Mercian Timeline Part III: Dynastic disputes & decline (796 – 883)

Unsurprisingly, there appears to have been a little instability after Ecgfrith’s death. However, once Coenwulf found his feet, he appears to have been every last bit as powerful as Offa. Perhaps he was even more powerful?

Stenton suggests that the capture of Degannwy (on the Creuddyn Peninsula) and the overrunning of Powys by Mercia was the kingdom’s last great ‘achievement’. A minority voice, using Welsh records, Charles-Edwards shifts the capture of Degannwy into the year following the end of Coenwulf’s reign – but he is not alone. This is actually a problem about aligning ‘Welsh’ and ‘English’ record chronologies.

Degannwy (Brythonic, Decantouion) had been fortified in the sixth century as Maelgwyn / Maglocunus’ stronghold before the capital of Gwynedd was shifted to Abberffraw on Anglesey.

Whatever, those very same last years usher in a significant period of hegemonic collapse. A number of factors probably played into this:

  • The increased influence and strength of Mercia’s southern neighbour, Wessex
  • The detachments from Mercia of South Eastern kingdoms – never to be regained (and often falling under the direct control of Wessex – although perhaps some of the assumptions of this period should now be disputed)
  • In addition, the 820s saw a dramatic increase in the number of Mercian kings. Coenwulf ruled for quarter of a century. The next quarter of a century would see his brother, Ceolwulf I, who managed 2 years, Beornwulf (a B dynastic), Ludeca (probably, in my honest opinion, unrelated to previous kings), Wiglaf I (twice), the West Saxon king Ecgberht, possibly Wigmund, Wigstan who seems to have declined kingship, Queen Aelfflaed, Beorhtwulf and Burgred. that is, in effect, a change of king every couple of years on average although Wiglaf clocked up around eleven and Beorhtwulf around twelve.

Who was Coenwulf?

Major events in Coenwulf I’s reign

796 – 798Eadbearht Praen seizes Kent from Mercia on return from Frankia. Defeating the rebellion, Coenwulf installs his brother, Cuthred, as sub-king
801Northumbria launches attack on Mercia for harbouring enemies of the king.
816Archbishop Wulfstan launches attack on Coenwulf for lay control of former ecclesiastical lands. Coenwulf’s daughter, Cweonthryth, is at the centre of allegations. These problems would continue beyond Coenwulf’s death.
821Coenwulf killed at Basingwerk, Flint, followed by a vacuum in Mercia. It is not 100% clear who Mercia was under when it captured Degannwy.

Since Coenwulf did not witness any of Offa’s charters, it is quite possible that he was in exile – at least for the last part of his reign. In the early part of Coenwulf’s reign, he appears to have been married to one Cynegyth, whilst from perhaps around 804 onwards his wife is named as Aelfthryth. We gain these names from charters and know essentially nothing about either of them.

East Anglia may have had a quick stab at independence under Eadwald but evidently it did not last long. Moneyers in the region were soon back to putting a Mercian overking’s name on their coins. The situation in Essex may initially have been similar under Sigred. By 811 it is clear that Mercia was back in control but the years before that are muddied.

Kent, Praen and Pope Leo III

On gaining the kingdom in 796. Coenwulf was immediately faced with a complex situation in Kent. Eadberht III (Praen) returned from Charlemagne’s court in Frankia on an evidently anti-Mercian agenda. Aethelheard, the pro-Mercian Archbishop of Canterbury, immediately fled. This two year period between 796 and 798 was to be the last time that Kent operated as an independent kingdom. Or, at least that has been the received wisdom up until now.

Coenwulf could not be certain whether Praen had been ordained or not. If he had been and Coenwulf attacked, then Rome would have been forced to excommunicate him. On the other hand, if Praen had been ordained, then he had no right to be king and would have to relinquish power.

Coenwulf had a further strategy which he outlined in his communications to Pope Leo, who had actually crowned Charlemagne. Offa had tried to push power to Lichfield and away from Canterbury.

The dioceses of England during Coenwulf’s reign. The boundary between the archdioceses of Lichfield and Canterbury is shown in bold.
Mike Christie – initially on w:en:Image:Offa dioceses.gif.  Based on a map in Wormald’s “The Age of Bede and Aethelbald”, in James Campbell et al., The Anglo-Saxons. By the way, note how similar Hereford and Worcester are to the Hwicce and Magonsaete territories.

Now Coenwulf went back to St Gregory’s canons and argued that neither Lichfield nor Canterbury should exist as an Archdiocese. Rather ecclesiastic power should be centred on London. And, of course, pro-Mercian Aethelheard was mooted for the job! This was all convenient for Coenwulf since London was, by then, securely under Mercian territorial control.

Pope Leo decided against such a reform. Nevertheless, he did pass judgement on Praen. Coenwulf wasted no time, invading Kent and seizing Praen at ‘Merscwari’ (the ‘people of the Marsh’ – perhaps Romney and that opinion has some precedents?). Tradition (or perhaps better, later accounts) holds that he took him back chained in fetters to Winchcombe, near Tewkesbury, in the heart of the former Hwicce powerbase, and had him mutilated – although contemporary sources for this are lacking.

With the Praen rebellion defeated, Coenwulf installed his own brother, Cuthred, as king in Kent. With Kent under puppet-brother rule, the importance of getting rid of Canterbury disintegrated. Offa’s Lichfield was formerly abolished at the Synod of Clofesho 803. Coenwulf evidently listened whilst the Church denounced Offa’s actions and then completely restored Canterbury to its former stature.

However, although Kent was never again to regain independence, it does seem that in the last few years of his reign, after Clofesho 803 had re-established Canterbury’s authority, Cuthred’s attitude to his brother’s dominance may have shifted. By 805 he seems to have been issuing charters in Kent without mention of his over-king. Was this simply tolerated by Coenwulf because all the alternatives seemed worse?

Relations between Mercia & the Welsh Kingdoms

Unfortunately, we have little choice but to piece this together from bits of Welsh records, complete with all the bias that those are likely to contain. However, we are told that in 798 (and sometimes Welsh and English chronologies fail to match one another exactly and, awkwardly, they are rather sparse for the period) that Caradog (presumably ap Meirion of Rhos) was killed by the English. The Annales Cambriae literally tells us that he had his throat slit. Is this an ongoing frontier war which had already claimed Offa – perhaps after the Battle of Morfa Rhuddlan (although there is good reason for saying that Offa did not die in the battle itself)?

So, who was Caradog ap Meirion? The politics of Gwynedd are even more complicated than those of Mercia, but he may have taken the throne of Gwynedd following the death of Rhodri Molwynog – equally, according to Welsh historians, there may have been intervening kings.

Although it is only now beginning to be pieced together, it seems likely that over the five decades to 850, Mercia would gradually assume effective control not just of the Flint Corridor but over much of Southern and West Wales as well. And this was no mean deal, requiring co-ordination, financial outlay and significant military resources.

1660NE01A.jpg

The 801 Northumbrian attack on Mercia

Some focus on the unstable situation in Northumbria is necessary at this point. Remember that Offa had married his daughter off to Aethelred, son of Aethelwald Moll in 792?

