Offa’s Dyke: Monument, Myth and Muse

William Camden

William Camden (1551-1623) was an English antiquarian, historian, topographer, and officer of arms. In 1577, with the encouragement of Abraham Ortelius, Camden began his great work Britannia, a topographical and historical survey of all of Great Britain and Ireland, and the first edition was published nine years later in 1586. Britannia is a county-by-county description of Great Britain and Ireland. It is a work of chorography: an interdisciplinary survey that connects landscape and geography with antiquarianism, and history. Camden repeatedly revised and expanded his work through numerous editions and even learned Welsh and Old English for the task. The resulting work is one of the great achievements of sixteenth century scholarship.

In his chapter on Radnorshire, Camden describes in detail the route of Offa’s eponymous Dyke, known in Welsh as Clawth Offa, which was constructed:

“to separate the Britans (sic.) from his Saxon subjects, from the mouth of the river Dee to that of the Wye for near eighty miles” 

Detail of “A Map of South Wales” showing the course of the Welsh/English Border between Kington and Hay along Hergest Ridge Camden, William, 1789. Britain: or A chorographicall description of the most flourishing kingdomes, England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the ilands adioyning, out of the depth of antiqvitie; beavtified with mappes of the severall shires of England.

Detail of “A Map of South Wales” showing the course of the Welsh/English Border between Kington and Hay along Hergest Ridge
Camden, William, 1789. Britain: or A chorographicall description of the most flourishing kingdomes, England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the ilands adioyning, out of the depth of antiqvitie; beavtified with mappes of the severall shires of England. London: Printed by John Nichols for T. Payne and son, and G.G.J. and J. Robinson (PHI 00289, volume II) Presented to St. David’s College by Thomas Phillips in 1849

In this later edition of Britannia, Camden’s expanded chapter on Radnorshire (Additions) describes the construction of the earthwork as observed c.1580:

“I crossed this dyke on two commons on the road from Montgomery to Welshpool. It is a low bank between two ditches, sometimes serving as a hedge bank, sometimes bolder, and on the commons where one rides through it is almost levelled…It is observable that in all parts the ditch is on the Welsh side, and that there are in many places along its course numbers of small artificial mounts, the sites of small forts.”

However, according to Camden, following the death of Offa, the Welsh:

“with irresistible fury despised his toils, and carried their ravages far and wide in the English Marches”

In May 2013, Alan, on his blog, described a section of the dyke thus:

“The path then cuts across farmland through the tiny hamlet of Tyn-a-Coed, where the windowsills of a shed are decorated with ceramic heads, the result of a school project some years earlier. The dyke rises steeply through woods, before levelling, tracking the ridgeline for a mile or two… By this stage I am tired, following the top of Offa’s Dyke gives a great sense of connection to the past, but, like the woodland paths, the tree roots and stones, make it hard going”.http://alandix.com/alanwalkswales/2013/05/08/day-21-porth-y-waen-to-llangollen/

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