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Offa's Dyke

Below: a section of Offa's Dyke near Chirk, north Wales

Davies 1990; Vaughan-Thomas 1985

Forming the traditional boundary between England and Wales, this impressive earthwork runs, although not continuously, from the Dee estuary in the north to the river Wye in the south. Constructed by King Offa of Mercia (757-96), late in the eighth century, it is a tribute to the authority he commanded from the Humber to the Channel. Offa was the most powerful and successful of all the Mercian kings. He dominated England, and his power was acknowledged on the Continent by the great Charlemagne himself. Offa had led many expeditions into Wales, but in his later years he decided upon a policy of stabilizing or at least permanently marking the frontier.

Offa's Dyke is one of the most remarkable structures in Britain. Offa's intention was to provide Mercia with a well-defined boundary from Prestatyn to Chepstow, a distance of 240 kilometers. Natural barriers were utilized where that was practicable; where it was not, an earth embankment was built which in places still stands to a height of two and a half meters and which is, with its ditch, up to twenty meters wide. A total of 130 kilometers of dyke was constructed, assuming that all the sections of earthwork associated with the name Offa can be considered part of the same project.

The labour of thousands of men was needed to build the dyke, proof that the kingdom of Mercia possesses a high degree of cohesion; in places it is absolutely straight for kilometers, proof of the technical skills of its designers. It's twelve kilometers longer than Hadrian's Wall but, unlike Hadrian's barrier, that of Offa is an earth not a stone construction, and it was never garrisoned. Its purpose was to denote rather than defend the frontier. Where both lie side by side, Wat's Dyke is up to seven meters to the east of Offa's Dyke; the one gives Oswestry to Wales, the other to England. Wat's Dyke marked the boundary of the lowlands, but parts of Offa's Dyke are located as much as four hundred meters above sea level. The intention, no doubt, was to give Mercia command of the approaches to the lowlands. It is highly unlikely that the dyke marked the precise boundary between the two peoples; during the age of Offa, there were English communities to the west of it and Welsh communities to the east.

George Borrow, in his classic Wild Wales, notes that once "it was customary for the English to cut off the ears of every Welshman who was found to the east of the dyke, and for the Welsh to hang every Englishman whom they found to the west of it". This story, and others like it, seem likely to be a later invention, however, Offa's Dyke has provided a potent symbol of Welsh-English antipathy ever since its creation. To many, this great earthwork symbolizes a permanent difference between national characters, and, in a curious way, seems to guarantee the separateness of Wales.

 

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Copyright 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas