The Offa's Dyke South Study Group aims to research and study the southern section of Offa's Dyke, from The Severn Estuary to just north of Tidenham at Brockweir. Our aim is to inform people about the Dyke, sections visible and its local history.
Offa’s Dyke fans, and indeed anyone interested in frontiers old and new, will enjoy and learn a lot from the latest edition of the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory’s learned but readable journal. Download it absolutely free on:
Keith Ray, Honorary Professor in Archaeology at Cardiff University, gave a telephone interview on 9 March 2020 by Howard Williams. The interview captures different perspectives on Offa’s Dyke developing from Keith Ray’s keynote presentation at the 4th University of Chester Archaeology Student Conference. His book of 2016 (with Ian Bapty) Offa’s Dyke: Landscape and Hegemony in Eighth Century Britain (Windgather/Oxbow, Oxford) is considered to be the most thorough examination of Offa’s Dyke to date.
A transcript of the full interview can be read here:
Offa, King of Mercia, from 757 to 796, came from royal stock dating four generations back to Pybba who reigned in the early 7th century. One of Thingfrith’s sons, Offa became king after a short civil war following the assassination of Aethelbald, the dominant king of southern England for 30 years.
Offa married Cynethryth, and they had at least one son, Ecgfrith, and three daughters, Aethelburh, Aelfflaed and Eadburh, all of whom were married off for the sake of political alliances.
To secure Ecgfrith’s succession Offa, in his older years, exerted much power and indeed physical violence to have him anointed to royal ascendancy. Alas, Ecgfrith’s reign lasted less than four months. It was said later “You know how much blood his father shed to secure his kingdom.”
(image copyright M Taylor)
We think of Mercia as being the border lands, but during his reign Offa established the dominance of Mercia, from its original power centre in the west midlands, over other Anglo Saxon kingdoms south of Northumbria, even as far as the Isle of Wight. He held court at times throughout southern England: Hereford, Tamworth, Chelsea, St Albans among many other centres.
He wasn’t the first Anglo Saxon king to have coins minted with his effigy, but insisted on high quality, and introduced the refinements of naming the moneyer on his silver pennies and later gold coins. His wife was the first English queen to appear on coinage.
He promoted relationships with the ruler of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, who addressed him as ‘brother’ in one letter. He aspired to follow the Carolingian example but over a more modest empire.
There are few contemporary written references to Offa, and none to the Dyke. A hundred years after his death, Alfred the Great’s biographer, Asser, wrote:
“There was in Mercia in fairly recent times a certain vigorous king called Offa, who terrified all the neighbouring kings and provinces around him, and who had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea.”
Among later eulogies Henry of Huntingdon wrote:
“… a youth of the noblest extraction … Offa proved a most warlike king, for he was victorious in successful battles over the men of Kent, and the men of Wessex, and the Northumbrians. He was also a very religious man.”
A modern historian’s view:
“ Offa was driven by a lust for power, not a vision of English unity. And what he left was a reputation, not a legacy.” Simon Keynes.
And finally, of his daughter Eadburh who married into the Wessex kingdom, Asser wrote:
“She behaved like a tyrant after the manner of her father.”
Everyone knows that in the late 8th century, Offa King of the
Mercians built a mighty earth bank and ditch along the length of the western
border of the kingdom. There are a number of other earthen dykes in Britain,
but Offa’s was and is the greatest in terms of sheer size as well as
importance. No contemporary documentation survives, but the current belief is
that Offa’s Dyke was not built just to keep the Welsh under control along the
border, but as a symbol of the power and growing dominance of Mercia among the
Anglo Saxon Kingdoms.
