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Lost Medieval Kingdoms & How to Find Them

Alex Harvey | University of York


England would be unified out of several disparate polities in the middle of the tenth century, a process that had started with the decline of the former Roman province of Britannia six hundred years prior.            


This narrative - the formation of England - is covered in most history books on the Early Medieval Period (410-1066), and is usually framed as a predestined story. Of course, with hindsight, we could always argue that England was bound to be unified eventually; ‘none of the smaller pre-unification kingdoms could have lasted that long’, we may cry. But, in doing so, we are neglecting the truth of history - England was never destined to form out of a web of small petty states; it did so because of the conquests of Wessex. And with the formation of England came the breakdown of many of these small states, some remembered in today’s shires and counties (such as Ayrshire, which might preserve the kingdom of Aeron), but others long lost to the mists of history (like Erechwydd; heard of that one? Probably not). This article intends to uncover a handful of these kingdoms and to show the reader how this might not be such an impossible task utilising specific examples (Elmet, Craven, Swaledale) along the way.


If we imagine England as a completed jigsaw puzzle, how many pieces is it made of? Not all jigsaw pieces are formed equally; some are small and bent to work around awkward natural terrain, whereas others have undefined borders, existing only as names on maps, their boundaries uncertain and their charismatic rulers instead given all of the attention. We know more about Urien of Rheged, for instance, than we do about Rheged full stop. Assessing how many polities like this once made up ‘England’ is like trying to build a jigsaw using invisible and intangible puzzle pieces. Still, it can be achieved through careful study and consideration of numerous historical disciplines.


Historical documents, such as poems like the Welsh epic The Gododdin, reference minor British kingdoms vaguely geographically bound to Northern England. The economic assessment known as the Tribal Hidage, composed in the eighth century, also lists many small states and their relative wealth. Other kingdoms, more obscure still, can only be observed through distinct place names and, in some cases, it is merely down to interpretations of local topography, archaeological earthworks, and field systems to determine the broadest dimensions of these ‘lost kingdoms’. To best understand the complex jigsaw puzzle that is England, I find it most helpful to subscribe to the ‘Tier List’ model, four tiers of ‘kingdom obscurity’ ranging from ‘least obscure’ to ‘most obscure’. This article will follow such a list, using the above inter-disciplinary methodology to identify and speculate throughout.

 

Wessex is a kingdom which most people will have heard about, be it from The Last Kingdom TV show or mainstream history books. Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria, all of these names exist on a level just under ‘England’ as a moniker - they are recognisable and correspond to broad and identifiable areas of the country today. Let us consider Northumbria, for instance, whose name derives from Old English meaning ‘North of the Humber’. Here, we have an identifiable place and a name that roughly describes said place - if we were to look at a map it’d be relatively easy to point to Northumbria.


A map of Britain.
Map of the ‘seven petty kingdoms of England’ from Bartholomew's ‘A Literary & Historical Atlas of Europe’ (1914). Supposedly, this map represents 10th-century England, though several boundaries and border-lines have been shifted and misrepresented (Wikimedia Commons).

Many will have seen variations of this map before; this is the ‘Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy’, for which we have the High Medieval writer Henry of Huntingdon to thank. Henry, having access to now-lost charters from before his time, described pre-unification England as a land composed of seven kingdoms, each one squabbling with the other for supremacy: Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, Kent, East Anglia, Essex, and Sussex. In describing England, Henry employed that same trope of a predestined unification like many modern narratives, as if to imply that there was no way that these smaller states would have ever continued without coming together as one.

 

I have already mentioned a few kingdoms from Henry’s list: the ‘big names’ of Anglo-Saxon England that are still recognisable to this day. Other kingdoms, however, remain unaccounted for. If the aforementioned seven can be easily identified on maps and through modern county names, then what of all the smaller kingdoms? The ones which didn’t quite make the cut? Henry retained the cultural knowledge of Wessex and Northumbria because, even by his time (1088-1157), these were still recognisably distinct shires and districts. Like us, Henry recognised that England had coalesced out of smaller territories. This was a long process that took place before and after the Viking Age (800-1050), a process of land annexation, violent conquest, marriage alliances, peaceful coexistence, trade deals, border strife, and invasion; and a constant unyielding process too. Henry’s kingdoms number only seven, but using other methods, researchers can identify further territories. If we use Northumbria as our baseline - our ‘Tier One’ - an easily recognisable Early Medieval kingdom which most people could point to on a map, then where do we go from there? Is Northumbria just the tip of the iceberg?

