Given the current contradictions and confusions in the UK government’s strategy for easing the lockdown prompted by the spread of COVID-19, and the Welsh Assembly’s stance to keep Wales ‘closed’, people have been justifiably finding it funny as well as disturbing. This has led to joking online about ‘rebuilding Offa’s Dyke’ for fear of a fresh inundation from English people pouring across the border to visit Wales for the day, akin to the debacle at the start of the crisis.

My doctoral researcher, Liam Delaney, picked up on this and queried this misuse of Offa’s Dyke and Wales/the Welsh as ‘west of Offa’s Dyke’, while England/the English being east of Offa’s Dyke. This is part of a longer tradition of commentators, the media and politicians using ‘Offa’s Dyke’ as a shorthand for the English/Welsh border. While it is perhaps not so immediately ridiculous as the use of ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ as the Anglo-Scottish border and the wall’s building being to ‘keep out the Scots’, the association of Offa’s Dyke with the Anglo-Welsh border is a false association in the Early Middle Ages and for today.

So, with Liam’s permission, I rapidly recorded and edited for YouTube and (edited down for) TikTok a statement explaining why this is an insidious and ignorant equation that panders to ethno-nationalists in both England and Wales. I respect people were just joking and it is humorous to imagine the reversal of the perceived function of a monument over a 1000-years old in the context of the current pandemic. Indeed, I myself have deployed Offa’s Dyke in a humorous fashion in relation to contemporary politics, when I recommended it might be a suitable ditch for Boris to be ‘dead in’ (at least politically-speaking). Yet the association of the modern border with Offa’s Dyke is not without pernicious implications.

To support my argument, not only did I make clear that there is no convincing evidence that Offa’s Dyke ever operated as a border in any regard (the Mercians would have instead likely used it to control and surveil movement over a complex frontier zone which spread east and west of the line of the Dyke), it was never a frontier work dividing ‘Wales’ and ‘England’ since neither existed in the 8th century! Moreover, it didn’t divide the ‘Welsh’ from the ‘English’ as the borderlands evolved and fluctuated for many centuries henceforth with Brythonic-speaking peoples to its east for many centuries and also Old English speakers to its west: after all ‘Mercia’ was itself a long-term amalgamation of British and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and peoples.

The subsequent perception of the monument as the division of Mercia from ‘the Welsh’ as recorded by Asser in the late 9th century, and as a legal/cultural border from the 12th century, is a different story. Still, I would challenge those who would see these later perceptions by some medieval sources as categorical evidence that Offa’s Dyke was built to divide and define the Welsh and Wales as evidence for motives for building and the functions of Offa’s Dyke in the late 8th century. In any case, just as it didn’t define Wales or the Welsh in the 8th century, likewise, it doesn’t today. With the help of a basemap created by Liam, I showed how not only does Offa’s Dyke rarely run parallel and close to the English-Welsh border, but it does so in only three significant locations: in the Wye Valley, and shorter stretchers in the Vale of Montgomery and in north-west Shropshire near Craignant.

The red line is the modern border, the white bits are the only points whether this borderline coincides with sections of Offa’s Dyke that have survived and been recorded in recent centuries. In short, less than 25% of the surviving length of Offa’s Dyke runs close to or along the modern English-Welsh border.

If Offa’s Dyke had run further north into Flintshire and was indeed extant across the Herefordshire plain, the section that coincides with the modern border might be as low as 15% or even 10% of its total historic length! And that’s the point: we still don’t know if Offa’s Dyke ever did run from ‘sea to sea’ as claimed by Asser.

If this were an arbitrary line drawn from the Severn to the Dee following the topography of rivers and ridges, one could argument it would be difficult to avoid Offa’s Dyke more! Today, large sections of what is now England are west of Offa’s Dyke in Shropshire and Herefordshire, and even larger parts of Wales are east of it in Flintshire, Wrexham and Powys! Remember: the largest town in North Wales is Wrexham and it lies east of both Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke. Calling the border ‘Offa’s Dyke’ only works as a crude definition of the Anglo-Welsh border if you are ignorant and perhaps if you live far away from it, perhaps in Pembroke, Cardiff, Norwich or London. For people living in the Welsh Marches, however, calling the border ‘Offa’s Dyke’ is not only a nonsense, it is dangerous and derogatory.

Why does this matter? For Welsh-speaking and Welsh-defined (politically, culturally or in other regards) households and communities living ‘east of Offa’s Dyke’, this is insulting and divisive rhetoric. Likewise for English-speaking communities close to the border and ‘west of Offa’s Dyke’ it yields similar difficulties. Moreover, for those living in the region who do not feel comfortable primarily identifying themselves as either ‘Welsh’ or ‘English’, whether they see their heritage as defined by other criteria other than nationality or language, perhaps they are more recent immigrants whether from Poland, Syria or Somalia, these petty patriotic spats must seem exclusory and bizarre. Most importantly, it denies the complexity and fluidity of borderland communities and individuals, using Offa’s Dyke as a cudgel to hit people with ethno-nationalist narratives.

This isn’t the first time: for example PM David Cameron did the same thing with Offa’s Dyke in 2014, calling Offa’s Dyke a ‘line between life and death’ in terms of NHS care.

Less crass, but still revealing, Plaid Cymru’s leader Adam Price used Offa’s Dyke to illustrate how Wales had always had a soft border with England apart from once in the 7th century (obviously he meant 8th century…). He was deploying the Dyke in arguing that Welsh independence wouldn’t lead to a hard border with England. 

As it stands, this is a good example of the widespread public ignorance (wilful or otherwise) regarding what experts do know about Offa’s Dyke. Many academics are no better, and some continue to claim some kind of enduring significance for Offa’s Dyke down the ages as a divider between England and Wales, the English and the Welsh; this is an article of faith based on slim evidence! This is why we need to be more vocal in criticising these misuses in order to counter popular misconceptions of the Early Middle Ages. Whether anyone is listening: that’s another issue! Still, journalists, politicians and anyone else interested in actually learning about Britain’s greatest ancient monument could dip into the open-access brand-new academic journal: the Offa’s Dyke Journal and read for themselves.

Whatever one thinks of the UK government’s shambling lockdown strategy moving forward and the needless disparities it has created between England and Wales, let’s hope that Coronavirus and Offa’s Dyke have only a short-lived association in popular discourse. For while it is amusing to imagine a zombie apocalypse scenario of the Welsh fighting off the invading English hordes by refortifying Offa’s Dyke, there are dark undercurrents to be avoided amidst such playful allusions. In any case, Coronavirus recognises no borders, languages and ethnicities, past or present, even if it is affecting some groups disproportionately due to their socio-economic backgrounds.

Note: a further point I failed to mention is the fact that many people confused and conflate the Dyke with the Offa’s Dyke Path (a national trail), and both with the modern border, so in actual fact, today there exist 3 lines that are confused (and 5 if the line of Wat’s Dyke and the Wat’s Dyke Way trail are taken into account).