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Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Angles of Central England

 

 

 

MapIclingas

From circa AD 520, and the beginnings of the East Engle domination of the eastern coast of Britain, this band of Angles gradually moved into the East Midlands, alongside other groups who eventually came to be known as the Middil Engle. They had emigrated from Angeln, the homeland of the Anglian peoples, around the start of the sixth century as part of a wholesale movement of peoples that apparently left Angeln deserted.

Documentary evidence for the migration, and the Anglian settlement of central England is minimal, nothing more than elements of an oral tradition that was written down centuries later, but a picture has emerged regarding one particular group of Anglians, the Iclingas, who went further westwards than any of the others and carved out a small kingdom for themselves which soon came to dominate its neighbours to the east. The man who led them into Britain was probably Eomaer, acclaimed by tradition as the last king of Angeln and father of Icel who gave his name to his newly settled people.

Based on the fact, pointed out by Edward Dawson under the East Engle entry, that the Angles, Saxons and Franks all used the 'ch' pronunciation of the letter 'c', he suggests a possible link between Icel and the British tribe of the Iceni. The first Angles to arrive in Britain appear to have settled in the territory of the Iceni (East Anglia). The 'i' at the end of the name is likely to be a Roman addition onto 'Icen', but Icen is already a plural form with the suffix '-en', which leaves the root name of that British tribe as either Ic or Ice. Sticking to the simplest possibility suggests 'ic' ('ich'). From that, Dawson suggests that the name of the founder of the Iclingas, Icel, is not really the name of a person but is an invented name to explain Icel-ingas after the true origin of the name was forgotten. The letter 'l' could be a diminutive, so if this is the name of a person, it could mean 'little ice' ('icha'). If the meaning was the same as for the Iceni themselves then Iclingas could mean something like 'travel people' - very apt. The result of this examination is that the Iclingas quite possibly formed in East Anglia but were then pushed westwards for whatever reason, perhaps by the subsequent rulers of the region. They forgot or failed to comprehend what their assumed name meant, and simply carried it as a badge of honour.

A slightly more cheeky alternative is that the 'ic', meaning 'I, me' was added to a diminutive '-el'. This would have generated 'little me', or perhaps 'little Ic', referring to the Iceni - a lesser or junior version of the once great tribe. Was there an unrecorded early Mercian king (sub-king?) who had been named 'little me' by his father?!

(Additional information by Edward Dawson and Dave Hayward, from The Oxford History of England: The English Settlements, J N L Meyers, from The Oxford History of England: Anglo-Saxon England, Sir Frank Stenton, from Mercian Studies, Ann Dornier (Ed), Leicester University Press 1977, and from External Link: Bosworth and Toller's Anglo-Saxon Dictionary.)

fl c.500

Eomær / Eomaer

Last king of Angeln. Led his people into Britain?

c.510s?

As the former territory of the Iceni is the first arrival point for many Angles arriving in Britain at this time, it seems reasonable to assume that the Iclingas have also followed this route (the Wash being the other main entry point in this region). One theory for why they end up in the East Midlands is that they are forced to migrate by the growing power of the Wuffingas, who subsequently form the East Engle kingdom.

A comment by Wendy Davies at a conference on Mercia which had been held in Leicester in 1975 is collated with others in a book called Mercian Studies. Amongst other comments, Ms Davies mentions from the analysis of various early documents that there is an invasion from East Anglia into what becomes Mercia in the early sixth century - exactly at the time proposed here. There is no indication of precisely where this invasion takes place or how far it penetrates to the west. Does it reach as far as Watling Street and also feed the creation of the Ciltern Saetan in Northamptonshire? Initially, of course, the Iclingas would be seen as nothing other than one more group of Middil Engle, one that decides not to head southwards from the Midlands, through the Vale of Aylesbury, to become Ciltern Saetan. Instead they remain in the Midlands to claim what appears to be territory from which no local native leader has emerged to organise its defences.

