Who hasn’t dined at least once in an ’80s Chinese restaurant that carried the name 万里长城 ‘Great Wall of China’? Certainly you’ve been at one for a take-away, in the thin plastic boxes wrapped in paper with prawn crackers. Oh, yes you do! Part of the interior are, of course, the big orange and white goldfish, and a relief painting of the magnificent wall. Gliding like a snake through remote mountains of the vast Chinese Empire. Those readers of this post privileged enough too have traveled to China, might even have gazed at the beauty of this 6,000 kilometers long wall in real life. We are, however, not sure tourists will do the same in 500 years from now at the walls and fences of, let’s say, Hungary and the United States.
No, there’s a lot of controversy about walls today. Take for example the high walls and fences that have been built in Morocco around the Spanish enclaves Melilla and Ceuta, which are being stormed by migrants every now and then. Other walls too, are subject to much heated debate. Yes, the wall between Mexico and the United States. Inevitable not to mention this wall. The US administration has been working on it intensively since the Secure Fence Act of 2006, already. Like his predecessors, current President Trump is very occupied with it too.
What if we look at the historic walls in Western Europe? The first observation must be that walls are almost as old as mankind. Better, they are part of civilization. Furthermore, we cannot ignore the conclusion that the Italians are (also) the godfathers of modern defensive wall systems. Maybe they still are…
And, there’s an additional advantage or lesson by doing this short exercise. It turned out several long-distance hiking trails have been developed along several of these ancient and once deterring walls. Of the eleven UNESCO-listed world heritage sites in the Netherlands, three are defense-wall systems, namely the Stelling van Amsterdam ‘Amsterdam defense line’, the Limes Germanicus (see further below), and the Nieuwe Hollandse Waterlinie ‘New Dutch Waterline’. UNESCO is happy to grant them all the status of world heritage. Just bring them on. Yes, defensive walls capture our imagination, past and present! From Great Wall to great walk.
With the Limes Germanicus recognized as world heritage, it creates possibilities for the Atlantikwall to be recognized as such too in the near future. Many remains of which to be seen along the Frisia Coast Trail. Or, are we now being politically incorrect to compare the Atlantikwall with the noble and civilized Roman limes?
King Lud’s Entrenchments (UK) – ca 1.3 km
The oldest wall has been built in Britain. According to archaeologists, during the Middle Bronze Age between ca. 1500-1000 BC. However, the Celtic king Lud lived in the first century, if we may trust the manuscript Historia Regum Britanniae ‘the history of the kings of Britain’ written in the twelfth century. So, archaeologists and historians have some ground to cover together if they want to connect king Lud with this wall. Traditionally, king Lud is considered to be the founder of the city of Trinovantum, i.e. London.
Location of his intrenchments is halfway east of the imaginary north-south line, between the villages Croxton Kerrial and Sproxton in Leicestershire. The banks and ditches contained within the around 1.3 kilometers long constraint area, are an average of 20 meters wide. Earthworks include three parallel banks separated by two ditches. Quite an obstacle course.
The earthworks between Croxton Kerrial and Sproxton may be part of an extensive prehistoric boundary system, stretching from around Northampton all the way to the river Humber. This boundary system, or wall, is known as the Jurassic Spine. The King Lud’s Entrenchments are aligned at right angles to the main components of this system.
Although not the completely identical to the course of the earthworks, there’s a long-distance hiking trail of ca. 240 kilometers called the Viking Way that follows more or less the Jurassic Spine boundary system. The Viking Way was set up to reflect the former Danelaw territories. The Viking Way starts/end at the river Humber in the north, and ends at Rutland Water near Oakham in the south. At Section 12, just north of the former military airfield, you come across -in a right angle of the path- King Lud’s Entrenchments at its eastern end.
Limes Germanicus (NL, DE, AU) – ca 1800 km
Built by the Romans during the first century, this wall defended the empire against Germanic tribes. The northern part of the Limes Germanicus was erected from AD 47, after the Romans had suffered multiple defeats against Germanic tribes north and east of the river Rhine. The two most talked-about battles, are the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in the year 9, near the present-day city of Osnabrück in Germany, and the Battle of the Baduhenna Forest in the year 28, near the present-day town of Heiloo in the Netherlands. In the Teutoburg Forest the Romans were slaughtered by a coalition of Germanic tribes. In the Baduhenna Forest the Romans were defeated by the Frisii ‘Frisians’.
