I’ve been waiting 4 seasons to use this blog-post title!
As all true Archaeodeath fans will know, I’ve diligently reviewed dimensions of the material culture and monuments portrayed in the television series The Last Kingdom and not always favourably. One linear monument has already been afforded attention: how the show portrays Hadrian’s Wall in a ruinous late 9th-century state. While Anglo-Saxon linear earthworks have yet to appear, I was delighted and intrigued by reference to Offa’s Dyke in Season 4, especially so since it relates to a Welsh perspective and perceptions of the monument by the second decade of the 10th century. So here’s how it featured. This directly relates to my research, since the Pillar of Eliseg has been the only monument to have been deployed to provide a Welsh perspective on the late 8th and early 9th centuries in the Welsh Marches.
Following Hywel Dda’s (Hywell the Good) contribution (in this fictional version of history) to the Battle of Tettenhall in AD 910, where the Danes are defeated by the combined forces of Wessex and Mercia, the West Saxon King Edward the Elder gives him the spoils of battle comprising of silver and weaponry. Dismissing good relations with Edward, Hywel displays emnity to the Saxons and their assertions that they face a common enemy in the Danes. He departs with Brida as a prisoner. The Welsh return home and celebrate their victory but Hywell distances himself further from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms he’s just fought alongside. In Hywel’s hall situated within a hilltop fortress in Deheubarth, the king quietens the revellers before announcing:
We melt this down [the treasure], pay every craftsman in the country to finish the job that bastard King Offa of Mercia started centuries ago: a barrier between us and the Saxons. And, in honour of our delicious friend here [referring to a roasted pig brought out for the feast] I swear the Saxon pigs will never set another foot in our beautiful land!
You can see the speech here in my tweet.
Now there is a lot of interesting information packed into this snippet.
First, we learn that in the early 10th century, Offa (757-796) reigned ‘centuries ago’. suitably vague and equivalent to Queen Victoria ruling ‘centuries ago’ for us.
Second, we learn that building a ‘barrier’ would require ‘craftsmen’. I’m interested to know why, but ok… Perhaps this is a metal Trump Wall-esque monument envisaged? Or a cunningly wrought stone wall, rather than a bank and ditch? It needs labourers most assuredly, and overseers, but ‘craftsmen’?
Third, we are told that, in Hywel’s view, Offa’s Dyke was unfinished, not as Bishop Asser recounts in his biography of Alfred the Great how Offa: ‘ordered [the monument] to be made between Britain and Mercia from sea to sea’. This minimalist view of Offa’s Dyke has been the consensus forged among scholars by David Hill and Margaret Worthington’s work, as outlined in their 2003 book (Hill and Worthington 2003). However, this has been challenged recently by Ray and Bapty (2016).
Fourth and most oddly, this statement implies that the powerful and noble famed Welsh king would plan to enhance, complete but reverse Offa’s Dyke, wishing to create a cultural/linguistic barrier against the ‘Saxons’. This is an interesting take on both early 10th-century antipathies between the Welsh and the Saxons (and remember, Hywel minted silver coins in Chester during the reign of Aethelstan), but also it suggests that a Welsh king might concede that Offa’s monument was indeed sonmehow in the ‘correct’ place for such a barrier in his day! The mind boggles!
Now I’m not saying this is ‘wrong’ – beyond Asser’s account we have no contemporary perceptions of the monument, from Welsh or English sources, before the late 12th century. For instance, Gerald of Wales considered Offa’s Dyke the legal boundary of Wales c. 1194 (Williams 2019). However, it back-projecting this later view of Offa’s Dyke as an ethno-linguistic barrier by several centuries and affording a Welsh perspective on Offa’s Dyke, The Last Kingdom posits that Offa’s Dyke, as a barrier to ‘shut in the Welsh’, was indeed an vision aspired to by the Welsh kings themselves!
So, the equation of Offa’s Dyke as a ‘barrier’ between Welsh and English peoples, very much a later medieval conception enhanced by 19th-century Welsh and English nationalisms, is portrayed in The Last Kingdom as an early 10th-century Welsh vision for their own future. Indeed, this perception of Offa’s Dyke is still occasionally deployed in derogatory terms from opposing England and Welsh perspectives. Most recently, this view has arisen recently during the pandemic lockdown restriction-easings in contrasting tempos on either side of the Anglo-Welsh border (see this post here). So here we have popular TV fiction echoing popular political and antiquarian fictions, with a mix of some archaeological musings, and contemporary nationalist politics once again!
What a wonderful mess!
Hill, D. and Worthington, M. 2003. Offa’s Dyke: History and Guide. Stroud: Tempus.
Ray, K. and Bapty, I. 2016. Offa’s Dyke: Landscape and Hegemony in Eighth-Century Britain. Oxford: Windgather.
Williams, A. 2019. Offa’s Dyke: ‘the stuff that dreams are made of’, Offa’s Dyke Journal 1: 32-57. http://revistas.jasarqueologia.es/index.php/odjournal/article/view/249/196