Offa’s Dyke

This is a wall – or monument, barrier, that is generally believed to have been built by the Mercian king Offa to separate Wales from England, and that, like Hadrian’s Wall, to have run from sea to sea. But the story is far less clear or straightforward. This is from an article by Chris Catling from the latest Current Archaeology:

The earliest mention of Offa’s Dyke occurs in Asser’s 9th century Life of King Alfred, in which the Welsh bishop writes: “There was in Mercia in recent times an energetic king called Offa, terrifying to all the neighbouring kings and provinces around him, who ordered a great ditch to be made between Britain  and Mercia from sea to sea.

We long ago learned not to read such documents as if they are statements of fact, and in this case The Life was written 100 years after Offa’s death in 796 and so is not a record of a contempt court. Offa’s Dyke is not the real subject of the story: Offa is mentioned only to characterise his daughter as a chip off the old block: she ‘behaved like a tyrant after the manner of her father’. Moreover, Anglo-Saxons tended to ascribe large-scale landscape monuments to legendary or semi-legendary figures (Wansdyke to Woden, for example, while Grim’s Ditch reflects another of the god’s names, Grimr, the ‘masked man’), so it could simply be that Asser was attributing the Dyke to a prominent recent ruler in the same tradition.

A more recent cautionary tale should alert us to the risks of jumping to an easy attribution: the Danevirke, a linear dyke dug across the Jutland peninsular to delimit the southern boundary of Denmark, has long been created to the danish King Godred and dated to c.AD 808 on the basis of a reference in the Frankish Annals. Recent excavation has dated at least one part of the earthwork to c.700, however, and no phase has yet been found that can e dated to Godred’s reign.

Whet this highlights conclusively is that we lack objective archaeological evidence to support he hisatoricalidentification of e Dyke with Offa. By contrast with better-known monuments such as Hadrian’s Wall and he Antonine Wall, which form part of the frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site and have been surveyed, maped, excavated and studied by academics, students and antiquaries for hundreds of years, Offa’s Dyke has only been subject to sustained attention three times, and only once has a full survey been published – by Cyril Fox in 1955.

Such dating as has been attempted so far has proved to be misleading… “Offa might not have built his dyke’ after radiocarbon dates were obtained from a section of he earthwork near Chirk that suggested it was built between AD 430 and 652. The initial conclusion was that some parts at least of Offa’s Dyke were constructed in the immediate post-Roman era and that the monument might in fact be a composite work. …The conclusion ….has to be that we lack secure radiocarbon and thermoluminescence dates from which to draw well-founded conclusions about the Dyke’s construction and phasing. …

But none of the post-asset historical sources (from chronicles to land charters) challenge the link to Offa, and none offers an alternative, which we might expect to be the case of the connection was simply a convenient narrative invention. By contrast, Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall were both ascribed to Septimus Severus by Gildas and Bede…

But does Offa’s Dyke really extend from the Dee estuary in the north to the Wye-Severn estuary in the south?… Views on this question have swung back and forth in antiquarian writings and more recent archaeological studies, along with 3 associated questions: what is the precise route of the Dyke, why dos it appear to have significant gaps along its sea-to-sea course, and what relationship does it have to similar linear monuments along the same alignment, including Whitford Dyke and Wat’s Dyke in the north, and the Rowe Ditch in the south?….

Keith Ray and Ian Bapty’s book adds a great deal evidence for he Dyke being a sophisticated and planned earthwork. But what of its purpose? The way that the Dyke funnels travellers to certain crossing points in the e borders suggests that it was a permeable boundary, but not one that left the British in any doubt as to who was in control. The monument also shut out he British from access to the fertile lowlands and well-watered values on the Mercian side of the boundary – something that Gerald of Wales acknowledged in … 1194 [when]he wrote that Offa ‘shut the Welsh off from the English by his long dyke on the frontier.’ Perhaps then, one role performed by the Dyke was to overawe the British, and give the mercian a sense of security.

Another was to convey a message eastwards to those neighbouring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms over which Offa had assured his overlordship in a period known to historians as the ‘Mercian supremacy’. Those same historians have long engaged i a debate about Offa’s intentions – was he seeking to unite the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms under one ruler, something for which Alfred the great gets the credit, but that Offa came close to achieving? Anglo-Saxon scholar Simon Keyes thinks not: “Offa was driven by a lust for power, not a vision of English unity.” …Keith Ray begs to differ, pointing out several parallels between Of a and his Frankish contemporary, Charlemagne.

That Offa saw himself as Charlemagne’s equal is hot in doubt : when the idea was totted in AD7989 that Offa’s eldest daughter Aelfflaed, should marry Charlemagne’s son, Charles he Younger, Offa clearly saw this as an unequal offer – he demanded in return that his son and heir, Ecgrith should marry Charlemagne’s daughter Bertha as well. That suggestion was met with contemptuous silence …but Offa’s Dyke could be interpreted as another emulation of the continental ‘emperor’. It was Charlemagne.. who developed the concept of the marchland, a buffer zone between two states that served a military and defensive purpose and was a means of controlling cross-border trade.

In this sense, Offa’s Dyke is not just a line n the landscape, a boundary of border: it is perhaps better understood as a frontier region, and that it where there is the greatest need for future research….

That border culture, manifest in local laws,in place names, in the development of planned towns and distinctive architectural styles, in material culture and in agricultural practice, is especially marked in the Norman period, but perhaps owes its origins to the Dyke whose period of practical use can probably be measured only in decades at most, but who’s wider impact has lasted centuries. Just as the media often refer toHadrian’s Wall as if it were the border between Scotland and England … so Offa’s Dyke is often employed as a metaphor for the England-Wales border. People in Wales today commonly refer to going dros y clawdd (across the dyke) or dros clawdd Offa, when speaking of a visit to England.

Increasingly, Hadrian’s Wall is studied not so much for its physical structure as for its impact on people over the centuries; the time has come for a similar study of Offa’s Dyke.

This is fascinating- so many people know about the dyke, and a lot of people walk it at least in part. Even the word ‘dyke’ is confusing as it can be both a ditch or a wall.

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