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.

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 6000 ancestors and extended family of ancestors to a small number of West Yorkshire townships…and 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 about 500 years, in particular the towns and villages of Huddersfield, Heckmondwyke, Batley, Mirfield, Kirkheaton, Kirkburton, Meltham, Thornhill, Ravensthorpe, Dewsbury, Earlsheaton, Chickenley and Ossett (Ossett used to be part of Dewsbury parish, but is now administered from the City of Wakefield). 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.

Yorkshire DNA

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

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.

West Yorkshire DNA

The People of the British Isles Study (POTBI) is a 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 of 4,500 people from rural areas of the UK, whose four grandparents were all born within 50 miles of each other. After over a decade of sample collection and data analysis, the first findings were published on the 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

One distinct genetic group can only be seen in what is now West Yorkshire. 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.
See  the Genetic Map of the UK

Professor Donnelly of the POTBI study compared 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

West Yorkshire genetic cluster map
Historical maps and clusters

Celtic Cross


It turned out that the West Riding DNA of today showed little change from that of the Celtic tribe who inhabited the area two thousand years ago.

After the decline of the Roman Empire, in the early 400s, large parts of Britannia were taken over by “barbarian” tribes of Germanic descent, Jutes, Angles and Saxons, later to be called “Anglo-Saxons”. However, when the Romans left in 410 AD, Celts again took possession of some parts of the north, where Celtic tribal cultures, which had stretched back to the Iron Age, now began to re-assert themselves.

The Roman capital of the North was Eboracum (modern York), which had formerly been under the control of the Celtic Brigantes tribe. After the Romans left, most of what was to become Yorkshire fell under the rule of the Brigantian kingdom of Ebrauc but there was also an independent Britonnic Kingdom of Elmet that came into being about 410 AD in the west and the short lived kingdom of Dunoting in the north around Craven.

The Celtic Kingdom of Elmet lay in the area that is now West Yorkshire and probably had a distinct tribal identity before the Romans came, which allowed it to re-emerge after Roman rule collapsed. The population here had evolved in isolation, while other tribes had occupied land in surrounding regions. The recent DNA results 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”.

Elmet was centred around Loidis (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 language akin to Welsh. In fact, Elmet appears to have had some ties with Wales…an early inscription found in Gwynedd reads “ALIOTVS ELMETIACOS HIC IACET”, or “Aliotus the Elmetian lies here”.

The Elmet 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
Celtic dogs

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. But, towards the end of the 6th century AD, the Celtic territories came under increasing threat from the expanding Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, which threatened to drive a wedge between them. In 580, Ebruac had already fallen to the Deirans, leaving Elmet’s north-eastern border exposed to attack.

In 590, in order to better resist Anglo-Saxon attacks, Elmet, Dunoting and Rheged formed a confederation of British Kingdoms in the north, though it was not to last long – and its failure, due to fighting between its own kingdoms of Dunoting (led by Dynod Fawr) and Rheged, fatally weakened the alliance. Consequently, in 595, Dunoting fell to Bernicia and in 597, Rheged was attacked, and Catreath (thought to be the stronghold of Catterick in North Yorkshire) was lost to the invading forces.

The Old North, via Wikimedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Around 598 AD, in a major last-ditch attempt to keep the tribes of the Celtic Old North connected in the face of the expansion of the Anglo-Saxons, a force under the Goddodin (a Celtic people situated in the north) was formed under their King, Mynyddawg Mwynfawr. Their plan was to defend the remaining Celtic territories from the encroaching Angles of Bernicia and Deira and attempt to take back their lost territories.

King Mynyddawg summoned other Celtic tribes to help him to mount an attack to re-capture Catraeth (believed to be Roman Cataractonium, present day Catterick). The Celts, who subsequently mustered at Edinburgh, arrived from various tribes of the north, including some from North Wales. “Mynyddawg feasted them royally for a year, as was the custom”. In return, they were expected to fight with him.

The Gododdin and their allies now marched to Catraeth and attacked at dawn. The attacking force included the army of the “Elmet sætna” (the Elmet dwellers), their nobles and warriors, plus foot soldiers, under the leadership of Modog of Elmet.

“Y Gododdin”, a medieval Welsh poem written about 600 AD, tells the story of the Brittonic kingdom of Gododdin and its allies who died fighting the Angles of Deira and Bernicia at Catraeth.

The Celtic armies were disastrously defeated and most of their warriors slaughtered when they encountered the much stronger enemy at Catraeth. Y Goddodin tells that “only one man in a hundred came back.”

Kingdom of Northumbria

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

Now the Angles of Deira and Bernicia brought the Goddodin under their rule and united to form the powerful Kingdom of Northumbria under King Ethelfrith.

Ethelfrith was killed in battle in 616 and was succeeded by King Edwin. Edwin of Northumbria finally invaded Elmet in 617 and successfully incorporated Elmet into Northumbria, bringing it under Anglo-Saxon Rule. Rheged also succumbed within a generation.

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

Christianity comes to Elmet

King Edwin of Northumbia was baptised by Paulinus (an emissary from Rome) at York, on Easter Day in AD 627, and became the first Christian King of Northumbria, allowing Christianity to be brought to the North.

Edwin’s conversion to Christianity resulted from his marriage to the Christian princess Aethelburh of Kent. She brought to Northumbria the Roman missionary Paulinus, who converted Edwin and many of his subjects in 627.


Paulinus now became the first Bishop of York and historical sources record that he preached in the heart of Elmet, at Dewsbury, my home-town, 8 miles from Leeds. Dewsbury still has a church of St Paulinus.

That place (Dewsbury) is remarkable as having been one of the earliest settlements of Christianity in England.

“Ancient Tombs” – in The Gentleman’s Magazine Vol VI July-Dec 1836

One theory about Dewsbury’s name is that is was originally named “Deus-burgh” or “God’s town”. Partial demolition of Dewsbury Parish Church in 1766 uncovered two stones dating probably to the time of Paulinus, carved in basso relief with a variety of figures showing Christ with fingers uplifted in the act of blessing. This carving, from an illustration in “The Early History of Dewsbury” is shown here.

Stones dating probably to the time of Paulinus, carved in basso relief with a variety of figures showing Christ with fingers uplifted in the act of blessing.

Elmet remained under Anglo-Saxon rule but the Elmet sætna continued to reside in West Yorkshire, remaining as a distinct genetic group throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, until Deira became part of the Danelaw under the Vikings. Even now, 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.

Anglo-Saxon costume 500-1000 AD

Women’s and Men’s separate DNA lineage

Apparently we women of Yorkshire can 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.

I feel sure that I, a woman of strong West Yorkshire ancestry, am also descended from the Elmet sætna. Maybe that is why, as soon as I get within hailing distance of my place of birth, I feel a comforting sense of coming home, reaffirming and reinforcing my West-Yorkshireness.

Christine Widdall ©2019

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