Marston St Lawrence
The finds from a site at Marston St Lawrence in Northamptonshire which were examined by Sir Henry Dryden in 1884 seemed to point to a large number of burials of women and younger people rather than warriors, and could have been Ciltern Saetan who were integrating with local Romano-Britons

FeatureAdditionally, in their earliest days in Britain, the Iclingas may have served in some capacity as a foederati force for Caer Went, perhaps also with some intermarriage with the existing population. This would make it easier for native Britons to accept them further west and would also explain the later Mercian tradition for mixing with, and allying themselves to, British elements against common Anglian foes.

fl c.520

Icel

Son. Founder of the Iclingas in a small Midlands domain?

fl c.540

Cnebba

Son. Ruled for about 10 years?

c.550

The territory in the East Midlands into which the Iclingas settle is varied, and not entirely attractive. It contains heavy clays around the lower Trent, sandy soil in Sherwood, the wolds of southern Nottinghamshire, and broken country between the Derwent and Erewash. The earliest settlements are in the Trent valley, either close to the river or a little way along its tributaries. The first pagan burials appear in these areas, datable to the middle of the century.

fl c.560

Cynewald

Son. Highly obscure.

c.580 - 593

Creoda / Cryda

Son. Earlier Creodas: Lindisware (c.500) & West Seaxe (534).

c.584

The first acknowledged king of Mercia (in later records at least), Creoda builds a fortress at Tamworth, the chief settlement of the Tomsæte who live in the valley of the River Tame in the West Midlands. This event probably suggests that they have been conquered or otherwise subjugated by the Iclingas (see the introduction for Mercia, below, for a detailed examination of this group).

The name Tamworth derives from 'Tame' and 'worþig', which seems to mean an enclosed space (according to Bosworth and Toller). meaning a fortified area, probably around a homestead. The word is probably cognate with Old English 'weard', meaning 'ward', a guarded or protected area. An Anglo-Saxon family would often place a low wall of wood, or even a hedge around the house, rootcellar, barn, and other buildings of a homestead. Such an arrangement would be a worþig or, in modern English, a 'worthy'.

c.593 - 606

Pybba

Son. Expanded the kingdom westwards, into British lands.

c.600 (or 584)

By this time the various Angle and Saxon peoples which have migrated westwards have formed settlements and perhaps even minor kingdoms of their own around the Midlands, of which the Iclingas are just one. The Iclingas gradually extend the range of their power by slowly amalgamating these peoples. This includes the North Engle in modern Nottinghamshire, the South Engle in modern Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and the Pecsætna in The Peak District. It is possible that the latter move into the Peak District as a client unit of the Iclinga.

Tamworth countryside
The countryside around Tamworth became the earliest base for the Iclingas, although it was actually the home of the Tomsæte, a group that seems to have been subjugated quickly by the Iclingas

At the heart of later Mercian territory, early conquests also include the Pencersæte in the West Midlands. It is unclear whether this and other groups had arrived first or had followed the Iclingas and are quickly subjugated. The Iclingas eventually become known by the March (border) territory they are conquering, and Mercia evolves into a major Anglo-Saxon kingdom over the course of the next century.

MapMercia (Myrcna)
Incorporating the Pecsaetan, Pencersæte, Tomsæte & Wreocensaetan

From circa AD 600 the Iclingas began absorbing the Saxon and Anglian kingdoms and tribes of the eastern Midlands into their territory (and probably a good deal of the remaining British population, too). They became known as Mercians, meaning '[the people] of the March'. The word 'march' comes from the Old English 'mierce', 'boundary', and meant 'the marches' or 'borderland'. Germanic states or regions such as the North March and Denmark were named for the same reason. One definite date given for this transformation from tribal domain to confirmable kingdom is 584, which is when the term Mercian was first used, but it probably occurred over the space of a generation or so.

The early Mercians held the main border between the Britons to the west, and the Saxons and Angles in the emerging Engla-land. They were instrumental in pushing back the borders of British kingdoms and territories such as Cynwidion to the south and Pengwern to the west (the latter of which at this time still stretched out to the east of modern Birmingham). Despite this, Pengwern became a strong ally of Mercia in the fight against the Bernicians from 613-656.

