If only because of Offa’s Dyke, the earthwork, immense in European terms, that will surely lie along the marches between England and Wales as long as the land lasts, King Offa is among the most familiar names from the Anglo-Saxon period. (The Danevirke, the early ninth-century rampart protecting southern Denmark from the East Franks, is just ten and a half miles (17 kilometres) long, running west from Hedeby, the settlement outside modern Schleswig.) Offa held such sway in the policies of the church, that most powerful international institution of the day, that for a few years England had a third archbishopric. Thus at the Council of Chelsea in the year 789 the king, ‘with all his chief men [principes]’ was among the distinguished guests at the episcopal assembly presided over by the archbishops of Canterbury and Lichfield. Offa was also the only European ruler of his day to be treated on equal terms by Charles the Great, king of the Franks. In a famous letter he sent to Offa in the year 796, Charles recognized ‘his dearest brother’ to be ‘a most strong protector of your earthly country’, as well as a defender of the ‘holy faith’.

Offa may be said to have completed a process of Mercian consolidation begun by King Æthelbald (716–57). Writing in 732, Bede observed that all the peoples and church provinces south of the Humber were ‘subject’ (‘subiecti’) to Æthelbald of Mercia. Though he does not name him as holding the imperium, ‘subject to’ seems intended to convey the idea of an accepted, ordered authority. Bede’s assessment may have been based on men like Nothelm, bishop of London, apparently close in the councils of the Mercian king. Nothelm also had good contacts at Rome and, with papal permission, had copied letters in the archive there which he ‘brought’ to Bede as source material for the History. He was to become archbishop of Canterbury, perhaps through Æthelbald’s influence.

The beginnings of the English midlands

‘Mercia’ (the name from the Old English ‘mierce’, ‘boundary’ [like the Slav ‘Ukraine’], means ‘the Marches’ or ‘Borderland’), that large area of fluctuating boundaries in central England between the Thames and the Humber, seems to have had its origins about the year 600 with a loose confederacy of Anglian tribes each under its own leader, who acknowledged as ‘king’ a single ruler drawn from one of their number, usually from the heartlands on the upper River Trent. Presumably the ‘boundary’ in question was the ever-moving westward frontier between the invading Angles and the native British – the ‘Wild West’, so to speak, as seen from East Anglia, the ‘Wild East’ as seen by the Romano-British Christian population.

Mercia grew around the historic centres of Tamworth, Repton and Lichfield where St Chad established the Mercian bishopric in 669. (A recently discovered panel of a sarcophagus made for his relics and displayed in the cathedral from February 2006, depicts the archangel, Gabriel. This rare example of early Anglo-Saxon sculpture has traces of its original paint work.)

Around this core we glimpse satellite peoples in tribal centres, under their own rulers or perhaps subjected by colonizing Mercian nobles, in names such as Wreocensætan (‘settlers’ round the Wrekin), Magonsætan (settlers west of the River Severn) and the Pecsætan of the Peak District in Derbyshire. In the area around Leicester and Peterborough (at that time called Medeshamstede), tribal groups (some, it has been suggested, little kingdoms) known collectively as the Middle Angles for a time constituted a kingdom and diocese. Its first bishop, Seaxwulf (d. c. 690) was closely involved in the foundation of the abbey at Medeshamstede. The kingdom of the Hwicce, occupying parts of modern Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire around the see of Worcester, was the most important constituent of greater Mercia. It may have been a fully functional British kingdom, with an existing British ecclesiastical centre, simply taken over by a small Anglian warrior elite expanding from a family base in Winchcombe, near Tewkesbury, in Gloucestershire and briefly centre of its own shire, rather than a territory occupied by a scattered settler population. Early tradition held that the great King Offa grew up among the Hwicce; it was probably during his reign that Winchcombe began to be developed as a royal minster-like complex of churches within a defensive enclosure. The place also seems to have held a document archive.1

Although it was transcribed in the early eleventh century, a document known to historians as the ‘Tribal Hidage’ seems to offer insights into the early Mercian world. It is a list of some thirty-four kingdoms and tribal ‘mini’ kingdoms in ‘Southumbria’, each assessed by area according to its number of ‘hides’ (territorial units supporting a family farm). Peter Featherstone concluded that Mercia was at the forefront of the compiler’s mind, the opening entry being for ‘first Mercia’, that is the traditional heartlands, assessed at 30,000 hides, and proposed that the Tribal Hidage figures probably carried a symbolic significance. For example, the people of the Hwicce are accorded a territory of 7,000 hides, surely reminiscent of the ‘7,000 hides, hall and throne’ that Hygelac, king of the Geats, gave to Beowulf.2

Penda the great pagan: father of a kingdom

If it was the business of a king of the ‘heroic’ age to be a munificent ‘arm-ring giver’, to do honour to his lineage and so win followers to his banner, for none was success in the bloody business of war more important than for the leaders of the Mercians, ‘the men of the boundaries’, the ‘marcher lords’ of an ever-moving frontier. The seventh-century Mercian military establishment was well suited to the extortion of plunder and tribute, but ill adapted to sustained long-term conquest.