Situation around 801
Central EnglandMerciaCoenwulf
   
   
Other AS KingdomsNorthumbriaEardwulf
 WessexBeorhtric
 SussexNo real records
 KentCuthred
 East AngliaUnder Mercian control
 EssexSigred
   
British & Gaelic KingdomsDumnonia / West WealasUnclear: Henman ap Oswallt or Mordaf – perhaps even several different kings at the same time
 GwyneddCynan Dindaethwy ap Rhodri
 PowysCadell ap Brochfael
 ElmetUnder Northumbrian control
 Alt CludCynan
 RhegedRheged still annexed by Northumbia
 Dal RiataPossibly back under Pictish control under Caustantin
 PictsCaustantin
 GwentArthrwys ap Ffernfael

In the same year that Offa died, Aethelred was murdered by a group of nobles. Amongst the group was almost certainly the next Northumbrian king, Osbald. Osbald was clearly a friend of Alcuin and corresponded with him but he was also a violent man. In 780 he had killed Bearn, the son of King Aelfwald, by burning him to death at ‘Selectune’.

However, his reign lasted only 27 days before he turned to God and headed for Lindisfarne. Shortly after further communication with Alcuin, Osbald sailed to the Pictish lands, where he was given refuge by Caustantin (Causantin mac Fergusa, king of either the Picts or of Fortriu).

He probably did well to get out because Northumbria was descending further into chaos. But Oswald had never been the main murderer; that was almost certainly Ealdred. Alcuin tells us that Torhtmund was loyal to Aethelred and avenged his death. After killing Ealdred, Torhtmund found it advisable to depart Northumbria as well.

Aside from the ‘turning to God’, Osbald may simply have been deposed by his successor, Eardwulf. Eardwulf had been a bitter enemy of Aethelred. Hardly surprising – in 790 Aethelred had attempted to have him assassinated but he had supposedly been nursed back to health by the monastic community at Ripon. But Northumbrian politics was so strife-ridden and complex at the time that, with a common enemy gone, all sorts of clashes could have happened.

Whilst lots of material survives for Northumbria as a whole, very little relates to the wild extremity which we would now call Lancashire but which was then a southern extremity of what had probably been an unproductive and difficult margin of Rheged before being taken by Northumbria – and which would become known in the Domesday Book as ‘Inter Ripam et Mersam’. From Northumbria’s perspective, Wada, the ealdorman of this area, should have been a pretty minor character – but he was on the border with Mercia and that changed things.

If I were writing a history of Northumbria, then there would now have to be a whole section on the Battle of Whalley on Billington Moor. But this is not, so I will be more succinct. Wada appears to have been amongst the conspirators against Aethelred. Eardwulf was victorious at the battle and Wada fled.

The question is whence he fled? He was an enemy of Offa’s Mercia – but the dynastic control of Mercia had changed. Therefore, it is quite possible that he slipped across into what we might loosely describe at this stage as ‘Cheshire’ and into C-dynastic Mercian protection.

This theory is supported by a communication between Pope Leo and Charlemagne in 808, in which there is a mention of the ‘Dux Wada’. It is conceivable that the name, Waddington, in the Ribble Valley, has its root in Wada.

Wada seems the most likely candidate for the ‘harboured enemies’ pretext for attempted invasion of Mercia by Northumbria in 801.

Unfortunately, we don’t know much about the events of the war. However, it was obviously a protracted and bloody affair. So much so, that in the end, Eardwulf and Coenwulf signed a treaty to be effective for their rest of their lives. What really happened here? This was not usual practice.

Events in North Wales

In 813 dramatic changes had taken place in North Wales. Cynan fought Hywel of Rhos and seems to have lost, subsequently being expelled. They were probably fighting for the control of Anglesey. When Cynan died, he was very probably the supreme leader of Gwynedd.

Within four years, Mercia had both invaded the Snowdonia area and laid waste to Dyfed in the far South West of Wales. Again, we are very much putting fragmentary pieces together here but Hywel’s father was almost certainly, Caradog ap Meirion, who was killed in 798 in a Mercian attack under Coenwulf. Hywel was said to be the son of Rhodri Molwynog on the assumption that he was Cynan’s brother, for example as stated in Lloyd’s ‘History of Wales’. But sources such as the Annales Cambriae mention him by name only. The genealogy of Jesus College MS. 20 gives him as the son of Caradog ap Meirion, whilst it cites Cynan as the son of Rhodri.

There had been no Mercian attacks on Cynan. But, once he was dead, the assaults on North Wales began again. Just as Caradog seems to have been acceptable as a neighbour to Offa, Cynan seems to have been acceptable to Coenwulf. Hywel may only have survived thanks to the divided situation in Mercia which was to follow.

A hidden war with the kingdoms of South West Wales

Over the decade following 807, it would seem that there were an unusually high number of royal deaths in the kingdom of Dyfed (then limited broadly to Pembrokeshire) and its neighbour Seisyllwg (essentially Ceredigion and the Tywi Valley). Very little is known about Seisyllwg, other than its border disputes with Dyfed and Morgannwg. But then, until Hyfiadd, not much is known about Dyfed, despite the more familiar 1974 county name.

However, we do know that in this period the dominant royals of Dyfed were the sons of Maredudd: Rhain (died 808), Owain (died 811) and Rhain’s son, Triffyn (died 814). Arthen of Seisyllwg, son of Seisyll himself, also seems to have died at the start of this period, possibly during an eclipse of the sun. [There was an annular eclipse over parts of the British Isles in February 807.] Cadell ap Brochfael of Powys seems to have died around 808 as well.

Although it is almost a whole decade later, we do know that around 818, Coenwulf crushed Dyfed. Mercia was truly beyond its usual Welsh haunts which had started with Powys and then tended to spread northwards into Gwynedd. It is not obvious how Mercia was dragged into this war with other parts of Wales. Even centuries later the ‘interior’ of Wales was seen as a type of Afghanistan for even a ‘united’ England. Harold Godwineson (of Hastings fame) gained much of his reputation as a military man fighting in this difficult terrain.

Is it possible that for a whole decade Mercia was engaged in a wholesale war with Dyfed and Seisyllwg? It would raise all sorts of issues especially about Mercia’s relationship with the mix of potentially unco-operative territories in between.

Cweonthryth and the argument over lay control of ecclesiastical lands in Kent

Cweonthryth (lit. ‘Female power’, no less) was Coenwulf’s daughter. The king decided to give her control of large chunks of land in Kent, under secular law – whereas they had formerly been under ecclesiastic control. Such actions brough Coenwulf into conflict with Aethelheard’s successor as Archbishop of Canterbury.

This was Wulfred and, at the Council of Chelsea of 816, he launched an attack on the king regarding lands at Reculver and (one would assume) Minister-in-Thanet, although ‘Southminster’ could have been a number of other locations.

This dispute with Cweonthryth’s property rights was to drag on beyond Coenwulf’s reign and not be settled until the 825 Synod at Clofesho. Cweonthryth was evidently regarded as heir to lands – but, presumably, not power over the kingdom. ‘Female power’ had limits after all! By the time it was settled Cweonthryth was Abbess of Southminster.

It is hard to guess what influence a change of dynasty had on how the decision was implemented. Cweonwulf seemingly held the land books (as in bocland) of Winchcombe but there was now a B dynasty king who intervened: Beornwulf (see later in this post). In 827 she was compelled to surrender lands to Wulfred.

Coenwulf’s death and a possible additional king?

The 12th century Anglo-Norman writer, Gaimar, seems to indicate that Coenwulf died at Basingwerk (Dinas Basing, Flintshire). That may indicate that he was either planning or was already engaged in a war with the North Welsh which was focused on a corridor through what is now North East Wales. Perhaps tellingly, Degannwy was considerably further west along the North coast.

With Coenwulf dead, one of his brothers took over. But which one?

Throughout Mediaeval England a ‘Saint Kenelm’ was venerated. There is no doubt who this person was: Coenwulf’s brother, Coenhelm. A range of churches are dedicated to him to this day in Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Dorset and Worcestershire.

We should not jump to conclusions: any mention of him having been king of Mercia dates to centuries later. But it is clear that he did exist and that he was part of the Royal Family at the time.

The Central England vacuum: Mercia between 821 and 823

The Saint Kenelm story belongs in a wider context of the early 820s crisis. Just to throw things into some perspective: financial services people always watch their own backs. And they did at this point: minting coins with no king’s name upon them. That’s ‘hedging’ for you!

Before we move on though, there is a critical consideration at this point…

The impact of Coenwulf’s death on the political situation in East Anglia

Aethelstan was not on the throne of East Anglia when Coenwulf died in 821. In fact, we don’t know much about East Anglian local politics since it fell under Mercian control in the 790s. He may well already have been a local leader of some sort.

However, it is possible that the later king, Aethelstan of East Anglia, attempted some sort of coup at this point. If this attempted coup did take place, then it was brought back under control by Ceolwulf. And either Ceolwulf brokered some sort of alliance or the attempted coup against Mercia cannot have been that serious. But, possibly, simply surviving this gave Aethelstan aspirations?

Situation around 822
Central EnglandMerciaCeolwulf
   
   
Other AS KingdomsNorthumbriaEanred
 WessexEcgberht
 SussexNo real records
 KentDirect Mercian control: Ceolwulf
 East AngliaUnder Mercian control
 EssexPossibly under Mercia
   
British & Gaelic KingdomsDumnonia / West WealasUnclear – possibly Mordaf ap Hopkin
 GwyneddHywel (usually considered to be son of Rhodri – but far more likely to have been son of Caradog ap Meirion)
 PowysCyngen ap Cadell
 ElmetUnder Northumbrian control
 Alt CludUnclear – perhaps under Dumnagual
 RhegedRheged still under Northumbria
 Dal RiataDomnall mac Caustantin
 PictsOengus II, brother of Caustantin
 GwentIdwallon ap Gwrgant

Instability continued. The name suggests that Ceolwulf might have been Coenwulf’s brother. But he was destined to fall a long way short of his brother’s quarter of a century reign.

Stenton points out that he must have swiftly restarted and led a campaign against the Northern Welsh. But he may also have allowed his attention to drift from developments back at home in Mercia Proper.

Retrospectively, a document from the 825 Clofesho laments ‘much discord and… disagreements between kings, nobles, bishops and ministers’ during his reign. Or is this just propaganda from a time when the B dynasty had reasserted itself?

The situation in Wales

As already noted above, there is an issue here because although many authors place Degannwy in Coenwulf’s reign, reconstructed chronologies from Welsh sources tend to place this in 822, meaning that that event would have taken place in this very messy period.

I do not necessarily accept this but we should not rule it out. Degannwy had been a critical site to the North Welsh since Roman times. No place speaks of the freedom of North Wales as clearly as Degannwy – Maelgwn Fawr’s rock, Maglocunus’ early capital of Gwynedd before its transfer to Anglesey. Some sense of the historic importance of Degannwy can be gained from Davies’ brief note of the glass findings there – sourced from Western France, Greek Attica and even the borders of the Black Sea.

And that is about it! So, was there really nothing of importance in his reign or was the capture of Degannwy one of the crowning glories of Mercian expansionism at the heart of his efforts?

And, every bit as importantly, did Beornwulf use the focus on Wales as an opportunity to get a grip on Mercia proper?

A man named Beornwulf is mentioned as having witnessed a charter of Coenwulf in 812 and another of Ceolwulf in 823, but his position on both suggests that he was not of an exceptionally high rank. Nevertheless, Beornwulf deposed Ceolwulf in 823, signalling a return to the B dynasty.

If he came to power with a focus on the ‘English’ dependencies and Mercia proper, then that might make some sense. Stenton draws attention to the fact that Beornwulf’s authority was recognised in Essex, Middlesex and Kent and that he was the dominant figure in Southern England probably right up until the summer of 825.

It is clear that Beornwulf worked closely with Archbishop Wulfred, settling the dispute against Cweonthryth.

He also appears to have followed what was becoming the traditional line of imposing a ‘brother-puppet’ on Kent – this time in the form of King Bealdred.

But it is also clear that this was a period of considerable uncertainty in the far South East as well.

Coinage should send us a message of alarm bells ringing. There is a complete break in coinage in East Kent which is not replicated in the Rochester area. The relationship of the traditional divide in Kent between the ‘Men of Kent’ and the ‘Kentish Men’ with Beornwulf seems to have been different. But it is now impossible to piece together.

Mercian aggression against Wessex under Beornwulf

It seems that Beornwulf was fairly aggressive against Ecgberht of Wessex in an attempt to take advantage of the latter’s skirmishes with Dumnonia. The picture amongst the West Wealas is completely obscure at this point. A far later document which resembles a genealogy might imply that the king around this time was one Henman – but that might well be a distraction. There are other possibilities such as Mordaf or even Fferferdyn. We simply have no dates so everything is little more than a wild guess. Henman hardly sounds Cornish, does it? And the son of one Oswald? There must be a million things we don’t know about this period of West ‘Welsh’ history!

Ecgberht of Wessex and his wars against the West Wealas

However, campaigns against Dumnonia do seem to have been characteristic of Ecgberht’s whole reign in Wessex and the Battle of Gafulford in 825 (823 in the ASC) stands out. Unfortunately, the ASC entry is rather ambiguous: Her waes Weala gefeoht Defna aet Gafulford. Suggested sites for the battle have tended to be too far west in my opinion.

It is a shame that we cannot piece together more of this. We know that in August 825 Ecgberht was signing a charter in a place called Creodantreow (a place that should have been come to be known as Credantree – usually assumed to be Crediton but the River Creedy is almost certainly Celtic in name origin anyway). A decade earlier he is supposed to have ravaged Cornwall from one end to the other although it is unclear what almost any part of that statement meant. A month later he was fighting Mercia at Ellendun outside modern-day Swindon (very possibly Wroughton between Swindon and Avebury).

This is usually the point cited as the end of Mercia as a superpower and the moment when Wessex’ rise transmuted into some sort of historical inevitability. There is no such thing, of course. And the whole scenario is woefully simplistic. The strategic importance of the battle may well have been less than traditionally assumed, built into a self-defining West Saxon narrative.

Back to Gafulford: Defna (the people of Devon) is also awkward. Why is the standard ‘West Saxons’ not used? Who were the ‘Defna’ otherwise?

Situation around 825
Central EnglandMerciaBeornwulf
   
   
Other AS KingdomsNorthumbriaEanred
 WessexEcgberht
 SussexNo real records
 KentEcgberht of Wessex probably with son, Aethelwulf
 East AngliaUnder Mercian control
 EssexUnder Wessex
   
British & Gaelic KingdomsDumnonia / West WealasUnclear – possibly Mordaf ap Hopkin
(It is possible that he was just king of a sub-region)
 GwyneddMerfyn Frych
 PowysCyngen ap Cadell
 ElmetUnder Northumbrian control
 Alt CludUnclear – perhaps under Dumnagual
 RhegedRheged still under Northumbria
 Dal RiataDomnall mac Caustantin
 PictsOengus II, brother of Caustantin
 GwentIdwallon ap Gwrgant

Despite the loss at Ellendun, Beornwulf was still alive and in power in 826. In any case, we need to revisit the assumption that Ellendun was absolutely critical to the (limited) future of Mercia.

What happened in East Anglia in the mid-820s?

This might seem like an almost abstract question. However, it could be critical in the decline of Mercia. And central to this potential piece of history is Aethelstan of the East Angles. We have already mentioned him earlier, but at this point, did he fulfil his aspirations?

As with the other kings of East Anglia, there is very little textual information available. However, Aethelstan did leave an extensive coinage of both portrait and non-portrait types.

Aethelstan of East Anglia coin, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Most ‘recent’ Mercian kings had developed a penchant for ending their lives in North Wales. Tied to his focus on the ‘non-Welsh’ Mercian territories, did he now set an alternative trend: namely, deaths triggered by instabilities in East Anglia?

So, we know almost nothing about Aethelstan. But Beornwulf’s death may have been associated with Aethelstan’s attempt to take advantage of the general situation of political instability.

Zaluckyj suggests that Ludeca was a ‘probably kinsman of Beornwulf’ but it is not obvious why. No other king’s name in Mercia begins with L. But he is likely to have be an ealdorman. We know that Ludeca was even present at the 825 Synod of Clofesho. My guess here is that we are essentially dealing with a military man who took the opportunity to right what he perceived as military weakness. It did not work though…

Probably only a few months after Beornwulf’s disastrous campaign in East Anglia, Ludeca replicated it. It was another fateful attack.

However a coin find in 2015 suggests that Ludeca was holding London, whereas previous thinking assumed that London was lost to Mercia after Ellendun.

Ludeca was killed alongside five senior ealdormen. It is not clear whether this was directly related to the attack on East Anglia or not.

East Anglia’s situation under Beornwulf and Ludeca

There is every indication that in this period East Anglia was a thorn in Mercia’s eastern flank. What had changed since the earlier period in which the East Angles could almost always see their shared heritage with Mercia as a cause for alliance? Basically, we have three blank decades in East Anglia and anything could have been happening.

Unfortunately, we have so little in the way of indications as to what was happening around 826 / 827 but the deaths of both King Beornwulf and King Ludeca within a matter of months and their focus on the eastern kingdom should be indicative in some fashion.

The East Angles evidently had an ‘unconscious ally’ in the intervening period. It makes sense that East Anglian aspirations of independence were forged in the period in which Mercia was concentrated on crushing the independence of kingdoms to the west of it (Powys, the greater challenge of Gwynedd, Dyfed and Seisyllwg).

Sometime around 827 East Anglia seems to have grasped the opportunity for renewed independence – and in all essentials, managed to win it. Furthermore, it seems to have held it until at least the death of Eadmund (Edmund the Martyr) in 869 – by ninth century standards, quite a long time. A few years later they fell under Danish control.

Yet another Mercian king – although this one would reign twice. Hence the red gap – indicating direct occupation by Wessex.

Wiglaf was very probably not genuinely of royal stock. He seems to have gone to great lengths to link himself with Mercian royal lines. He arranged for his son, Wigmund, to marry Aelfflead, Ceolwulf’s daughter. It is also possible that Wiglaf’s wife, Cynethryth, was of royal blood as well.

It does feel as though such matters might have been becoming more important, alongside the traditional right of simply seizing the kingdom by brute military force.

Nevertheless, in 829 Ecgfrith of Wessex became the eighth Bretwalda in the mind of Bede, holding all land south of the River Humber. He may have gone further too.

It is suspiciously never mentioned by the ASC, which one would expect to dwell upon it, but Roger of Wendover later claimed that there was the Battle of Dore against Northumbria as a result of which Eanred was put under tribute. Dore was a village in Derbyshire but is now on the edge of the metropolitan area of Sheffield. It does all seem a little bit dubious. Unhelpfully, almost nothing is known about Eanred, despite the fact that he ruled for at least three decades – and recent discoveries suggest, perhaps more with a serious review of monarchic dates in mid-ninth century Northumbria far from out of the question. Despite almost nothing being known about Eanred, we will be discussing him again later in the post.

The return of Wiglaf and how it might have come about

The whereabouts of Wiglaf during the period in which Ecgberht was in command of Mercia are a mystery.

An additional mystery must be how he came to be back in command of Mercia in 830. The ASC simply reports that in 830, Wiglaf “obtained the kingdom of Mercia again”. Stenton argued that the wording suggested that it was achieved by force. Furthermore, there is some evidence for a revival in Mercian authority: an 836 grant to the minster of Hanbury (near Droitwich) was witnessed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and almost all the southern bishops but makes no mention of Ecgberht’s authority. Let us keep all possibilities in mind at this point. Has the end of independent kingdoms in the South East been a bit overdone?

However, Keynes has pointed out that we have no evidence of any Mercian minting in the 830s, suggesting that its economy was under the control of others. It seems more likely that Ecgberht found it politically expedient to give Wiglaf back some limited control, especially given that Ecgberht had come to power with Frankish backing – which he no longer enjoyed. It might also imply that Wiglaf never needed to go into exile.

Mercia and the South East at the time of Wiglaf

Only three charters from Wiglaf’s second period of tenure survive, covering the period from 831 to 836 and a wide-ranging area: Hayes in Middlesex, Crowland in the Lincolnshire Fens and Worcestershire. There is no mention of Ecgberht in any of them. Can we be certain that Ecgberht continually retained the Southeastern ‘provinces’?

I think all sorts of things were going on and they are obfuscated behind a West Saxon gloss on events.

Let us take the situation in Essex, for example. Conventional thinking takes on board the fact that the ‘last’ king of Essex, Sigered, ceded his kingdom to Wessex in 825, having already accepted reduced status under Mercian overlordship.

