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Wan's Dike / Wansdyke

The Devil's Dyke, otherwise called Grim's Dyke, ran from Newmarket into Lincolnshire, and was designed to separate Mercia from the East Angles. Part of the southern boundary of Mercia (from Hampshire to the mouth of the Severn) was called "Woden's Dyke," the present Wan's Dyke.

Eminent antiquaries had long held that the Wansdyke marks the boundary line of the last conquest of the Belgae. But is the Wansdyke old enough to have been the boundary of the Belgae? That prince of excavators, General PittRivers, has opened a part of the Wansdyke, in Wiltshire, and at the base of the mound he discovered some Roman nails. At that point, therefore, the Wansdyke, instead of being prehistoric, is post-Roman.

That a dyke so extensive as the Wansdyke, 80 miles in length, could have been long maintained 'without provision of welltrained troops and constant garrison-duty at close intervals, it is impossible to believe, and of such provision there is no proof; and, moreover, no people can successfully dyke itself about against foes whose attack may come from any point of the compass.

The Cambridgeshire Devil's Dyke, albeit not by any means the longest of such works, is nevertheless of such proportions that it might well be put down to nothing less than Satan's handiwork. Commencing at Stetchworth it runs for seven miles in an almost direct line from south-east to north-west across the open stretches of Newmarket Heath to the forlorn hamlet of Reach upon the Cam. Its measurements, as given by different authorities, vary considerably : Sir H. Dryden made the height of the bank above the level of the soil to be 18 feet with a width of 12 feet at the top. The eastern slope he put at 30 feet, the western, from crest of vallum to bottom of fosse, at 46 feet, and the width of the fosse at 20 feet. Another authority declares that, a little south of the point where it was crossed by the Cambridge-Newmarket road, he found the dyke to be 18 feet wide at the top, the western slope to have aslope of 70, and the measurement along that slope from top to bottom to be as much as 90 feet. Sir H. Dryden's figures are too small: as no particular point is mentioned, they perhaps represent average measurements only.

In matters of this sort, however, the smaller figures are usually to be preferred when one endeavors to realize what even these smaller figures mean, one's respect for the builders, whoever they may have been, rises to proper proportions. Sir II. Dryden's figures give to the dyke a slope of 45 or so. Now if the cubic content of a bank of the same slope, 1 foot in length and 1 foot high, be represented by unity, as the mathematicians would say, then the cubic content per foot of any similar bank will be represented by the square of the altitude in feet. Thus a bank 2 feet high has four times the content, a bank 5 feet high has 25 times the content, of a one-foot bank. Estimated in tliis way and with due allowance for the fact that its top is rlat, the Devil's Dyke represents a bulk, per foot of its 7 miles of length, at least Jive hundred and forty times as great. And this enormous wall is throughout the work of man's hands, nowhere aided by any natural features of the ground. Nor do these figures give an adequate idea of the labour involved, for no account has been taken of the fosse, nor any allowance made for the shrinkage of fosse and vallum under centuries of denudation.

A little to the south-west of Savernake Forest, is a famous Saxon monument, called Wansdyke, which runs across the county from east to west. The name Wansdyke is a corruption of Woden's dyke, or ditch; so called from Woden, one of the deities of the Pagan Saxons. The most probable opinion concerning this fortification is, that it was thrown up by the first king of the west Saxons, to check the continual incursions of the Britons, who continued for many years to attempt the recovery of their ancient liberty. It is a strong earthen rampart, with a broad ditch on the south, and may be traced from Bath in Somersetshire to Great Bedwin in Wiltshire.

As regards boundary lines, there is in the neighborhood of Bath one of the most remarkable that exists in the kingdom, and probably the most ancient. It is called Wansdyke, from a Celtic word signifying "to separate." This huge earthwork extends 80 miles in length, reaching from Savernake Forest in Berkshire to the Severn at Portishead. It consists of a bank and a ditch, and is most remarkable when stretching over the Wiltshire Downs, but it may be seen to great advantage at Englishcombe.

In other parts of England there were similar boundary lines, though not of such extent. Thus, in Cambridgeshire, there are four large earthworks, equal to the embankments of modern railways. These are called Fleam Dyke, Brent Dyke, Pampisford Dyke, and Devil's Dyke. They ran between two fens, or a fen and a forest, and formed a line of defence; but their length was not more than eighl or nine miles. Offa's Dyke runs through Salop, Hereford, Montgomery, Denbigh, and Flint, as also a smaller one, called Watt's Dyke. These in some places run side by side for twenty miles, within a few hundred yards of each other ; they were intended as a boundary line between Offa, King of Mercia, and the Welsh. The probable date of Offa's Dyke is AD 770, and that of Watt's Dyke, 750. There is probably a difference of centuries between Offa's Dyke and Wansdyke; but the latter is the best constructed.

