THE WANSDYKE MYSTERY
10:40 - 08
the mysterious Wansdyke - a defensive earthwork
that straddles the Chew Valley from East Dundry
to Bath - built by the Romans, or much later
during the turbulent times of the Saxon advance
and the semi-mythical Arthur and his mounted
troops? Gerry Brooke takes a look at a new book
on the subject.
The purpose of the 40-mile long Wansdyke or
Woden's Dyke as it is also known still remains
something of an enigma. The mysterious bank and
ditch earthwork extends, if only in remnants,
from the Dundry Hills through to the Savernake
Forest south of Marlborough.
After taking in an iron age hill fort, Maes
Knoll, at East Dundry, the earthwork crosses the
Chew valley near Compton Dando before joining up
with another hill fort, Stantonbury, above the
village of Marksbury.
From Newton St Loe it runs for some miles east of
Bath before disappearing. It then pops up again
Archaelogists used to think that the two sections
- east and west Wansdyke - were built together,
but some now believe that they may have been
constructed as two separate dykes, serving
And that's the view of historian David Higgins,
former head of Italian studies at Bristol
University, who has now put his researches in
Both or either section could have been built as a
defensive work or as a line of demarcation - a
border between territories such as Offa's Dyke
which, cutting through the Marches, divides the
West Midlands from Wales.
As Higgins points out, if it was meant as a
fortification then it would have required a large
mobile army to patrol it effectively and,
whatever its purpose, a large, well-organised
workforce to build and maintain it.
The Wansdyke - thought by many archaelogists to
have been constructed as a defence against the
ever-encroaching Saxons - is generally accepted,
because of finds, as being post-Roman and
pre-Saxon, that is, dating somewhere between
410AD and 500AD.
That's because it's cruder than most works
constructed by the Roman military - such as
Hadrian's Wall - and also because, it's argued,
the Roman authorities would have had no need for
such a defence or boundary in a land that they
were already in control of.
But the short-lived Antonine Wall, north of
Hadrian's Wall, is actually very similar to the
Wansdyke. It, too, was constructed solely out of
turves, rather than stone, by the Second Augusta
Legion, later based at Caerleon in South Wales.
Some writers had even suggested - although it's
unlikely - that, given the vast amount of labour
required, Offa's Dyke was also built by Roman
troops but then claimed, renamed and possibly
rebuilt centuries later by Offa, the Saxon king
of Mercia (the West Midlands) as a bulwark, or
defensive wall, against the Welsh.
It's very possible, argues Higgins, that our
section of the Wansdyke (which, some authorities
argue, may have extended westwards through Ashton
Court, over the Failand Hills and onto Portbury
or Portishead) was also built by Roman troops
(plus civilian labour) in the late fourth or
early fifth century - a few years before they
finally abandoned Britain and the population was
left to look to its own defences.
But, with the main threat from the Saxons many
years away, where was the enemy that the Wansdyke
was supposed to be protecting the British from?
Higgins speculates that it could very well have
been Irish war bands, the sea borne Scotti
(meaning "plunderers") who had been
plaguing the Bristol Channel coasts ever since
united bands of Saxons, Picts and Irish had
struck at a weakening Roman administration in
It was these same war bands - looking for booty -
who would later capture St Patrick (perhaps from
his home in Banwell) and sell him into slavery in
It was certainly a time of great uncertainty.
People were fleeing and leaving valuable goods
Thirty hoards of hidden gold and silver dating
from 388AD to 410AD have so far been unearthed
throughout the country - and there are no doubt
many more yet waiting to be discovered.
With the regular Mobile Field Army - the actual
Legions - depleted by a jostling for power
amongst military commanders, both in this country
and overseas, the Roman authorities in the West
Country were perhaps looking instead to some sort
of fixed defences that could easily be manned by
a regular Frontier Army - or even locally raised
lightly armed troops. Could the solution have
been the west Wansdyke?
Lying, as it does, between Bristol and Bath, the
earthwork could have been seen, Higgins argues,
as "part of a grand defensive strategy for
the entire basin of the Bristol Avon, gateway to
the wealth of Bath and the villa estates and
smaller industrial sites of the river valley and
The controversy over the Wansdyke's date (solved
one day, I'm sure, by the archaelogist's spade
and growing technological expertise) might be
academically interesting, but one thing we do
know for sure - the earthwork was in existence
when the Saxons' defeated the British at the
decisive battle of Dyrham in 577AD.
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells us that three
British (Celtic) kings died here and that the old
Roman towns of Bath, Cirencester and Gloucester
fell to the victorious Saxons. But, according to
Higgins, it was the Wansdyke defences that
prevented then from overrunning the rest of the
region in the same campaign.
They were, instead, diverted towards Wales only
to be defeated, two or three years later, on the
banks of the Wye, near Tintern.
What part the Wansdyke played in the Battle Of
Badon of about 500AD - in which the Saxon advance
west was halted by the British for at least 50
years, possibly under the leadership of the semi
mythical Arthur and his cavalry or Ambrosius
Aurelianus, the west's last "Roman"
leader - we just don't know. But as the battle is
thought to have been fought somewhere near Bath,
it's certainly a possibility.
But why, you might ask, was the Wansdyke named
after the pagan god Odin? Perhaps, speculates
Higgins, it was given the name by Penda, a
Mercian pagan ruler who, two generations later,
took control of South Gloucestershire as an act
of defiance against Christians.
l If you would like to know more about our hidden
West Country past during the so- called Dark
Ages, buy David Higgins' fascinating little book
The Bristol Region In The Sub Roman And Early
Anglo Saxon Periods.
Published by the Bristol branch of the Historical
Association, it's not half as stuffy as it sounds
- and will only cost you £3.50. It should be on
sale at the Bristol Museum bookshop in Queen's
Road or, failing that, from Peter Harris, 74 Bell
Barn Road, Stoke Bishop BS9 2DG. Add 35p to cover
the cost of the postage.
[Source: Bristol Times Evening Post, 8 August