I had heard much of this palace of Offa’s from the Mercians and from Ethelbert himself, but it was a far stronger place than I had expected. Seeing that here, on the newly-conquered Welsh border lands, no man could tell when the wild Britons might swarm across the ford, and bring fire and sword in revenge on the lands they had lost, if the king would have a palace here, it must be a very strong hold, and Offa had indeed made one.
The Romans had chosen the place long ago, having the same foe to watch and the same ford to keep, and on the low hill, which they saw was best for strength and position alike, they had set a great square camp with high earthen walls and deep moat below them. Once they had had their stone houses within it, but they had gone. The last of them were cleared when Offa drove out the Welsh and set his own place there after our fashion. Then he had repaired the earthworks, and crowned them afresh with a heavy timber stockade, making new gates and bridges across the moat.
Across the bridge which faces toward Wales we rode, between lines of country folk, who thronged outside the stockading to see our coming; and so with their cheers to greet us we came into a great open courtyard, with long buildings for thralls and kitchens and the like on either side of it, and right opposite the gate, facing toward it, the timber hall of the king itself. A little chapel, cross crowned, stood on its left, and the guest house and guard rooms for the housecarls to the right, stretching across the centre of the camp where once the Roman huts had been.
The hall was high and long, and had a wide porch and doorway in the end which faced the gate. Behind it one could see the roofs of other buildings which joined it, and beyond it again were stables, and byres, and kennels, and barns, and the countless other offices which a great house needs, filling up the rest of the space the stockade enclosed. Nor were they set at random, as one mostly sees them; but all having been built at once, they stood in little streets, as it were, most orderly to look on, with a wider street running from the back of the hall to the gate which led toward Mercia through the midst.
Presently I learned that the queen’s bower was a lesser hall, which joined the back of the great palace hall itself, and that there were other buildings, which were not to be seen at first. It was the greatest palace in all England, and I wished that the Franks, who had little praise for our dwellings, had seen this before they went back home. It is true that all was built of timber, while the Franks used stone; but that last no Angle or Saxon cares for while good oak and ash and chestnut are to be had.
I did not pay much heed to the place at the time when we rode in, beyond a swift glance round me. There was that which held my eyes from the first on the wide steps that led to the hall door. There stood Offa and his queen to meet their guest, with the nobles of Mercia round them in a wondrous gathering, blazing with colour, and gold, and jewels, and the white horse banner of Mercia over them.