Mercian Timeline: Part I: c.600 – 704

In the mid-sixth century, British territory was uninterrupted between the Pictish border beyond Sterling (and the Picts might well have been essentially British) and Cornwall. Anglo-Saxon settlement was generally confined to a strip along the North Sea (at least in the Midlands and the North).

TharkunColl based on Sarah Zaluckyj (2001). Mercia: The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Central England. Logaston: Logaston Press. p. 16. ISBN 978-1-9066-6354-4.

We can only guess at Mercia prior to the advent of extant physical records. The first record we have which might shed some light is the so-called Tribal Hidage. Unfortunately, we can only guess at its purpose – and whether it is a tribute list or not is critical, as Mercia itself appears as the same hidage as East Anglia. The inclusion of the ‘Elmet-dwellers’ suggests to Keynes that it was compiled in the early 670s, under Wulfhere. Whitelock suggests that it was either late seventh century or eighth century whereas Hart suggests it was drawn up for Offa of Mercia. Is it Mercian or Northumbrian, giving the constituent tribes independence from their ties with Mercia?

We do little better in asking who the ‘Mercians’ were. They were ‘border people’ – as in the word ‘Marches’ or the dialect for boundary, ‘mark’. But whose borders? It is possible that they originally had another name for themselves (perhaps the ‘West Angles’?) but someone else named them and the name stuck. Or does the name have something to do with the mysterious Myrging, a clan and people of Saxon origin who, together with King Eadgils, are only mentioned in the Old English poem Widsith?

For the southern areas, there are no references to push us back another century but the amazing discovery on the Oxfordshire / Warwickshire boundary of the Hornton treasure in 1886 should tell us some things about this zone.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is horntonas.jpg
The Hornton Brooch, returned to Banbury Museum in 2019 – Own photo

Key events in Cearl’s reign:

613        Battle of Chester / Caerlegion
616      Battle of the River Idle

Cearl is the earliest claimed king from Mercia in any written source. But it is unclear whether he was king of Mercia or king of just a bit of Mercia. He may well have exercised control over the territories bordering on Northumbria, possibly including Elmet. It is also not clear whether he is part of the same dynasty as Penda etc.

Cearl hangs under the legacy of the unfathomable, Creoda. He is never given the title of king and many scholars doubt his existence. But there is an additional bit of pure speculation. Lindsey had a king called Cretta. Now, the sound created by the name, Creoda, rhymes with ‘feeder’. Are these the same kings with different orthographies?

Bede indicates that Cearl’s daughter married Edwin, son of Aelle of Deira, who would later be King of Northumbria. Edwin very likely spent some years under the protection of Mercia as Aethelfrith had Edwin banished as part of an ongoing dispute for power between Bernicia (centred on Bamburgh on Northumberland’s coast) and Deira (effectively East Yorkshire, perhaps even in origin the old kingdom of the Parisii, once famous for its chariot burials). Unfortunately, it is the case that we know far more about Northumbria in this period than we do about Mercia.

Aethelfrith (593 – 616) was expanding Bernician Northumbria. In 603 he had defeated Dal Riata (and possibly other Gaelic allies) at the unidentifiable Degsastan and in 604 he turned his attention to Deira, marrying Acha of the Deiran royal house who was sister to Edwin and Hereric.

Edwin had fled and may have been in Elmet (Elfed in Welsh but also the name of a cantref of Dyfed) alongside Hereric, an otherwise unknown sibling who was later to be murdered by the King of Elmet. Or, if we are to believe Adams, so the propaganda goes! To his mind things are likely to have been the other way around: Edwin had Hereric murdered and then drove Ceretic from Elmet on the grounds that he had harboured him. Hereric might well have attempted to action a claim to the throne. It would all fit rather nicely in Edwin’s favour and explain why we have otherwise never heard of Hereric. It is also possible that Ceretic might have been a subject king to Cearl.

Battle of Chester (Caerlegion) c 613

De facto reunification of Bernician and Deiran lands failed to satisfy Aethelfrith. Adams has called this endless quest for land grabs a self-sustaining cycle which would only cease when Lebensraum ran out. Yeavering shows this reflected as increasing architectural adornment being written into the designs. Yeavering (Gefrin) is Glendale, Northumberland had evidently been an important tribal settlement long before the arrival of the Anglians.

