Mercian Timeline Part 2: Mercia & The Supremacy (704 – 796)

Following Aethelred’s abdication, Mercia seems to have gone through a very confused period in which all the kings names started with C-. Despite being confused, Zaluckyi has argued that this does appear to have been a period of stability for the kingdom (but was it really?). And by 716, new branches of the monarchy were to usher in an unparalleled period in Mercian history with, first, Aethelbald, and then, Offa. The latter has traditionally put his name to a massive fortified earthwork which, to this day, still broadly follows the border between Central England and Wales.

Note that during this period, because Mercia had only limited engagement with Northumbria for the most part, the Gaelic and British kingdoms of Scotland also have little relevance – but are kept here for completeness.

Situation around 708
Central EnglandMerciaCoenred
Other AS KingdomsNorthumbriaOsred
 SussexNorthhelm (Nunna) but also Watt (possibly Hastingas – the Hastings / Rother area)
 KentVery confused period (Swaefheard, Swaefberht, Oswine & Wihtred)
 East AngliaEaldwulf
British & Gaelic KingdomsDumnonia / West WealasGeraint (ASC source)
 GwyneddIdwal Roebuck / Iwrch
 PowysGwylog ap Beli
 ElmetUnder Northumbrian control
 Alt CludBeli II, son of Elfin
 RhegedRheged still under Northumbria
 Dal RiataDunchad Bec

Coenred, the son of Wulfhere, came to the throne in 704. Zaluckyj suggests that the succession from Aethelred to Coenred passed smoothly and that Aethelred ‘abdicated and nominated Coenred’. Why would he have done that?

He has left a reputation as quite a dull king: morally guided and making no changes to the state of the kingdom. I think that Coenred might have wanted to appear so. I think it is all a lie. There are clues everywhere as to why this might not have been the case.

  • Whilst heading off to Bardney could have been a choice for Aethelred, it may also have been a recognised way to get rid of kings like a USSR General Secretary’s sudden ‘cold’. Nomination of Coenred could have been under at least partial duress.
  • The last seven years of Aethelred’s reign look highly suspicious. We are told that Osthryth was put to death at the order of either ‘Mercian nobles’ or ‘Southumbrians’. What would that latter term mean? Everyone south of the Humber? All the kingdoms controlled by Mercia? Mercians only? North Mercians? Even the re-Mercianised Lindsey? Osthryth’s murder, remembering she was Oswiu’s daughter, almost seems to go unmentioned in the narrative. What was behind it? Alleged involvement in Paeda’s murder? The general awkwardness of her Northumbrian ancestry? A lingering dispute between her and her husband over Fladbury in Worcestershire? Or even Finberg’s idea of her collaboration in a plot to detach the Hwicce from Mercia? Even just thinking about such trends in Aethelred’s last few years gives us the impression of a kingdom anything but at ease with itself, riven with factions and plots.
  • If Aethelred wanted to abdicate, then why did he not advance his own son, Ceolred, who would come to throne five years’ later? Interestingly, although Coelred was Aethelred’s son, his mother does not seem to have been Osthryth. Perhaps Aethelred felt that his nephew was due the throne by then? Ceolred would certainly have been young at this time and that may explain the decision.
  • Aethelred had family links to Essex’s monarchs. The 670s and 680s had created instability – in West Kent especially. It had even dragged in the influence of Wessex. Coenred seems to have had a particularly close relationship with Offa of Essex, eventually going to Rome with him. Offa of Essex does seem to have had some interests in Warwickshire. And he shares that odd name with the later Mercian king.
  • Aethelbald, who would come to the throne in 716, clearly spent Ceolred’s reign in exile but he might well have spent Coenred’s in exile too. We are a little bit over-reliant on Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac here.

Mercia’s influence on Essex and the implications under Coenred

I think that the involvement with Essex and Kent may be the key to understanding the less obvious tensions of Coenred’s reign. Essex extended beyond the modern county, crossing the River Lea to cover Hertfordshire and Middlesex – areas that may well have been lost to Mercia in the eighth century.

Essex itself had grown out of smaller, tribal areas such as the Hrothingas (the Rodings) and the Uppingas. It probably emerged as a single unit sometime in the sixth century. Nevertheless, joint kingships seem to have been common. Saebbi – whose memorial in St Paul’s only disappeared during the Great Fire – was joint king with Sighere. Awkwardly, Sighere seems to have been Wessex’s man but went back to paganism, no doubt emphasising his descent from Seaxneat – the name of the leading deity of Essex (probably cognate with Tiw for other tribes but this is open to dispute).

