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.

Wikipedia

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.

Northern Celtic Tribal Regions [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). Castleshaw 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.

Romans

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.

Roman Soldiers

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

After the decline of the Roman Empire, large parts of Britannia were taken over by “barbarian” tribes of Germanic descent, Jutes, Angles and Saxons, later to be called “Anglo-Saxons”. However, this was a gradual change not a sudden one. When the Romans left in 410 AD, it was the Celts who first took possession of many parts of the north, where Celtic tribal cultures, which had stretched back to the Iron Age, now began to re-assert themselves.

During the Roman occupation, many of the existing Celtic leaders had been allowed to enjoy their former rights and jurisdictions, in exchange for paying a “tribute” to the Roman Empire. Extending these rights enabled the Celtic chieftains to retain their hierarchies, both during and after the occupation.

Therefore, in immediate post-Roman Britain, the Celtic tribes re-emerged and took 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 lay in what would eventually become known as the West Riding of Yorkshire, which is where we turn our attention.

Britonnic Kingdom of Elmet

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

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. 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 Corieltavi, with the northern part coming from the Brigantes.

https://www.historyfiles.co.uk/KingListsBritain/BritainElmet.htm

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 spoken a Common Brittonic language from which Welsh is descended. Trading would have existed between the various Celtic tribes. An early inscription 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 historyfiles.co.uk

Map of Elmet
Kings of the Dark Ages
British Elmet (History Files)

Threat from the Anglo-Saxons

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”, the Old North, 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 Eburacum (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 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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.

A page from the Celtic poem Y Gododdin

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…

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 expelled. Edwin at last incorporated Elmet into Northumbria, 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.

Nennius

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 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

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.

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.


 

The Kingdom of England

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. Canute 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. 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.

Wikipedia

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