Situation around 612
Central EnglandMerciaCearl
Other AS KingdomsDeiraAethelfrith of Bernicia (Edwin under Mercian protection)
 SussexDocumentary evidence missing
 KentAethelberht I
 East AngliaProbably Raedwald but sources do indicate Tytila.
British & Gaelic KingdomsDumnonia / West WealasBledric ap Custennin
 GwyneddIago ap Beli
Rhos cantref: Cadwal Crysban
 PowysSelyf ap Cynan
 ElmetCeredig ap Gwallog (Ceretic)
 Alt CludNeithon (sometimes considered the same character as Nechtan – see PIctland)
 RhegedOwain mab Urien
 Dal RiataEochaid Buide & / or Connad mac Concill Cerr
 GwentConfused: Frioc, Ithel, Morgan the Great, Morgan the Benefactor

The precise reasons for the battle are unknown but Geoffrey of Monmouth states that King Aethelfrith’s political rival, Edwin of Deira, was living in exile in Gwynedd. That is possible (although doubtlessly romanticised by Geoffrey of Monmouth) and, although in some accounts it does seem Britons alone are Aethelfrith’s opponents, others suggest that they were allied with Mercia (or, possibly, just a part of Mercia or grouping within Mercia).

Aethelfrith is supposed to have slaughtered priests who were praying for their soldiers. However, was the real reason for the battle to preempt an alliance between the Northern Welsh and the rising power that was Mercia?

Selyf ap Cynan, the King of Powys, known as the ‘battle serpent’ (Sarffgadau), and Iago, son of Beli, were killed in the battle. Gwynedd’s cantref, Rhos (east of the River Conwy and eventually to become part of the Lordship of Denbigh) also participated in the battle under Cadwal Crysban. It should be noted that Iago’s death – indeed, even ‘Gwynedd proper’ being involved in the battle in the first place – is disputed.

Aethelfrith too died shortly after the battle.

Before 616 Edwin, the future Northumbrian king, had moved to the court of Raedwald, probably at Rendlesham in Suffolk. Athelfrith’s attention now turned to this kingdom – although the confrontation would take place elsewhere.

The Battle of the River Idle, near Doncaster (616)

Raedwald’s accession dates are complex and far from helped by the mythological line with takes the Wuffingas ancestry back to the gods. In reality, this period might really have been one in which East Anglia was dominated from a separate and earlier culture settled in Norfolk rather than Suffolk, that of ‘Spong Man’. Raedwald does seem to have been the first East Anglian king to have nominally converted to Christianity.

Raedwald is also the king most often cited as the most likely person memorialised (for no body was ever found buried) in the ship burial at Sutton Hoo. We might be beginning to understand why goods which were clearly ‘British’ in design were buried there.

Gold buckle from the East Anglian burial at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk – now in the British Museum (Own photo). Although this design is clearly Germanic in origin, other grave goods included designs which appear to be British in origin (see below).
Celtic type hanging bowl – Sutton Hoo burial goods, British Museum

In short, Raedwald and Edwin defeated Aethelfrith after they met for battle at the western boundary of the oft-disputed Lindsey (Lincolnshire). Lindsey may have had deeper connections with Mercia which are now all but invisible. Lindsey’s genealogies end in Alfrith but, unfortunately, nothing can actually be dated and even Woden has ancestors in them (ultimately, Geot, who looks like the ‘Geats’ in Beowulf, a people of southern Sweden)! Raedwald installed Edwin as the new King in Northumbria. Following his victory over Bernicia, Raedwald was not only king of the East Angles but also the most powerful king amongst the rulers of the various kingdoms, making him what was later described as Bretwalda.

It should be noted that the client king status seems to have changed with the succession of Eorpwald.

Pybba 616 – 626

Every king from Penda until Ceolwulf, who was deposed in 823, was said to be a descendant of Pybba, either through Penda, Eowa, or Coenwalh (perhaps excluding Beornrad, who ruled briefly and whose background is unknown). Pybba may in theory have been earlier than Cearl. It is suspected that the two were probably brothers. If Ceorl only ruled a part of Mercia, then there is no evidence that Pybba did not as well – but there is no documentation or extant literature to support this contention.

Whitehead suggests a possibility: Aethelfrith replaced Cearl with a puppet – either Pybba or Eowa. Pybba would have been from a new line (which may have been seen to weaken Mercia). Or was Eowa really Oswald’s installation?

Meanwhile, Edwin of Northumbria targeted Elmet, presumably to punish it for the murder of Hereric. From now on, it could be culturally different but it would be an effective part of Northumbria. But this was also part of a trend towards greater cultural diversity in Northumbria than elsewhere in ‘England’ – one that continued into Viking times.

Elmet had been a British kingdom, centred on West Yorkshire, bounded by Deira to the north, Mercia to the south and conceivably another British kingdom, Craven, to the immediate west which may well have fallen in 595. Its absorption into Northumbria effectively removed any buffer between Northumbria and Mercia.

In 625 it seems likely that Edwin repudiated his first wife, Cwenburh the Mercian, and married a Kentish princess, Ethelberga of Kent.

Between 626 and 633 is a confused period in which Penda emerges.