 

Northumbria is an interesting starting point because most will be unaware that it was not necessarily a kingdom, but more of a broad ethnic descriptor for vast swathes of land that were - as the name suggests - simply ‘North of the Humber’. Within Northumbria were two constituent kingdoms: Deira and Bernicia. The names of both Deira, roughly coterminous with the county of Yorkshire today, and Bernicia, which we remember in Bamburghshire;  are Anglicised variants of existing native territories, which were likely carved out of former Roman land designations (Dewyr and Brynaich respectively). By the seventh century, Deira and Bernicia were, together, Northumbria, but their unification was also not predestined. In the run-up to the Viking Age, Northumbria would descend into civil war and political division between the ruling castes of Deira and Bernicia. We can consider these kingdoms our ‘Tier Two’ examples - polities that a keen researcher will be able to uncover from accessible contemporary documents, and they aren’t the only ones. Lindsey, coterminous with North Lincolnshire, is another example, mentioned extensively throughout The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and recognisable in today’s West Lindsey rural district, and so too is Elmet, a woodland area centred around Leeds. Elmet can also be identified through certain other village names, and it has been remembered most recently in a 2017 noir fiction set in West Yorkshire.


A string of villages all ending in the suffix ‘in-Elmet’ are scattered to the east of Leeds today. This is a place name, essentially a linguistic fossil, preserving a trace of a territory that was once distinct enough to render its constituent parts labelled with it in mind. Elmet was, evidently, a sizable enough kingdom, though one that would be engorged and absorbed by its larger neighbours. Elmet, Lindsey, Deira, Bernicia, and a whole host of other kingdoms like Rheged and The Hwicce, are all mentioned in Early Medieval poems and other works, and so we know that they existed up until they were annexed. Even after annexation, the still-preserved place names indicate that Elmet retained its identity despite becoming ‘just another part’ of wider Northumbria. Sherburn-in-Elmet, Barwick-in-Elmet, and others: these all carry the identifying characteristic of ‘that village over there? That used to be part of Elmet, years ago…’ a memory of a lost kingdom, a whisper in the landscape.


Sadly, Elmet is not a household name in most circles, yet it is still an example of a pretty identifiable Early Medieval kingdom. Perhaps not as approachable as Wessex or Kent, but whole books have been written about it! Lindsey too, for that matter.

 

And so, we must go deeper still, further into the mists of time. to explore ever more obscure kingdoms that their larger neighbours absorbed. It is worth discussing where post-Roman kingdoms emerged from, for there is a strong case that the patchwork of petty tribal territories in the pre-Roman Iron Age re-emerged following the decline of Imperial administration. These unique kin groups and identities, forged through their geography, topography, and borders, jutted against other territories just like them. Through competition, the identities of these ‘kingdoms’ became more and more cemented, more assured.


If Northumbria ate up Elmet and parts of Lindsey, and if Northumbria later became just one small part of ‘England’, then reason would have it that Elmet, too, had its smaller neighbours to annex - a food chain of kingdoms, if you will. Some kingdoms below Elmet would be the Pecsaete and Craven; the former is a scarcely known entity based around the Peak District, and the latter is a speculative territory observed only through place names. Unlike our ‘Tier One’ and ‘Tier Two’ examples, there is no historical document, nor even a poem, to ratify or exaggerate the status of Craven as a petty kingdom. It exists, solely, as a cluster of 125 ‘in-Craven’ place names recorded in William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book. Using these 125 villages that stretch across parts of the Yorkshire Dales, Westmorland, and Cumbria, we can build a map to form the vague dimensions of Craven. This is our ‘Tier Three’ example, a polity that is highly likely to have existed but can only be inferred using a vast array of similar place names.


