Offa’s Dyke: The Brexit Dimension?

BY GUEST WRITER AND AUTHOR KEITH RAY

Cover image: Raymond Perry via Wikimedia Commons, CC by SA 2.0

In January 2017, there are stirrings along the border between England and Wales. No, not riots in reaction to the latest developments around ‘hard’, ‘soft’ or even ‘train-crash’ Brexit, but plans being put together quietly for initiatives concerning a much older version of that frontier. These plans are being hatched in part in response to a new book on Offa’s Dyke (the ancient linear earthen bank and ditch generally thought to have been built by command of King Offa of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, who ruled between 757 and 796AD, that runs close in many places to the modern Anglo-Welsh national boundary). This book was written by Keith Ray and Ian Bapty and was published last year under Oxbow’s Windgather Press imprint. In it, the authors have called for ‘a new era of connection’ of research into the Dyke’s date and purpose, and also for better protection of its fabric and landscape[i].

Upfront, the plans for new action include a conservation initiative. The Offa’s Dyke Association has joined forces with Cadw (Welsh Historic Heritage) and Historic England to promote a new strategy for preserving the Dyke, which is Britain’s longest ancient earthwork. One plank of this strategy envisages the production of new planning guidance on how Local Authorities can best protect the 90-odd mile long bank and ditch from poorly thought-out development. A particular concern is with unlawful destruction (as happened near Chirk not long ago), and inappropriate visual intrusions that adversely affect its setting in the landscape.

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The castle keep and Norman Motte at Tamworth, Staffordshire overlooks the bridge over the River Tame. Tamworth was the principal seat of secular power in Mercia during its zenith. Photo: Keith Ray.

This initiative will also in time promote the provision of new information to landowners and land-managers along the course of the Dyke about best management practice, but it will begin with the production of a Conservation Management Plan which will bring together all aspects of information and future management of the earthwork. While this may seem to have little to do with contemporary Europe, the potential removal of EU upland farming subsidies that have helped to maintain valued landscapes and their heritage ‘assets’ in recent decades is right now a ‘hot’ topic on both sides of the Wales/England border. In a way, though, and according to tradition, there were tensions with Europe around the time of the building of Offa’s Dyke that are not entirely irrelevant to 2017.

Picture for a moment the following scenario. There have been protracted negotiations over the cementing of an alliance between two major centres of power in Europe. One, island-based, has a strong sense of its national sovereignty and identity, and has its economic power-base in south-eastern and east-central England. Meanwhile, the other, more federalist, entity with its main centres of power in northern Germany, Belgium and north-eastern France flexes its pan-European muscle across the whole of the Continental mainland. Each party to the negotiations is wary of the strengths and the potential of the other, both politically and economically.

At first, the negotiations go well: a proposal is made by the overtly stronger, continental, power concerning the terms of an alliance. However, the British-based political authority seeks to up the stakes and consults widely over whether there should be a counter-proposal that builds upon the first offer. Following a decision by the English, negotiations then break down spectacularly, with the Franco-German party applying in effect a trade embargo denying British traders access to lucrative continental markets, and even breaking off diplomatic ties for a while.

While it could easily be so, however, this scenario is not April 2017 following the triggering of the infamous ‘Article 50’, but instead the year 790AD, with on the one side King Offa and his Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, then the dominant power in Britain, and on the other side Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, King of the Franks, assisted by his own Eurocrats including at least one prominent one who he had (ironically, in the context of today’s pro-European British advisers) recruited from York. Charles was soon to be crowned in Rome as Holy Roman Emperor of what has come to be known as the Carolingian Empire. The negotiations in question concerned an alliance to be cemented in the marriage of offspring of the respective Kings. Charles’ ambassadors proposed that Offa’s daughter Aefflaed should marry Charles’ son … imaginatively named Charles.

But for a variety of reasons, Offa’s instinct was that this would only work if Charlemagne accepted the counter-proposal that Offa’s son Ecgfrith should also marry Charlemagne’s eldest daughter Bertha. While the Carolingian proposal might eventually have enabled Charlemagne to add Mercia to his already-vast dominions, the counter-possibility of a Mercian takeover of a chunk of Europe could not for a moment be countenanced, and the English suggestion was angrily rejected. The retaliatory measures did not stop at words, however, and British access to Frankish ports was summarily suspended. In effect, a full-scale trade war ensued.[ii] It was only through the good offices of third parties on both sides of the Channel that the quarrel was patched up, but a later letter sent to Offa from Charlemagne still complained about sharp trading practices by specifically English merchants posing as pilgrims to avoid customs tolls, and flooding the European markets with goods offered for sale at the same price as previously but with reduced quality!

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The site of the monastery at Reculver, Kent. One of two of the wealthiest and most symbolically important monasteries in Kent in the late 8th Century, both under control of the Mercian royal family.

In this context, the building of Offa’s Dyke might be seen as an attempt by Offa to out-perform Charlemagne in the business of creating great public works. Meanwhile, the Europeans no doubt saw it then, as with Brexit today, as an example of a Britain-based group of people with an overblown sense of their own importance creating in the end nothing more than an expensive monument to hubris….

[i] Offa’s Dyke: Landscape and Hegemony in Eighth-Century Britain (Windgather, 2016)

[ii] We only know about the episode from a biographer of a France-based cleric who claimed the credit for having mediated between the two courts. Some historians have suggested that the whole episode was either exaggerated, or a propaganda invention taking cheap shots at the expense of the English!


Keith Ray is a highly experienced archaeologist, specialising in Prehistory. Previously County Archaeologist for Herefordshire for fifteen years, he is now a director of Nexus Heritage.


9781905119356Interested?

Offa’s Dyke: Landscape and Hegemony in 8th Century Britain, the first major new study of Offa’s Dyke in fifty years, is available from Oxbow Books. You can find out more about this topic in chapters 3, 8 and 9, as well as a wealth of other information in between.

“Keith and Ian’s book [thus] adds a great deal of new evidence for the Dyke being a sophisticated and planned earthwork. By asking some critical questions about the cultural implications of the earthwork, its legacy and modern attitudes to it, this new book has set out an exciting research agenda that addresses not just archaeological questions, but bigger issues to do with such matters…” Chris Caitling, Current Archaeology
“This is an important work every student and scholar of the early middle ages should tackle and interrogate.” Howard Williams, British Archaeology
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