That fits nicely with Mercia having lost everything at Ellendun. It just does not fit especially neatly with the emerging historical record. For Mercia clearly had an interest in someone known as Sigeric II in the 830s. Essex had a history of joint and divided kingship. Very possibly, Wiglaf had some sort of ally in a part of Essex. It may not have been enough, of course. But it does suggest to me that Mercia still had its advocates in the South East, that some of them might have been significant power players and that Wessex had good reason to take nothing for granted and had good incentives to secure reasonable relations with their northern neighbour whenever practicably possible.

Is this what fostered what appears to have been an increasing trend towards co-operation between Wessex and Mercia?

Ecgberht and Wiglaf as allies?

Whitehead suggests that Ecgberht might have needed Wiglaf as an ally against ‘the Welsh’. But it is equally possible that he might already have had his eyes cast in the opposite direction. Although Danish tactics had not yet shifted towards settlement, a looming problem with them might already have been detected.

Furthermore, the status of East Anglia may have made it especially open to risks. If Aethelstan of the East Angles had led a revolt in circa 825 and possibly even been in charge of the country during the period in which both Ludeca and Beornwulf were killed, he may have been open to offers of foreign mercenary defence.

But what if the issue really was Wales?

Situation around 830
Central EnglandMerciaWiglaf – having regained kingdom from Ecgberht of Wessex
   
   
Other AS KingdomsNorthumbriaEanred
 WessexEcgberht
 SussexUnder West Saxon control
 KentEcgberht of Wessex probably with son, Aethelwulf
 East AngliaAethelstan of East Anglia
 EssexUnder Wessex
   
British & Gaelic KingdomsDumnonia / West WealasUnclear – possibly Mordaf ap Hopkin
 GwyneddMerfyn Frych
 PowysCyngen ap Cadell
 ElmetUnder Northumbrian control
 Alt CludUnclear – perhaps under Dumnagual
 RhegedRheged still under Northumbria
 Dal RiataDomnall mac Caustantin
 PictsOengus II, brother of Caustantin
 GwentIdwallon ap Gwrgant

More W Kings?

It is possible that after Wiglaf, Wigmund, his son, reigned briefly. It is not guaranteed though. He may easily have died before his father. A third possibility is that for some time he was officially co-ruler with his father.

He married Aelfflaed, daughter of Ceolwulf I. Their son, Wigstan, refused kingship and took monastic orders instead. William of Malmesbury claims that Wigstan was murdered when he forbade the marriage of his mother and Beorhtfrith, son of the next king.

Beorhtwulf’s reign is often completely overlooked. However, for the standards of the period in Mercia, twelve years is actually quite a long time – longer than Wiglaf’s reign. It had an auspicious start too, assuming that Beorhtwulf is the ‘Berthrwyd’ mentioned in 838 in Welsh records (to which we have probably got to add a couple of years) at the Battle of Cyfeiliog / Catill. Later sources suggest that the Welsh were given leave to quit their houses. But the real event is that Mercia slew Merfyn Frych at this point.

Merfyn the Freckled is usually seen as replacing the line of the traditional Cunedda and may well have been from the Isle of Man – although there is another genealogy in the Harleian. Unhelpfully, there are undoubtedly profound obscurities in the relations between Man, Mon (Anglesey) and Gwynedd in the century. In the second half of the 820s, there were dramatic changes in Ulster and in Scandinavian activity down the western coasts.

Given the potential importance of that event, it is interesting to note that so little is made of it. far from being in complete decline, Mercia’s military domination had just shifted westward.

Beorhtwulf – the individual & his society

It is possible that Beorhtwulf’s first appearance in the surviving historical record was in 836 in one of Wiglaf’s charters. We know the name of his wife – Saethryth – and they seem to have had at least two male offspring (Beorhtric and Beorhtfrith). I am wondering whether her name displays a latent East Angle heritage? It doesn’t seem to be an especially ideal name for someone from Mercia: ‘Sea Power’ in a country with no maritime outlets now.

During Beorhtwulf’s reign the minting of Mercian restarted – a clear sign of independence from Wessex. Or so some have argued. Others have suggested that it was part of some state regeneration plan in response to Viking attacks. It seems too early to be that to me. After years in which the coins used throughout Mercia had been minted in the moneying centres of Wessex, die-casting skills had disappeared north of the Thames. Mercia had to look to West Kent to source those skills now (Rochester seems to have been used by Mercia at this point) and we know it was doing so from about the second year of Beorhtwulf’s reign.

The status of Berkshire in the 840s and 850s and Ealdorman Aethelwulf

And speaking of the Thames as the boundary between Wessex and Mercia…

The status of Berkshire is especially problematic at this time. Wormald maintains that in 844 Berkshire must still have been in Mercian hands and argues that it had been since Offa’s time.

However, we also know that the most famous king of the West Saxons, Aelfred (Alfred the Great) was born in Wantage (then in Berkshire) sometime between 847 and 849. It seems unlikely that he was actually born in Mercia. In this decade did Wessex extend as far north as the Vale of White Horse whilst Mercia extended south of the Thames in Central Berkshire?

In 868 under King Aethelwulf of Wessex, there is a Berkshire charter of Aethelswith, Burgred of Mercia’s wife and, of course, Aelfred of Wessex’s sister.

The picture becomes more complex when we start looking at Aethelwulf – not Aelfred’s father, but the local ealdorman. He seems to have started out working for Mercia but then transferred to the West Saxon court. In 862 Aethelwulf received ten hides of land at Wittenham (theoretically on the ‘Old Berkshire’ side of the River) from King Aethelred of Wessex, Aelfred’s brother.

The manner of his death complicates matters further. Those who have read my blog about Aelfred will already know about the Battle of Reading in 871. It was the second encounter between ‘The Host’ and Wessex that winter, with the Vikings being led by Bagsecg and Halfdan Ragnarsson and the West Saxons by King Aethelred and his brother, Aelfred.

Refer to caption
‘Bagsecg’ – British Library

Three days after the Vikings arrived at Reading, they sent out a large foraging party, which was defeated by an army of local levies under Aethelwulf, ealdorman at the Battle of Englefield. After another four days, the West Saxons fought their way to the town, slaughtering all the Danes they found outside, but when they reached the town gates, the Danes burst out and successfully counter-attacked. Among the dead was Aethelwulf who is believed to have been pursuing Danes on a road south of Pangbourne.

The point of relating this is that his body was sent back to Mercia to be buried at Northweorthige (‘Northworthy’) in the Bishopric of Leicester, and we are already told the Danish equivalent name: Derby.

The later years of Beorhtwulf’s reign

Beorhtwulf’s reign may have started with such a significant event. But the last years of it look as though they might be obscuring something. Did he really make it through to 852 with the kingdom intact?

We know that in 851 a Danish fleet landed at Thanet. But I think that this may only have been a small part of the political instabilities of the time.

‘Eanred Rex’ and Trewhiddle?

