Offa versus the Welsh

Offa versus the Welsh

By David Hill

British Archaeology, Issue 56 (December 2000)

Introduction: Conflict between the medieval English and Welsh kingdoms was traditionally seen as an uneven match: English aggressors versus Welsh victims. Historians have held this view not only of the 13th century wars of conquest, but of encounters in the Anglo-Saxon period too.

And what better symbol of Anglo-Saxon high-handedness than Offa’s Dyke, that great earthwork along the Welsh border? For years, this has been regarded as a frontier, a symbolic boundary line that proclaimed: Welsh, stand back. Beyond this line is English land.

Offa, builder of the Dyke and king of Mercia (the kingdom of middle England) from 757 to 796, could have been just the man to take such a line. One of the great figures of his age, he stood nearly on a level with Charlemagne, and dealt directly with the Pope over the reorganisation of Mercian dioceses. He presided over a period of growing trade and urbanisation. To such a man, who were the Welsh?

And yet, it was not so. My own research tells a different story. Far from being supine victims, the Welsh – over the Dyke in Powys – were a major force. Rather than a symbolic boundary, the Dyke was a defensive barrier. Powys was on the warpath against the English, and often won. The Dyke was nothing less than Offa’s Western Front.

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