Mercia's kings liked to spend Christmas at Tamworth, one of the earliest and best-established parts of their domain where they felt particularly safe. The original Mercian bishopric was established at nearby Lichfield by St Chad in 669 (this being the important British city of Caer Luit Coyt). Along with Repton and Tamworth this formed the heartland of the early Mercian territory. Around this core there existed satellite peoples in tribal centres, under their own rulers at first, or subjected by Iclinga nobles, and these were absorbed one by one into the growing Mercian kingdom. These groups included the Pencersæte (or Pencersaete), meaning the 'Penk Valley settlers', who gave their name to modern Penkridge. Their name originated in the Brythonic words 'penno' and 'cruc', meaning 'head' (as in 'headwaters', for instance) and 'tumulus, hill' respectively. They were the 'dwellers of the top of the hill', and obviously had some contact with the local natives when they were settling, probably in the late sixth century. The alternative is that they were actually Britons who were now commanded by an Anglian lord.

To the south of modern Birmingham, the Pencersæte bordered the Tomsæte (or alternatively the Tomsaete or Tomsaetan) who lived in the valley of the River Tame in the West Midlands, and probably became established in Birmingham, Aston, Erdington, Handsworth, and perhaps Edgbaston and Harborne too. Their name translates as the 'Tame/Thame settlers', with the river's name being Brythonic in origin. They left their name in modern Tamworth, and were probably one of the first groups to be subsumed by the Iclingas (perhaps as early as 584 (see above), although they apparently retained their identity for quite some time - see 835).

To the north, the Mercians who invaded The Peak called themselves the Pecset (with 'set' evolving into 'settlers'), Pecsaetan or Pecsætna (the latter may be more in favour with modern scholars). To the east were the Middle Angles. To the west, in time, were the Wreocensaetan (Wrocenset) around Wroxeter and the Magonset around Kenchester in Herefordshire. All were absorbed in time by Mercia. To the south-west were the Hwicce, who eventually became subservient to Mercia.

(Additional information by Edward Dawson and Geoffrey Tobin, from The Oxford History of England: Anglo-Saxon England, Sir Frank Stenton, and from Mercia: The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Central England, Sarah Zaluckyj & Marge Feryok, 2001.)

606 - 626

Cearl / Ceorl

Son of Creoda? His widow married Edwin of Deira.

Cearl is not mentioned in the Mercian royal genealogy and his position here in the list, at the beginnings of Mercia, may not be universally accepted. He is not the son of the previous king, Pybba, but a kinsman - the twelfth century Henry of Huntingdon refers to him as such. Instead he has been linked to Pybba's predecessor, Creoda. He is definitely king of the Mercians, however. Bede, a staunch eighth century Northumbrian who bears no love for the Mercians, clearly labels him as such.

FeatureCearl also stands out for his distinctly unusual name. It hints at a profound shift in the rule of the early Mercian kingdom, suggesting an otherwise unproven (or even unsuspected) possible social revolt or cultural revolution in Mercia against proud, dictatorial high-born kings who ignored the wishes of the people. This may have forced the Mercian princes to adopt names in the style of the common freeman or warrior. Cearl himself provides this suggestion with his very name. A ceorl is the lowest rank of free man, a common warrior, just above the slaves and bondsmen in social rank. Why would a king be named after the ceorls?

The theory cannot be proven, of course, and is just one possibility for the king's unusual name. Failing a social revolt, perhaps it came about through a democratic tradition among some of the Angles who came to Britain from the Continent. Or perhaps the king emerged from lowly beginnings as part of a different kind of social revolution. In any case, Mercia shows a glaring difference in the names of its kings from most of the other Anglo-Saxons.

c.610 - 630

The Iclinga Mercians are probably one of the Anglian groups that help to force the collapse of the British kingdom of Cynwidion. The former kingdom is quickly absorbed by Mercia, pushing its border southwards to abut that of the Middel Seaxe.

Chiltern Hills
The Chiltern Hills contain territory that was probably easy to defend for the warriors of the post-Roman kingdom of Cynwidion, at least initially, until pressure from the north forced its collapse around this time

613?