They enter history with Penda who challenged the supremacy of Northumbria in a series of wars (see chapter 3). From a British perspective he appeared as the man who separated the central kingdom from the northern kings of Northumbria. The reach of Penda’s power was demonstrated by his widespread campaigns from Cirencester (628) in the south against Wessex to wars against East Anglia, which ended in the deaths of the kings Sigeberht and, in 654, Anna. In the 640s he drove Cenwalh of the West Saxons from his throne. Despite the disaster of Winwaed in 655, it was he, writes Nicholas Brooks, ‘who made the Mierce into a great kingdom’. He argues if events and his own paganism had not combined against him, Penda ‘might have been known to us in English poetry, as a great war leader, like some early El Cid.’3

From the mid-seventh century to the turn of the ninth, the Mercians extended their sway to virtually all the lands between the Thames and Humber. Many a minor kingdom and principality was absorbed or lost status in the process. For example, in the 770s subkings of the Hwicce were replaced by ealdormen. The impression, then, is of patchwork ethnicity and tribally partitioned populations, each under its own leader – a kind of Anglo-Saxon federated superpower. Furthermore, enough fragmentary archival references survive, together with cultural artefacts, to show that during the eighth century and the early ninth this ‘kingdom of the Mercians’ developed a considerable cultural heritage, before inundation by Danish invaders. The Mercian bishop Plegmund would become archbishop of Canterbury, and was a prominent member of the team that helped King Alfred of Wessex to achieve his great Anglo-Saxon recovery programme.

Mercian kingship might have had obscure origins but it would acquire for itself a serviceable genealogy. The actual succession depended largely on the ability of one or another claimant to secure sufficient support. The contestants were great men, ealdormen, ‘princes’ or ‘dukes’ who could canvas support ‘from among their own number upon a king’s death’. From one reign to the next the same names of this establishment of the great are found witnessing to royal charters. How they achieved that status in the first place is not so clear. It is possible that it reached back to the earliest days and that ‘these principes or duces were themselves the hereditary or chosen leaders of different peoples within the extended Mercian world.’4

The beginning of Christian Mercia

We have seen Oswiu of Northumbria annex northern Mercia after his victory over Penda in 655, but he assigned a sub-kingdom of 5,000 hides in southern Mercia to the dead king’s Christian eldest son Peada. He survived little more than a year before being murdered. Brief though it was, his reign saw the initiation of the abbey of Medeshamstede, one of the first foundations of Christian Mercia.

Northumbrian supremacy in Mercia lasted barely three years. In 657/8 a putsch by a group of ealdormen re-established the kingdom’s independence under Peada’s brother Wulfhere (d. 674). Acting on the advice of his sisters Cyneburh and Cyneswith, his brother the future king Æthelred (674–704) and of Archbishop Deusdedit of Canterbury, to name but a few, he confirmed the foundation of the minster at Medeshamstede. The Chronicle’s entry on these events has fly-on-the-wall accuracy about the loving exchanges between Bishop-Abbot Seaxwulf and the king, who approved not only all the things the abbot wanted but all the things the king knew that he wanted. All present wrote ‘with the finger’, that is traced the crosses on the parchment with their finger. How much if any of this happened we cannot possibly know for sure: such ‘creative accounts’ and dubious charters were to be expected in the archive of any well-managed church establishment; papal bulls confirming the events and affirming that the abbot owed allegiance to the pope alone are also recorded. The Peterborough scribe, purporting to write a national narrative, gives the national synod of the church convened at Hertford in 672/3 just one line. But the figure of Seaxwulf reminds us of the ‘veritable monastic empire’ that he traditionally is said to have founded and Abbot Hedda first ruled, with ‘colonies’ from Breedon on the Hill in Leicestershire to Bermondsey, now in London’s Docklands.

King Wulfhere invaded the Isle of Wight through Wessex in 661, disposed of lands in Lindsey, sold the see of London to a Frankish-born bishop, and subjected the king of Essex and the minor ruler of Surrey to his rule. Probably his presentation of Wight to the king of the South Saxons was as important in that king’s final acceptance of Christianity as the preaching of St Wilfrid. Wielding power and influence on this scale throughout the island would seem to make Wulfhere a candidate to be numbered among Bede’s list of rulers who wielded the imperium, the ‘bretwaldas’ of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Then, in 674, he overstretched himself when, ‘insatiable of spirit’, he ‘roused all the southern peoples’ against King Ecgfrith of Northumbria and led them to defeat. He lost the province of Lindsey in the process and his life soon after.

It was only a temporary setback for Mercia. Within five years his brother Æthelred (ruled Mercia 674–716) had raided into Kent and, in 679, fought Ecgfrith of Northumbria to a standstill at a battle ‘near the River Trent’. Mercia recovered Lindsey. Among the dead was Ecgfrith’s brother, Ælfwine, ‘much beloved in both kingdoms’, Bede tells us. A prolonged feud was to be expected; instead, in a notable settlement negotiated by Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, Ecgfrith agreed to accept the wergild payable for the death of a royal kinsman. The resulting peace stretched well into the next century, for in 704 King Æthelred abdicated to become a monk and subsequently abbot of Bardney, where he ruled until his death, presiding over the burgeoning cult of the Northumbrian saint-king Oswald. His wife, Oswald’s niece, had brought the bulk of the relics there some years before.

Æthelred was followed on the throne by a nephew, Coenred, who also followed him into religion, abdicating in 709; he died on pilgrimage to Rome. The reign of his successor Ceolred (709–16) was troubled by the lurking presence of Æthelbald, an exiled distant kinsman who claimed descent from a brother of King Penda.

Æthelbald of Mercia – Lord of the Southern English 716–57

Æthelbald found sanctuary on the desolate island of Crowland in the Fens, where Guthlac, by this time a noted holy man, had made his retreat. This St Guthlac had won renown in a former life as a warband leader on Mercia’s western frontier. A Life of St Guthlac was commissioned soon after his death by a king of East Anglia and two Old English poems, ‘Guthlac A’ and ‘Guthlac B’ also tell his story. Conditions on his island were ideal for the solitary soldier of Christ in battle against the demons of temptation, but hardly for a king-to-be. Guthlac dressed in skins and, by way of nourishment, indulged himself daily with a small piece of barley bread and a beaker of muddy fen water. On the other hand, the place was pretty secure; few, other than the saint and favoured pilgrims seeking the blessing of the holy man (and presumably the baker), knew the way through the treacherous, boggy terrain. The hermit saint prophesied that Æthelbald would become king, and the pretender vowed to build an abbey on the hermit’s island should that happen. He may have honoured his promise – eighth-century timber piling, adequate as the foundations of a wattle and daub structure, have been unearthed.5 Centuries later the Croyland/Crowland Chronicle would claim he had made extensive land grants. What little we know about Æthelbald indicates that an act of piety would have been out of character. The fact that he reigned for just over forty years in a violent age squares better with his reputation as a cruel and oppressive ruler. On the other hand, keeping faith with the deity might have seemed simple commonsense.

