After Offa: Mercian Hymns

September 20, 2019 0 Comments

We weren’t just following his Dyke on foot.  We were also tracking its maker, Offa, king of the Mercians.

Or so it was said.  We’ve no contemporary evidence that Offa was the one responsible.  The first person to make the claim was Asser, a Welsh monk from St Davids (his original name may have been Gwyn).  In his life of Alfred ‘the Great’ he wrote

In recent times in Mercia there was an energetic king, much feared by the minor kings on his borders.  His name was Offa, and he ordered a big earth rampart to be made between Britain and Mercia, from sea to sea.

That was in the year 893, about a century later than Offa’s heyday (he was king between 757 and 796) – maybe a short enough time, just, for the recollection to be secure.  Recent archaeological work near Chirk shows that at least one part of the Dyke pre-dated Offa’s time.  Maybe in reality Offa has part author, part editor of earlier drafts of the great earthwork – the longest of its kind anywhere in Europe.

One of the reasons most people have been content to accept the Dyke’s attribution to Offa is the record of his remarkable and ruthless achievements.  Mercia was already a powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom before his time, thanks to Penda and his successors, but Offa consolidated his hold on the English Midlands and extended its influence far beyond his own borders.  He ended up controlling much of central and southern England – including the land immediately to the east of Asser’s ‘Britannia’ (Wales).  Never before or since have the Midlands dominated the politics of England.  No one has yet suggested that Parliament, while its Houses in London are renovated, should relocate to Tamworth, the ancient capital of Mercia. There could be worse choices.

Offa remains a shadowy character, little more than the ‘strenuus atque formidolosus rex’ of Asser.  Walking his Dyke fails to bring you much closer to him – unless you read into his character some of the features of the rampart and its accompanying ditch, as they stride boldly across hills, dive headlong into steep valleys and make sudden ‘strenuous’ turns of direction.

Traces of ‘Offa Rex’ survive in signs and place-names along the Dyke’s route.   There are clusters of Offas around Chepstow and in the area between Knighton and Montgomery: Plas Offa, Mercian Way, Bryn Offa, Offa’s Orchard Green Burial Ground.  Maybe the most powerful echo of him, though, is to be found in Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian hymns (1971), a sequence of thirty short prose-poems in which the figure of Offa melts in and out of that of a young boy growing up in Worcestershire during the Second World War.  Hill, who died in 2016, is a thorough-going late Modernist, elliptical, rich in obscure reference and, like Eliot, reverent of a canonical tradition, cultural and political, felt to be under attack.  He’s been criticised as a conservative adherent to ‘chthonic’ English nationalism.  But there’s an obvious power to his poetry, grounded in a startlingly concrete language and the constant interlacing of distant and recent past.  This is the first section:

King of the perennial holly-groves, the riven sandstone: overlord of the M5: architect of the historic rampart and ditch, the citadel at Tamworth, the summer hermitage in Holy Cross: guardian of the Welsh Bridge and the Iron Bridge: contractor to the desirable new estates: saltmaster: moneychanger: commissioner for oaths: martyrologist: the friend of Charlemagne.

‘I liked that,’ said Offa, ‘sing it again.’

The invocation of Offa mixes ancient (holly-groves is a nod to the older, Celtic rather than the Anglo-Saxon, past) and contemporary (‘overlord of the M5’, ‘contractor to the desirable new estates’).  The ‘Welsh Bridge’ at Shrewsbury and the ‘historic rampart and ditch’ refer to Offa’s Welsh neighbours, and ‘moneychanger’ to the coinage minted by Offa to boost his image, recalled again in section XI:

Coins handsome as Nero’s; of good substance and weight. Offa Rex resonant in silver, and the names of his moneyers. They struck with accountable tact. They could alter the king’s face.

Exactness of design was to deter imitation; mutilation if that failed. Exemplary metal, ripe for commerce. Value from a sparse people, scrapers of salt-pans and byres.

The references pile up.  ‘The iron bridge’ is at Ironbridge in Shropshire and ‘Holy Cross’ is a hamlet near Bromsgrove, Hill’s childhood home.  ‘Saltmaster’ might refer to the Cheshire salt mines under Offa’s control.  ‘Commissioner for oaths’ appears on solicitors’ nameplates but also recalls oaths of fealty by Offa’s sub-kings.  ‘Martyrologist’ glances at a story that Offa dug up the bones of the early Christian martyr St Alban and reburied them as a shrine.  Charlemagne, ruler of half Europe, was not too mighty that the historical Offa could not have a bad-tempered correspondence with him. 

This dense panegyric turns out to be a try-out, the draft of a song written for Offa himself to judge.  The king’s verdict, luckily for the poet, is favourable: ‘I liked that’, said Offa, ‘sing it again.’  It strikes a demotic, sardonic note.

Mercian hymns traces Offa’s life episodically and ends with his death and funeral.  Section XXVII starts

‘Now when King Offa was alive and dead’, they were all there, the funereal gleemen: papal legate and rural dean; Merovingian car-dealers, Welsh mercenaries; a shuffle of house-carls.

He was defunct. They were perfunctory. The ceremony stood acclaimed. The mob received memorial vouchers and signs.

Again, the collision of old and modern (‘Merovingian car-dealers’) hits the ear with a clang.  The final hymn, XXX, is in the form of a dream.  Curiously it takes us back to the themes of walking and not finding:

And it seemed, while we waited, he began to walk towards us             he vanished

he left behind coins, for his lodging, and traces of red mud.

I wonder that Offa’s ghost would make of our current political debate, where more and more voices are raised in favour of Welsh independence and a new Offa’s Dyke – not to resurrect ancient kings and blood feuds, but to free Wales from the arthritic power of London governments and their incurably reactionary, capricious, Offa-like ways.

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