Saebbi seems to have been a Mercian ally. But he abdicated in favour of his son, Sigeheard. In turn, Sigeheard seems to have had to put up with his brother, Swaefred, as joint king. But it is these two kings who appear to have been joint kings over the five year reign of Coenred – i.e. between 704 and 709. That is interesting as it is the oddly-named, Offa, ‘underking’, with whom he decided to waltz off to Rome.

Was Offa some sort of Mercian plant in Essex? We know that Saebbi’s son ruled over both Essex and West Kent. Sigeheard was evidently working collaboratively with Coenred, confirming the purchase of Fulham by Waldhere, the Bishop of London. Swaefred’s activity seems to have ranged from Nazeing (in the area around modern Harlow) to the Dengie peninsula.

In 709 Coenred abdicated in favour of a man who we think was his cousin, Ceolred. Ceolred, we believe, was Aethelred’s son but not the son of the only wife we know about. headed for Rome with his sub-king in Essex, Offa. Yorke suggests that his abdication may not have been entirely voluntary.

There are a lot of periods of Mercian history for which it is traditionally said, ‘We know almost nothing about…’, but this period of the early 700s is especially obscure.

The Battle of Woden’s Barrow (Wodnesbeorg)

About the one military event of which we know something in Ceolred’s reign is Woden’s Barrow – probably Adam’s Grave (Walker’s Hill) on the Marlborough Downs, although other locations have been put forward including Wanborough on the edge of Swindon. The site may be the same as the battle with the same name fought in 592. Unfortunately, it is difficult to tell whether Mercia and Wessex were fighting on the same side or on opposing sides. Surely the latter would make more sense? Kirby is fairly clear: there is little doubt that Mercia was the aggressor at Woden’s Barrow.

The most likely site of the 715 battle (Own photo from the Tan Hill Way)

The next really significant detail we get about his reign is his death – described by St Boniface. Hit by some frenzy at a banquet, he was “gibbering with demons and cursing the priests of God” – perhaps just negative publicity from the Church, to whom he had not been an especially good friend.

He certainly had not been any friend to Aethelbald in semi-exile amidst the watery lands between Mercia and East Anglia. On hearing about Ceolred’s death, Aethelbald set off back for Mercia. The question remains as to whether Ceolred’s ‘fit’ was really just that. Was he perhaps poisoned? And, if so, by whom? Regardless, we do know that he was buried at Lichfield.

And then there is the mysterious – if brief – interlude between Ceolred’s reign and that of Aethelbald. We may be talking about only a matter of days…

It doesn’t get worse than this. Most histories have Aethelbald as the next king, but one version of the Worcester Cathedral lists has Ceolred succeeded by Ceolwald. From the similarity of their names, Ceolwald is thought to have been Ceolred’s brother, and thus the last of Penda’s direct descendants to have ruled in Mercia. Ceolwald can only have been king for a short time as Aethelbald appears to have become king in the year of Ceolred’s death.

But were there other contenders for the throne? Aethelbald had been too weak to come back to Mercia whilst Ceolred was king (and possibly whilst Coenred was as well). How come he suddenly managed to take control?

Key events in Aethelbald’s reign
733Attacks across Wessex against Aethelheard and his forces
743Alliance with Wessex against the British
752Battle of Battle Edge, Burford against Wessex
757Aethelbald murdered

Despite a 41 year reign spanning most of the first half of the century, not very much is known about Aethelbald and his fame has been eclipsed by that of Offa, later in the century. Nevertheless, he is traditionally regarded as a stronger king than his immediate predecessors.

We know relatively little about his family background. The ASC entry for his year of accession indicates that he was the son of Alweo, son of Eowa, son of Pybba. He appears to have had a brother called Heardberht. Although Alweo is never mentioned in any surviving document as king, the situation regarding Eowa – and possibly even Pybba – falls in a more obscure period where anything is possible, especially a sub-regional kingship.

Therefore, he was of a different dynastic line from those descended from Penda. Aethelbald effectively ended Penda’s line of descent. We don’t think he married or had children. Later Christian writers made him out to be a fornicator with nuns but the truth is more likely that he sought to control monastic lands, thereby incurring monastic wrath. He was certainly in exile in Ceolred and has perhaps been in exile for a considerably longer period – i.e. very possibly under Coenred as well.

Mercia’s changing relationship with Wessex under Aethelbald

At the start of his reign there were strong kings in both Wessex and Kent in Ine and Wihtred respectively.

Critical to understanding Aethelbald’s reign is an appreciation of the situation of flux in Wessex over the period. As mentioned above, it was clear that during Ceolred’s reign, there had been a state of internal rebellion in Wessex. Ine had been king in Wessex since 689 but had been unable to retain the territorial gains of Caedwalla – although some of the losses may have occurred in a brief period of ultra-instability between their reigns. Ine appears to have shifted his focus westwards: increasing attacks on the British but losing Kent, Sussex and influence in Essex.

The lack of stability in Wessex did not improve. It is clear that over 721 / 722 Ine faced at least two major challenges: one in which he was forced to slay the aetheling, the other in which Eadberht (possibly a nephew) was forced to flee to Surrey / Sussex. Eadberht too would eventually be killed by Ine whilst amongst the South Saxons. However, Ine was to abdicate the following year and head for Rome – something which we should always treat with suspicion.

A succession dispute in Wessex appears to have followed between Aethelheard (who might possibly have been Ine’s brother-in-law) and a rival, Oswald – possibly a descendent of Ceawlin in which case he may well have had the better claim to the throne. The ensuing civil war eventually favoured Aethelheard (king from 726 to 740), although the extent of Aethelbald’s own involvement is unclear.

Situation around 733
Central EnglandMerciaAethelbald
Other AS KingdomsNorthumbriaCeolwulf
 SussexUnclear situation (Aethelstan & Aethelberht)
 KentEadberht I, Aethelberht II & Aelfric (but under Mercian lordship)
 East AngliaAelfwald
 EssexSwaefberht / Saered
British & Gaelic KingdomsDumnonia / West WealasUnclear: Dyfnwal Boifunall
 GwyneddRhodri Molwynog ap Idwal
 PowysElisedd ap Gwylog
 ElmetUnder Northumbrian control
 Alt CludTeudebur
 RhegedRheged still under Northumbrian control
 Dal RiataMuiredach mac Ainbcellaig
 PictsOengus I mac Fergusa (possibly with brother Talorcan II 736 -750 until his death at the hands of Alt Clud)
 GwentIthel ap Morgan

Mercia in the 730s and 740s

By 731 all the kingdoms south of the Humber seem to have been subject to Aethelbald – that is to say, Kent, Essex, East Anglia, Wessex, Mercia itself, the Magonsaete, the Hwicce and Lindsey. However, Aethelheard died in 740. Aethelbald’s relationship with the new king of Wessex, Cuthred, seems to have got off to a poor start.

However, Aethelbald was definitely north of the Humber at some point during that year for he seized the opportunity of Eadberht of Northumbria’s imperialist attack on Pictish territories, to lay part of Northumbria to waste. His northern attacks did nothing to extend Mercia – in fact, Northumbria’s borders expanded in the following years.

Nevertheless, it is not obvious what brought Mercia and Northumbria back into conflict at this point. Woolf suggests that it may have been the death of Earnwine, who had probably been in exile since the defeat in the civil war of 705-706. Oengus of Pictland or Aethelbald – or possibly even, both – may have been trying to place him on Northumbria’s throne. It does seem that York was burned at this point. By 756 Oengus and Eadberht seem to have been on the same side in attacking Alt Clud. From the Pictish perspective, this appears to have been an ongoing war with Alt Clud. We know that in 750 or 752, Talorcan appears to have been killed in battle.

By 743, Mercia and Wessex seem to have been in alliance against the British – unfortunately, we don’t know exactly where. It seems more than likely that Cuthred did not exactly go into these battles of his own accord! Aethelbald almost certainly compelled Cuthred to fight the ‘Welsh’. After the battles, Aethelbald clearly retained parts of Wessex under his control. A charter referring to Glastonbury named Cuthred as sub-king in 744.

It also seems that Mercia had gained control of parts of the middle Thames Valley around Cookham (which, later in the century, would become very dear to Offa’s queen). Further upriver seems to have changed hands many times over the eighth century as Wessex and Mercia were broadly evenly matched.

