Archenfield (Old English: Ircingafeld) is the historic English name for an area of southern and western Herefordshire in England. Since the Anglo-Saxons took over the region in the 8th century, it has stretched between the River Monnow and River Wye, but it derives from the once much larger Welsh kingdom of Ergyng.
The name Archenfield is derived from the older and larger Welsh kingdom of Ergyng (or Ercic), which in turn is believed to derive from the Roman town of Ariconium at Weston under Penyard. After the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain in 410 AD, new smaller political entities took the place of the centralised structure. King Peibio and his descendants are rulers of the area attested from about 555 AD until, in the middle of the 7th century, Onbraust of Ergyng married Meurig of Gwent and the two neighbouring kingdoms were combined. Saint Dubricius (known in Welsh as Dyfrig), a prince and bishop, was important in the sub-Roman establishment of the Christian church in the area. Ergyng eventually became a mere cantref, the Welsh equivalent of a hundred.
By the 8th century, the expanding power of Mercia led to conflict with the Welsh and by the beginning of the 9th century the western Mercians, who became known as the sub-kingdom of Magonset, had gained control over the area and nearby Hereford. During the rest of the century they moved its frontier southward to the banks of the Dore, the Worm Brook and a stream then known as the Taratur, annexing northern Ergyng. The sites of old British churches fell to Mercia, and the Britons became regarded as foreigners – or, in the Old English language, "Welsh" – in what had been their own land. The rump of Ergyng then became known to the English as Arcenefelde or Archenfield. There is no evidence that Offa built his famous Dyke across the area, probably because it had already been assimilated into Mercia by the late 8th century.
In 915, the area faced an incursion from Vikings led by Ohter and Rhoald, coming from the River Severn. After first capturing Cyfeiliog (Cimeliauc), the Bishop of Llandaff, they were defeated in battle by the combined forces of Gloucester and Hereford, possibly at "Kill Dane Field" near Weston under Penyard.
In the early 10th century, a document known as The Ordinance Concerning the Dunsaete records procedures for dealing with disputes between the English and the Welsh of Archenfield, who were known to the English as the Dunsaete or "hill people". It stated that the English should only cross into the Welsh side, and vice versa, in the presence of an appointed man who had the responsibility of making sure that the foreigner was safely escorted back to the crossing point.
Archenfield, which lay outside the English hundred system, became a semi-autonomous Welsh district, or commote (Welsh cwmwd), with its own customs. Its administrative centre was at Kilpeck Castle. Its customs were described in a separate section of the Domesday Book account of Herefordshire. Domesday recorded that "King Gruffydd and Bleddyn laid this land waste before 1066; therefore what it was like at that time is not known". It also stated the Welsh of Archenfield were allowed to retain their old rights and privileges in return for forming an advance and rear guard when the King's army entered or left Wales. The local priests were required to "undertake the king's embassies into Wales", presumably providing a translation service. The exemption from services was mentioned again in 1250 and 1326, when it was stated: "The Frenchmen and Welshmen of Urchenesfeld hold their tenements in chief of our lord the King by socage, rendering 19 pounds 7 shillings and 6 pence. And they ought to find 49-foot-soldiers for our lord the King in Wales for 15 days at their own cost."
The Welsh inhabitants of Archenfield thereafter retained their privileged position, living in a shadowy border land that was not really part of England nor Wales. Around 1404, Owain Glyndŵr and his troops raided the area. Glyndŵr himself may have died around 1416 at Kentchurch, within Archenfield, an area which he considered to be part of Wales.
Uncertainty over the border persisted until the Laws in Wales Acts of 1535 and 1542, often known as "The Acts of Union", tidied up many of the administrative anomalies within Wales and the Marcher borderlands. However no consideration was given at the time to ethnic or linguistic realities, and so various territories were grouped together in a rough and ready manner to form the new shires. Archenfield was thus bundled into Herefordshire, as the Hundred of Wormelow. However, it remained a predominantly Welsh speaking region until at least the 17th century, and the language was still spoken in the Kentchurch area as late as 1750. The evidence of its Welsh history remains in many placenames and field names.
Welsh continued to be spoken in Archenfield well into the modern period:
- Archenfield was still Welsh enough in the time of Elizabeth for the bishop of Hereford to be made responsible together with the four Welsh bishops for the translation of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into Welsh. Welsh was still commonly spoken here in the first half of the nineteenth century, and we are told that churchwardens’ notices were put up in both Welsh and English until about 1860.
Welsh was spoken by individuals until comparatively recently.
Many of the rights and customs of the people of Archenfield were maintained until comparatively recently. Men born in Archenfield had the right to take salmon from the River Wye until 1911. In King's Caple, the only part of Archenfield east of the Wye, Domesday lists the inhabitants as one Frenchman and five Welshmen. Six local men paid the dues which had been owed at this time, and before, for centuries. Payment was still being made by one of these 'King's Men of Archenfield' in the 1960s.
The towns of Ross-on-Wye and Hay-on-Wye lie within the bounds of the Archenfield region, and areas of or close to both towns today bear the name Archenfield. Additionally, one of Ross-on-Wye's most recognisable symbols; seen on numerous coats-of-arms, is the hedgehog, known in Middle English, and locally, as an "urchin" and, in heraldry the word urcheon is used to refer to the hedgehog. Thus the heraldic use can be seen as a partial rebus (or visual pun) on Archenfield. A hedgehog is the family crest of John Kyrle, the "Man of Ross".
- Map of Britain in the Dark Ages 2nd Edition (Ordnance Survey, 1966)
- Hereford.uk.com – Herefordshire History
- Archenfield Archaeology – Who we are
- David Hill and Margaret Worthington, Offa's Dyke – history and guide, Tempus Publishing, 2003, ISBN 0-7524-1958-7
- Bryan Walters, The Archaeology and Ancient History of Ancient Dean and the Wye Valley, 1992, ISBN 0-946328-42-0
- Colin Lewis, Herefordshire, the Welsh Connection, 2006, ISBN 0-86381-958-3
- D. A. Whitehead – The historical background to the city defences
- Anglo-Saxon Herefordshire
- Transactions Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club, 1887, page 173