Definitions

Offa

Offa

[awf-uh]
Offa, d. 796, king of Mercia (757-96). He succeeded Æthelbald to the throne, but it was some years before he attained the power of his predecessor. Gradually he asserted his overlordship in Kent and then Sussex, and by 774 his charters styled him rex Anglorum [king of the English]. He restricted Cynewulf, king of Wessex, to the area S of the Thames and in 794 had Ethelbert, king of the East Angles, beheaded and thereafter ruled his kingdom. In time the rulers of Wessex and Northumbria became his sons-in-law. In 786 the pope sent two legates to him, and by 788 Offa had set up an independent archbishopric of Litchfield, thus wresting control of the churches in Mercia from the hostile archbishop of Canterbury. He introduced a new coinage in the form of the silver penny, which for centuries was to be the basis of the English currency. Offa had sufficient standing in Europe to negotiate with Charlemagne as an equal; and, although they quarreled over a proposed marriage of their children, they signed (796) a commercial treaty, the first recorded in English history. At some time between 784 and 796 the earthwork known as Offa's Dyke was built between Wales and Mercia. Offa's laws, now lost, were used by King Alfred in his codification. The Offa referred to in Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry was not the king of Mercia, but a king of the Angles on the Continent, probably at the end of the 4th cent.

See F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (3d ed. 1971).

(died July 796) One of the most powerful kings in Anglo-Saxon England. He became king of Mercia (757–796) after seizing power during a civil war. He extended his rule over most of southern England and married his daughters to the rulers of Wessex and Northumbria. Eager to form European diplomatic ties, Offa signed a commercial treaty with Charlemagne (796) and allowed the pope to increase his control over the English church. He built Offa's Dyke to divide Mercia from Welsh lands.

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Offa's Dyke (Clawdd Offa) is a massive linear earthwork, roughly following some of the current border between England and Wales. In places, it is up to 65 feet (20 m) wide (including its surrounding ditch) and 8 feet (2.5 m) high. In the 8th century it formed some kind of delineation between the Anglian kingdom of Mercia and the Welsh kingdom of Powys. It has been the subject of considerable research in recent years, dispelling many of the earlier understandings.

Overview

It is still generally accepted that much of the earthwork can be attributed to Offa, King of Mercia from 757 to 796. Its structure is not that of a mutual boundary between the Mercians on the one side and the men of Powys on the other. The earthwork was dug with the displaced soil piled into a bank on the Mercian (eastern) side. Where the earthwork encounters hills, it goes to the west of them, constantly providing an open view into Wales. The implication must be that this was an earthwork built by Mercia as a defence against attacks or raids from Powys.

Offa was one of the great rulers of Anglo-Saxon times, though his reign is often overlooked owing to a limitation in source material. That he was able to raise the manpower and resources to construct such an earthwork as Offa's Dyke is testament to his power. It is likely that some form of 'service' system was used to construct the Dyke, with men from certain areas of land being required to build a certain length of the wall. This can be seen alongside the normal services that had to be offered to kings. A document exists from around this period known as Tribal Hidage, which makes some assessment of how land was distributed in the 8th century. Though there is little evidence to associate the document with the Dyke, it is possible that both the Dyke and the document stem from a common practice.

Historical evidence

The late 9th- and early 10th-century writer Asser informed us that 'there was in Mercia in fairly recent time 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' (Asser, Life of Alfred, 14). The last four words are vital: historians and archaeologists coming to the Dyke have had Asser in their hand, looking for an earthwork 'from sea to sea'. Sir Cyril Fox completed the first major survey of the Dyke (Fox 1955), and, in agreement with Asser, saw the Dyke as running from the estuary of the River Dee in the north to the River Wye in the south (approximately 150 miles, or 240 km). It was understood by him that the dyke was not continuous, being built only in areas where natural barriers did not already exist.

Frank Stenton, the Anglo-Saxon historian of his day, accepted Fox's description, and wrote the introduction to Fox's account of the Dyke. Though Fox's work has now been to some extent revised, it remains a vital record of how areas of the Dyke, now destroyed, existed in 1931.

Modern scholarship

Frank Noble did much to challenge Fox's legacy. His greatest contribution to Offa's Dyke was to stir up new academic interest. His MPhil thesis, "Offa's Dyke Reviewed", raised several questions regarding the Dyke. Noble postulated that the gaps in the Dyke were not due to natural features, but that instead a 'ridden boundary' operated, perhaps incorporating palisades that left no archaeological trace. Noble also was vital in establishing the Offa's Dyke Association, which maintains the Offa's Dyke Path, a long distance footpath which mostly follows the route of the dyke, which is one of the designated British National Trails. Ongoing research and archaeology on Offa's Dyke has been undertaken for many years by the Extra-Mural department of the University of Manchester. Most recently David Hill and Margaret Worthington have undertaken considerable research on the Dyke. Their work, though far from finished, has demonstrated that there is little evidence for the Dyke stretching from sea to sea. Rather, it is a shorter structure stretching from Rushock Hill north of the Herefordshire Plain to Llanfynydd, Flintshire, near Mold, Flintshire, some 64 miles (103 km). Dykes in the far north and south may date differently, and though they may be connected with Offa's Dyke, there is as yet no compelling evidence behind this.

The Offa's Dyke Centre

The Offa's Dyke Centre is a purpose-built information centre based in the town of Knighton, situated on Offa's Dyke on the border between England (Shropshire) and Wales (Powys). Some of the best remains of the 8th century earthworks can be seen just a two-minute walk from the centre.

Cultural references

The Dyke has in some cases been brought into common folklore, though this should not be seen as historical evidence for the purpose behind the Dyke.

[I]t 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.|4=George Borrow, Wild Wales [from folklore]

Today, the England-Wales border still mostly follows the dyke through the Welsh Marches. It has a cultural significance, symbolising the separation between the two, similar to the symbolism of Hadrian's Wall between England and Scotland in the Scottish Marches.

Bibliography

  • Cyril Fox, Offa's Dyke: a Field Survey of the Western Frontier Works of Mercia in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries AD, (London, 1955)
  • Frank Noble, Offa's Dyke Reviewed, MPhil thesis Open University, (1978). Partly published in Offa's Dyke Reviewed, ed. Margaret Gelling, (Oxford, 1983)
  • David Hill and Margaret Worthington, Offa's Dyke: History and Guide, (Stroud, 2003)

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