In one of the bloodiest and hardest fought battles of its time, several British kings form a coalition to halt Æthelfrith of Bernicia at the Battle of Caer Legion (Chester). Iago of Gwynedd and Selyf of Powys are both killed, and the battle is a disastrous British defeat. Despite Æthelfrith's victory, he does not occupy the territory around Chester. Just who does is unknown, and the entire history of this region from the post-Roman period to the tenth century is extremely sketchy.

Cearl of the Mercians is also rumoured to have taken part in the Battle of Caer Legion, siding with local British tribes against Æthelfrith. A Mercian alliance with the British kingdoms is clearly unusual in terms of the gradual Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain, but it could be this act that sets a precedence. Mercia certainly does act in alliance with the Britons on several occasions over the next century. Sadly for Cearl, some scholars argue that when the British (and possibly Mercians) are defeated, it effectively ends Cearl's non-dynastic reign and opens the way for Penda son of Pybba to regain the throne for the Iclingas.

617

The fall of Elmet to the Bernicians of Edwin suddenly exposes the entire length of the northern border of both Pengwern and Mercia, making them likely next targets in the aggressive policy of Northumbrian expansion.

626 - 654

Penda

Son of Pybba. Ruled until 15 November 654.

? - 644

Eoba / Eawa

Brother. Death recorded by Annales Cambriae.

628

It seems probable that the Hwicce have been dominated until now by the West Seaxe. Cynegils and Cwichelm his son fight against Penda at Caer Ceri (Cirencester), which is within the territory of the Hwicce settlers. The fight ends with Penda dominant, although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle fails to give details, and he and Cynegils 'come to an agreement'. There is little doubt that the agreement involves handing over Caer Ceri and the territory along the Severn, and it is probably Penda who forges the disparate groups of the Hwicce into a Mercian sub-kingdom. By this time the Mercians also gain control of most of the former Middil Engle territory centred on Leicestershire, taking much of it from the East Engle.

Caer Ceri Roman gates
The days when the Roman gates at Caer Ceri looked this impressive were long over by the time of the battle between Cynegils and Penda in 628, and one has to wonder just what the decayed city really did look like at this time

633

Uniquely, perhaps, Penda allies himself not to other English kingdoms but to the Brito-Welsh of the West Midlands and Wales (see entries for circa 510 and 613, above, that could explain this act). In this year, already working in alliance with Cadwallon, king of Gwynedd and High King of the Britons, Penda kills Edwin of Bernicia and Deira at the Battle of Hatfield Chase (just outside the western borders of Lindsey). It seems that, up until this great victory, Penda is the junior partner in the alliance. Mercia's position and existence as a kingdom may still be a matter of some doubt, despite recent territorial gains, and fighting against the Northumbrians will always be a status-enhancer, not just in this period alone.

642

Oswald of Bernicia and Deira is killed by Penda on 5 August at the Battle of Maserfelth. The location of Maserfelth is still disputed but opinion favours Oswestry ('Oswald's tree') in Shropshire.

654 - 658

Penda defeats the East Engle at Blytheburgh in 654. However, in 654 or 655 (the dating can be interpreted both ways), along with Æthelhere of the East Engle, Penda is killed by Oswiu of Northumbria at the Battle of Winwaed. Penda may have inherited a claim on Elmet from his former British ally, Cadwallon, but this defeat marks the final end of any such claim. Northern Mercia is annexed by Northumbria while southern Mercia is given as a sub-kingdom to Peada, the Christian son of Penda. His accession heralds the end of paganism in Mercia - but at the hands of the Celtic Church, not the Roman Church.

Two years later, Penda's ally, Pengwern, also falls, and with that the West Midlands apparently suffers a power vacuum for a time, with small groups of Saxons and Angles drifting in to form the Wrocenset and Magonset peoples while occupied Mercia lays claim to portions of the territory. This claim and Mercia's territorial acquisition of former Pengwern continues after Oswiu's control of Mercia ends in 658.

c.655

In 2009 a metal detectorist discovers a deposit of gold ornamentation, primarily on parts of swords. Known as the Staffordshire Hoard, it is located on the heartland of early Mercia, close to the Roman road known as Watling Street, and is found to contain gold to the value of three million pounds sterling (in 2011). Although there is little evidence that can provide an exact date, the animal figures etched into the gold pinpoint the end of the seventh century as the latest point at which the hoard is buried, while this period around 655, when Mercia is on its knees, is the earliest likely date. The earliest pieces in the hoard date from the last decades of the sixth century, and most of the pieces are ornamentation items that have been removed from swords, perhaps which have been captured in battle.

Staffordshire Hoard
The biggest pieces in the Staffordshire Hoard were displayed following conservation and cleaning, and the entire collection was purchased by Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery

Much of the gold has an origin in India, probably during the Mauryan empire period, from where it would have made its way west via trading links to the Seleucid empire, the Roman empire, and then the Angles. The dating for the earliest pieces to the end of the sixth century raises the possibility that the swords came with the Iclingas when they reached the eastern Midlands from the early East Engle territory, in which case their current owners are probably now casualties of the Northumbria occupation of Mercia.

655 - 656

Peada

Son. Vassal of Northumbria. Betrayed by his wife and murdered.

657/658

A group of ealdormen lead a rebellion which re-establishes the kingdom's independence under Peada's brother, Wulfhere. Very much his father's son when it comes to success on the battlefield and gaining strength all the time, he quickly regains all the lands south of the Humber which his father had previously conquered. Mercia also gradually begins to absorb the eastern half of the former Pengwern territory, while in eastern England it gains dominance over the Lindisware and apparently absorbs the Middil Engle fully.

658 - 675

Wulfhere

Brother. Baptised by the Celtic Church, perhaps upon accession.

670

Mercia is by now recognised as the overlord of the Ciltern Saxons and the Suthrige. Northumbria has been fenced off, the East Engle are impotent, and Wulfhere is preparing for an advance to the Thames, pressing the West Seaxe and threatening to overshadow Kent.

673 - 675

The sudden and unexpected death of Egbert of Kent brings the kingdom to a crisis point. Neither of his sons are of an age to rule, and Wulfhere, hoping for an opportunity to intervene in Kent's affairs, leaps at the chance. Suthrige is detached from Kent and the kingdom itself is seemingly invaded and occupied between 673-674. It takes perhaps eighteen months for the Cantware to rally behind Egbert's only realistic successor.

675

Wulfhere fights the Battle of Bedwyn against Æscwine of the West Seaxe, but he is repelled. In the same year he 'roused all the southern peoples' against Ecgfrith of Northumbria and leads them to defeat. He loses the province of Lindsey and, soon afterwards, his life. However, Mercia's domination of former Pengwern by now is complete.

675 - 704

Æthelred / Ethelred

Brother. Abdicated to became a monk. Died 716.

679

FeatureWith Northumbrian dominance now completely thrown off, Mercia regains dominance over Lindsey and retains it until 874. A border is agreed by Æthelred with the Northumbrians (their King Ecgfrith being Æthelred's brother-in-law), fixing the border at the River Humber in perpetuity. Lindsey is settled as a Mercian province some time afterwards. It must also be in this period in which the Tribal Hidage is compiled.

Tribal Hidage (left) and Grammar of Ælfric (right)
The Tribal Hidage is almost certainly Mercian, although some still argue for a Northumbrian origin, but the British Library version shown here, Harley 3271, is an eleventh century miscellany which includes, amongst others, the Grammar of Ælfric, abbot of Eynsham

686

In the 680s - the precise date is not known - Hlothere controls Lundenwic (London), the first Kentish king to do so since 616. He maintains a hall there and his presence suggests that he has also regained Suthrige for Kent, only to lose it to the West Seaxe in 686.

694

Wihtred of Kent comes to terms with Ine over the killing of the royal prince, Mul, in 687. Together, the West Seaxe and Kent hold the line against Mercia in this period, limiting its ability to interfere south of the Thames.

c.700

By this time, Mercia has made clients of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the Wrocenset and Magonset (occupying portions of the territory of former British Pengwern) to the west, and are dominant over the Middle Angles to the east. It has probably also secured control over the region around Chester, which may have been lost to the Britons of Powys and Pengwern after their defeat at the Battle of Caer Legion (613?).