Note that in this period the Hwicce and areas such as Oxfordshire are shown in a Saxon zone of settlement, although some have argued that they were more likely a zone of mixed settlement.

Key events in Penda’s reign:

628       Fighting with Wessex over Cirencester
633     Battle of Hatfield Chase
634 Battle of Deniseburn (Heavenfield)
642      Battle of Maserfield (Maes Cogwy)
655      Battle of Winwaed

Penda was probably born around 605. His immediate offspring would run Mercia and its primary dependencies for a significant period of time – Peada, Wulfhere and Aethelred. Marriages of his daughters also secured allegiances elsewhere – his daughter, Wilburg, seems to have married Frithuwald, the sub-king of Surrey, who was responsible for having endowed Chertsey Abbey in the 670s.

We do not know when Penda became king – a result of history having been written by his enemies. The question of whether or not he was already king during the late 620s assumes greater significance in light of the ASC’s record of a battle between Penda and the West Saxons under their kings Cynegils and Cwichelm (traditionally viewed as the son of the former) taking place at Cirencester in 628. This is a complicated period and control of the Hwicce lands (the Cotswolds area) – possibly the Iron Age state of the Dobunni or Bodunni – looks to have been central to antagonisms between Wessex and Southern Mercia.

Indeed the ‘western provinces’ of Mercia pose some complications of their own. The territory of the Hwicce is still remarkably easy to define from the Radway boundary adjacent to Edge Hill, 9 miles west of Banbury, across the Wychwood (the first part is a corruption of Hwicce), down to the traditional location of 577’s Battle of Dyrham. E. T. Leeds (keeper of the Ashmolean from 1928 and responsible for early excavations of Saxon sites in the Thames Valley) considered them mixed groups of Angles and Saxons and, indeed, there were clearly smaller sub-groups such as the Stoppingas and Aroseatna. Others have argued for a Bernician royal transplant which Sims-Williams has called ‘implausible’. But there is a common name between the Hwicce, Bernicia and Essex: Offa – especially rare in Essex where kings’ names almost always began with S (Sledd, Sigeberht, Sighere, Saeberht etc.). Or was it a continuation from the Dobunni four centuries earlier? Whatever, it is clear that the southwestern fringe of this are was a zone of constant dispute between Wessex and Mercia. In the north of the area was Droitwich, critical for its brine extraction and the (already very ancient) ‘salt ways’, stretching all the way down to Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire.

Every bit as troubling is the Magonsaete (‘Maund’), not least because it does not appear on the Tribal Hidage, the actual use of the name being relatively late. It may have been based on an earlier kingdom but was clearly a group of small entities brought together either by, or by the time of, Merewalh (literally, ‘illustrious Welshman’). That, of course, raises the question of whether Merewalh with his unusual name genuinely was the son of Penda and part of the Mercian royal dynasty. In turn, it questions what that might actually mean? One additional complication is the possibility that he was adopted, especially if Penda’s wife had been married to a Welsh king before. Bede names her as Cynewise – which looks remarkably West Saxon.

Penda might have been one of multiple rulers among the Mercians at the time, ruling only a part of their territory. The Chronicle says that after the battle, Penda and the West Saxons “came to terms.”

It has been speculated that this agreement marked a victory for Penda, ceding to him Cirencester and the areas along the lower River Severn. These lands to the southwest of Mercia had apparently been taken by the West Saxons from the Britons in 577 and the territory eventually became part of the sub-kingdom of the Hwicce. Given Penda’s role in the area at this time and his apparent success there, it has been argued that the sub-kingdom of the Hwicce was established by him. That seems unlikely; a narrative of gradual expansion into the area seems more realistic.

In the late 620s or early 630s, Cadwallon ap Cadfan, the British (Welsh) king of Gwynedd (although Gwynedd has partly Irish roots, probably being ultimately derived from the Feni), became involved in a war with Edwin of Northumbria. We cannot be sure but it is possible that Penda had propped up his alliance with the North Welsh kingdom by marrying a half sister of Cadwallon.

Situation around 633
Central EnglandMerciaEowa & Penda
Other AS KingdomsDeiraOsric
 WessexCwichelm & Cynegils, his supposed father
 SussexDocumentary evidence missing
 KentEadbald & Aethelwald
 East AngliaSigeberht and Ecgric
 EssexSigeberht the Little
 LindseyNo longer independent
British & Gaelic KingdomsDumnonia / West WealasPetroc Baladrddellt
 GwyneddCadwallon ap Cadfan (dates problematic)
 PowysEiludd Powys
 ElmetUnder Northumbrian control
 Alt CludEigein map Beli
 RhegedOwain mab Urien
 Dal RiataDomnall Brecc
 GwentConfused: Frioc, Ithel, Morgan the Great, Morgan the Benefactor

Battle of Hatfield Chase or Haethfeld (near Doncaster, S Yorks) 633

During this battle it is said that Edwin’s entire army was wiped out by the Mercians. Whether we are really talking about a Mercian-led alliance is another matter. It could well be the case that Penda was actually subservient to Cadwallon at this time. This may have been the case from around 625 to the early 640s.