Want to know more about the Battle of Baduhenna? read our post Frisian mercenaries in the Roman Army.
The Limes Germanicus started/ended at the mouth of the river Rhine at the Netherlands’ North Sea coast, where the current towns of Katwijk and Rijnsburg are located. Here stood the fortress Lugdunum, commonly know as Brittenburg ‘Burh of the Brits’. It’s also where possibly the pharus ‘lighthouse’ of Caligula stood, often named the Tower of Kalla in ancient literature (Dhaeze 2019). From Katwijk, the limes followed the river Rhine up-stream, all the way to the current city of Arnhem in the east of the Netherlands. Castella ‘fortresses’ dotted frequently along the southern riverbanks, and the mighty river Rhine functioning as a very big moat. In Germany, the Limes Germanicus continued to follow the banks of the river Rhine until the town of Rheinbrohl. From here the limes headed east to Castle Eining at the river Donau, to continue from there all the way to the splendid city of Vienna. The limes between Rheinbrohl and Castle Eining ran through the wooded mountain ranges of Odenwald and the Black Forest. Here, in the forested mountains, the wall was made of wood but later also partly of stone.
To have enough troops to protect the border, the Roman army made use of mercenaries. These were warriors of tribes. It were the Batavi ‘Batavians’ who secured the Roman border. However, the Batavian cohorts, in fact, consisted of Cananefates and especially of Frisians or Frisii (Heeren 2020). Check also our post Frisian mercenaries in the Roman army.
Quite recently, the Romeinse Limespad ‘Roman limes’ path’ has been developed for the stretch of the Limes Germanicus in the Netherlands. A modest long-distance trail along the river Rhine.
Hadrian’s Wall (UK) – 120 km
This stone wall was built starting in the year 122. It ran between the present-day towns of Wallsend in the east, and Bowness-on-Solway in the west, in England. Thus, from the North Sea to the Irish Sea. The wall was built to protect Romano-Britannia against the Celtic tribes, notoriously the Picts.
The Roman empire made full use of mercenaries in their army, also to defend the external borders. Many Frisian mercenaries too. Both the Frisii and the Frisiavones, the latter being the Romanized Frisians (IJssennagger 2017), were enrolled and stationed at Hadrian’s Wall. Several inscriptions on pagan altar stones testify of their presence, besides remains of Frisian pottery does too. We even know the name of one of the Frisian chieftains who did the watch at the wall. No, it’s not Jon Snow, but a person named Notfrid. Read also our post on these Frisian mercenaries in the Roman Army.
There’s an excellent, modest long-distance trail along Hadrian’s Wall, the Hadrian’s Wall Path.
Antonine Wall (UK) – 65 km
Construction of this wall started two decennia after Hadrian’s Wall was built, namely in the year 142. It ran between present-day town Firth of Forth in the east, and the town Firth of Clyde in the west, in Scotland. Its purpose too was to protect Romano-Britannia against the Caledonian tribes. Just like its older and bigger brother Hadrian’s Wall more to the south. This time the wall was made of turf. Maybe it was a rush job.
After only eight years the Romans abandoned it already, and retreated behind Hadrian’s Wall more to the south again. In the year 208, the Romans made an effort to reinforce the Antonine Wall, but they gave up soon after. No, definitively not their turf.
Clawdd Offa (UK) – 240 km
This earthwork wall, or indeed dry dike (also spelled as dic), dates from the second half of the eighth centuries, and follows roughly the current border between Wales and England. It’s called Clawdd Offa in Welsh language, meaning ‘Offa’s dyke’. We know its old age thanks to the Welsh monk Asser who lived at the end of the ninth and the beginning of the tenth century. It’s thought to have been built by king Offa of Mercia, who lived in the second half of the eighth century. On the western, Welsh side, in front of the wall was a ditch. Offa’s Dyke ran more or less from the estuary of the river Dee in the north, to village of Tidenham on the river Severn in the south.
Like Hadrian’s Wall there’s an excellent trail along Offa’s Dyke too, the Offa’s Dyke Path.
