King Offa 757-796

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.”

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Research of Offa’s Dyke in Tidenham Parish, Gloucestershire

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.

In 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.

In 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

One 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.

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Leading Experts on Offa’s Dyke Visit our section

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!

Offa’s Dyke Exploratory Walk Spring 2021 (Hopefully!)

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 to let us know you’re coming, and just turn up in your walking boots and suitable clothing for the weather.

An exploration to try and view remains of the old Roman Bridge at Castleford

Extreme 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.

View westwards – the ridge of the old Roman road is shown

There 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.

Perhaps 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.

Perhaps a more extreme tide in dryer conditions might reveal more.”

Roman Road crossing point with Offa’s Dyke

On 22nd February a small group of us accessed the dyke in the woods on the edge of the Wye Valley in Tutshill

Tutshill Offa’s Dyke probable line

Through the woods the form of Offa’s Dyke was clear to see, well worked by an army of badgers.

The Dyke Form in Chapel House Wood being worked by 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?

View of the line of the Dyke showing the western scarp edge falling steeply down to The Wye

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

Comparison maps showing The Roman Road line and the buildings of the farmstead.

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.

Showing the probable corner of the Dyke, reinforced with a higher rock content

Further reading

Offa’s Dyke: Landscape & Hegemony in Eighth-Century Britain  :by Ian Bapty, Keith Ray

Keith Ray visits the southern section of the dyke. January 2019

A rewarding if exhausting day on Thursday.

Keith revealed on the walk that there is speculation that King Offa’s grave is the ‘boat-shaped’ barrow on the the plateau below the sharp turn at Passage Grove/Lippetts Grove. Keith told us that it had been recorded erroneously as a round barrow. Anyway, worth a look next time you’re up that way.

Had you heard mention of ‘Offa’s Chair’? I’m pretty sure I haven’t. I’ll see what else appears in the book mentioned.

I made a remarkable discovery yesterday, when consulting the book concerned for entirely other purposes. The book is called The Celtic Borderland: A Rediscovery of the Marches from Wye to Dee (F. J. Snell, 1928), and on pages 90-1  it states ‘South of Brockweir, which village is in Gloucestershire and takes its name, or part of it, from the weir attached to it (‘brock’, we imagine, being equivalent to ‘badger’), is “Offa’s Chair”, the highest point in Offa’s Dyke…’

My question to you is, does this refer to the Pulpit Rock, or to the eminence we visited at Passage Grove with the boat-shaped stone-covered mound? Is there any documented reference to a ‘Cadair Offa’ locally?

How the study group was formed

The Offa’s Dyke South Study Group started with a public meeting in Chepstow Drill Hall on 25 September 2018.

Keith Ray, lead author of ‘Offa’s Dyke, Landscape and Hegemony in Eighth Century Britain’ opened with an account of the OD collaborative and the setting up of other similar local initiatives along the length of the Dyke. He covered the placing of the Dyke along the Mercian/British frontier: and in particular  facing the Kingdom of Gwent along the lower Wye; facing Wessex across the Sedbury peninsula; and where it crosses the Roman road above Striguil bridge at Castleford in Tutshill.

Jon Hoyle, Senior Archaeological Project Officer for Gloucestershire, spoke on recent exploration of the Dyke in the county, illustrated with LiDAR images.

Mel Barge of England Heritage covered her role and expertise  which we’re sure will be of great help to our Group.

Andrew Blake, Wye Valley AONB Manager, described how his organisation will be able to assist us.

Over a working lunch we drew up a list of people to form our Steering Group, and a further list of those who would like to be involved when the Group is established.

We finished off with an illuminating walk led by Keith along the Dyke at Sedbury.

Offa’s Dyke southern section pages

Offa’s Dyke, following the approximate border between England and Wales was built at the command of the eighth-century king of Mercia. It is Britain’s longest ancient monument, a simple earth ditch-and-bank excavated  1,200 years ago.

Its physical size and visual impact is in many places, even today, truly remarkable – Keith Ray


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