Edwin too was killed in the battle and one of his sons (Eadfrith) fell into Penda’s control as a hostage. In theory, that was not as bad as it sounds and was usual practice. But, during Oswald’s reign, Penda had Eadfrith put to death (in what must have been seen as a breach of diplomatic etiquette). Or, have we got that wrong? Did Eowa order the killing at the behest of Oswald? As things stand, the implication is that Penda was high enough status to be able to royal hostages.

Oswald, Aethelfrith’s son by the Deiran princess, Acha, and Oswiu (his younger brother) seem to have fled north; Oswald to the protection of the Irish kingdom in the west of modern Scotland, Dal Riata. Oswiu seems to have been in Dal Riata too. Bede writes that Oswiu was fluent in the Irish language and Irish in faith. Oswiu may have received his arms from Eochaid Buide, son of that Aedan mac Gabrain who his father had defeated at Degsastan during the height of the kingdom that had its core in Argyll and Antrim. On the face of it, this might appear almost inconceivable. But in 628 there had been a military disaster in Antrim for Dal Riata against Cruthin. That may have made anyone with military experience welcome. And there is another clue: Osric of Bernicia appears to have been Aedan’s grandson.

Meanwhile, a very confused period began in Northumbria with several hopefuls claiming kingship, all checked by Cadwallon – but some also possibly in temporary alliances with him.

There is a problem with the idea that Penda was originally king of Southern Mercia – that is to say south of the Trent rather than the Magonseate / Hwicce corner. If he was, then what did he care about what was going on around Leeds (originally called Ladenses in British)?

Heavenfield or more accurately, Deniseburn (near Hexham, Northumberland) 634

Eanfrith, Oswald’s half brother, who had been exiled under Edwin – seemingly amongst the Picts, became king of Bernicia, whilst Deira was ruled by Osric, a cousin of Edwin. Eanfrith’s reign was short, as he was killed by Cadwallon whilst trying to negotiate peace. Bede mentions Osric and says that Cadwallon was besieged by him. But Cadwallon broke out the ‘strong town’ and destroyed Osric and his army. What on earth is Bede not telling us here? Is it that he simply does not know where this was? Or that he has never heard of it? Or that he does not know how to translate it from British / Gaelic to Old English?

The king lists routinely prefer to forget about Osric – and, indeed, Eanfrith in Bernicia – because both ruled brutally and lapsed into paganism. Note that the Os– prefix originally meant god and was a letter derived from ansuz in the Old Futhark before sound changes in Anglo-Frisia. So, all those Northumbrian names are about pagan gods, probably specifically Woden.

Cadwallon seems to have established himself very briefly as King of Northumbria and certainly ravaged much of it. If he was king there, then he was the last Briton to hold substantial territory in eastern England. If, as has been suggested, Penda was married to the half sister of Cadwallon, presumably Cadfan’s daughter (which might explain having a son with such an unusual name as Merewalh), this temporary arrangement might have suited Mercia well enough. Penda might even have benefited from some degree of destabilisation of the area – but, of course, we can only guess at the politics.

Mercia’s relations with East Anglia and Essex in the mid-630s

Mercia’s relations with the East Angles deteriorated over the 630s. King Anna seems to have been involved in opposition to Mercia throughout his reign. Indeed, he may have been sheltering Cenwalh, the West Saxon king who had repudiated Penda’s sister.

Around 636 Penda decided to attack East Anglia and use his influence in Essex to do so. Sigeberht of Essex had already renounced the material world and opted for a monastic life. [Note here that there are quite a few Sigeberhts around at this time – especially in Essex but also in East Anglia.] He was dragged out of retirement but refused to carry a weapon. He and the contemporary king, Ecgric, were cut down.

Battle of Maserfield (Oswestry, Powys / Shropshire border) circa 642 (Maes Cogwy)

Maserfield stands out from other battles of the period as, at least at the time, it was in the Wrocsaete, outside direct Mercian control, quite possibly still directly Welsh-controlled at this stage and part of the kingdom of Powys – or , perhaps more accurately, Pengwern, as we will see.

What was either Oswald or Penda doing there? It is worth noting that a couple of alternative sites in Lancashire and Lindsey have been proposed. However, accepting the established identified location, Oswald could have taken one of two routes: over the Pennines to Chester via Elmet or to Doncaster to join forces with Eowa at Lichfield (if Eowa was genuinely his ally). It does seem to have been part of a policy of regular Northumbrian attacks and Oswald may also have conquered Lothian, the last remaining vestige of Gododdin (the ‘Votadini’) not already under Northumbrian rule. There was a less than obvious attraction too: the brine springs of Cheshire and control of these – especially the area immediately around Nantwich and Sandbach.