Cuthred was facing internal rebellions of his own: first from his son, Cynric and then from, Aethelhere. However, with the latter in alliance, Cuthred seems to have made a bid for independence at Battle Edge, Burford (a former field location beside Sheep Street and Tanners Lane, in the town) in 752. And Wessex does seem to have won its independence there, although parts of northern Wiltshire and northern Somerset may have already been retaken by Cuthred by then.

Cuthred had a brief successor called Sigeberht, who lasted less than a year, before Cynewulf – a man of whose genealogical record we know nothing. It is suspected that Cynewulf may well have been Aethelbald’s puppet king in Wessex.

London and the South East

Stenton argues that it was probably under Aethelbald’s rule that London and Middlesex were finally detached from the lands of the East Saxons and properly incorporated into Mercia. London was an important mint and useful for toll impositions as well. That does not imply that Aethelbald had a poor relationship with the East Saxon king, Saelred (709 to 746) – quite the contrary! But Aethelbald appears to have been able to deal with London as he wished – even if only indirectly. Saelred probably had to rule jointly with Swaefbert, who, it is speculated, may have ruled the sub-kingdom of Middlesex. If that is the case, weakening the western areas may have consolidated Saelred’s rule.

Keeping control over Kent had generally been problematic for Aethelbald’s predecessors. This seems to have changed under his rule with Kentish soldiers even fighting at Burford Battle Edge.

More predictable, perhaps, is his relationship with the East Angles. During his exile he had dwelt in the fenny borderlands between Mercia proper and East Anglia. He had also broken Penda’s line, which may have been looked on favourably by the East Angles. Aelfwold, the last king of the Wuffingas dynasty, maintained a friendly stance towards Aethelbald which helped maintained good relations with his larger neighbour. Interestingly, after Aethelwold’s death, the East Angles appear to have re-emerged briefly as an independent entity.

East Anglia during the reign of Aethelwold

By Amitchell125 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Internal relations with the Hwicce territories

Gaining authority of the Hwicce is conveyed by the so-called Ismere Charter (736) but the reduction of status in their kings to subreguli was almost certainly a gradual process and some Mercian kings continued to have their power bases in Hwicce territory. But the Kidderminster area was a border area in itself, hence the Husmerae reference.

The Ismere ‘Charter’ – or more correctly, Diploma. It refers to Kidderminster.

In 757, Aethelbald was murdered by his bodyguards at Seckington in the far north of Warwickshire but only 4 miles from Tamworth. After 41 years of rule he was buried at Repton.

The Repton Stone- detail.JPG
The Repton stone which may commemorate Aethelbald. Public domain –Poliphilo.

It is usually said that we know nothing about Beornred. He may have had no recognised royal predecessors but that is open to question. We know that his reign was supposed to have been brief but unhappy – but, critically, he was not killed during Offa’s rise to power.

In fact, he seems to have been wreaking chaos for the next eleven years. It suggests to me that, whilst Aethelbald’s death might well have been a revenge killing, some kind of dynastic coup had taken place and perhaps Northern Mercia was doing its own thing?

Yorke says that in 769 Beornred raided ‘Cataracta’ – which surely can only be Catterick / Cataractonium. He set fire to it but burned to death in the mayhem himself. I know that Catterick does seem a bit unlikely but there was an ongoing politically difficult situation in Deira and who knows how Catterick was responding? Furthermore, it may have been Aethelwald Moll’s power base. In 762 he had married Aethelthryth there and their son, Aethelred, married Offa of Mercia’s daughter, Aelfflaed there in 792. [In effect, over 789 to 792, Offa had firmed up familial links from Wessex to Northumbria.]

Situation around 757
Central EnglandMerciaBeornred (incomplete year)
Other AS KingdomsNorthumbriaEadberht
 SussexUnclear situation (Aethelstan & Aethelberht)
 KentAethelberht II, Eardwulf, Eadberht II & Sigered – but subject to Mercia
 East AngliaConfused period with joint kings
British & Gaelic KingdomsDumnonia / West WealasUnclear: Cawrdolli ap Dyfnwal
 GwyneddCaradog ap Meirion
 PowysBrochmail (Brochfael) ap Elisedd
 ElmetUnder Northumbrian control
 Alt CludDumnagual III
 RhegedRheged still annexed by Northumbria
 Dal RiataUnknown – at least 736 to 750 under Pictish control
 PictsOengus I (possibly with brother Talorcan II 736 -750)
 GwentFferfael ab Idwal

Mercia’s changing control over the century

Although this is a great visualisation, I suspect that we need to incorporate a bit of flux to the boundaries. In particular, Wessex should not be treated as a fixed entity. There is no way that West Saxon control extended this far west across Devon at this stage. For centuries it was not so much the Tamar which acted as a boundary, but rather the Dartmoor-Exmoor axis across eastern Dumnonia.

