Although the precise borders of Elmet are unclear, it appears to have been bounded by the River Sheaf in the south and the River Wharfe in the east. It adjoined Deira to the north and Mercia to the south, and its western boundary appears to have been near Craven, which was possibly a minor British kingdom too. As such, Elmet was well to the east of other territories of the Britons in Wales and the West Country, and to the south of those in the Hen Ogledd or Old North. As one of the south-easternmost Brittonic regions for which there is reasonably substantial evidence, it is notable for having survived relatively late in the period of Anglo-Saxon conquest.
Elmet was invaded and conquered by Northumbria in the autumn of 616 or 626.
The kingdom is chiefly attested in topographical and archaeological evidence, references in early Welsh poetry, and historical sources such as the Historia Brittonum and Bede. The name survives throughout the area in place names such as Barwick-in-Elmet and Sherburn-in-Elmet. A local parliamentary constituency has also been named 'Elmet and Rothwell'.
Elmet was one of a number of Sub-Roman British realms in Yr Hen Ogledd – the lands in northern Britain as the edge of the Highlands – during the Early Middle Ages. Other kingdoms included Rheged, Strathclyde, and the Gododdin. It is unclear how Elmet came to be established, though it has been suggested that it may have been created from a larger kingdom ruled by the semi-legendary Coel Hen. The historian Alex Woolf suggests that the region of Elmet had a distinct tribal identity in pre-Roman times and that this re-emerged after Roman rule collapsed.
The existence of Elmet is attested in the Historia Brittonum, which says that King Edwin of Northumbria "occupied Elmet and expelled Certic, king of that country". Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum says that Hereric, the father of St Hilda of Whitby, was killed at the court of King Ceretic. It is generally presumed that Ceretic/Certic were the same person, known in Welsh sources as Ceredig ap Gwallog. However, Bede does not speak of Elmet as the name of a kingdom but rather as that of a forest of Elmet, silva Elmete. He mentions that "subsequent kings made a house for themselves in the district, which is called Loidis" and the Battle of Winwaed, also in the region of Loidis – probably the area covered by the present day City of Leeds.
Elmet appears to have had ties with Wales; an early Christian inscription found in Gwynedd reads "ALIOTVS ELMETIACOS HIC IACET", or "Aliotus the Elmetian lies here". A cantref (administrative division) of Dyfed was also named Elfed, the Welsh equivalent of Elmet. A number of ancestors of Ceretic are recorded in Welsh sources: one of Taliesin's poems is for his father Gwallog ap Llaennog, who may have ruled Elmet near the end of the 6th century.
Towards the end of the 6th century, Elmet came under increasing pressure from the expanding English kingdoms of Deira and Mercia. Forces from Elmet joined the ill-fated alliance in 590 against the men of Bernicia who had been making massive inroads further to the north. During this war it is thought Elmet's king Gwallog was killed. Legend (if not history) insists that the northern alliance collapsed after Urien of Rheged was murdered and a feud broke out between two of its key members.
After the unification of the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, the Northumbrians invaded and overran Elmet in 616. It is not known definitely what prompted the invasion, but it has been suggested that the casus belli was the death by poisoning of the Northumbrian nobleman Hereric, who was an exiled member of the Northumbrian royal house residing in Elmet. It may have been that Hereric had been poisoned by his hosts and Edwin of Northumbria invaded in retaliation; or perhaps Edwin himself had Hereric poisoned and invaded Elmet to punish Ceredig ap Gwallog for harbouring him.
After the conquest of Elmet, the realm was incorporated into Northumbria – on Easter Day, 627. The people of the land were known as the Elmetsæte. They are still recorded in the late 7th century Tribal Hidage as the inhabitants of a minor territory of 600 hides. They were the most northerly group recorded in the Tribal Hidage. The Elmetsæte probably continued to reside in Yorkshire as a distinct group throughout the Saxon period.
The Life of Cathróe of Metz mentions Loidam Civitatem as the boundary between the Norsemen of Jórvík and the Britons of Strathclyde: if this refers to Leeds, it suggests that some or all of Elmet may have been a distinct territory in the first half of the 10th century before English reconquest of the north.
Kings of Elmet
The following kings are recorded in various sources as ruling Elmet:
- Masgwid Gloff? (c.460 – c.495)
- Llaennog ap Masgwid? (c.495 – c.540)
- Arthuis ap Masgwid? (c.540 – c.560)
- Gwallog ap Llaennog? (c.560 – 590)
- Ceretic (590 – 616) d. 618
The area to the western Calder valley side of Elmet is the subject of a 1979 book combining photography and poetry; Remains of Elmet, by Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin. The book was re-published by Faber and Faber in 1994 simply titled Elmet, and with a third of the book being new additional poems and photographs.
- Koch 2006, p. 670.
- Speight, Harry (1900). Upper Wharfedale: being a complete account of the history, antiquities and scenery of the picturesque valley of the Wharfe, from Otley to Langstrothdale. London: Elliot Stock. p. 29. http://archive.org/stream/upperwharfedaleb00speiuoft/upperwharfedaleb00speiuoft_djvu.txt.
- Alan Orr Anderson (1922). Early Sources of Scottish History: AD 500–1286. I. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd. p. 441.
- Downham, Clare (2007). Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland: The Dynasty of Ivarr to A.D. 1014. Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press. p. 121. ISBN 1903765897.
- Dumville. St Cathroe of Metz. p. 177.
- Koch, John T., ed (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-85109-440-7.
- David Rollason (2003). Northumbria, 500–1100. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Christopher Snyder (2003). The Britons. Blackwell Publishing.
- Alex Woolf (1998). "Romancing the Celts: a segmentary approach to acculturation". in Laurence, Ray; Berry, Joanne. Cultural Identity in the Roman Empire. London: Routledge.