the border

War was frequent in early medieval Britain. Territorial disputes ignited as many early wars as racial conflict did. British and English kingdoms fought their own kind as often as they fought each other, and often allied with each other against a common enemy. Kingdom boundaries were mostly settled by the eighth century, but local wars smoldered on. One hot spot remained the border between the British kingdom of Powys and the Anglian kingdom of Mercia. By the 790s the two former allies were enemies and often at war.

Little is known about late eighth-century and ninth-century Powys. Its kings remain shadowy figures. We know the barest scraps about their lives from annals, genealogies, histories, stone inscriptions and the silent testimony of the earthworks that still mark the English-Welsh borderland. Elisedd, ruling Powys in the mid-eighth century, was portrayed as a powerful war leader. His son Brochfael and grandson Cadell left even fewer traces. Cyngen took power in 808, casting himself in the warlike image of his great-grandfather. He repelled at least one invasion of Powys and erected Croes Elisedd, the Pillar of Elise, to commemorate his victory.

As an independent kingdom Powys existed for only a few centuries. As a border state under relentless military and cultural assault, it was warlike, hardy, flamboyant and high-spirited. As a keeper of ancient traditions, it produced many native saints and renowned poets. Powys was always jealous of its rights and honors, changeable in its alliances and sometimes treacherous.

Powys kept Mercia on edge through the last half of the eighth century. Several battles recorded for this region between 760 and 823 probably pitted Mercia against Powys. Lowland Mercia was stronger in wealth, resources and manpower, but highland Powys fought ferociously on its own territory for its own survival. The two kingdoms operated from irreconcilable self-perceptions. The Mercians believed they were divinely appointed to come in glory from the east and conquer the quarrelsome savages of the west. Powys, inheriting the ancient kingdom of the powerful Cornovii, claimed descent and ruling right from a Roman ruler, a native warlord and their Christian faith.

Offa of Mercia (757–96), one of the greatest but lesser-known English kings, brought in reforms and innovations that transformed the island of Britain. During his long reign he wrote new laws, introduced widespread royal coinage, developed new technology, encouraged the arts, rebuilt international trade, practised diplomacy, annexed other English kingdoms and defended the Mercian border.

Offa’s Dyke in southern Shropshire near Tref-y-Clawdd (Knighton). Photo courtesy of Offa’s Dyke Association.

A Powys-Mercia battle in 784 (called Maes Derwen or Akenfeld in Awen) may have halted hostilities for a time. Inspired perhaps by continental and northern British examples, Offa decided to contain rather than fight his most dangerous British enemies; he ordered construction of the large-scale earthwork that still carries his name. The ditch and wall of Offa’s Dyke mark a border much of the distance “from sea to sea”—from the River Severn north to the Irish Sea—separating the English and British kingdoms, most notably Mercia and Powys.

Offa’s Dyke is more imposing and more complete along the old Mercia-Powys border than in other stretches to the south, where perhaps it was less needed. The westward-looking dyke runs through hilly country that generally slopes eastward, suggesting that it was built to protect Mercia from Powys attacks. Originally it stood about 27 metres wide and 8 metres from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the dyke. About 130 kilometres of the earthwork are still traceable.

Historians disagree on whether the border was negotiated by both kingdoms or unilaterally imposed by Mercia; either way, it effectively separated the two peoples and may have created relative peace or at least impasse. West of the border it may also have created awareness of shared British identity; British nations and regions that had warred for centuries increasingly forged diplomatic marriages and alliances. But in time war again engulfed the borderland, claims the fragmentary Pillar of Elise text, and transformed it to a “swordland . . . by fire.”

— excerpted from Awen, 2020

next: the cross