The second half of the century: OFFAN MERCIA

Despite the far greater fame – largely thanks to the earthwork stretching along the border country between the English Midlands and Wales – Offa is almost as much of a mystery as Aethelbald. Stenton argues that the establishment of the Mercian supremacy in this period is a central fact. During the period, it would seem that Northumbria was in turmoil with lots of changes of kings and evidence for some kind of civil war with the burning of major settlements. Nevertheless, Offa does not seem to have been lured into taking on the traditional enemy of Mercia. Indeed, he seems to have sought some kind of stability with his northern neighbour. In 790 or 792, after a dynastic war in Northumbria, Aethelwold Moll’s son, Aethelred, married Offa’s daughter, Alfflaed, at Catterick. From the use of the word Queen to describe her, it is possible that she had previously been queen – i.e. married to one of Aethelred’s rivals in the decade gap between his two periods of rule (774 to 779 and 790 to 796).

Key events in Offa’s reign
Early 760sOffa probably exploits joint kingships in the South East – especially in Kent but also in the west of Sussex
776Battle of Otford outside Sevenoaks in Kent against Kentish forces
779Battle of Bensington (now Benson, Oxon) against Wessex
780sProbable beginning of Dyke defences against Powys
794Has Aethelberht of East Anglia murdered in Herefordshire
Leading up to 796Prepares his son for kingship, very probably murdering any potential rivals
796Death at Rhuddlan; unknown burial

Offa in Kent in the early part of his reign

When Offa came to Mercia’s throne, Wihtred’s sons, Aethelberht and Eadberht, were still reigning in Kent. But this dynasty came to an abrupt end in 762. Their replacement, Sigered, has a name which feels distinctively East Saxon in nature. He was seemingly only ruler in West Kent, with references very concentrated around Rochester and Islingham. However, it is possible that he was also co-ruler of East Kent.

In 764 Offa himself appears in Canterbury with a mention of a third Kentish king, Heahberht. This is the first time we have a record of a Mercian king directly granting land in Kent. Another king called Ecgberht seems to have emerged.

Not to help matters a number of the charters from this period are seemingly ninth century fakes, used to support later land claims or simply very poor copies. That undermines some confidence in what we can say about this period.

Situation around 764
Central EnglandMerciaOffa
Other AS KingdomsNorthumbriaAethelwald Moll (first of two periods of rule)
 SussexUnclear situation (Aethelstan & Aethelberht)
 KentHeaberht & Ecgberht II – probably jointly
 East AngliaConfused period with joint kings
British & Gaelic KingdomsDumnonia / West WealasUnclear: Cawrdolli ap Dyfnwal
 GwyneddCaradog ap Meirion
 PowysBrochmail (Brochfael) ap Elisedd
 ElmetUnder Northumbrian control
 Alt CludEugein II
 RhegedRheged still under Northumbrian control
 Dal RiataUnknown – at least until 750 had been under Pictish control
 PictsCiniod I
 GwentFferfael ab Idwal

Kirby has argued that Offa may well only have exerted true influence in Kent in this early part of his reign. Offa may well have been taking advantage of the fact that there were very possibly four kings in Kent in some years of the 760s. Initially, this may have seemed like an opportunity to exploit differences between them, but – after a while – Offa may have realised that he was engaging with a disastrously complex situation in the kingdom.

What we do know is that in 776 Mercia and Kent came to blows at the Battle of Otford, a few miles to the north of Sevenoaks and where Edmund Ironside and Cnut would fight more than two centuries later. There is some circumstantial evidence that Offa’s influence was weakening in Kent from the mid-760s onwards. Traditionally, it was interpreted as a Mercian victory but it seems more likely that it was actually the point at which Mercia lost control Of Kent – if only for a bit.