But this time the battle ended in Oswald’s defeat, death, and [very probably, ritual] dismemberment. There is a Christian interpretation, but Penda, of course, was no Christian (although later he was tolerant of the religion). The dismemberment of Oswald has echoes of head cult worship. This was actually quite an important tradition. In theory, it should not have been replicated by a Christian king on Penda – but that is believed to have been the case in due course.

The battle was also known as Maes Cogwy to Welsh speakers, with Pengwern participating in the battle (according to the probably ninth century Canu Heledd), probably as allies of the Mercians. The exact nature of Pengwern is difficult to ascertain. Powys had a greater extent than the 1974 county (but lacked Brycheiniog), extending further north and into what would now be considered the English Midlands. Wroxeter survived the end of Rome but the territory of the Cornovii may have become divided between the urban dwellers and the paganes (the root of Powys). Pengwern may must have been on the ‘English’ side, having moved its court to either Shrewsbury or the Wrekin after the plague of 549. Until Chester, the northern territories of Powys might well have controlled access to Rheged – and, indeed, beyond.

Cynddylan seems to have been a Prince of Powys but tied to Pengwern. He does not appear in kingly genealogies, only amongst literary sources. And that brings us to an additional complication: the fact that sometime shortly after Manwgan ap Selyf, the son of Selyf Sarffgadau, took over in Powys, it was invaded by Eiluadd of Dogfeiling (‘Eiludd Powys’), immediately east of the cantref of Rhos.

Indeed, the array of allies may well have been far more complicated than a simple ‘Mercia v Northumbria’ stereotype. Penda’s brother, Eowa, also died at Maserfield. He may easily have been Oswald’s ally. Worse than that, Oswald could have been Eowa’s overlord. Nennius tells us that the Mercians had been under the Northumbrian yoke but Penda freed them.

There might be a religious angle too. Penda’s element within Mercian society could have remained loyal to Tiw and Woden, whilst Eowa’s faction could have been Christianised under the influence of Northumbria. In reality, i suspect that some of the religious focus is a ‘backcast’ from later thinking and was rather less obvious at the time.

Although the situation is very difficult to reconstruct, it is possible that Bede’s comments reflect a genuine history in which Penda lost his primary position in Mercia for some / all of the years of 633 to 642 and, at this point, regained hegemony over the whole of Mercia. It would also appear that Pengwern’s siding with Mercia did little good for it, for around this time it was overrun.

The early 650s: The Siege of Bamburgh and unexpected political alliances

Relations with Mercia during this period are nothing if not confusing. In the Siege of Bamburgh of c. 651, Penda attempted to set fire of the Bernician fortress, dismantling surrounding villages and using their beams as kindling.

This looks like unrelenting hostility but sometime over the early 650s, Oswiu’s son, Alhfrith, was married to Cyneburh, Penda’s daughter and Penda’s son, Peada, was married to Oswiu’s daughter, Ealhflaed. This certainly looks like an attempt at peacemaking and stability. If so, then it did not go very well. In fact, it may well have been more akin to standard procedure. Another possibility is that it represented some kind of alliance against someone deemed to be a common enemy – probably within Northumbria.

Nevertheless, eventually, everyone’s luck runs out. And for Penda that happened in 655, somewhere in the southern reaches of Yorkshire.

The Battle of Winwaed (near Doncaster or Pontefract, Yorks) 655

Critical here is the strength of Mercia’s relations with its North Welsh allies.

Cadafael of Gwynedd chose to withdraw prior to the battle. Or that is how it is usually portrayed. Charles-Edwards posits an alternative.

This revolves around the mysterious Restitution of Iuddea (or Iddew in Welsh), Urbs Giudi as Bede called it. This may or may not have been Stirling, but Penda seems to have besieged Oswiu here, wherever it was.

Sources are not clear about what was handed over and when. But it is possible that on the way back south the Mercians were caught out on the Roman road across Yorkshire, in regione Loidis. But Cadafael might already have separated taking the westbound road at Bramham.

That may have been how he survived Winwaed.

Back in Northumbria, Œthelwald took the kingship in opposition to Oswiu. He subsequently allied himself with Penda and assisted Penda during his invasion of Northumbria. However, when the armies of Oswiu and Penda came into battle, Œthelwald seemingly withdrew his forces.

Penda is believed to have refused the treasures offered although this may not have been the case. And some of his allies might well have done their own thing.

