Who do you think you are?

Why is it when meeting someone for the first time, a Yorkshireman (or woman) will often tell you that they are from Yorkshire within the first few minutes of your acquaintance? This doesn’t happen so much with people from other counties. Whatever it has been called in the course of it’s history, we West Yorkshire folk have a very strong sense of identity. Historically known as the “West Riding” from the time of the Danelaw, modern West Yorkshire spans the urban areas which grew up around the Rivers Aire and Calder in the west to the Vale of York in the East. It extends north to the beautiful valleys of Airedale and Wharfedale and to the edge of the Peak District in the south.

In 1974, the “West Yorkshire Metropolitan County” was formed to administer the boroughs Bradford, Dewsbury, Halifax, Huddersfield, Leeds, and Wakefield. By 1986, this had become a geographical and ceremonial county, without administrative authority. Administration was ceded to five metropolitan boroughs: Calderdale, Kirklees and the city of Bradford in the west and the cities of Leeds and Wakefield in the east.

I became very interested in the question “what is it that makes us so territorial?” In a recent survey (The Yorkshire Moreno Question), the majority of Yorkshire people defined themselves as more Yorkshire than English, or equally Yorkshire and English…and I can identify with that myself, having traced more than 7000 ancestors and extended family of ancestors to a small number of West Yorkshire townships…and to one of those townships was where I was born and raised.

Perhaps even more importantly, I define myself as “West Yorkshire” and my “West-Yorkshireness” seems to be a major part of my identity. I believe that it must be written into my DNA. Conversely, my husband, who was born in Lancashire, does not think of himself as Lancastrian at all but thinks of himself foremost as English, then British.

My own ancestors can be traced back in the West Yorkshire region for more than 500 years. They come from the towns and villages of Huddersfield, Batley, Mirfield, Kirkheaton, Thornhill, Ravensthorpe, Dewsbury, Earlsheaton, Chickenley and Ossett. Those families who were not originally from “Kirklees” had come into the area from nearby Wakefield and Calderdale.

Beyond 500 years ago, in the distant past, who knows where these families came from? Fortunately, we have some DNA studies that give us clues.

Ancestry’s DNA Test – Yorkshire DNA

DNA test results from more than 2 million saliva DNA tests, submitted through Ancestry’s DNA test facility, have now been analysed. The tests identified the genetic make-up of the “average” person and to what countries or regions they can trace their ancestry back.

Yorkshire is now known to be the most Anglo-Saxon region in the UK.

Yorkshire is dominated by the ancestry that has it roots across the North Sea. Groups we have called Germanic, Teutonic, Saxon, Alpine, Scandinavian and Norse Viking make up 52 per cent of Yorkshire’s Y chromosome, compared to 28 per cent across the whole of the rest of Britain.


The average DNA in Yorkshire is 41.17% Anglo-Saxon (British), 10.10% Scandinavian (Norse), 19.28% Irish (Celtic), 9.65% Western European (French/German), 2.66% Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), 1.80% Eastern Europe, 1.68% Italy/Greece…whilst the average UK resident overall is 36.94% Anglo-Saxon, 21.59% Irish and 19.91% Western European.

People of the British Isles (POTBI) DNA Study

The People of the British Isles Study (POTBI) is another study, based at the University of Oxford and including other universities, whose results created the first detailed genetic map of the UK. It analysed the DNA from blood samples of 4,500 people from rural areas of the UK, whose four grandparents were all born within 50 miles of each other. Each grandparent provides 1/4 of a person’s genome, so that gives a snapshot of UK genetics from each area.

After over a decade of sample collection and data analysis, the first findings were published on 19th March 2015. Geneticist, Professor Sir Walter Bodmer of Oxford University, said:

“What it shows is the extraordinary stability of the British population. Britain hasn’t changed much since 600AD”.

Professor Sir Walter Bodmer

I am sure that we all have said, at some time, that someone looks “Welsh”, or “Scottish” and it is no great surprise that people whose families come from these regions have subtly different genetic characteristics from the rest of Britain. However, the POTBI DNA Study shows that there are actually 17 different genetic groups throughout the British Isles and one of these groups can only be seen in what is now West Yorkshire.

West Yorkshire DNA is different to all other – it’s official!

The POTBI DNA study found that the genetic group in the West Riding of Yorkshire is distinctly different from genetic groups in any other part of the UK, forming what is known as a “genetic cluster”. The cluster identifies the similarity of genetic data between a group of individuals and allows hypothesis about ancestral groups. A number of clusters were found across the UK, corresponding to tribal areas of the dark ages.

Professor Donnelly, of the POTBI study, now compared the different genetic clusters with the map of Britain in about 600 AD and said:

Many of the genetic clusters we see in the west and north are similar to the tribal groupings and kingdoms around and just after the time of the Saxon Invasion, suggesting these kingdoms maintained a regional identity.

A map of different genetic groupings reveals subtle but distinct differences between those sampled in West Yorkshire and the rest of the county.

Professor Donnelly POTBI study

Yorkshire DNA Project: Women’s and Men’s separate DNA lineage

A Yorkshire DNA project looked at the Y chromosomes passed on to men by their fathers. In Yorkshire, the men do not carry the typical British “Pretani” Y Chromosome. Instead, their DNA is dominated by Anglo-Saxon DNA, which makes up 52% compared to 28% across the rest of Britain.

Mitochondrial DNA tells another story. Apparently we women of Yorkshire can also claim our extra special place in the county’s ancestry:

Most women have been here for much longer than the men. Women pass on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) to their children, but only their daughters can, in turn, pass it to their children. Men have it but it dies with them. What that means is that everyone so far tested in the Yorkshire’s DNA project has mtDNA and it can tell us a great deal about ancient ancestry. A staggering 62% of mtDNA lineages began to arrive in Yorkshire very early, as soon as the last ice age ended, some time around 9,600BC. And it seems that they came from the same direction, from the Iberian Peninsula and south-western France.

Yorkshire Post

It seems, therefore, that the earliest settlers in Yorkshire were from the Caucasoid population of Europe, who became the first farmers in the region. Dominant male lineages came later, with various invading armies, mostly from Roman, Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon origins, but how much did their men-folk affect the DNA of the indigenous population?

We have already seen that Yorkshire DNA studies show a strong Anglo-Saxon lineage (up to 52% of DNA). A recent Yorkshire based DNA study, of males only, found a surprisingly low percentage (7%-10%) of Viking DNA in the Y chromosome and confirmed a much stronger Celtic influence in the West of Yorkshire than in other parts of Yorkshire. In West Yorkshire, the classic Celtic Y chromosome appears in about 19% of men, compared with 13.5% across the east and north of Yorkshire. This 19% is believed to be a genetic memory of the ancient British Kingdom of Elmet, whose rulers reigned until the early decades of the 7th century, when their lands were overrun by Germanic and (later) Scandinavian incomers.

Where do you want to go now?

The three bottom links take you off-site to look at the DNA research projects in more detail. Or why not stay on-site and find out about the ancient roots of West Yorkshire’s people and the Kingdom of Elmet?

Christine Widdall ©2022