We are told that the battle occurred at the same time as the emergence of a large numbers of adders across Sussex and the appearance of a red cross in the sky. It would seem that Kent managed to re-establish itself as an independent kingdom around this point. Egbert and Ealhmund both managed to issue charters there with no reference to Offa, although the switch-over between the two of them remains obscure. The latter, Ealhmund, is reputed to be the father of Egbert, King of Wessex (king there 802 – 839 and the king who would defeat Beornwulf of Mercia at Ellandun). If this is the correct interpretation of events then the later Henry of Huntingdon was way wide of the mark!

Kirby suggests that the appearance and disappearance of Offa’s name should be treated with some care and that he only really only had control in Kent in the very early years of his reign – i.e. over the 760s. Kent was clearly entering a very complex time with at least four kings, presenting a picture with more factions than the usual Rochester / Canterbury division in the kingdom. On the one hand this gave him the opportunity for traditional dynastic exploitation, but did Offa think that it was just too messy and not worth the effort?

Nevertheless, by 785, Offa’s name was everywhere on charters again. Land grants made by Ecgberht (who perhaps died in 673), were revoked.

During Offa’s reign there was a major dispute about bishoprics. For a whole decade, there seems to have been a stand-off with Charlemagne. Ecgberht’s exile may have been an issue in this. Certainly, there was a huge amount of tension with Jænberht, the Archbishop of Canterbury – at the heart of the clearly disputed territory of Kent. It looks as though this tension may have centred on the consecration of Offa’s son – a problem that would lead to the temporary creation of Lichfield as an alternative focus to Canterbury.

Offa saw advantages to being outward-looking. His relationship with Charlemagne may sometimes have been awkward but he looked further afield still. Offa’s gold dirham inadvertently states, ‘that there is no God but Allah alone’ although it is upside down. The design is directly copied from a dinar coin of Offa’s contemporary, the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur (ah 136–58/ AD 754–775). It is closely enough copied to identify not only the ruler but also the date of the coin from which this design was copied, which was issued in ah 157 (Anno Domini 773–74) – British Library

Offa and Wessex

The near-equal pitting of West Saxon and Mercian kings seems to have continued. Prior to the Battle of Bensington ( now Benson, Oxfordshire), there is evidence from Potterne, outside Devizes and for land around Huntspill being granted to Glastonbury courtesy of Offa. However, after Benson it would seem that Cynewulf gained territory north of the Thames – although others have said exactly the opposite! And it may be that we should not take the Thames as a frontier during this period.

However, up until around 778 there were no references to Offa made in Cynewulf’s charters. This doesn’t mean that the border was not a different shape to the more familiar Thames one.

In 786 there was a dynastic double murder amongst West Saxon rulers on a visit to a Lady at Merton outside Weston-on-the-Green, near Bicester in Oxfordshire – i.e. traditionally inside Mercian territory. This was clearly orchestrated as a coup by Cyneheard, brother of the deposed previous king, Sigeberht. But it went drastically wrong, as in the ensuing fighting, Cyneheard was also killed. Cynewulf was taken to Winchester to be buried, whilst Cyneheard was buried in Axminister.

The next West Saxon king was Beorhtric (literally, ‘Great Ruler‘), who was actually able to maintain the throne until 802, although his wife and his father-in-law were really pulling the strings. It is not wholly clear whether Beorhtric and Offa were allies when he came to power or became allies shortly after. Between the two of them they drove rival, Ecgberht, into exile.

The evidence that Offa was really the mover and shaker is strengthened by the fact that, at least for the early part of his reign, West Saxons used coins with Offa’s head on it. This seems to have been across a very wide area from the Upper Thames Valley to Dorset. And in 789 – only three years after his accession – Beorhtric married Eadburh, Offa’s daughter. (Offa would try the same ploy with Northumbria a few years’ later).

Ecgberht seems to have gone to Francia – although for just how long is a point in ongoing dispute. Potentially, he was exiled as late as 789 but the ASC in all versions says for 3 years – which most people seem to have been able to accept as meaning 13! Francia was under Charlemagne who was broadly anti-Mercian in outlook at the time, supporting influences in Northumbria and Offa’s enemies in the South. It would seem that Eadberht, the future king of Kent (who would come to power after Offa’s death with the support of Charlemagne and the Pope) was also there. We will be hearing more of Ecgberht in Part 3.