Gold strip from the Staffordshire Hoard with the inscription, Surge Domine et dissipentur inimici tui et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua (“Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee.”) . Because of the association of the text with St Guthlac, the text has created some dating problems for the Hoard. Own photo, Birmingham Museum & Gallery

The Reign of Oswiu of Northumbria (via Peada in Southern Mercia)

After Winwaed, Oswiu reigned supreme.

Peada seems to have kept his role in Middle Anglia until his death in 656 – presumably with at least the tacit support of Oswiu. Peada was seemingly slain by his wife, Oswiu’s daughter, less than a year after Winwaed. One would have thought Oswiu was unlikely to have been involved as he did not have to let Peada keep his role anyway. We have to ask whether it is really likely that Alhflaed was involved either? More likely, surely, is some sort of internal coup?

Oswiu did not bother appointing another puppet and all of Mercia was subsequently ruled from Northumbria. On the face of it, it would seem that Peada and Oswiu founded Medehamstede (Peterborough) together but, in reality, foundation may well have been earlier. Peterborough was in the Gyrwas (gyr meant something like muddy bogland and Jarrow in the North East actually has much the same etymology).

It should be noted here that Middle Anglia is a vague term not used in the precision of the Tribal Hidage.

In the Hwicce, did Merewalh survive, untroubled by Oswiu?

Key events in Wulfhere’s reign:

658        Immin-Eafa-Eadberht coup
661        Attacks on Wessex, the Meonwara and Isle of Wight
665Establishment of overlordship over the East Saxons
674    Fall scale invasion attempt of Northumbria

Both the next two kings were Penda’s children. And the next we hear in writing of Mercia is Wulfhere’s emergence. He and his brother reigned for the best part of half a century and yet we know so little about them!

But we do know about Wulfhere’s sudden ‘coup’ brought about by Immin, Eafa and Eadberht’s rebellion. We must ask ourselves why there were no reprisals – surely Oswiu could have put this down? Wulfhere had apparently been kept concealed – but where?

But in 658 Oswiu may have been busy in Wales, unable to intervene. Or there may even have been some kind of agreement as the first Mercian Bishop, Trumhere, was a kinsman of the murdered king of Deira. For the record, around that same year, Wessex made a push against the West Wealas in Devon.

Wulfhere married a Kentish princess, Eormenhild (daughter of Eorcenberht – who had seized some – or even, conceivably – all of Kent from his brother and Seaxburh. There is a major cultural divide between West and East Kent, the Roman civitas of Cantiaci having begun east of the Medway. At some point in the sixth century East Kent had annexed the Darenth Valley from West Kent.

The marriage gave Wulfhere alliance with Canterbury in suppressing the East Saxons – which also yielded him access to handy port of London. It is probably worth keeping in mid that Eormenred’s daughter was the wife of Merewalh, king of the Magonsaete – and possibly providing a link with the Mercian royals. Eormenhild eventually became abbess of Sheppey and then Ely after Wulfhere’s death. She is commemorated, rather bizarrely, on the external wall of Tesco in Ely.

We also know thanks to Bede that, at the end of his reign, he was in possession of West Saxon territories and had a residence at Thame (otherwise uncomfortably close to the border). In 661 he harried the Isle of Wight and the Meonwara, giving both to the South Saxon King, Aethelwalh – who, by agreeing to baptism must have recognised Wulfhere as overlord. Aethelwalh was married to the Hwiccan princess, Eafe, daughter of Eanfrith, brother of Earnhere.

Both the Meonwara and the Isle of Wight (and the Ytene [pr. Ewe-tenn’r], slightly further east in the New Forest) were traditionally Jutish areas – or at least had a Jutish elite. The West Saxons may have genocided the area later in the century – or at least that ruling Jute elite. Very probably, beyond the elite, the majority of the population was still either British or, conceivably Atrebatic-Belgic [Caesar seemed to indicate that the population of this part of the South spoke the same language as tribes in Belgic Gaul.]

661 also saw another area of attack, more directly on Wessex – on Ashdown (Lambourn Downs). Cenwalh clearly suffered significant territorial losses and the fall of the See of Dorchester (on Thames). It is possible that Wulfhere’s attitude to Cenwalh was driven by the latter’s repudiation of his aunt.

Quite what happened in the longer run in this dispute is confused. The two of them fought at Posentesbyrig on Ashdown. Wulfhere was supposed to have been deprived of ‘most of his territories’ – although this presumably means his gains in Wessex, even what we might call, ‘Gewissan territories’. The Gewisse may have been the original core of Wessex – far to the north of Winchester and Hamwic – in the area along the Thames between Abingdon and Wallingford.

Wulfhere used his brother-in-law, Frithuwald, to keep check on Surrey. It is possible that Surrey (an area which seems at times to have crossed the Thames into Buckinghamshire but probably did not extend as far east as it does today: territory to the east had clearly been a zone of dispute for some time) had previously been under West Saxon control. Wine, the replacement to the Bishopric of Dorchester, Agilberht, seems to have sought shelter in Mercia and ended up in the See of London, then in Essex but clearly by then under Mercian control. It would remain so through to the Viking age.