We have already mentioned Eanred of Northumbria – alongside the facts that we know almost nothing about him and that it is possible that he was both alive and ruling a lot later than the previously assumed date of his death. That is important because now comes a potential anomaly.

In Cornwall in 1744 AD, miners looking for tin seams discovered a hoard of coins from Mercia and Wessex, together with a chalice and a strange, silver item, in the form of an instrument of punishment. The find became known as the ‘Trewhiddle Hoard’, after the place on the edge of St Austell. It is perhaps best known for yielding its name to a style of Anglo-Saxon artwork in jewellery. From coin evidence we can guess it was probably buried there about 868. And that, of course, makes a lot of sense given the situation with the Danes at the time.

File:Trewhiddle Hoard.jpg
Items from the Trewhiddle Hoard in the British Museum.

But amidst the usual coins was a silver penny issued under the name ‘Eadred Rex’. Its style is distinctly Mercian and a million miles away from the low quality ‘styccas’ being issued by Northumbria about 850. It was initially considered to be from an unknown king of a ‘Southern kingdom’. But who was in such a position in Southern England at the time? Have we not been told over and over again that the southern kingdoms were all now under Wessex’s rule?

Either the collapse of Southern kingdom independence has been notoriously overplayed or we have underestimated the power of Northumbria at the time – perhaps even both?

Furthermore, we know that the traditional view that Eanred had died around 840 now looks dubious on a multitude of fronts. The fact that it was the only Eanred silver penny known has also faded. The Viking overwintering activities have now given us further examples of silver pennies issued by Eanred – for example, a number have been found in Nottinghamshire.

Did these coins just shift around with the Vikings? If so, why is something stylistically circa 850 in the name of a king who is supposed to have died a decade earlier? Is it possible that he was not only alive in 850, but taking full advantage of the upheaval in the North East Midlands?

Situation around 848
Central EnglandMerciaBeorhtwulf
   
   
Other AS KingdomsNorthumbriaOsberht* [I have gone with that here but everything about Northumbria in this period could be radically rewritten]
 WessexAethelwulf
 SussexUnder West Saxon control
 KentAethelwulf of Wessex and his son,m Aethelstan 
 East AngliaAethelweard
 EssexUnder Wessex
   
British & Gaelic KingdomsDumnonia / West WealasUnclear – possibly Fferferdyn ap Mordaf
 GwyneddRhodri Mawr (Rhodri the Great)
 PowysCyngen ap Cadell
 ElmetUnder Northumbrian control
 Alt CludUnclear – perhaps under Dumnagual
 RhegedRheged annexed by Northumbia
 Dal RiataCinead mac Ailpin
 PictsChaotic situation with large number of claimants
 Gwent / MorgannwgMeurig ap Hywel

The alternative Rollason Chronology suggests that Eanred might have lived as late as 854 before his son, Aethelred, took over. Aethelred would have been king 854-862 with a possible brief break as the usurper, Raedwulf, attempted a coup around 858. Aethelred was slain and replaced by Osberht who, in turn, ran into problems with a man who might potentially have been his brother, Aelle. Both were replaced with the Viking puppet, Ecgberht I.

Anchoring Mercia and Northumbria in this period

The problem with Northumbria’s history in this period is that we have decades without a proper anchor. At the later end, there is really only one, covering the period 866 – 872. This is the period of the Viking takeover of York, its puppet regime under Ecgberht I and his fleeing to Mercia in Burgred’s time. Accepting the Rollason ‘re-chronology’ would mean condensing the chaotic situation with Osberht and Aelle into a four year gap between 862 and 866.

Meanwhile in Wales…

The Welsh Annals report the death of Meurig at the hands of the ‘Saxons’ – although this often means the Mercians. There is some confusion of dates but this is definitely Meurig ap Hywel and not his successor Meurig ap Arthfael Hen. You will note above that he is the king of Gwent – a somewhat unusual adversary for Mercia. Meurig was said to have joined Rhodri in defeating the English but to have fallen in battle on Anglesey.

Again, the order of events is confused but Meurig’s brother, Ithel (Illtyd), also seems to have aided Rhodri and died in battle against the invasions of Beorhtwulf and his brother ‘Ithelwilf’ – for which we can take ‘brother-in-law’, Aethelwulf? The most likely situation is that both Gwentish brothers died over 848 / 49. Welsh sources tend to identify Brycheiniog (around Brecon) as a treacherous territory amongst the Welsh kingdoms. We know that there are a number of unique characteristics about the area, such as its strangely ‘Irish’ capital’s architecture.

Brycheiniog took its name from a legendary leader but both are associated with the word, ‘freckled’. The elite of this region appear to have hailed from Leinster in South East Ireland – although they established a history of inter-marriage and alliances with the South West of Wales. The crannog settlement on the shores of Llangorse Lake (Llyn Syfaddan or in Mercian, Brecenanmere) was later targeted by Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians in 916.

The Harleian Chronicle claims a rather different sequence of events with Ithel ap Hywel being killed by Brycheiniog at the Battle of Ffinnant – for which there are two local possible sites: one in Brycheiniog itself and one in the small territory to the north, Buellt (Builth). There are several other Ffinnant possibilities.

Not much attempt has been made to reconstruct the leaders of Brycheiniog. We do know that Elisedd ap Tewdwr was under attack by Vikings in 896. His name tells us that his father was Tewdwr and his grandfather appears to have been Gruffydd.

It seems likely that one of them was involved in the treachery against the Gwent / Gwynedd alliance.

Burgred may have been a kinsman to his predecessor but we don’t really have any evidence to support this, other than another B name. The assumption is often that he came to power as a client king to Aethelwulf of Wessex.

Mercia and Wessex wage war on the ‘Inland Welsh’

In 853 Burgred married Aethelwulf of Wessex’s daughter, Aelfred’s sister, Aethelswith, at the royal vill of Chippenham.

Not only did he marry into the Wessex Royal Family but he also sought Aethelwulf’s help in fighting the ‘Inland Welsh’ – for which support seems to have been immediately granted.

Kirby draws attention to the fact that this invasion might map nicely to Cyngen ap Cadell (King of Powys from 808 onwards) going to Rome, where he would die in 855.

By 865 Mercia was operating deep in Gwynedd, even reaching as far as Anglesey. It is also possible / probable that there were ongoing hostilities with the kingdoms of South Wales. The Harleian Chronicle suggests that in 864, one ‘Duta’ laid waste to Glywysing (broadly the Vale of Glamorgan – by the ninth century the old Ventia was often divided between Gwent and Glywysing). The name looks like it ought to be English but it is not clear whether this is an action of Mercia or not. By the way, I am not completely convinced by the ‘Englishness’ of the name; there is a witness to several actions of Hywel the Good with exactly the same name (chronologically later, of course!).

Despite ths military activity, Burgred’s access to wealth had been limited by the loss of Kent and its control of Continental trade routes.

The ‘Great Heathen Army’ had made peace with East Anglia in 865, two years before it took control of York and overwintered in Nottingham – directly on Mercian territory.