Tidenham parish we are lucky to have some of the finest remaining lengths of
the Dyke, including the unique section in Sedbury that faces South instead of
the prevailing West.
the last couple of years, a renaissance in interest and study of the Dyke has
led to the formation of the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory whose main purpose is to
support a network of individuals, groups and organisations working to promote
awareness and appreciation of, and to manage and investigate, Offa’s Dyke and
Wat’s Dyke, as well as related monuments and their wider landscapes (Wat’s Dyke
is a similar, but probably older, dyke, running quite close to Offa’s from the
Dee estuary to a point in Shropshire).
Which is where our Group comes in! We have the opportunity to be the catalyst for an alliance of local history groups and interested individuals whose aim is the research, study, conservation and promotion of public awareness of Offa’s Dyke in Tidenham and further north to Brockweir. We feel that this alliance has a key part to play in one or more of these aims: from looking for the ‘missing’ bits of the Dyke around Castleford and along the cliffs of the Wye for instance; to looking up local documents and histories; to talking to family and friends who have memories of the Dyke and who may even live in a house whose garden contains possible remnants of it; to taking part in displays and events to promote awareness of the Dyke to young and old in the parish as well as tourists. I’m sure many more activities will come to mind
particularly important and exciting project will be the investigation of the
connection between the Dyke’s progress in the fields below Castleford and its
crossing of the Roman road to the old bridge. And all this within sight of an
important Norman Castle that the Conqueror had built very soon after landing.
Following earlier studies of Offa’s Dyke published by Cyril Fox in the late 1920s-early 1930s, by Frank Noble (founder of the Offa’s Dyke Society and chief player in establishing the Offa’s Dyke path) in 1983, and by David Hill and Margaret Worthington in 2003, Keith Ray and Ian Bapty set out to examine the extent of the Dyke and the political landscape and conditions of the time. They argued that this political landscape existed for only a short span of time from the eight century through to the early ninth century.
During this time the building of the Dyke had been a project to emphasise the dominance of the successive reigns of Kings of Mercia: Offa (757-796) and Coenwolf (796-821).
Ray and Bapty also suggest that The Dyke gave a challenging signal to Charlemagne’s continental empire.
In 2009 they submitted an article stating the uniqueness and importance of Offa’s Dyke to a respected academic journal but frustratingly it was rejected under the grounds that the Dyke was one of many across the country. Ray and Bapty believed otherwise and set out to write a book dispelling this myth. Ray commented that the more he visited lengths of the Dyke, the more questions he asked particularly concerning the assertion that it had been adequately characterised in earlier work as a monument.
For those of you who remember Michael Wood, he was an historian and TV presenter who has broadcast TV documentaries on a range of historical subjects since the late 1970’s
One such documentary was on King Offa, the man himself and his dyke.
If you prefer the written word then his book on The Dark Ages contains a colourful passage imagining how the building of the Dyke might have been conducted.
Thousands of Anglo Saxon levies had been moved into the border country with horses and carts carrying rations, tents, rope, nails and weapons. But this time, unlike the mounted weapon wielding expeditions of previous years they had come with tools – spades, axes, adzes and hammers. For they had been ordered to create a huge bank and ditch along the whole frontier – 25 feet deep and 60 feet across – from the Irish Sea to the Bristol Channel. Like modern motorway constructors they were to cut a swathe through the green countryside.
In some places Anglo-Saxon villages were being left on the welsh side, the powerful local magnates helpless before the overlord who had willed the deed. The first work gangs burned off brushwood and grass, cutting down trees and clearing obstacles. Great beacons were lit on the hills to align the the longer sections and massive wooden posts hammered in for the shorter ones. Oxen commandeered from the local farms dragged heavy ploughs across the blackened earth to make a line for the marker ditches. Then the main gangs set up their camps, most of them farmers doing military service..”
( In Search of the Dark Ages: Michael Wood. 1981).
”There was in Mercia a certain vigorous king called Offa, who terrified all the neighbouring kings and provinces around him, and who had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea.”
Surprisingly, this is earliest known reference to the mighty earthwork, written by Bishop Asser almost 100 years after King Offa’s death in 796 AD.
