The Kingdom of Elmet
Our classic understanding of British history, as taught in schools, is that the Romans conquered Britain and ruled it for centuries before being forced back to Rome by troubles at home. They abandoned the British Isles to a group of tribes who had been softened by life under them and who were therefore vulnerable to the waves of Angles and Saxons who gradually invaded, overtaking the land and making it their own well before the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066. However, of necessity, this version of history is a reduced one: almost nothing is reliably known of Central Britain before c. 550. The Romans had never really controlled the North, and even in the south effective Roman control ended long before the departure of the Roman military from Roman Britain in 407. By 550, the region was controlled by Brittonic-speaking peoples; to the east were the Anglian realms of Bernicia and Deira; to the north were the Picts, and the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata lay to the northwest. All of these peoples would play a role in the history of the Old North.
Battles were fought between the tribes of this land, not just against the encroaching Anglo-Saxons. What we now know as the West Riding of Yorkshire was then the kingdom of Elmet, an independent Brittonic realm, the precise borders of which are unclear: in the south the boundary was probably the River Sheaf and in the east the River Wharfe. Deira lay to the north and Mercia to the south, Craven to the west. These kingdoms were all in the south of what was known as the Hen Ogledd or Old North. Elmer survived relatively late in the period of Anglo-Saxon conquest, being invaded and conquered by Northumbria in the autumn of 616 or 626, though conquest and defeat did not necessarily mean the total destruction of one culture by another.
The organisation of the Men of the North was based on groups of extended families, owing allegiance to a dominant family. A primary ‘capital’ would be maintained, but this was not the bureaucratic administrative centre of today, nor a Roman model settlement. A king would maintain multiple courts throughout his territory, travelling among them to exercise his authority and to address the dispensing of justice, a part of royal procedure until the reforms of Henry II in the 12th century.
It is unclear how Elmet came to be established. It has been suggested that it may have been created from a larger kingdom ruled by the semi-legendary Coel Hen, a figure prominent in Welsh literature and legend since the Middle Ages. Coel the Old was said to have been a leader in Roman or Sub-Roman Britain and the progenitor of several kingly lines in the Hen Ogledd. Later legend suggested that he was the father of Saint Helena and the grandfather of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. His line, collectively called the Coeling, included such noted figures as Urien, king of Rheged and Gwallog, perhaps king of Elmet, who in the medieval text ‘Geraint son of Erbin’, he is named as one of Arthur's knights. Gwallog also appears in the Welsh triads (a group of related texts in medieval manuscripts which preserve fragments of Welsh folklore and mythology) as one of the ‘Three Armed Warriors of the Island of Britain’ and one of the ‘Three Battle Pillars of the Island of Britain’.
However, Bede doesn’t refer to a kingdom but rather to a forest of Elmet, silva Elmete: ‘subsequent kings made a house for themselves in the district, which is called Loidis’ -probably the area covered by modern Leeds.
Towards the end of the 6th century, Elmet came under increasing pressure from the expanding Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Deira and Mercia and in 590 joined the ill-fated alliance against the Bernicia, during which war it is thought Elmet's king Gwallog was killed. The northern alliance collapsed. The Northumbrians invaded and overran Elmet in 617, probably prompted by the death by poisoning of the Northumbrian nobleman Hereric, who was an exiled member of the Northumbrian royal house residing in Elmet.
Elmet was incorporated into Northumbria in 627 and its people were known as the Elmetsæte. The Elmetsæte probably continued to reside in West Yorkshire. It has been suggested that some or all of Elmet may have been returned to Brittonic rule for a brief period in the first half of the 10th century before Anglo-Saxon reconquest. What is true is that the local population of West Yorkshire is genetically distinct from the rest of the population of Yorkshire, and indeed the rest of England. Perhaps the families of West Yorkshire who have been in the area for many generations are descendants of the original Elmetsæte.