And, other sources confirm that by 665 he was overlord of Essex.

Situation around 672
Central EnglandMerciaWulfhere
Other AS KingdomsDeiraEcgfrith (Aelfwine as sub-king)
 WessexCenwalh and then, after death, his wife Cwen Seaxburh
 SussexDocumentary evidence missing
 KentEcgberht I
 East AngliaEaldwulf
 EssexSigeberht the Good & Saebbi (under overlordship of Mercia under Wulfhere)
 LindseyNo longer independent
British & Gaelic KingdomsDumnonia / West WealasDonyarth ap Culmin
 GwyneddCadwallader the Blessed
 PowysConfused with Beli ap Eiludd & Cynddylan (Pengwern)
 ElmetUnder Northumbrian control
 Alt CludUnclear
 RhegedRheged already annexed by Northumbia
 Dal RiataMael Duin

After Ecgberht’s death in Kent, it seems that Wulfhere used the two subsequent child-kings to effectively run Kent more or less directly as well.

Therefore, Wulfhere’s focus on the South had brought Mercia massive territorial gains – even if Wessex had managed a degree of recuperation in West Berkshire. But Cenwalh died in around 672 and Stephen of Ripon tells us that now Mercia ‘stirred up all the nations of the South against Northumbria’.

As well as Cenwalh’s death, an additional driver might have been the issue of Lindsey – the front bit probably signifies its watery nature as in Welsh llyn. The kingdom’s prominence had been in a time before the historical period. After having lost independence, Lindsey switched as a bone of contention between Northumbria (where Lindisfarne sounds uncomfortably close to the name for the populace of Lindsey but this may simply be a shared Celtic etymology for a watery island or peninsula) and Mercia. Ecgfrith may well have taken Lindsey from Mercia sometime around this point.

Lindsey may or may not have been the trigger but around 674 Wulfhere decided to launch a full-scale invasion of Northumbria. Wulfhere rode against Ecgfrith (who had once been hostage at the Mercian court) with an army drawn from all his southern dependencies, replicating exactly what Penda had done at Winwaed two decades earlier. Once again, it was a catastrophic misjudgement. He was heavily defeated by Ecgfrith and forced to pay tribute, according to Simeon of Durham.

Wulfhere’s records suggest only one further major battle against Aescwine, the new king of the West Saxons, a descendant of Cenwalh’s great-uncle Ceolwulf, at a place called Biedanheafde – my theory is that that might be a mis-transcription for Maidenhead (‘New Hythe’) at some point.

The outcome is no longer known but Wulfhere died later than year, having failed against Northumbria’s challenge and quite possibly wounded in his altercations along the Thames. We know that at the time of his death, Lindsey was being run from the North.

Key events in Aethelred’s reign:

676        Destruction of Rochester
679        Battle of the Trent: Lindsey regained from Northumbria
686/88 Kent is lost to the West Saxons, probably with the support of Essex.
Seemingly also Surrey and Sussex.
690s      More forceful leadership in some of the Southern kingdoms
704        Abdication in favour of becoming a monk

Wulfhere died suddenly in his 30s (one might presume as a result of battle injuries) and his brother came to the throne. Coenred, Wulfhere’s son, was still an infant. Aethelred had probably not expected to succeed his brother.

Mercia was faced with an unstable outlook at that time: challenges from both Northumbria and Kent whilst Middle Anglia was probably still without any kind of stable governance following Penda’s murder. Lindsey had been lost to the traditional, northern enemy. This may have been psychologically more important than it might seem today.


Aethelred married Osthryth, the daughter of Oswiu of Northumbria and the sister to the reigning Northumbrian king, Ecgfrith (king until 685) as well as Aelfwine, the sub-king of Deira. Aethelred also had familial links to the East Saxon leadership.

In 675 the couple founded a monastery at Bardney in Lindsey. It is possible that the first abbot was a member of the former Lindesfarona royal dynasty. The position was hugely strategic in territory which had formerly been Northumbrian. An endowment was essential but it was an endowment with strong links to Northumbria – literally what remained of Osthryth’s uncle, Oswald; including the mysterious head. Initially, the monks seem to have been rather less than enthusiastic.

In 676, the kings of Kent – including Hlothere – were attempting to seize control of Surrey and Essex. The boundary between West Kent and Surrey had been fluid even in Iron Age times. Aethelred decimated Rochester in response – notably the ‘capital’ of West Kent. Bede says that the situation was so bad that the See there had to be temporarily abandoned. Hlothere and Eadric were only allowed to remain under Mercian overlordship. They were hardly allies: Hlothere had been overthrown by Eadric, the ally of the South Saxons, as part of a dispute that had been raging since Ecgberht’s reign in the 660s.