704 - 709

Coenred / Cenred

Son of Wulfhere. Abdicated. Died on pilgrimage to Rome.

704 - 709

Perhaps due to its recent interaction with the Wrocenset and Magonset groups along the Welsh border, western Mercia during Coenred's relatively weak reign is blighted by numerous Welsh incursions. He eventually abdicates to become a monk and dies on a pilgrimage to Rome.

709 - 716

Ceolred

Son of Æthelred. Died at a feast (poisoned?).

715

Ceolred fights a battle at Adam's Grave. Ine of the West Saxons is also involved, but nothing else is known of the event. Either the two are fighting together against a common enemy (extremely unlikely) or one or the other of them is attempting to expand or contract West Saxon borders. Since this is the most likely interpretation of the event, it is unfortunate that the outcome is not recorded (quite probably it is a draw). Adam's Grave is a tumulus that is known contemporarily as Woden's Barrow, and is located at Alton Prior in Wiltshire. This had been the site of a West Saxon internecine fight for power in 592.

716 - 757

Æthelbald / Aethelbald

Son of Alweo, descendant of Eoba. Bretwalda (c.735-757).

c.730

Under Æthelbald strong reighn the process of Mercian consolidation truly begins. By this point the kingdom gains control of the Middle Saxons from the East Saxons, and has fully absorbed the Magonset, although their territory remains a highly disputed borderland area between Mercia and Powys until the period of Norman power in England.

Tessellated pavement at Kenchester (Magnis)
Remains of a tessellated pavement at Kenchester (Magnis), which provided a capital of sorts for the former Magonset 'kingdom', now a Mercian province

733

Æthelbald captures the royal West Saxon vill of Somerton (capital of the Somersaete). In fact, the Mercian king spends much of his time harrying the West Saxons, turning the kingdom into 'little more than a large outlying province of Mercia', (Stenton). Kent is left alone under the protection of the church at Canterbury.

740 - 752

The West Saxon king, Cuthred, and Æthelbald enjoy mixed relations. As soon as he gains the throne, Cuthred attacks Mercia in return for the events of 733. Three years later, in 743, the two kings are allies in fighting against the Welsh. In 752, the two are again at each other's throats, with Cuthred putting Æthelbald to flight.

757

Æthelbald, after a reign of almost forty years in which he has kept the peace as 'rex Sutanglorum', 'king of the southern English', but has angered St Boniface with his violations not only of other mens' wives but also of 'the brides of Christ', is murdered. The deed is done by a bodyguard at Seckington, near the royal palace of Tamworth - probably under instruction from one or other party of the royal kin.

FeatureSubject to further research, Geoffrey Tobin has pointed out that following the reign of Æthelbald, the patriline disappears (the practise of passing the kingship from male to male). Mercian kings seem instead to be related by the female line, no longer being hereditary monarchs. The possibility is raised that somewhere along the line that a Pictish princess has married into the kingdom (the Picts are known as strong adherents to the concept of matrilineal descent). In the last four generations of Mercian rulers, it is very clear that each 'Lady' of the Mercians (ie. queen) is the daughter of the previous.

This practice would certainly explain the otherwise strange selection of the unhappy Beornraed as the next king.  Even Offa (757-796), the most powerful Mercian king, marries Cynethryth, whose name suggests a descent from Cynewise, wife of Penda and one of their daughters (either Cyneburh or Cyneswith). Cynethryth issues coins in her own name, indicating that she is queen in her own right, so for all his fame perhaps Offa rules only as her consort.

757

Beornraed

Cousin, from the line of Cenwalh. Deposed.

757 - 796

Offa

Son of Thingfrith, son of Eanulf. Bretwalda (757-July 796).

764

Already manoeuvring his own candidates for the Kentish throne in order to keep out the West Saxons, Offa makes a sudden visit to Canterbury. Sub-king of West Kent Sigered is deposed, as is the over-king, Ealhmund. New rulers replace them in the form of Heaberht and Egbert, both Mercian dependants (although the latter is certainly not a pawn). In 765, Offa is unable to prevent the election of a staunch supporter of Kentish independence to the office of archbishop of Canterbury. Jænberht, former abbot of St Augustine's, is one of the key players in the subsequent revolt against Mercia and remains an implacable opponent of Offa.