Modern historians are inclined to believe that the Mercian king had the Dyke built at a quiet period in his reign, maybe in his last decade. When freshly built it could be 27 metres wide and 8 metres from ditch bottom to bank top. Impressive sections of the ditch and bank still survive after 12 centuries of degradation by weather, farming, burrowing animals, tree roots, road building, housing development and more. And the threats persist.
Of course, earthen banks and ditches weren’t by any means a new thing when Offa decided to build one. Along its length and nearby there are numerous smaller dykes of varying build types and direction of travel, some predating Offa’s, some later. And all across Britain and continental Europe, there are numerous ancient ditches and banks. Wat’s Dyke in north Wales runs parallel and very near to Offa’s. Wansdyke, running east/west in Somerset and Wiltshire, is another nearby notable example.
We don’t now whether Offa intended the bank to be walked on or along its length, but we do know that the modern practice of hiking has brought walkers to the Dyke for quite a while now. The Offa’s Dyke long distance path was formally opened in 1971 following largely the efforts and drive of Shropshire archaeologist and teacher, Frank Noble, who walked the Dyke in all weathers and seasons, and wrote an Open University Master’s thesis based on his studies of the Earthwork. Frank founded the Offa’s Dyke Association in 1969, and we encourage all enthusiasts to join and help continue its vital work.
So 2021 will be the 50th anniversary of the Path, and is due to be celebrated accordingly. The Offa’s Dyke Association Centre in Knighton is being refurbished and events there and elsewhere along the route planned.
Although the official path does follow the Dyke for much of its length from Sedbury cliffs to Prestatyn sea front, a lot of it does divert for all sorts of reasons and practicalities. We are lucky in Gloucestershire to have some splendid stretches of the Dyke remaining and accessible, with the path running alongside or sometimes on the bank itself. Footfall along the bank top does cause erosion of course, and the policy for some time has been to run the path alongside. You’ll have seen the work done to alleviate wear near the Devil’s Pulpit above Tintern.
And next April you can buy an Offa’s Dyke Passport from Chepstow Tourist Bureau and have it stamped as you pass notable features while walking all or some of the 177 miles of its historic length!
You’ve walked all 177 miles and earned the right to your personalised Certificate of Achievement, also the official Offa’s Dyke Association (ODA)blue and gold enamel walkers’ completion badge. Buy both for £5.95 +p&p from the ODA online shop.
On Thursday 12 March 2020 we hosted two Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory luminaries – Prof. Keith Ray, co-author of “Offa’s Dyke, Landcape and Hegemony in Eighth-Century Britain”, and Liam Delaney of Herefordshire Archaeology, studying for a PhD centred on the Dyke.
We were keen to show them sections of the Dyke in Tutshill and the Roman Road leading down to the Striguil crossing of the Wye just upstream of Chepstow Castle. The Dyke crosses the Roman Road maybe 100 metres above the river, a coming-together of much significance.
Keith and Liam are recommending that we raise funds to finance a geophysical survey of this area. We expect a cost of about £1,000+ which we hope to finance by crowdfunding. It would be marvellous to get this done by late Summer.
The survey report, and the commitment shown by the local community fund-raising effort, will support applications for future official funding application/s for later more expensive archaeological work that we plan.
We count ourselves very fortunate to have the support of the landowner-farmer at Castleford, Lyndon Edwards, who runs the excellent Hanley Farm Shop a couple of miles up the A48 towards Lydney.
The second half of the visit was spent in Brockweir where we explored the stretch of Offa’s Dyke now in the care of Group members, Andy and Gill Stott. Here we have a classic length of Dyke leading up Madgett’s Hill to where it turns west and then south at an impressive right angle known as the Bastion with a dominating presence in sight of the ancient Kingdom of Gwent. We’re planning to include this feature in our walk on 25 April, advertised on the website.