Increased integration between Wessex and Burgred’s Mercia

Although signs of it are curiously missing from the ASC, it is clear that Mercia and Wessex continued to become ever more integrated. The most important element is absent from the ASC as well but Asser in his biography of Aelfred’s life tells us about it.

Queen Ealhswith (BL, London) – not a contemporary image, of course!

It seems that in 865 Aelfred married a Mercian noblewoman. He did not name her but we know her name – Ealhswith. Asser did tell us a bit about her family though. She was the daughter of the enigmatic Aethelwulf Mucil, ealdorman of the Gaini – who gave their name to Gainsborough – and a lady called Eadburh.

We know that Aelfred’s spouse had a brother, Aethelwulf, and from a charter of 897, it would appear that he was fairly closely related to the Mercian Royal Family. Asser tells us that the festivities went on for days and took place on Mercian territory – indeed, at Gainsborough. But who exactly was Ealhswith? She witnessed no surviving charters. Abels suggests that she was descended from Coenwulf. Does that imply that she was descended via Cweonthryth?

If this was simply a territorial marriage alliance, then things kicked into action in 868, when Burgred and Aethelred of Wessex joined forces and sieged Nottingham. The Danes returned to York before descending on East Anglia, where they martyred King Eadmund.

The 870s: Burgred & the Welsh

Thanks to a forged document which can no longer be taken at face value, it is unclear what Burgred may have been doing in 871. However, it is quite possible that he was already deeply engaged with the Welsh.

In fact. there are several disparate pieces of evidence that the North Welsh and Mercia were fully involved in a drawn-out war. Whitehead suggests that, if that was the case, it may explain why there was such a lack of attention on what was happening on the eastern fringes of Mercia and the tendency always to broker peace with payments on that side of the land. Sources seem to be fairly unanimous that Mercia paid the Danes tribute. There was not much unusual about paying war bands off.

But the failure to focus was undoubtedly a mistake on Burgred’s part. Over the winter of 873/74 the Vikings moved from Lindsey and took winter quarters at Repton. There was almost nowhere else in the whole of Mercia with a more ‘ancestral’ connection by this time. they also managed to sack the capital, Tamworth.

In short, Burgred was driven out the country. William of Malmesbury tells us that he died at Pavia. That is not the general opinion: most sources suggest that he died in Rome and was buried at what is now Santo Spirito in Sassia.

However, we have to question the exact strength of the marriage alliance between Wessex and Mercia at this point. There is no hint anywhere that Wessex stepped in to help Burgred out at this critical time. Furthermore, although for many years there were no indications of coin hoard burials in this period in Mercia, in 1998 Birmingham University field archaeology unit discovered just that in Banbury, buried in some circular trench around what is now the shopping centre but which was in Mediaeval times the castle. A sole coin from this hoard, bearing Burgred’s head, is in Banbury Museum.

Did Aelfred play this a bit like Stalin in Eastern Europe – i.e. allowing chaos to create a weaker host; being ‘strategically absent’? If so, then he judged it wrongly because the Danes were watching the ongoing B / C dynastic dispute and considered Coenwulf a good bet.

There are some signs that Burgred left behind a son, Beortferth, but if he did it was to make no material difference as Mercia’s next – and (at least nominally) final – king was to be from the C dynasty.

Extraordinarily, as the the very last king of an even nominally independent Mercia, writers of histories have skimmed over Ceolwulf as though he was of no importance. Some even failed to mention him completely. This is supposedly rooted in later Anglo-Saxon historians having a complete distaste for his collusion with the Danish. But their refusal to engage with his life has left later historians with huge insoluble problems. It is ironic really because, if Ceolwulf’s reign really ended in 879, then so did the Kingdom of Mercia – for much of Anglo-Saxon history the ‘superpower’ of England. Let us start with the traditional interpretation – such as it is – and then work backwards.

Ceolwulf has a tag attached to his name, thanks to the ASC: ‘Foolish thane’. So, was he foolish? And was he merely a thane / thegn, rather than of royal blood?

On the latter, that perhaps mattered rather less in Mercia than it did Wessex (although it might just have been beginning to matter a little more). We have seen how previous kings made spurious claims to be descended from Pybba. But there is nothing in the documentation which suggests that Ceolwulf did not have a reasonable claim to the throne of Mercia. At this point, we might also ask ourselves how closely he might have been related to Burgred’s wife?

But there is actually another angle. Far from a mere thane, does Ceolwulf tie this century up by being grandson of Ceolwulf I and son of Wigmund?

Was he foolish? Here political filters have deprived us of a critical moment in English history. Aelfred (i.e. Alfred the Great) is always seen as the indisputable enemy of Danish incursions into English territory. The reality is that, right from the start he was a pragmatist, willing to do a deal – even with the Danes – when that seemed the best option. Meanwhile, Ceolwulf is from the outset set up as a collaborator, a traitor to his people. There is no doubt that Ceolwulf was collaborating with the Danes – or at least to start with. But there was nothing new about compromise in Anglo-Saxon politics. And the Danes might have seemed only a little more ‘foreign’ that Ceolwulf’s southern neighbours.

However, if Ceolwulf was foolish, then Aelfred was too. In 2015 a remarkable coin hoard of over 200 coins and other assorted material was discovered by amateur detectorist, James Mather, near Watlington in Oxfordshire, now just off the M40 motorway. The hoard contained thirteen examples of the rare ‘Two Emperors’ penny that shows Alfred and Ceolwulf seated side by side below a winged angel, suggesting some sort of alliance between Wessex and Mercia.

The Watlington hoard Ashmolean
Watlington Hoard – Ashmolean Museum. Oxford. Note the bottom right coin or the one centre-top. Aelfred and Ceolwulf are shown together with a divine presence.

The Division of Mercia?

A convenient stigma which is attached to Ceolwulf is the Division of Mercia. We know what it means: the splitting of the land between Ceolwulf’s area of control and that of the Danes. But what exactly was split?

Stenton argued that all the signs are that the whole of eastern Mercia came under Danish control. It is all problematic. One wonders whether anything might be gained from Aelfred’s territorial treaty with Guthrum, which can only have been a matter of a few years’ later, sometime in the mid-880s? This too is open to some degree of misinterpretation because, beyond a certain point, the border may be deemed to be ‘understood’. But what does that imply: that there was already a recent precedent? Let us examine it anyway.

Copyright – British Library Corpus Christi, Cantab. This is a copy of the original, perhaps created around 1100. The geographical description begins four lines up from the bottom.

Here is the defined boundary. [By defining what is Wessex, by the way, it is also giving form to the existence of something else – namely, Guthrum’s territory, which previously has no formal existence.] “Up the Thames and then up the Lea, along the Lea to its source [near to Houghton Regis in Bedfordshire], then in a straight line to Bedford, then along the Ouse to Watling Street”. The Ouse and Watling Street meet at Stony Stratford on the northern edge of Milton Keynes. Wessex’s insistence on maintaining the area to the north of this creates a strange block of territory, which should be rights be in Mercia.