About the year 732, Bede noted, Æthelbald was the overlord of the East Saxons, East Angles, the West Saxons, the ‘people who dwell to the west of the River Severn’, the kingdoms of the Hwicce, and Lindsey, the Isle of Wight and the South Saxons. (Where King Aelle had first wielded the obscure powers of bretwalda, the once royal house now barely exercised the authority of a district governor.) A Mercian royal charter of 736 describes Æthelbald as ‘king’ of all the ‘provinces’ known as the Sutangli; and in a charter of this same year he features as ‘Rex Britanniae’,6presumably a Latin equivalent for ‘bretwalda’.

In the 720s the abdication of King Ine of Wessex to go on pilgrimage to Rome and the death of Wihtred of Kent had removed two powerful rivals on his southern frontier. The kings of the East Saxons (Essex) had to surrender control of London to Æthelbald and in 748 a Mercian royal council was held there. But his under-kings could exercise local authority. The Hwicce acknowledged him as ‘king of the Southern English’ (‘rex Sutanglorum’) and marched under his banners against the Welsh. But in 767 and 770 we find grants of land being made by their under-king.

Æthelbald’s exercise of secular power outside Mercia was real enough. For a time in the 730s he occupied the West Saxon royal vill at Somerton; he made grants of Wessex land to the cathedral church at Canterbury; he enlisted the West Saxons, too, against the Welsh; at the other end of England he ravaged Northumbria and made opportunistic alliances with the king of the Picts. His agents collected tolls from the shipping in London’s emporium Lundenwic, and he disposed of lands in the territories of the Middle Saxons (Middlesex), formerly the preserve of the kings of Essex.

This was the man that St Boniface chose to lecture on sexual mores. He credits him with generous charitable donations and as a friend to widows and the poor; and he praises him as an upholder of law and order who kept ‘a firm peace in [the] kingdom’. But against this Boniface sets reports he had heard ‘about your excellency’s private life’, which not only breached the laws of God but damaged the king’s standing ‘among the people’. If Boniface is to be believed, Æthelbald was unmarried and so, presumably, had yet to father a legitimate heir (in fact he was to be succeeded by a cousin). He was also a notorious lecher and adulterer, violating not only other men’s wives but also ‘the brides of Christ . . . Creator of heaven and earth!’ One supposes that many were jubilant when news broke in 757 that Æthelbald had met death at the hand of a bodyguard at Seckington, near the royal palace of Tamworth – probably under instructions from one or other party of the royal kin. After of the brief reign of Beornred, Offa, a kinsman of Æthelbald and quite possibly the chief plotter in his overthrow, emerges as the new monarch of the Mercians. With him we reach the most powerful of England’s many kings before the reign of King Alfred of Wessex. Mercia had already overtaken Northumbria as England’s dominant power.

The world of Offa, King of the Mercians: 757 – July 796

‘The Age of Offa was perhaps the end of England’s heroic age.’ So wrote Patrick Wormald.7 The king himself claimed descent from Offa of Angeln, one of the kings named in the Beowulf epic; Offa’s Dyke may well have been in part inspired by ‘the boundary between his own people and their neighbours’ said to have been raised by this heroic Scandinavian namesake; and the title rex totius Anglorum patriae (‘king of the whole fatherland of the English’), awarded to him in a later copy of one of his charters, at least proclaims how big he appeared to a later generation.

Asser, the Welsh biographer of King Alfred, describes Offa as building an earthwork ‘from sea to sea’. In fact, the structure we have today stretches more than 64 miles (103 km) northwards from the River Wye, near Hereford, to the vicinity of Mold in Clwyd. The northern end of the great Dyke is backed up by the 49-mile (62 km) Wat’s Dyke, which overlaps it and continues on to the estuary of the River Dee – one of Asser’s ‘seas’. We do not know when it was built. Numerous excavations from 1931 onwards have failed to find any signs of extensions to Offa’s defence work, or garrison forts or revetments or palisading. But at 30 feet (nearly 10 m) wide it was undoubtedly a formidable obstacle. Following thirty seasons of excavation and research, David Hill and Margaret Worthington, in their book of 2003 on the Dyke, argue that it runs along the line of the border between Mercia and the Welsh kingdom of Powys and that it may have been raised in the context of nine years of warfare between Offa and his western neighbour. It is guarded on the Welsh side by a wide ditch.

The building of a defensive dyke, however impressive, hardly seems work for heroes. Even so, it has been suggested that the text of Beowulf may first have been set down from the oral tradition in Mercia, possibly during the reign of Offa or in the immediately succeeding period. Wormald pointed out that the hero’s name itself is very similar to that of Beornwulf, one later king of Mercia, and that of Wiglaf, his last loyal supporter, to that of another. The poem’s ‘take’ on Offa of Angeln, celebrated in Old Norse and Danish sources (though hardly mentioned in Anglo-Saxon ones), calling him ‘the best king . . . on the face of the earth . . . honoured far and wide for his generous ways, his fighting spirit and his far-seeing defence of his homeland’, is certainly suggestive. Offa’s actual grandfather may have hailed from the land of the Hwicce.

