Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons and Danes

My old Grammar School “Houses” were named after the settlements of Celts (Bronze and iron-Age people who migrated to the British Isles from mainland Europe in about 450 BC) and the Angles, Saxons and Danes who invaded the north of England after the Romans left in the 5th Century.

The early tribes in Yorkshire were the Brigantes and the Parisii. The Brigantes controlled the areas which later became the North and West Ridings and Yorkshire, as it was to become was one of their main strongholds. The Parisii (may have been of French origin) controlled the East of the region, later to become the East Riding.

In both 55 and 54 BC, Julius Caesar had invaded Britain with the aim of conquest. But revolt in Gaul had called him away before he had beaten the Britons' resistance. 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 until 410 AD, when barbarian tribes were attacking other parts of the Roman Empire and the Emperor Honorius withdrew the Roman legions from Britain, leaving the inhabitants to fight the invading Anglo-Saxons on their own.

The Roman capital of the North was Eboracum (modern York), which was located in territory that had formerly been under the control of the Brigantes. When the Romans left, the Celts were again in possession of parts of the north, the Ebruac ruling territory around York and another tribe formed the Kingdom of Elmet in West Yorkshire. Elmet was an area of what later became the West Riding of Yorkshire, and an independent Britonnic kingdom that came into being about the 5th century.

By 500 AD, the Angles and Saxons of Europe had advanced into Britain as far as York and Ripon and for several hundred years, they plundered then settled and drove out the previous inhabitants, bringing their own language from which our broad Yorkshire dialect originates:

At that time there came men from three tribes in Germany; from the Old-Saxons, from the Angles, from the Jutes. From the Jutes came the Kentish-men and the Wip-htwarians, that is, the tribe which now dwells in Wight, and that race among the West-Saxons which is still called the race of Jutes. From the Old- Saxons came the men of Essex and Sussex and Wessex. From Anglia, which has ever since remained waste betwixt the Jutes and Saxons, came the men of East Anglia, Middle Anglia, Mercia, and all North-humbria. Their leaders were two brothers, Hengist and Horsa: they were the sons of Wihtgils; Wihtgils son of Witta, Witta of Wecta, Wecta of Woden: from this Woden sprang all our royal families, and those of the South-humbrians also.

A.D. 449 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Towards the end of the 6th century, Elmet came under increasing threat from the expanding Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Deira and Mercia, and the Northumbrians succeeded in invading Elmet in 616 or 617. After the conquest of Elmet, it was incorporated into Northumbria in 627.

According to a genetic study published in Nature (19 March 2015), the local population of West Yorkshire is genetically distinct from the rest of the population of Yorkshire. The article compared the genetic distribution to the historical kingdoms, but the results for West Yorkshire actually found a higher proportion of Germanic descent than in other areas.


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 York or, as they called, it Jorvik. The Danes made York the base of their power until the time of the Norman conquest, in 1066. They established themselves along the coasts and along navigable rivers, built towns and villages, intermarrying 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 was called the Danelaw and was ruled by Danish Kings, extending south to Nottingham and Leicester.

The Danes divided Yorkshire into Ridings. "Riding" is derived from a Danish word "thridding" 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, so much later, the area now called Kirklees, were situated in the West Riding.

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

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 counties of York, Nottingham, Derby, Lincoln, Essex, Cambridge, Suffolk, Norfolk, Northampton, Huntingdon, Bedford, Hertford, Middlesex and Buckingham. Lancashire did not exist but would mostly have been under the Danelaw.

In 886, King Alfred, the Saxon King of Wessex, made a treaty with the Dane Guthrum, to define the borders of their Kingdoms and create peaceful relations between the people of both nations. Although further hostilities were to break out, Alfred eventually defeated Guthrum and required him to become a Christian, with Alfred as his Godfather.

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. He is sometimes referred to as the first King of England. 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.


Daily life under the Danelaw

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