongholds. Settlements controlled by the Brigantes included York (then called “Ebruac”), Catterick (Cattraith), Ilkley (Olicana(?)) and Castleshaw (Rigodunum). The last is now a small hamlet in Saddleworth on the western side of the Pennines, where there are also remains of two Roman forts. It lay along the Roman Road from Chester to York.


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.

The west of Yorkshire did not become Romanised to any great extent. 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. 

They lived (says Ninius) about forty years together, in great consternation. For Vortigern their King was apprehensive of the Picts and Scots, and of some attacks from the Romans who still remained here. He was also fearful of Ambrosius Aurelius or Aurelianus; for he surviv’d that desperate engagement, wherein his parents, the then Governours, were cut off.

Upon this, Vortigern sent for the Saxons out of Germany to his assistance; who instead of auxiliaries, became the most cruel enemies, and after the various Events of a long war, at length dispossess’d the poor Britains of the most fruitful parts of the Island, their ancient inheritance.

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

Celtic Kingdoms in the North

The Roman capital of the North was Eboracum (modern York), which was located in territory that had formerly been under the control of the Brigantes. In post-Roman Britain, the Celtic tribes re-emerged and took control of some parts of the region, the Ebruac ruling territory around York, the Dunoting in the north and another tribe formed the Kingdom of Elmet, based around Loidis (Leeds) in what would eventually become West Yorkshire.

“Elmed Saetna”, the Elmet dwellers, lived in the the ancient Kingdom of Elmet, an independent Britonnic kingdom that came into being about 410 AD in an area that later largely corresponded with the West Riding of Yorkshire. The story of the rise and fall of Elmet, is told in much more detail in my article “Who do you think you are?” at this link.

By Hel-hama [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

The Anglo-Saxons

The indigenous Celts were constantly threatened by invading Angles, Saxons and Jutes from across the North Sea. These tribes, sometimes called “Barbarians” eventually became referred to collectively as the Anglo-Saxons.

By about 560, the whole of the east of Yorkshire and the Kingdom of Ebruac were overcome by the Angles from the Schleswig-Holstein peninsula. The Angles called this area Deira (or Dewyr) and they called York “Eoforwic “.

Towards the end of the 6th century, Elmet and the other remaining small Celtic kingdoms came under increasing threat from the expanding Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In about 600 AD, King Æthelfrith was able to unite Deira with the northern kingdom of Bernicia, forming the Kingdom of Northumbria. Its capital was at Eoforwic.

Æthelfrith’s successor, Edwin, became King of Northumbria in 616. In 617, Elmet was the last Yorkshire Celtic Kingdom to become incorporated into Northumbria.

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


Edwin was baptised as a Christian, at Eoforwic, along with his nobles and many of his subjects, by Paulinus, a Christian emissary of the Pope.

Gradually Christianity spread throughout the region. In 633 AD, Edwin was killed at the Battle of Hatfield Chase, near Doncaster.

The battle was a disaster for Northumbria. With both Edwin and his son Osfrith killed, and his other son Eadfrith captured by Penda (and later killed), the kingdom was 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. 


Penda of Mercia is said (by Bede) to have later taken over Edwin’s lands, though the exact chronology is confused and it may have been after the battle of Maserfield in 642.

This whole period is characterised by the deadly struggles between Mercia and Northumbria, culminating in the battle of Winwidfield, fought in Yorkshire in 655 AD.

Battle of Winwidfield

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 Winwidfield, 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

Danes and the Danelaw

The Danish (Viking) period began in Britain about 793 when Danes crossed the sea and attacked Northumbria at Lindisfarne. Gradually invading Danes took control of parts of Britain up and down the coast of Northumbria.

Invading Danes

In 867 the two rival Anglian kings of Northumbria were killed at the storming of York by invading Danish armies. The Danes then took possession of Eoforwic which they called “Jorvik”.

The Danes made Jorvik their power-base until the time of the Norman conquest, in 1066. They established themselves along the coasts and along navigable rivers, built 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 the modern shire counties of York, Lancaster, Nottingham, Derby, Lincoln, Essex, Cambridge, Suffolk, Norfolk, Northampton, Huntingdon, Bedford, Hertford, Middlesex and Buckingham. 

The Danelaw 9th Century
By Hel-hama (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], 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. If the “ordeal” should convict a man of a second offence, the penalty might be the loss of the hands or the feet, or of both. Still 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 murder should entail the loss of lands as well as of personal property.

The Danes divided Yorkshire into Ridings. “Riding” is derived from a Danish word “thrydding” meaning “a third”. The Danes called representatives from each thridding to a meeting and established the Ridings system, dividing the area into thirds of North, East and West. 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 about life under the Danelaw.


From 1016 to 1035, Cnut the Great ruled over a unified English kingdom, as part of his North Sea Empire, together with Denmark, Norway and part of Sweden. He is sometimes referred to as the first King of England. Canute was the first Danish King to begin a systematic coinage of money.

Extract from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles 1065

After the death of Cnut’s son and successor, Harthacnut, the kingdom reverted to a Saxon king, Edward the Confessor.

When Edward the Confessor ascended the throne of a united Dano-Saxon England, a Norse army was raised from every Norwegian colony in the British Isles and attacked Edward’s England in support of Magnus’, and after his death, his brother Harald Hardrada’s, claim to the English throne.
On the accession of Harold Godwinson after the death of Edward the Confessor, Hardrada invaded Northumbria with the support of Harold’s brother Tostig Godwinson, and was defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, three weeks before William I’s victory at the Battle of Hastings.


The story continues with “The Grey Apple Tree” and “Medieval Yorkshire.”

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