With Beornred disposed of, the way lay open for a king of ruthless ambition. For eighty years, between the accession of Æthelbald (716) and the death of Offa (796), Mercia dominated English history. With the exception of those few months in 757, just two men occupied the throne throughout that time, a record of dynastic tenure not to be outdone until the reigns of Henry III and Edward I (1216–1307), and quite remarkable for the bloodthirsty eighth century. His great predecessor had died without an heir, but Offa was determined to ensure the succession in his own family. He was also bent on supremacy over his neighbours – of achieving what Bede had called the imperium. It seems he owned a copy of Bede’s History.

It was to be a new type of hegemony. Æthelbald had allowed a certain autonomy to subject regions. When Offa came to power three brothers apparently shared the rule of the Hwicce; some twenty years later these ‘sub-kinglets’ are heard of no more and the territory has been absorbed into greater Mercia. The kings of Sussex now administered the territory in Offa’s name as his ‘ealdormen’. In Kent, the first of England’s Christian kingdoms and in regular contact with the continent, the process took a little longer. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the battle of Otford between Kent and the Mercians in 776 but does not mention the outcome.

In 785 Offa makes a land grant in Kent in his own name, without reference to any Kentish ‘king’ or even ‘ealdorman’. Other sources mention the shadowy figure of Ealhmund, who had been elected king in Kent by the native nobility. Unrest continued to trouble Offa in his Kentish province and then, in 786, Ealhmund’s son Ecgberht, who also claimed descent from the royal family of Wessex, attempted to ‘take the throne [there]’, but was ordered into exile ‘to the land of the Franks’ by Offa and King Beorhtric of Wessex (786–802). He stayed there for three years at the court of Charles the Great – did he perhaps meet Alcuin, the great Northumbrian scholar, at the Carolingian court (see chapter 6)?

Wessex was independent; it was also a client state to Mercia, and Ecgberht did well to survive. Maybe the judicial execution of so prominent an æthling would have been too provocative. But things were not well in the Mercian supremacy. Offa’s death witnessed a full-scale revolt in Kent. The pretender, by name Eadberht Præn, was reportedly an ordained priest, although he may also have been a Kentish æthling and so throneworthy. He held the throne for two years before being deposed and taken bound to Mercia, where he was blinded (the standard penalty for usurpers at imperial Constantinople) and his hands cut off – the penalty for theft.

There is circumstantial evidence to suggest that he had in fact been in exile on the Continent. The famous letter from Charles the Great to Offa, dealing with trade and other matters, also refers to ‘the priest Odberht’who, along with a company of other exiles, had ‘sought . . . our protection, being in fear of death’. It is apparent from the context that Offa wants him back in England and one wonders whether Odberht and Eadberht are one and the same person. Charles refers to letters from Offa that ‘have informed us, that [these exiles] had bound themselves by a (religious) vow’ but ‘Odberht’, claiming to be a pilgrim, wishes to continue his pilgrimage. Charles has decided to send him and his companions on to Rome where the pope and Archbishop Æthelheard, ‘your archbishop’, would judge their case. The Frankish king thinks it safer that the pope decide the status of the exiles, that is whether they are indeed ‘religious’, since ‘the opinion of some people is different’. Is the allusion to a forced tonsuring of a throne claimant to debar him from candidacy? Charles makes no promise to return ‘Odberht’ to Mercia once he is back from Rome since his wish for pilgrimage must be taken seriously.

Connection with the royal kin, even if remote, was important for a successful claim on the crown. Offa could show descent in the fifth generation of a collateral branch from the Mercian founding ancestor; in Wessex Ecgberht was the first of his branch of the royal house of Cerdic to ascend the throne – his father was a Kentish king, presumably of Kentish stock. After his death a West Saxon genealogist grafted him into the Cerdic family to produce what the historian Richard Abels has called ‘a useable past’.8Genealogy was very much in vogue in the late eighth century and an important compilation of family trees that survives from the 810s probably originated in the Northumbrian court in the 760s. A Northumbrian provenance is not surprising. In the hundred years up to 810 that kingdom had had fifteen kings, of whom just three had died in office: of the others five had been deposed, two exiled, two murdered and three ‘killed’.

It is quite possible that the Mercian kings had been responsible for some of these fatalities; their ascendancy was not a matter of chance either within or outside their frontiers. In 794, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Offa ordered the beheading of King Æthelberht of East Anglia, without reason given. Shortly after the great king’s death, writing to a Mercian ealdorman, Alcuin stated as common knowledge ‘how much blood [Offa] shed to secure the kingdom on his son’. In the year 787 he had that son, Ecgfrith, ‘consecrated’.

There are no details as to the nature of the ceremony, but it is assumed that the word ‘consecration’ carried its traditional Christian meaning of an anointing with holy oil and chrism (oil and balsam mixed) administered by priest or bishop. ‘King making’ in early Germanic society was more a matter of presenting the winner of a ceremony of election, generally completed by raising the new king on a shield. We do not know whether early Anglo-Saxon kings were ever made in this way; Alcuin’s reference to King Eadberht at York ‘wearing the crown of his ancestors upon his head’ (see chapter 3) indicates that Northumbrians at least thought that crowning as such had a long tradition. Among Germanic kings on the Continent the crown or diadem was presumably adopted from the ceremonial of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine empire, but from York itself comes that mysterious piece of headgear known as the Coppergate Helm with its religious Latin inscriptions – surely fitting furniture for the ‘churching’ of a Christian warrior king.

A few years before Ecgfrith’s elevation, the pope had anointed two sons of Charles the Great. For the last ten years of the reign, Ecgfrith presumably held the rank of co-ruler, though given his father’s imperious nature it probably had little practical significance. However, in 796, the year of his months-long reign, Ecgfrith issued a charter at the Mercian court assembly held at the ‘famous’ vill or ‘minster’ of Bath. The remains of the Roman city were almost certainly the subject of a short Old English poem Ruin, which reflects on the past glories of the work of giants and the marvels of the hot springs. It seems likely that the Mercian monarchy was looking to ape the new palace complex that Charles the Great was building near the hot springs of Aachen.9 But the new king died in December 796. Alcuin believed he fell victim to ‘the vengeance for the blood shed by his father’. Three years later Ecgfrith’s successors began the development of Offa’s royal vill at Tamworth as something approaching a ‘capital’ of the kingdom, also no doubt inspired by the complex at Aachen.