During Beorhtric’s time in Wessex the Viking raids began. The raids from the Scandinavians and the eventual succession of Ecgberht to the West Saxon throne began the shift to Mercia’s decline although no link would have been obvious at the time. Then it was impossible to know that Ecgberht would be the founder of a dynasty that would include both Aelfred the Great and Aethelstan.

Offa and the East Angles

East Anglia had been Mercia’s key ally in Aethelbald’s reign and the two kingdoms were closely connected. After Aethelbald’s death, the region briefly regained a certain degree of autonomy. Beornna (749 to 761) established his own mint (probably at Ipswich) and Aethelberht (790 – 784) also minted his own coins. Beornna may or may not have ruled alone in East Anglia. A possibility for joint king is Alberht and, whilst have some have claimed that Hun was a third king at the time, others have argued that it is as likely to be a nickname for Beornna. If Beornna controlled the coastal areas of East Anglia, then there is a hint in one type of coin, that he was engaged in trade with the important mercantile centre of Dorestad – where the same type of coin has been found.

Zaluckyj argues that by keeping his relationship with East Anglia secure, Offa was able to concentrate on his disputes further south. But this seems out of keeping with his cold-blooded murder of the East Anglian king, Aethelberht in 794. And, generally, East Anglia feels a bit too chaotic in the period.

The details may be confused with legend but this is broadly the story. Aethelberht sought to marry Aelfthryth, Offa’s daughter. We should note here that over the previous five years, Offa had married daughters to the kings of both Northumbria and Wessex (although the Northumbrian queen may have been previously married to another ruler). Aethelberht came to the vill of Sutton in Herefordshire. Initially, Offa entertained him in civil fashion. However, his wife suggested another course of action: murdering the east Anglian.

Aethelberht was subsequently beheaded and the princess of Mercia retired to a hermitage in Crowland in the Lincolnshire Fens. It seems that Herefordshire was frontline territory at the time. The Welsh had clearly taken advantage of the vacuum at the time of Aethelbald’s death. It seems that Herefordshire was frontline territory at the time.

Offa and the ‘Welsh(or, perhaps, just Powys)

Indeed, as early as the last years of the 770s, Mercia appears to have returned its attention to Wales’ direction again. By this time, Offa would seem to have managed to reduce the Hwicce to a sub-state with the last known king, Ealdred, being referred to by Offa in 778 as ‘underking, ealdorman’ and referring to himself in 790 as ‘underking of Worcester’.

Obviously, this brings us on to the structure which has made Offa nigh-on a household name whilst Coenred and even Aethelbald are only recognisable to enthusiasts.

Offa’s Dyke / Clawdd Offa

Early study of the Dyke and the unfortunate influence of Asser

Early study of the Dyke (and, indeed, much embedded thinking) has been damaged by Asser’s ‘sea to sea’ description and its influence on, for example, Cyril Fox. We now know that this feature should not be taken as one.

As far as the main section of the Dyke is concerned, Powys seems to have been critical. The difficult landscapes of Wales tended to lead to territorial divisiveness. Powys did not begin as a clearly defined territorial entity but emerged out of the territory of the Cornovii.

Wat’s Dyke predates Offa’s by centuries

By Paul0559 – Own work, Public Domain,

In 1997 it became obvious that Wat’s Dyke, formerly seen generally as a northern extension of Offa’s Dyke, was nothing of the sort. Hearth material suggests a fifth century origin (although the 95% confidence margins are wide and could potentially take us into Penda’s time). This overturned earlier theories that it had been later than Offa’s Dyke and had used more advanced techniques learned by the Mercians. More likely is that it was an internal Cornovii boundary.

Whatever happened in this truly dark period of eastern Welsh history, by the seventh century Powys had leap-frogged the Dyke into the area the Anglians would come to know as the Wreocensaete. It is conceivable that some original sections of Offa’s Dyke were really ‘Aethelbald’s Dyke’.

The death of Aethelbald may have created enough of a political weakness in Mercia for Eliseg of Powys (perhaps 765 – 773) to seize back parts of the ‘English’ Marches. And it may have been such actions which made the dyke (or its massive expansion) politically necessary. Note the Whitehead puts Eliseg’s reign further back which would imply that early in Aethelbald’s reign Mercia controlled large parts of Powys.