There are numerous other banks and ditches to be traced on the downs; some probably for defence, like Wansdyke, with one rampart and a ditch: others are supposed to have been roads, and consist of a broad level way between two banks. Old-ditch may be traced on the downs, north of Warminster and Heytesbury, running eastward by Chittern, or Chiltern-All-Saints, and TilshearL till it terminates in another ditch running at right angles to it; its length is about 11 miles, including gaps or intervals; the transverse ditch, in which it terminates, car be traced for above two miles. Grimsditch, consisting of a bank and ditch, and Bokerly-ditch, also consisting of i bank and ditch, separating at its south-eastern end into two branches, are on the downs south of Salisbury, on the border of Dorsetshire. Bokerly-ditch forms, for a short distance, the boundary of the two counties. The length of Grimsditch is about six miles; of Bokerly-ditch, including both branches, about six miles, including gaps ot intervals. Both have a very winding course.

The conquest of Britain by the Teutonic tribes was a protracted agony of more than four hundred years. Whether or no it be a fact that Hengist and Horsa first landed on the shores of Kent in 449, and whatever be the truth about the reasons which brought them hither and kept them here, it is more than probable that many small bodies of immigrant adventurers from the shores of the Baltic had already established themselves in Britain long before that date. With the possible exception of the works known as the Wansdyke and Bokerley Dyke, it does not appear that there is a single known earthwork which can with any degree of confidence be attributed to the Britons of this period.

Dykes of a similar character to Wat's Dyke and Offa's Dyke are found in other parts of England. The greatest one, is Wan's Dike, which runs from the neighborhood of Andover, in Hampshire, across the center of Wiltshire and past Bath to Bristol. The celebrated "Wan's, or Devil's dyke," one of the divisions of the old Saxon heptarchy, and now levelled in some parts, but prominent at others. The Wan's dyke takes a somewhat serpentine course from east to west in Wiltshire. "Wan's dyke" has been thought to be a corruption of "Woden's dyke". This dyke must extend about fifty miles. It is supposed to have formed the southern boundary of Mercia, while several smaller dykes in Cambridgeshire, on the eastern side of the same kingdom, are said to have been constructed by the East Anglians.

Wansdyke is a long ditch and bank, also known as a linear defensive earthwork - this is the technical term. Wansdyke is dated to the Dark Ages, roughly between 400 and 700 AD. It runs from the Avon valley south of Bristol to Savernake Forest near Marlborough in Wiltshire. Maybe it is not as familiar to many people as Offa's Dyke or Hadrian's Wall, yet it is one of the largest linear earthworks in the UK. The dyke called " Wan's dyke " went through a broken country, full of nooks and dingles, which were far more likely to hold a foe, than to be a protection against enemies.

This stupendous embankment runs from west to east. Its course may be traced with certainty from Maes Knoll Camp in Somersetshire ; but after Bathampton its course eastward is doubtfully marked, unless it is taken as following the Roman road to Colston or Morgan's Hill. Here the Wansdyke reappears in its original character and grandeur, separating itself from the Roman road to take a bend in a southeasterly direction, and over the tops of the chalky hills. It afterwards continues its course, and forms a boundary between Great and Little Bedwyn parishes, proceeding onward to Cheesebury Castle, the fourth earthwork along the line, which is said to be the work of Cissa, one of the sons of Ella, who landed with his father on the coast of Sussex, A.D. 477.

The high vallum being south of the fosse shews the object of this bulwark to have been the defence of the southern counties against enemies from the north ; and this could not fail to call to mind the struggles between the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, particularly when the latter still followed its heathen customs under such a king as Penda. Whether the Wansdyke, .or Woden's Dyke, was only a more ancient work utilised by the later Britons and Angles, or constructed altogether by the later inhabitants, there is no evidence to shew; and the same may be said of those other dykes in Dorset and Wilts,

Wan's Dike, like the other dykes, consists of a rampart and a ditch. And as the ditch is on the north side, modern observers were led to the conclusion that this work, so far at least as the purpose was a military one, was designed to protect the West Saxons who dwelt upon the south. It is equally significant that the ditches of Offa's and Wat's Dykes are always on the western side. This feature in their construction is a most important one, for whatever else we may think about the object of such stupendous structures, one cannot reasonably imagine that they were intended for the defence of Wales. The effects of time and weather on Offa's Dyke were considreable, and that its original height and steepness must have made it a more military work than was generally admitted. Portions of Wan's Dyke, a work some centuries older than that of Offa, still retain parts so steep and high as to be very difficult to climb, even without opposition from the summit.