The Mercian Church

Ecgfrith was probably consecrated at the synod or ecclesiastical council of 786/7, attended by papal legates and presided over by King Offa. The council’s decrees were promulgated both in Latin and the vernacular (in Southumbria presumably in Offa’s name, and in Northumbria at a similar council held there), and were reported back to the pope by the legates. They dealt with the proper conduct of and the sacrosanctity of the office of king, the desirability of powerful men rendering justice, and various ecclesiastical provisions (apparently approved of by Alcuin of York, who was in England at this time). It was the latest in a series of councils of the church in England south of the Humber that had begun with Archbishop Theodore’s synod at Hertford back in 672 (when the delegates had agreed to a yearly convention thereafter at the place called Clofesho). The series had contributed to the growth in the power and unity of the English church as a whole.

At Hertford, Theodore styled himself ‘bishop of the church of Canterbury’; in September 679 at the assembly at Hatfield he was now designated ‘by the grace of God archbishop of the island of Britain and of the city of Canterbury’.10 The council at Clofesho in 747, presided over by Archbishop Cuthbert of Canterbury, another cleric of noble kin, who had received the pallium in person from Pope Gregory III in Rome, required that every priest learn and explain to the people in their own tongue the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the offices of mass and baptism. More significant was that Cuthbert sent to Boniface a report of the council’s proceedings by his deacon Cynebert, probably a direct response to the criticisms by St Boniface of both king and archbishop – a remarkable testimony to the saint’s prestige and authority.11

During the later part of Offa’s reign, and particularly the reign of Archbishop Jænberht (765–92) at Canterbury, there was recurrent friction between king and church over the question of the elevation of Lichfield to the status of a metropolitan see, and over the Canterbury mint, for the archbishop struck his own coins with his name on one side and that of the king on the other. Archbishop Jænberht died in August 792. In a Council at Clofesho before the close of that same year King Offa made an important grant of privileges to the churches of Kent. Had Jænberht perhaps persuaded Offa to ease his policy towards the Kentish church as a gesture of appeasement?

Although much of the agenda was presumably worked out in advance this, the first Clofesho council in forty-five years, was necessarily presided over by the new archbishop of Canterbury, Æthelheard (792–805), who was evidently a Mercian by birth and, according to Charles the Great of the Franks, ‘Offa’s archbishop’. In fact his blatant pro-Mercian sympathies made it advisable for him to withdraw from his see during the unrest under Eadberht (796–8).

In the last year but one of the eighth century Æthelheard assisted his king at an assembly unique on two counts in the history of the English church. First, the 799 Council of the Southumbrian bishops was held, in the presence of King Coenwulf, on a royal estate – the great Mercian centre of Tamworth in Staffordshire. Secondly, it was presided over by two of three English archbishops: Æthelheard of Canterbury and Hygeberht of Lichfield. Hygeberht’s moment of glory was brief enough. Four years later, at the last important Council of Clofesho in October 803, and armed with two papal privileges, Æthelheard delivered a double blow to King Coenwulf (796–821) and the Mercian monarchy. First, he asserted the independence of all churches from secular authorities and, secondly, he reaffirmed the dignities of Canterbury and declared the abolition of the archbishopric of Lichfield.

From the 740s through to the 820s England’s middle kingdom was witness to what has been termed a fairly frequent ‘ecclesiastical road show’ at Clofesho, its chief venue, but also at Tamworth, Chelsea and other sites. These were remarkable gatherings – in the view of Sir Frank Stenton amounting to ‘a new type of deliberative assembly’ – attended by the great kings of Mercia, their under-kings and provincial governors, ealdormen and household officials, their chief men or principes, and swarms of servants and hangers-on, as well as the archbishop(s), bishops, abbots and lesser clergy. No church or single building could accommodate such a throng and we must visualize, rather, grazing land with acre upon acre of pavilions, huts and temporary shelters, probably grouped around a great church such as Brixworth, with villagers and peasants trudging in with supplies and food-renders from the neighbouring estates. The scene belongs to a world where the church was a power in the councils of government, a focus of wealth and employment, and for many a spiritual stronghold against the forces of evil.

The international dimension

In 787 Offa had succeeded in having Lichfield raised to the status of an archbishopric, despite the inevitable and fierce opposition of Canterbury. Only the pope could authorize the change and here Offa may have been helped by his generally friendly relations with Charles the Great. The pope, Hadrian I (772–95), was very much Charles’s man and he had reason to be. With Rome under threat from the Lombard kingdom he had appealed to Charles, who duly invaded northern Italy and assumed the title ‘king of the Lombards’. Then he made over large tracts of Byzantine imperial territory, Venetia and the duchies of Spoleto and Benevento, supposedly once the patrimony of St Peter, to the popes: ‘Whatever had remained of the Lombard kingdom ceased to exist in 794.’12

In response Hadrian ceased to date papal documents by the year of the emperor at Constantinople but instead, in gratitude, by the regnal year of Charles, king of the Franks. Coins in the papal territories no longer carried the emperor’s effigy but the pope’s. A mosaic floor laid in the Lateran depicted St Peter handing a standard of battle to Charles and a pallium to Hadrian. But Rome was a place of endemic factional politics and, in a letter to Charles, Hadrian referred to rumours he had heard that Offa, ‘king of the people of the Angles’, had suggested that the Frankish king ‘ought to evict us from the Holy See . . . and . . . establish another rector there from among your own people’.