Unlike Elmet, we have only the vaguest dates to go on to work out when Craven was conquered by another. Elmet ended its independence in 617 when, according to the great Early Medieval historian Bede, its king was driven into exile by the Northumbrians. Craven, in comparison, has no recorded king, yet its place names indicate that a village being ‘-in-Craven’ was worthy of note, so much so to differentiate it from all those villages that were not in Craven.


A map of the geographic spread of Craven.
The geographic spread of all 125 ‘-in-Craven’ place names are taken from the Open Domesday Project (image courtesy of Anna Powell-Smith). This is the tiny, enigmatic kingdom of Craven… Or is it? (CC-BY-SA).

But can we even call Craven a kingdom? With ‘Tier One’ territories we know where we stand: Wessex had a king, Northumbria had several, and East Anglia had the Sutton Hoo princely burial, itself containing a gilded warrior chief. Even descending into ‘Tier Two’, with Lindsey as an example, we have multiple references to it as a semi-autonomous marsh kingdom and also a royal genealogy of legendary ancestors. Craven has neither of these, so we must turn to our final form of evidence, the physical: archaeology and geology. Those 125 ‘-in-Craven’ names are spread across a vast limestone-scarred landscape, a scraped land of imposing peaks and verdant green valleys, one that would have been rich in livestock and agriculture. But, interestingly the 125 names extend far beyond what is considered the ‘historic Craven’ in extant rural administration. ‘Historic Craven’ is much smaller, localised mainly around Skipton and into Ribblesdale. As anyone who has visited the Yorkshire Dales will tell you, this landscape is unique, composed of chiselled and exposed Carboniferous limestone strata; such a visual identity would have made ‘Craven’ - as we can recognise it - a unique and distinct area compared to its neighbours. Would this then coalesce to form a regional identity?


Without even knowing the dimensions, any further certainty goes out of the window, but we can still speculate. Malham is located amongst the above ‘-in-Craven’ names, where there is significant evidence of a developed series of field systems and farming enclosures, ripe for the exploitation of sheep. Even later High Medieval charters, spats between Fountains and Bolton Abbey over the ownership of wool-rearing land, are focused primarily on Malham’s land-owning rights. Was Malham, then, this wealthy Early and High Medieval farming complex, the economic ‘core’ of the kingdom of Craven? Likewise, can we consider the natural geography of the Yorkshire Dales and its bleak impenetrable surroundings the ‘borders’? The High Medieval Hebden township boundary (located 16.5km to the east of Malham), which explicitly mentions Old English words as geographic markers, would also indicate that, even by the thirteenth century, land divisions were recognised from earlier times.


A lake surrounded by vast greenery.
Malham Tarn is an upland lake surrounded by the archaeological remnants of a Roman garrison camp and Early Medieval farmsteads. Image courtesy of David Benbenick, 2005 (Wikimedia Commons).

The name ‘Craven’ may well mean ‘the scraped land’ concerning the archetypal limestone scars of the southern Yorkshire Dales. Not to mention, there is also the mountain of Ingleborough, an imposing earthen monument once argued to be an Iron Age hillfort but is now better understood as a complex multi-period ceremonial site used since at least the Bronze Age. Such an important landscape feature undoubtedly impacted the minds of those living nearby (mostly farmers, as revealed through excavations); was it prominent enough to be a defining feature of an entire kingdom? Can other landscape features be analysed in the same manner?

 

Andrew Fleming, in his localised studies of one of the Dales, certainly seems to think so, but here Fleming employs our strategies to an entirely different kingdom, one even smaller and more obscure than Craven: his ‘Kingdom of the Swale’ in Swaledale.