772 -774

Offa is able to complete the process of Mercian consolidation, ruling a large and extremely powerful kingdom that is addressed on an equal footing with Charlemagne's Frankish empire. During this period, Offa seems determined to end the regional autonomy that Æthelbald had allowed. The South Saxons are brought under Mercian control, with sub-kings being appointed. Kent is effectively annexed, with Offa signing himself as 'king of all the English' on two charters of 774. The Hwicce territory is absorbed directly into Mercia, with its kings being replaced with (or downgraded to the rank of) ealdormen.

Offa silver penny
Shown here is a silver penny that is in very good condition, which was issued during Offa's reign and was minted in London by Eadhun, although Mercian dominance of London would eventually be replaced by West Saxon dominance

776

The clash between Kent and Mercia occurs a year or so after the flag of rebellion is raised, the respite probably due to Offa's entanglement with Cynewulf of the West Saxons. Kent wins the battle, and the Kentish king reigns in complete independence for about nine years, probably in alliance with Cynewulf.

779 - 785

Offa defeats Cynewulf of the West Saxons at Bensington. It takes five more years for him to turn his attentions to Kent, but everyone in Kent knows what lies in store for them. The gap is strange, unless Offa's losses at Bensington had been serious and other regions take advantage by attempting to free themselves from Mercian domination. Unfortunately, such possibilities remain undocumented. The other option is that Kent's position is strong enough to make any attack a risky prospect.

786 - 796

King Ealhmund of Kent is killed (through circumstances unknown) and his kingdom is exposed to Offa's vengeance. The king's young son, Ecgberht, is whisked to safety with the West Saxons, his father's native people, and Reeve Aldhun goes overseas (many of his countrymen flee to the Frankish court of Charlemagne). Ecgberht is soon ordered into exile by Beohrtric of the West Saxons, who is little more than a cipher for Offa. The kingdom is directly controlled by Offa, and is treated as a conquered province (along with that of the East Angles). Native nobles appear to have lands appropriated (just as William the Conqueror would do later). As soon as the great king weakens, Kent is seized by a native ruler.

787 - 796

Ecgfrið / Ecgfrith / Ecgferth / Ecgfrid

Son. 'Consecrated' as successor in 787 & theoretical joint ruler.

787 - 799

Britain briefly pays host to a third archdiocese when Offa raises the bishopric of Lichfield (confirmed at the Council of Chelsea). Following the reassertion of his control over Kent in 785/6 a dispute arises between Offa and Archbishop Jaenbert. Offa creates a new archbishopric under Hygeberht, bishop of Lichfield within Mercia, which answers to him but which also receives the blessing of the Pope. It lasts until 799 and is officially terminated in 803, with full authority being returned to Canterbury.

793

Following a short-lived revolt, Offa re-conquers East Anglia, ordering its king to be beheaded. Mercia rules the kingdom directly, retaining control even after Offa's death except for one brief spell. However, the rule of his son and successor is very brief, lasting just a few months.

East Anglian fens
Many of the East Anglian fens were produced by more than a thousand years of peat build-up and trapped river water, providing excellent refuge for rebels against the Mercians

796

Eadbert Praen is possibly an ordained priest (perhaps forcibly inducted by Offa), and almost certainly a Kentish atheling (prince). On the eve of Offa's death, he leads the Men of Kent in rebellion, and one of his first acts is to depose the archbishop of Canterbury, Æthelhard, who had previously been enthroned with Offa's support. The rebellion is critically weakened because it is without Canterbury's support, bereft as it is of its head. The kingdom remains free for two years, as Mercia deals with its own internal politics.

796

Ecgfrið / Ecgfrith / Ecgferth

Former joint ruler. Ruled July-December. Possibly murdered.

796 - 821

Coenwulf / Canulph

Line of Cenwalh. Ruled from December 796.