We are keen to hear from readers who have knowledge of the Castleford meadows, Chapelhouse Wood and also the Monmouthshire side of the Wye; and/or of the Dyke in the Brockweir area; and would maybe like to involve themselves in the project.
And of course we’d love to hear from folk who may want to contribute to the crowdsourcing!
Spring 2021 (date to be confirmed and subject to Covid developments from 2pm – 4pm), the Offa’s Dyke South Study Group invite people with an eye for the past to join in a walk on King Offa’s mighty earthwork, and take part in a survey of how it might have been built.
As is well known, the Dyke runs for 115 miles from the Bristol Channel to the North Wales coast, marking the border of the ancient kingdom of Mercia and the restless British warlords of what we now call Wales. We will be meeting at McKenzie Hall in Brockweir and exploring a fine section of the Dyke up to Madgett’s Hill.
Using time-honoured techniques we will be examining the profile of the Dyke in different locations, and speculating on how this amazing ancient monument was built with just the most basic hand tools.
email firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know you’re coming, and just turn up in your walking boots and suitable clothing for the weather.
tidal conditions were predicted for the 21st and 22nd
March, so Dick, Gill, Simon and Barbara waited patiently at Castleford looking
for any indications of the foundations of the Roman Bridge that is widely
accepted to have crossed at this point. Back in 2004 there was an ‘Extreme
Archaeology’ investigation recorded at this location when some trenches were
opened to expose the foundations (agger) of the Roman Road, and samples were
taken from some wooden stakes visible on the Gloucestershire side for Dendro
analysis. Apart from recollections of this programme only a few photographs
taken by Keith Underwood have been traced, and a verbal report on the dendro
analysis disappointingly came back as inconclusive.
We are particularly interested in this location as the clearly visible line of the Roman Road (a linear feature visible running down the field) crosses what Keith Ray believes to be the Dyke at the bottom of the field along the line of the modern hedge. The relative relationship of the Dyke and Roman Road would be most informative in terms of the possible continued use of the crossing at the time of Offa, as well as having the potential of yielding some dating information for both.
were no indications of where the trenches were put in, nor unfortunately any
sign of the wooden stakes. However on the Monmouthshire side of the river there
were some clear indications of a possible bridge pier foundation. Shortly
downstream there were also the remains of a wooden structure. This was probably
a coffer dam to do with the excavations conducted by Dr Orville Owen in 1910,
who was searching for the original manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays, which he
believed had been written by Francis Bacon. Yes. During these excavations he
uncovered what appeared to be the foundations of a bridge pier, and this is
what we thought we saw on that afternoon. There are drawings/ plans from these
excavations in Chepstow Museum, and although quite detailed do not clearly
indicate the geographical location. Dick has explored the Monmouthshire bank at
this point, and it seems highly possible that there was a road above this.
in 2004 the timbers had been exposed by then current conditions in the river,
but have subsequently been covered again. What we saw on the other bank was a
lot of stone, and a pool on the river in an elongated oval form. The currents
suggested obstructions beneath the surface and at least one possible timber
post was just visible. There was also a smaller wooden stake visible in the mud
further up the bank.
a more extreme tide in dryer conditions might reveal more.”
On 22nd February a small group of us accessed the dyke in the woods on the edge of the Wye Valley in Tutshill
Through the woods the form of Offa’s Dyke was clear to see, well worked by an army of badgers.
We followed the earthwork along through the mixed woodland as it followed the scarp edge of the gorge. In winter the view to the western side of the Wye was quite clear. How much woodland might have existed then? Were many trees cleared in the building of the Dyke?
Eventually, after passing by what looked like the ruin of an old farmstead, Castleford Farm? We can find no reference to it, just the building marked on a Victorian map
100m south west of the ruin there was evidence to show that the Dyke changed direction here, turning south south east to follow the field boundary towards the road. As the field had been farmed for centuries since the days of King Offa, all that remains is a vague broad bank of less than 1 meter high.