Such a rumour, implausible as it might be, could only help Offa. It might be true; it might be wise to placate the Englishman. The existence of permanently manned scholae, or hostels of young Anglo-Saxons, Franks, Frisians and so forth, right next door to St Peter’s, ready to come to arms to support the pope in case of Saracen attack, might assume another significance in time of peace. Perhaps their presence could be influential on papal policy.13

In the scant surviving records of the dealings between Charles and Offa we can see guarded, sometimes prickly but generally amicable relations. Charles was willing to discuss the marriage of a son of his to one of Offa’s daughters, but bridled at the suggestion that an English prince should take one of his daughters to wife. There are dealings about asylum seekers. A certain lord named Hringstan, who had found refuge at the Frankish court claiming he had fled Mercia in fear of his life, has died and Charles is no longer willing to maintain his followers at the palace. He urges his ‘dearest brother’ that their lord would have been the king’s faithful liegeman ‘had he been allowed to stay in his own land’ and by implication urges him to treat them kindly. We don’t know what happened to these failed asylum seekers on their return.

Trade is a central concern. As today, merchants might attempt to evade customs duties and a favourite ruse was the pretended pilgrimage. Charles complains about people who have fraudulently joined up with pilgrims (evidently from Mercia) whose goal is profit, not religion: if they are really traders they must pay tolls. As to merchants (negotiators), there may be faults on both sides. Mercian merchants may not have been always treated properly in Francia and in future must have justice; but Frankish merchants in Mercia must have the same. In the same letter he responds to an earlier request by Offa, presumably on behalf of a merchant petitioner, to look into the matter of certain ‘black stones’ (possibly Rhineland lava stones used in the manufacture of grinding querns)14to be imported into England and ask in turn that the woollen cloaks be subjected to more rigorous checks as to style as well as quality.

The material resources of monarchy

The proceeds of trading activity were one source of royal revenue, though not necessarily the most profitable: we shall turn to them in a moment. A chief resource was the king’s power to enforce others to work on his projects. For example, royal initiatives in fortress building, once thought to date from the reign of Alfred in Wessex, were part of royal policy in the Mercian sphere in the eighth century. King Æthelbald in a general grant of privileges to the Mercian churches at the synod of Gumley in 749 reserves the ‘necessary defence of fortresses against enemies’.

Frequent warfare, lavish church endowments, costs of embassies to Rome, building campaigns, of which much survives in the archaeological record, and the trappings of luxury that accompanied the royal and aristocratic lifestyle of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, all proclaim wealth and revenues. Unfortunately, evidence of where they were sourced and how they were steered into the royal treasuries is scanty. The great abbey church of All Saints at Brixworth in Northamptonshire, today the second church in the diocese of Peterborough and possibly a daughter house of the cathedral’s predecessor Medeshamstede abbey, is a monument not only to the splendours achievable in the architecture of Anglo-Saxon England but also to the management skills as well as the material resources available to the builder.

The main body of the church as we see it today, probably of the eighth century and one of the largest structures of its period north of the Alps, is smaller than originally designed. It comprises a massive west tower embellished with stone ribbonwork or lessenes typical of Anglo Saxon architectural ornament (a stair-turret blocking the original west door and spire are later), and nave, choir and apse some 130 feet (40 m) long and 40 feet (12 m) wide at its west end. The interior, with its great round-headed arches of reclaimed Roman brickwork and clerestory windows above, presents a monumental effect but would have been yet more impressive during its early centuries, when it was flanked with a series of chambers (porticus), subsequently demolished. Although the monks may have been subordinate to Peterborough, the actual stone for the building was not taken from Peterborough’s quarry of Barnack, even though it offered easy transportation up the River Nene. In fact, extensive study in the 1980s of the materials used revealed that ‘this whole church (and not just the brick arches) was constructed from reclaimed fabric derived from a number of Roman buildings.’15 Much could have come from the ruined Roman city of Leicester, about 30 miles (50 km) away and some from still further afield. Was this because quarrying skills had been lost thanks to the Anglo-Saxon invasions? Or was it that the sub-king of the Middle Angles, in whose territory Leicester and Brixworth lay, commissioned the building on condition it were built from recycled material in his possession? Either way the labour costs and transport arrangements would have been considerable and complicated, calling for a highly competent master of works. Were ruined Roman structures, as has been suggested, the principal (perhaps the only) source of building stone until late on in the Saxon period? Certainly, the classical legacy was commonly plundered on the Continent – witness, most obviously, the Colosseum.

Minsters and emporia

In 650, John Blair tells us in The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (2005), England had no ‘central places’ that ‘can sensibly be called . . . towns’, and still by 750 no cities in any sense we would recognize today. But, he argues, there were two new types of settlement offering centres for trading activities, ‘coastal and estuarine emporia and . . . complex monastic sites’, generally known as ‘ministers’. These enjoyed a considerable boom between the 670s and 740s. The way in which such minsters could contribute to economic development and provide growth points for market towns has points of similarity to the later evolution of the fortified ‘burh’. The words were certainly not rigidly applied. There are eighth-century charters that call the church of St Paul’s in London ‘Paulesbiri’. By the end of that century minsters, which had burgeoned as urban-style centres of high religious culture, looked likely to become ever more secularized.

In the case of Mercia what looks like a notable remnant of a minster complex is to be found at the parish church of St Mary, Deerhurst, beside the River Severn near Tewkesbury, the historic territory of the Hwicce people. The original church seems to have been raised on a Roman site but it developed over the centuries into a sophisticated structure adapted to elaborate liturgical programmes. A blocked doorway at first-floor level by the tower arch suggests the former presence of a gallery, which may have served for ceremonial appearances of dignitaries, perhaps even royalty. Carved animal-head corbels, once colourfully painted, flank the arch. The church has been much modified over the centuries since the Conquest, but surrounding it can be traced foundations of monastic buildings and possibly the minster wall (‘vallum monasterii’) of a once thriving complex. It was the building of such a wall at the minster of St Peter at Medeshamstede that led to its becoming known as Burh St Peter, Peters burh, hence Peterborough.