However, records of Offa’s activity against Wales are fragmentary. We know that Offa was harrying ‘Deheubarth’ in 777 – but this was miles away from the dyke. Or so it at first seems! For older writers used Deheubarth to imply most of modern Wales rather than just the ‘Dyfed’ area, separating it from Hen Ogledd. In 783 we know he was engaged in fighting the Welsh again.

Early arguments raged around whether the construction of the Dyke would have needed ‘Welsh’ agreement. One thing seems certain: that it could not have been constructed during a time of major battle escalations between Mercia and Powys.

But numerous mysteries remain. It clearly acted as some kind of mercantile or economic barrier. No Mercian coin has ever been found west of the Dyke. And yet, evidently, there were ‘English’-speaking settlements on that side of the boundary. In the central section, there are the three valleys of the Hindwell, Lugg and Teme but hardest to rationalise would be the cutting-off of English settlements around Welshpool.

Other dykes in the South mistaken for being part of Offa’s?

Gwent was another fragmented kingdom (traditionally divided either side of the ‘Wentwood Forest’, a divide which may go back centuries further) but there was a natural line of separation here in the form of the River Wye. Here we know that the Dunsaete and the Wensaete (probably some people connected with being Gwentish) came to legislative agreements. There are dykes down here too – but they are unlikely to have been part of the same ‘system’ (Note that in the map above, they are assumed to be.). Right in the far south, the Beachley Peninsula seems locked in.

Offa’s death and burial

It does seem that by the mid 790s, Mercia was already breaching its own defensive line. Offa died at Rhuddlan, already to the west of where any northern extension of the Dyke was likely to end up. Roger of Wendover disputes this and claims that he died in Offley in Hertfordshire (which seems an unlikely play on the name of the settlement).

We are told that he was buried at Bedeford but Bedford seems an unlikely choice (unless he really did die in Hertfordshire) and the name may refer to somewhere else. However, it should be noted that Cynethryth – who was so highly thought of that she had her head on coins – had charge over the church in Bedford. Her name might even suggest a connection with Penda’s family as his wife was Cynewise and he had offspring called Cyneburh and Cyneswith.

In short, we do not know where Offa is buried. All sorts of locations have been put forward: Lichfield, Repton and even plays on the King’s name: Offchurch, Offlow etc. What we can surmise it that he had gone to incredible lengths so that his son, Ecgfrith, would succeed him. He was very probably the earliest Anglo-Saxon king to be anointed and his kingdom looked secure. Offa had even tried at the end of the 780s to secure a marriage to Charlemegne’s daughter. It may also be that Offa had any rivals to Ecgfrith put to death as would seem to be hinted at by Alcuin of York.

Ecgfrith’s immediate charter activity was intense – in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Herefordshire. But that geographical concentration may indicate some underlying tensions. Was Mercian power already crumbling or not? He seems to have maintained a reasonable relationship with his brother-in-law in Wessex and with Archbishop Aethelheard in Canterbury.

In the Welsh borderlands where, within a generation of Offa, Mercia had subdued the very kingdom against whom the Dyke seems to have been commissioned.

141 days into his reign, Ecgfrith was seized with a malady and died. If he was not struck down for the sins of his father as suggested by Alcuin, then we can only guess what the true cause was. Cynethryth appears to have survived at least another couple of years.

But the succession might tell us something. For Coenwulf was at best a distant relative and, at worst, the son of a made-up brother or adopted brother of Eowa and Penda – a man called Coenwalh. The fact that there is no record of him does not guarantee that he never existed.

One thing is worth remembering and is drawn attention to Whitehead: Remember that Penda married his sister off to Cenwalh of Wessex. This could have been as early as 628 and they might have had as long as the period to 645 to have children. Alternatively, Coenwulf and his brother (who ruled after him) might have had their roots amongst the Hwicce nobility?

It is possible that after Offa’s death, some dependencies made brief bids for independence. This may have happened in East Anglia but dating is hard to come by in the region. In Essex, the independence bid may have lasted no more than a few years, probably ending at some point between 798 and 811.

An era was probably drawing slowly to a close. The next century would see ‘Mercia Supreme’ transformed into a junior dependency of Wessex. However, despite that, it would continue to exert an influence over much of the emerging ‘England’. Furthermore, part of its transformation was to be driven by a change in game plan by Danes.

BACK: PART I: Mercian Timeline, 600 – 704

FORWARD: PART III: Dynastic disputes and decline (796 – 883)

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