Accepting that, then what? Watling Street was a long-established boundary and the traditional interpretation has been that the frontier would be understood to run north-west from here into the heart of the Midlands, massively expanding Guthrum’s territory.

Adams explores the idea that it just runs down the Ouse from this point, taking Guthrum’s boundary off to the north-east and gradually towards the Wash.

So? The real problem is that we know almost nothing about the local politics of North East Mercia in the late 870s or early 880s. If the division really was along Watling Street, whilst Tamworth and Lichfield would have been under Mercian control, the ancestral lands around Repton would not have been. Much of what was left in Mercia Proper would have been territories formerly part of the Western lands: the Hwicce, Magonsaete and Wreocansaete.

So, Ceolwulf may well have arrived at a position of compromise with the Danes but he was a strategic mover. When Ceolwulf took the throne, he may have been doing so against a B dynastic competitor. He would indeed have been ‘foolish’ to underestimate what he was dealing with here. But I think he planned a (perhaps temporary) territorial shift of Mercia westwards – think of Communist Poland post-WW2 for a comparison.

Ceolwulf, Rhodri Mawr and Anarawd

Rhodri ap Merfyn was the successor to his father, Merfyn Frych, as King of Gwynedd from 844.

King Rhodri annexed neighbouring kingdoms – first Powys and then, more critically in the early 870s, Seisyllwg. By Ceolwulf’s accession, he controlled about 65% of what we would conceive as Modern Wales. Furthermore, he had fragmented access between the other kingdoms by driving a wedge north-south across the middle of Wales from Ynys Mon / Anglesey to Carmarthenshire’s southern coast.

By AlexD – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5563644. Ignore the ridiculous labelling of Western Mercia as ‘under Danish occupation’ even allowing for the Ceolwulf ‘puppet’ interpretation.

At the time, Wessex was probably engaged in fighting in the chaos of the collapse of Mercian influence in East Anglia.

The ‘Battle of Sunday’ and the Battle of Conwy

There is a lot of confusion about this period. It is not clear if the death of Rhodri Mawr happened at the ‘Battle of Sunday’ on Anglesey in 873 or in a different year. But it is generally assumed that he died at the hands of a Mercian army and almost certainly under Ceolwulf’s command.

The end of Mercia’s independence did not seem to stop a revenge battle taking place at Conwy in 881. Here Rhodri’s son, Anarawd fought with ‘Edryd Long Hair’, who we can probably assume to be Lord Aethelred. This time the Welsh were victorious.

However, initially Whitehead suggests that Ceolwulf may have died at the Battle of Conwy as he simply seems to disappear from the historical record some time after the division of Mercia. But she also admits that it is also possible that he was no longer active in Wales and suggests that the arrival of Guthrum of the Danish army in Circencester in 878/79 may not have been co-incidental.

But if he had still been alive, why is the Welsh version of events so focused on ‘Edryd’? Surely Welsh tradition would have made more of the killing in battle of a Mercian king? Or was Mercia already under the effective leadership of an ealdorman, a military practitioner whose abilities in the field were widely recognised as superior to those of the king? And the political situation may well have been such in Mercia that a coup could have taken place in the blink of an eyelid, almost unnoticed? If so, losing could have done his standing no favours.

Situation around 877
Central EnglandMerciaCeolwulf II
   
   
Other AS KingdomsNorthumbriaRicsige. Ricsige had replaced the Danish puppet, Ecgberht I, and had attempted to rule the whole kingdom of Northumbria. Around this time he was replaced by Ecgberht II but he appears to have ruled only north of the River Tyne. There is clearly some flux here.
 WessexAelfred (The Great)
 SussexUnder West Saxon control
 KentAethelred I of Wessex, son of Aelfred the Great
 East AngliaSub-kings Oswald & Aethelred II under Norse occupation
 EssexUnder Wessex
   
British & Gaelic KingdomsDumnonia / West WealasUnclear – Eluid
 GwyneddPossibly still Rhodri Mawr (the Great) or Anarawd ap Rhodri
 PowysUnder Gwynedd: Rhodri Mawr or Anarawd
 ElmetUnder Northumbrian control
 Alt CludArthgal ???
 RhegedThings are beginning to change in this region. The ‘Cumberland’ part may be coming under the influence of ‘Strath Cluade’. Rheged is becoming ‘Cumbria’.
 Dal RiataCompletely unclear period
 PictsAed mac Cineada
 GwentFfernfael ap Meurig

After all, the transition to Aethelred is peculiar. There were at least some residuals of the B dynasty still around: Brightsige son of the aetheling Beornoth?

Mercia after the end of formal independence

For more details of this period of history see my blog posts on Aelfred the Great and ‘After Aelfred’.

Ceolwulf may have been the last king of Mercia but Mercia’s story did not end with him. Indeed, it appears to have taken a long while for the ‘idea’ of Mercia to disappear. Perhaps it was still there as more than an administrative concept at the time of the Norman Conquest?

Unfortunately, Lord Aethelred did not leave much of what Whitehead calls a ‘paper trail’. He may have attested a couple of charters in the late 860s but, if this is him, he is not even styled as ‘dux’. There have been few – if any – academic suggestions that Aethelred was simply ‘appointed’ by Aelfred as some effective client.

We do not really know what was happening in 883. It seems to me that the ‘Danes’ spoken of at this time were not long-time, integrated settlers. Aelfred was not exactly a xenophobe. So, was there a fresh, new threat from invaders? It is clear that London was burned at this point and suffered much hardship. But Wessex was still focussed on Winchester. Aethelred of Mercia was put in charge of the city. Around this time he also married Aethelflaed, Aelfred’s daughter. they probably managed to operate fairly ‘independently’ – whilst absolutely recognising West Saxon overlordship. But in 899 Edward the Elder, Aethelflaed’s brother, became king in Wessex and things started to shift.

Aethelflaed was very possibly the first-born and raised somewhere other than the West Saxon court.

The B dynasty seems not to have disputed Aethelred’s seizure of command at this point, leaving it all the way through until 902 to revolt against the Mercian / West Saxon alliance, taking advantage of the Aethelwold rebellion, which effectively utilised Danish settlement of the East of England. There are still matters on which we have little grip for this period. A coin in the Silverdale Hoard seems to indicate that Aethelwold might even have been king on the North. Brihtsige of the B dynasty could have ended up as under-king had things turned out differently.

They did not ‘turn out differently’. But, at some point, Lord Aethelred was incapacitated. At this point, Aethelflaed’s role changed as she became politically more important.

File:Midland Map - 5 Boroughs 912 Ad.svg
Don’t ask how Shoebury ended up inland!

And this anomalous position became even further exacerbated when Aethelred died in around 911. At this moment, her brother, Edward the Elder of Wessex took both London and Oxford under his direct control. But he stopped there – temporarily.

Aelfwynn, daughter of Aethelflaed ruled Mercia for a few months, following her mother’s death in June 918. Edward did nothing at that point. However, the ASC is clear that three weeks prior to Christmas, she was taken into Wessex and ‘deprived of all control’ of Mercia.

Back to Part I here

Back to Part II here

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