Finally, we enter ‘Tier Four’: kingdoms at the shadowiest depths of the iceberg, kingdoms barely even known by place names, just hinted at through one-or-two toponyms, and maybe an earthwork. Earthworks, meaning dykes, ditches, or raised banks, are primarily seen as evidence for defensive measures. Offa’s Dyke, a 285-kilometre-long turf barrier that once separated Wales from England, is perhaps the most famous example - not quite Hadrian’s Wall but serving the same broad purpose of carving into the land: ‘here begins my domain’. Offa’s Dyke is massive and reflects the huge territory of Offa’s Mercia (757-796), but smaller earthworks can be analysed in this same manner to pick out even smaller territories.


Between the quaint farming villages of Grinton and Fremington, both in Swaledale, is a 500-metre-long ditch, analysed by Fleming to have been built between 475-750 based on the fact that it lies above a Roman farmstead but below High Medieval field systems. Fleming argues that the dyke and its position - in tandem with the natural topography of Swaledale and two extinct place names that end in ‘-in-Swaledale’ - reflects an insular desire from the builders to defend a small area. He calls this area ‘the Kingdom of the Swale’. It is this ‘Kingdom of the Swale’ that we must end on, a wholly speculative territory that barely extends a few kilometres in either direction, based solely on a few place names and a ditch.

 

Ultimately, is there any guaranteed way to unearth a ‘lost kingdom’ of England? In short, not really; this country - like many - is made up of a patchwork of jigsaw pieces, some now completely invisible, others unable to even be picked up, some even given incorrect names and locations - the jigsaw pieces that make up the kingdom of Rheged (possibly Cumbria) might as well not exist, for instance. Fleming’s arguments regarding Swaledale, combining a few place names and local geography, can be applied elsewhere across the UK. Recorded in 1115, the small island once known as Haxeholm in the Humber Wash may very well have been a distinct territory - an island fastness, surrounded by marshland, readily defensible (Haxeholm is now the Isle of Axholme in North Lincolnshire; no longer an island due to modern drainage).


We can only really guess, at this point, but there are likely to be lost kingdoms wherever one looks.

 

Let’s recap: at the very bottom of the ‘Making of England’ pile are tiny jigsaw pieces, tiny kingdoms made up of one or two hamlets and a few ditches, which utilise natural topography to fill in the gaps - Fleming’s Swaledale, the Isle of Axholme, Morthel, Balne. This is ‘Tier Four’, perhaps not even worthy of being given the name ‘kingdom’, and above them, further up the proverbial iceberg, is ‘Tier Three’; Craven, Aeron, Regio Loidis, Catraeth, Regiones Dunutingas - these are larger jigsaw pieces, but almost as obscure, known from greater numbers and the occasional nod in an otherwise unrelated poem. Catraeth (possibly modern Catterick), is mentioned in The Gododdin, and Regiones Dunutingas is recorded as a distinct territory presumably around Dentdale gifted to a Northumbrian archbishop in the 670s. Within Northumbria alone, there is an abundance of these microscopic kingdoms, home to forgotten kings who sat on forgotten thrones. What of the rest of England?

 

Many people know of the ‘Tier One’ kingdoms; Northumbria, Mercia, and Kent; less know about those in ‘Tier Two’ like Lindsey and Deira, Elmet and Bernicia. But the truly lost kingdoms can be found in the deepest depths of interdisciplinary analysis.


How many of these tiny territories were swallowed to form England? The number will likely forever remain unknown and inherently speculative, but we can be sure it was greater than seven.


 

Further Reading:

  • Thomas Williams, Lost Realms (New York: HarperCollins, 2020).

  • Alex Harvey, Riddles Of The Isle (Doncaster: JJ Moffs Ltd., 2023).

  • Andrew Fleming, Swaledale: Valley of the Wild River (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1998).

  • David S. Johnson, New Light on the 'Dark Ages' in North Craven (Clapham: Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust, 2019).


Alex Harvey is a postgraduate at the University of York in the Department of Archaeology, soon to start a PhD on the impact of viking armies on ninth-century York. In previous and ongoing research, he has investigated the Early Medieval history of the Isle of Axholme and the Yorkshire Dales, and is a published author with Amberley Publishing, tackling the Viking Age and post-Roman period from a variety of disciplines and perspectives. He is the author of 'Riddles Of The Isle' and 'Forgotten Vikings', among upcoming works.

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