In the 1050s Deerhurst minster was generously endowed by Earl Odda. Near St Mary’s can still be seen his private stone-built chapel, now an extension to a timber-framed Tudor farmhouse. Its classic, stolid Saxon chancel arch testifies to its founder’s wealth and, by inference, the prosperity of the minister under his patronage. The chapel was consecrated in 1056 by Bishop Ealdred of Worcester who, as Archbishop of York, would officiate at the coronation of William the Conqueror.

London – city and emporium

From the seventh century onwards London was a powerful attraction to rulers whose heartlands lay at a distance – Essex, Kent, Wessex and, of course, Mercia. The emporium achieved a key position on an axis of influence and circulation that extended from the midlands down the Thames valley to the estuary and the highly commercial districts in eastern Kent and overseas. Minsters like Eynsham, on the upper Thames, could have loaded Cotswold wool on flat-bottomed barges to float down the meandering navigation. Trade certainly flourished in the great age of the minsters from the 680s to the 740s, as is confirmed by the profuse dissemination of the low-value silver coins known as ‘sceattas’.16

Recent archaeological finds offer tantalizing glimpses of the Mercian kingdom before the triumph of Ecgberht of Wessex at the battle of Ellendun in 825. In 2001 a gold coin of King Coenwulf (796–821) called a mancus, weighing just over 4.33 grams and in superb condition, was found near the River Ivel in Bedfordshire. It shows the king’s head in profile facing to his left, his thick hair bound with what appear to be two braids fixed with a broach or hair clip, and bears the inscription COENVVLP REX M. He seems to be wearing an ornate shirt under a patterned cloak, which flows open from the neck. The design is clearly influenced by Roman coins, the lettering handsome and confident. This is the only gold coin known in Coenwulf’s name. On the other hand, unlike the probably ceremonial piece known from Offa’s reign, an Arabic gold dinar overstamped with the words OPPA REX, it is from an English mint. A Latin inscription on the reverse tells us that Coenwulf’s coin was struck in the ‘wic’ or Saxon trading centre of London. This may have been in imitation of Carolingian practice: the reverse of a coin of Charles the Great bears the legend VICO DORESTATIS – i.e. Dorestad wic. on the Rhine delta. Equivalent to 30 days’ wages for a skilled artesan, this beautiful piece of Mercian currency (the British Museum accquired it for £357,832 in February 2006), reveals the close affinities between Mercia and Kent, where at this time Coenwulf’s brother Cuthred was king. The royal portraits on the two currencies are similar in style and the London mint probably used a die supplied by a Canterbury engraver (possibly about 807).17 With the Wessex victory at Ellendun and the expulsion of Cuthred’s successor Baldred, the Kentish kingdom came to an end and the Canterbury mint had a new master.

Where did the gold come from? In the world of the Beowulf poet, gold treasure was part of the largesse expected of kings in the heroic warrior tradition and the grave goods excavated at Sutton Hoo and elsewhere show that expectations were realized. Since the gold mines of Ireland and Wales were beyond the control of the Anglo-Saxon kings, we must assume that they raised their gold in tribute from their Celtic neighbours or in trading loot and (pagan) slaves on the continental market. From the mid-seventh century on, Christian Europe’s gold resource was depleted as Islamic conquest rolled across the Byzantine imperial territories of North Africa and Syria. Silver coinage came to the fore, and here the advance of Anglo-Saxon conquest brought silver-rich lead ores in eastern Somerset under West Saxon control, just as advances in Mercia had won control of the lead mines of the Derbyshire Peak. Here royal manors dominated the supply, so that during the 830s King Wiglaf’s manor of Wirksworth supplied lead for church roofing to Canterbury. A principal source of revenue was the salinae or salt pits at Droitwich in Worcestershire. Here brine from the brine springs or wyches was boiled off in pits and boiling hearths of Roman origin in an industrial process under royal control. Tolls were also paid on the cartloads of timber and charcoal brought into the processing plant along the ‘saltways’ and the horse packs and cartloads of processed salt transported out for consumption at the manor centres. Increasingly researchers are seeing these manorial structures and trackway networks as communal/industrial patterns that reach back before the Anglo-Saxon period to Roman Britain, when a fort was built to protect the workings, and even Iron Age times. Their importance in Mercia is indicated by evidence that the royal vill at Droitwich served as a venue for the royal council.

Thanks to a scatter of charters between the 730s and 760s that grant exemptions of toll to various churches for their ships at the port of London or at Fordwich on the River Stour, we know that kings of Mercia and Kent were levying tolls on trade. The evidence may be ‘woefully inadequate’, but one presumes that tolls were levied at river ports such as Stamford on the Welland, in the east, and Hereford on the River Wye and Gloucester on the Severn in the west. The discovery in Hereford in 2004 of a lead bulla or seal of Pope Paschal I (817–24) casts a sidelight on the mechanics of Anglo-Saxon trade. Originally a disc, the little seal had been trimmed either side to produce an oblong-shaped weight (rounded top and bottom) of almost exactly one Carolingian ounce. Just as the English adopted the continental, Carolingian, system of coinage early, so it appears they were using continental weights and measures equally early.18

Lundenwic, to the west of Roman London in the area of modern Covent Garden, was one of a network of trading ‘emporia’ located around the North Sea and Channel coasts, such as Hamwic (Southampton) in Wessex, Gipeswic (Ipswich) in East Anglia, and, on the continent, the Frisian port of Dorestad (modern Wijk bij Duurstede) and Quentovic (towards the mouth of the Canche river). Large undefended settlements situated a little inland on navigable rivers, they were resorts not only for merchants but also for specialist craftsmen and proto-industrial producers. Like Lundenwic, perhaps a royal foundation, some were located on or near natural and political boundaries – in London’s case the southern border of the kingdom of Essex and the River Thames. The sub-king of Surrey held sway on the opposite bank while Kent, Mercia and Wessex were within easy reach. Dorestad was just a three-day voyage away, travelling at 82 miles (130 km) a day.