Devil’s Dyke (UK) – 12 km
The Devil’s Dyke is a probably fifth- or sixth-century defensive earthwork of 12 kilometers long, which was built near the village of Woodditton, Cambridgeshire. Besides possible Anglo-Saxon origin, even megalith origins are being considered. This structure lies on the border of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia and Mercia. It was built by the East Anglians against their Mercian neighbours. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to the Devil’s Dyke in its annals in the year 905.
Earlier names are Saint Edmund’s Dyke, Great Ditch and Reach Dyke. Only with the arrival of William the Conqueror, it was named Devil’s Dyke.
Besides early-medieval Offa’s Dyke and Devil’s Dyke, many more walls and/or defensive earthworks from around this period have been erected in the wider region. Like Wat’s Dyke (together with Offa’s Dyke) at the northern border between England/Mercia and Wales, Fleam Dyke in Cambridgeshire (5 kilometers), Combs or Coombs Ditch in Dorset, and the Black Ditches at the village of Cavenham, Suffolk. Concerning Fleam Dyke, some Middle Bronze Age pot sherds have been traced, pushing the construction date possibly to 3000-1500 BC. Furthermore, the Wansdyke, also called Bokerley Dyke or Wodnes dic (viz. Wodan’s dyke), between Mercia and Wessex running through Wiltshire and Somerset, and dikes to protect the Kingdom of Kent, should be mentioned. This dike surfaces in history in tenth-century charters. To the latter border belong Feastendic ‘strong dyke’ in Joyden’s Wood, Cray Valley, and the ditches on the Surrey-Kent border near the town of Westerham.
Danevirke (DK) – 30 km
The earliest parts of the Danevirke ‘Danish (earth)works’ were built around 500. The wall was expanded during the Viking Age. Hence the name Danevirke. It ran between the former Viking port of Hedeby (also Haithabu) near present-day Schleswig in the east, then bordering the river Treene, it continued to the salt marshes of Kreis Nordfriesland in the west, in Germany.
It was the Viking king Gudfred who strengthened the wall because he feared the Franks, after they had conquered the Frisian and Saxon kingdoms over the course of the eighth century. With securing Hedeby against the Franks, also the rich trade between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, via the rivers Treene and Eider, was secured. This trade was, by the way, dominated by Frisian merchants who had also colonized the tidal marshlands and islands of Nordfriesland, i.e. the wider region where the river Eider flows into the Wadden Sea. Read our posts Porcupine bore U.S. bucks and To the end where it all began: ribbon Ribe to learn more about the magnitude of the early-medieval Frisian trade.
The Danevirke proved to be a success, you might say. Never were the Danes conquered during the Middle Ages, neither by the Franks nor by their allies the Slavs.
Lastly, we mention the oldest wall of Denmark, Olgediget ‘the old dyke’. It’s built early-third century, and located east of the town of Tinglev. With that it’s the oldest defense wall of region Jutland. The wall with moat was about 12 kilometers long and ‘closed’ the land between the sea and the river Vidå. Palisades flanked the west side of the moat.
- Accept, Balls to the Wall (1983)
- Pink Floyd, Another Brick in the Wall (1979)
Further reading and hiking
- Brooks, S. & Harrington, S., The Kingdom and People of Kent AD 400-1066. Their History and Archaeology (2010)
- Carter, K. & Stedman H., Offa’s Dyke Path (2015)
- Dhaeze, W., The Roman North Sea and Channel Coastal Defence. Germanic Seaborne Raids and the Roman Response (2019)
- Fox, A.W., A Lost Frontier Revealed. Regional separation in the East Midlands. Studies in Regional and local History. Volume 7 (2009)
- Howard, W., Dykes through Time: Rethinking Early Medieval Linear Earthworks (2017)
- Johnson, B., Anglo-Saxon Sites in Britain, blog Historic UK (2019)
- Klein, M. & Geerenstein, van H. (ed), Romeinse Limespad. Wandelen langs de grens van het Romeinse Rijk in Nederland (2018)
- Goldsworthy, A., Hadrian’s Wall (2018)
- Newman, H., Was the Devil’s Dyke in England once Part of the Legendary City of Troy? (2017)
- Pilling, D., The Saxon kings in Dorset – Dorset’s royal Wessex dynasty (2012)
- Squatriti, P., Digging Ditches in Early Medieval Europe (2002)
- Stedman, H. & McCrohan, D., Hadrian’s Wall Path (2006)