Situation around 675
Central EnglandMerciaAethelred I
Other AS KingdomsDeiraEcgfrith (Aelfwine as sub-king)
 KentHlothhere & Eadric (Hlothere rose against Mercia after attempted Northumbrian invasion)
 East AngliaEaldwulf
 EssexSigeberht the Good & Saebbi (possibly under overlordship of Mercia under Wulfhere)
 LindseyLost to Mercia
British & Gaelic KingdomsDumnonia / West WealasDonyarth ap Culmin
 GwyneddCadwallader the Blessed
 PowysConfused with Beli ap Eiludd & Cynddylan (Pengwern)
 ElmetUnder Northumbrian control
 Alt CludUnclear
 RhegedRheged annexed by Northumbia
 Dal RiataMael Duin

The Battle of the Trent (679)

In all honesty, we know very little about the Battle of the Trent, important though it undoubtedly was. When you think about it, any kingdom on the east coast of England was likely to be considered disproportionately important by Anglian tribes. When they had had limited spatial territory, Lindsey would have been critical. It was a psychological scar between Northumbria and Mercia. But Bede prefers to concentrate on a dubious anecdote about Imma, rendered unconscious but who then awoke, was captured and taken to Aethelred.

Although Ecgfrith of Northumbria was defeated at the battle, he was not killed. Nevertheless, the northern expansion of Northumbria was brought to check in 685 when Ecgfrith was slain at the Battle of Nechtanesmere (Dún Nechtain in Gaelic; Linn Garan in Old Welsh) that year by his Pictish cousin, Bridei. Whilst no historical sources explicitly state Ecgfrith’s reason for attacking Fortriu (Verturiones) in 685, the consensus is that it was to reassert Northumbria’s hegemony over the Picts.

There was another implication too. Northumbria was suddenly no longer the threat it had been and, therefore, Welsh kings no longer felt the need to ally themselves with Mercia.

Ecgfrith’s successor north of the Humber was his half Irish brother, Aldfrith. Northumbria’s supremacy was giving way to that of the Mercians. That would not stop Northumbria continuing to flourish culturally as one of Europe’s most important cultural centres with its mix of Anglian and Goidelic artistic and religious influences. But there was no doubt: Mercia’s sphere of influence was gradually extending over all the Southern kingdoms.

Mercian frictions in Kent

However, not without the occasional glitch…

It seems that in 686 Mercian control of Kent faltered with the entry of Caedwalla of Wessex and his brother, Mul. We might stop and think here about the first of these names. Is it really possible that the West Saxon king was named after the Welsh tyrant who had laid waste to Northumbria?

Caedwalla and Mul had forged some alliance with Essex’s Sighere and Saebbi. The exact nature of the relationships is unclear but it would appear that Mul managed to become king of at least part of Kent following the raids with Caedwalla. Mul is an inexplicable name and the suggestion that it was a nickname meaning ‘mule’ seems implausible to me. The ravaging of the Isle of Wight tends to get less attention but was clearly part of the same set of raids – maybe even an attack on their shared Jutish heritage.

It was not to last long. The following year the Kentish burned Mul to death. Caedwalla wreaked havoc on Kent in vengeance before deciding to abdicate and go on pilgrimage to Rome.

Kent remained incredibly divided. Sighere of Essex seems to have managed to secure his second cousin, Swaefheard, as king – but after Caedwalla’s abdication the latter sought to re-establish Mercian influence in the kingdom. With Swaefheard now backed by the East Saxons, Aethelred continued to back Oswine. It is not clear to what extent Aethelred had a grip on the situation. It is possible that he simply dealt with developments in a retroactive fashion.

Seemingly, he had little control of Kentish opinion for Oswine was toppled by Wihtred, the son of a previous Kentish king and it is clear that Canterbury viewed him as the rightful heir. Until 694 Wihtred probably had to accept co-rule or sub-regional rule alongside Swaefheard but by 695 he started appearing purely under his own name, reigning through until 725. Furthermore, the territory under his control evidently stretched north of the Thames in the weak area to the west of modern London, up towards the edge of the Chilterns. In contrast, north of the River further east, Mercian overlordship of Essex was consolidated.

Aethelred would eventually prove to be amongst a limited number of Anglo-Saxon kings who died peacefully. It was not to be so for his wife (another product of Mercian-Northumbrian power marriages) who was murdered by the Mercian nobility in 697.

In 704, Aethelred abdicated and became a monk at Bardney in Lindsey, eventually becoming abbot there.

The next period was to see the emergence of what has become known as THE MERCIAN SUPREMACY.

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