Roman London may still have retained a degree of official status, with perhaps a Saxon royal hall, St Paul’s and probably two other churches, along with the ruins of various Roman buildings, but at this time business and commerce lay outside the walls in the wic, remembered in the name Aldwych. At the height of its prosperity, in the 750s say, it may have covered as much as 60 hectares along the north bank of the river, roughly either side of the Strand as far as Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery and up to the site of the present Royal Opera House. Embankment timbers, excavated near Charing Cross station, give indications of the run of the waterfront. Much of the trading was probably done here as if on a beachside emporium. Rescue archaeology has recovered trade goods such as pottery and metalwork from Scandinavia, the Rhineland and Normandy; organic remains indicate that Londoners consumed, among other thing, quantities of oysters and eels. In the earlier period at least there was probably a slave market. Bede speaks of a Frisian purchase there in the 680s of a Northumbrian captive traded by Mercians. From the port, goods were distributed up the Thames and its feeder rivers, such as the Medway, but there was also a good deal of road communication with the hinterland. Excavations in the vicinity of the Royal Opera House revealed a network of narrow gravelled streets, including a road some three metres wide laid out in the seventh century and with drains either side. It was regularly resurfaced and continued in use for some two hundred years while the side streets running into it were also pretty well maintained. The gravel (and tons of it would have been needed) came from local pits – documents feature royal officials, for example a Kentish wic gerefa (‘reeve’), regulating merchant activity. London’s mints produced some of the earliest English coins and the whole activity on the site was obviously of major importance in the evolution of the medieval English town and yet Robert Cowie, on whose article much of the foregoing is based, concludes, ‘whether or not the Strand settlement was fully urban remains a moot subject.’19

Archaeology and documentary records indicate a number of major fires between the 760s and the end of the century. Timber, wattle and daub were the principal building materials. Later trade was hit by Viking attacks, the first recorded for the year 842, but military rivalries in the Frankish empire may also have weakened trading partners. What seem to be defensive ditches were dug at this time and numerous coin hoards unearthed at various sites, including the river bed, suggest what one might call wealth displacement in panic mode.

Control of London became a matter of mutual concern between West Saxons and Mercians linked by royal marriages and the sharing of a common monetary system. During the 860s and 870s the output of the London mint appears to have been greater than that of Canterbury, now under West Saxon control. In 874 the Danes drove Burgred of Mercia from his kingdom, replacing him with Ceolwulf II. For a moment Alfred struck coins at the London mint but three years later it was issuing coins in Ceolwulf’s name and continued so to do until 879/80. It is true that when Guthrum retired from Wessex back into Mercia he shared out territory among his followers and ‘gave some’ to Ceolwulf. Yet this ‘foolish king’s thegn’, so judged by the Wessex Chronicle, may have traced his ancestry to Ceowulf I (d. 823): he certainly exercised the powers of monarchy, granting land by charter and issuing coins in a monetary convention that had joined Wessex and Mercia since the 860s; their joint issues of cross-and-lozenge penny signalled a restoration of the silver content in both coinages.

Mercia in decline

In 825 Ecgberht, king of Wessex, defeated Beornwulf of Mercia at the battle of Ellendun (perhaps Wroughton in Wiltshire). The days of Mercian hegemony in the southeast and Mercia as a great power in the Anglo-Saxon universe were numbered. In the follow-up to the battle Ecgberht’s son Æthelwulf drove Baldred, the last king of Kent and a Mercian client, from his kingdom; the Kentish satellites, the ‘Surrey men’, the South Saxons and the East Saxons turned back to Wessex. East Anglia followed and the year ended with the death of Beornwulf in battle against the East Angles. Two years later his short-lived successor was killed, together with Mercia’s five leading ealdormen. Mercia’s period of hegemony south of the Humber was over.

That the kingdom survived at all in more than name was thanks to the next king, Wiglaf, who, forced into submission by Wessex in 829, recovered independence within his borders the following year. He reigned for a further ten years and was succeeded by Beorhtwulf, who disappears from history with his defeat by the Danes. His successor Burgred seems to have attempted to maintain his kingdom’s independence, but was expelled by the Danes and died a pilgrim in Rome in 874 or 875. After him came Ceolwulf II, the last man to bear the title king of Mercia, though despised by West Saxon opinion as a Danish ‘yes man’. For half a century and more eastern Mercia fell within the Danelaw (see chapter 7).

From this point the story of Mercia becomes part of the history of the kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons (described more fully in chapters 8 and 9). As part of this development the shiring of Mercia began around the year 900.20 Even so some of the old tribal/kingdom names long survived. The fact that we still speak of the Peak District is as much a matter of geography as tribal memory, but we find the ‘Magonsætan’ mentioned long after the Conquest in the twelfth-century Chronicon of John of Worcester. In 909 Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia, and his wife Æthelflæd made a significant move to boost the swelling sense of Anglo-Saxon national identity when they arranged for the translation of the relics of St Oswald, held at Bardney since the days of Æthelred of Mercia, king and abbot, to their new minster of St Peter’s at Gloucester. This was a comparatively small church but a notable building with its sumptuous adornments of sculpture and liturgical ornaments, and the translation added the Northumbrian king to the royal saints of Mercia. In the reign of Æthelstan his relics would become part of the halidom of the kingdom of England. As to the kingdom of Mercia itself, a sense of identity evidently did linger: as late as 1007 the Peterborough Chronicle refers to ‘Eadric, ealdorman in the kingdom of the Mercians’ [my emphasis] – more than a century after the death of the last man to bear the title of king.

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