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Offa and Coenwulf did not see themselves as ‘kings of the English’, however, as some past Anglo-Saxon historians have suggested.
They saw themselves, rather, as ‘emperors of Mercia’.
In c895 AD Bishop Asser, with the benefit of hindsight and in the setting of Alfred’s newly-ascendant West Saxon kingdom in the late ninth-century, saw Offa’s Dyke fundamentally as a vainglorious exercise by an unscrupulous and ruthless king.
While this was no doubt true (within 50 years of Coenwulf’s death the Danes had sliced Mercia in two and had all but crushed Wessex in military victories), we can alternatively see the Dyke as a measure of how ‘Mercian Britain’ could envisage a future relationship with Europe on as near-equal terms as has ever been achieved since then.
In this way the Dyke was designed to impress: not only by its huge span, but also in how it was to be seen from the west, dominating the landscape.
Besides being built to impress, the Dyke was also designed to exclude the Welsh from their former lands and was probably used as a means to raise revenue by customs control and to monitor what was going on in the area immediately to its west.
The Dyke clearly post-dates Roman period settlements, because these have been found sealed beneath it.
At the same time, this ‘Mercian regime’ was trying to annexe territories of the Britons of Wales and was seeking to rival the continental empire of Charlemagne, the charismatic leader of the Kingdom of the Franks, crowned by the Pope (in 800) as Holy Roman Emperor.This frontier, of which the Dyke formed the key – but not the only – component, may also have been made to work by creating ‘hybrid’ groups along its length.As such, mechanisms for creating and sustaining a Mercian version of what in medieval times became part of the ‘Welsh marches’ probably also included the formation of new frontier administrative units in which Welsh and English communities lived side-by-side under Mercian control.Indeed, the Dyke was positioned to overlook approaches from that direction – surveillance was as important then as it is today.
The landscape the Dyke crossed was part of an evolving frontier that needs to be seen in the context of the development of ‘march-lands’ dividing off emergent states of the period from the surrounding peoples.
This monumental act of building also boasted clear resonances back to the works of Roman emperors.