Wansdyke, the most extensive of all English works of the kind, had a total length of 80 miles, and for the major portion of its length it is still in very fair preservation. It commences in Berkshire, and traverses the counties of Wiltshire and Somersetshire to the Severn at Nortishcad. First noticeable near Great Bedwyn, west of Inkpen, it crosses Savernake Forest in a right line, and continues with less directness westward across the downs north of Martinsell Hill by Heddington. From Heddington to Batluimpton Down, where the dyke is to be seen at its best, its course, straight as a ruled line, coincides with that of the Roman road from Verlucio (near Marlborough) to Bath. Its course westward from Bathampton to the const is less direct, being determined in general by the contours of the high ground overlooking the valley of the Avon. Much of this latter section has been entirely destroyed.

The works consist throughout of a single vallum with a deep fosse to the north, and at most points there is a more or loss pronounced parapet along the northern edge of the fosse. Where the slope of the hill is very considerable the vallum is slighter, and even disappears altogether. Where best preserved the crest of the vallum rises as much as 9 feet or 10 feet above the ground level, and 18 feet or 20 feet above the floor of the ditch, the total width of vallum and fosse varying from 80 feet to 90 feet. Unlike most dykes, Wansdyke appears to have been expressly designed so as to touch several important camps presumed to be British : it skirts the British village on Bathampton Down, incorporates the northern sides of the works at Stantonbury and Maesknoll, and terminates on the coast close beside Portishead Camp ; while all along its course in front and rear lie more than a score of other camps, larger or smaller.

Between Heddington and Bathampton Down, where the course of the Wansdyke coincides with that of the Roman road, the latter is the earlier work, the builders of the dyke having availed themselves occasionally of the pre-existing road to save labour. Theories, therefore, which would attribute the work to pre-Roman days no longer call for discussion. As the Romans can scarcely be supposed to have tampered with their own road, the dyke must date after the departure of the Romans; but how long after it is impossible to say.

The usual view sees in it a "mark" or boundary line constructed by the Saxons after their settlement- "A mighty mound sith long he did renmiii Betwixt the Mercian rule mid the West Saxon reign" ; and if this were so, then from the position of the fosse on the northern side it would seem to follow that it was of West Saxon construction. Pitt-Rivers himself pointed out that the Wansdyke and Bokerley Dyke together, "though not continuous works, defend the whole south-west promontory of England, including Wilts, Somerset, Dorset, Devonshire, Cornwall, and part of Hants," and present the appearance of a continuous scheme of defence embodying a single design. The gap between the eastern termination of the Wansdyke and the northern end of Bokerley Dyke might be accounted for either by supposing it to have been sufficiently filled by the forest which gave its name to Berkshire, or by assuming that the completion of the whole scheme was in some way frustrated. He saw an analogy between the manner in which the Wansdyke leans at short intervals upon stray camps and the arrangement of the Roman Walls of North Britain, the Walls of Antoninus and of Hadrian, with their regular stations ; and evidently he would have liked, had the evidence justified it, to attribute the whole to the Romanized Britons. That it was rather a defensive work than merely a boundary mark he was convinced.

It may be pointed out that it would be more to the interest of the Britons than of the Saxons to destroy the open Roman road leading direct to Bath and the West. Wherever may have been the Mons Badonicus which witnessed the great fight of 520, the battle of Deorham and destruction of Bath (577) must have rendered untenable the Wansdyke. It should therefore be supposed that the dyke was built between 412 and 577.

Bokerley Dyke is a smaller work, some 4 miles only in length. It marks to-day the county-boundary of Wiltshire and Dorsetshire, between Woodyates and Cranborne. Its general course is from south-east to north-west, the fosse being on the northern and eastern side. Close to Woodyates it crosses the line of the Roman road from Old Sarum to Badbury Rings, 11 miles to the south-west, and cutting a section at this spot Pitt-Rivers again proved the dyke to be of later construction than the road.

Although actual proof is not yet, and possibly never may be, forthcoming, there is very strong reason to think that both Wansdyke and Bokerley Dyke were the work of Romanized Britons seeking to secure themselves against the Saxons by the same means which they had seen their Roman masters more successfully employ against the Northern tribes. Those points in which these Romano-British dykes differ from the genuinely Roman works, are precisely such as would be expected in the work of semibarbarian imitators who saw their model without fully understanding it. With the Roman the vallum was but a subordinate matter, merely the link connecting into one co-ordinate whole the various points occupied by the troops. With them it was not the wall, but the men were the important thing, the real secret of their strength.

With the Briton the wall was everything. It was bigger, broader, and if need be longer than the Roman's walls. But to the more important matter of the maintenance and distribution of his garrisons he seems to have paid but small attention. Such forts as actually stand upon the dykes were probably there before, not expressly built to meet the special requirements of his case, and when all is said they are but few, in no way comparable to the 17 fortresses which marked the 70 miles of Hadrian's Wall and the mile-castles which covered the intervening spaces. The Briton was guilty of the oft-repeated error of spending lavishly upon the materiel and neglecting the personnel.

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Page last modified: 17-02-2017 19:32:21 ZULU