798

Coenwulf invades Kent with a massive army and captures Eadbert II, blinding and imprisoning him. Mercia again rules Kent directly through one of its own men, Cuthred. It is likely that Cuthred's successor, one Ealdorman Oswulf, is also Coenwulf's vassal.

821

Coenwulf dies in Basingwerk, while preparing for another assault on Powys, and is buried in Winchcombe Abbey. His son, Cenelm, is chosen to succeed him but he is killed, probably fighting the Welsh (although his death is also attributed to the treachery of his jealous sister, Cwenthryth (Cwoenthryth), abbess of Minster in Kent). He is also buried at Winchcombe Abbey and is later revered as a saint. With the Mercian royal house gradually collapsing under the weight of its own internal rottenness, the throne passes to Coenwulf's brother, Ceolwulf.

821

Cenelm / Kenelm

Son. Killed before he could assume power.

821 - 823

Ceolwulf I

Brother of Coenwulf. Last of the Iclingas. Deposed.

821

Athelstan of East Anglia makes his first attempt to regain Anglian independence upon the death of Coenwulf. Very soon afterwards, Ceolwulf, ousts him and restores Mercian control. However, Ceolwulf's rule is short-lived.

822 - 823

Powys is mainly overrun in a large-scale Saxon (Mercian) invasion that is led by Ceolwulf I. Cyngen ap Cadell fights successfully to regain Powysian independence, a task which is aided by the weakening power of the Mercian throne. Ceolwulf is deposed and replaced by Beornwulf, apparently one of the less distinguished Mercian ealdormen, so ending the line of Iclingas that has ruled since the days of Angeln.

Beornwulf coin
This silver penny was produced during the reign of Beornwulf of Mercia, although its condition is far from ideal, with partly garbled legends - it is from an East Anglian mint, the moneyer's name being Eadgar, which is shown in the reverse

823 - 825

Beornwulf / Beornulf

Descendent of Beornraed. Killed in battle.

825

The Mercian decline gives Ecgberht of Wessex an opportunity not to be missed. He defeats the mighty Mercians at the Battle of Ellandon (Wroughton, near Swindon). The Mercians lose the sub-kingdoms of Essex, Kent, Sussex and Suthrige, but are allowed to retain Berkshire, with its boundaries being formally set. Athelstan of East Anglia begins to re-assert the independence of his people and although Beornwulf invades, he is killed in battle. He is succeeded by Ludecan.

825 - 827

Ludecan / Ludeca

Relationship unknown. Killed in battle.

827

Athelstan of East Anglia kills Ludecan in battle after yet another attempt by the once great Midland kings to restore that greatness. With this act, Athelstan secures the independence of the East Angles and establishes himself as king. Although he still acknowledges Ecgberht of Wessex as his overlord, his is the only one of the smaller English kingdoms not to be absorbed directly within Wessex.

827 - 829

Wiglaf

Father-in-law of Ceolwulf's daughter. Ousted by Wessex.

829 - 830

Now top dog when it comes to powerful kingdoms south of the Humber, Wessex overcomes the Mercian kingdom and rules it directly. Wiglaf is ousted. He manages to return in 830, re-establishing his rule within the kingdom's boundaries and essentially saving it from eclipse as an independent entity. He is able to reclaim Berkshire and large parts of Essex before his death.

830 - 839

Wiglaf

Restored himself and the kingdom.

835

A Mercian charter of this year mentions one Humberht, 'princeps of the Tomsæte'. This had been one of the earliest groups of Anglian settlers in the West Midlands, with a chief town at Tamworth which itself was highly important to the Mercian kings, being one of the most secure parts of the Mercian heartland. It is clear by this that although the Tomsæte may have been subjugated by the Iclingas at an early stage, they had retained their own identity.

c.835 - c.866

Humberht

'Princeps of the Tomsæte'. Granted land in Derbyshire.

839 - 840

Wigmund

Son. His accession is not always shown or accepted.

840

Wigstan

Son. Ruled, possibly, and was murdered by Beorhtwulf.

840 - 852

Beorhtwulf / Brihtwulf

Descendent of Beornwulf. Defeated by Danes.

844

During the reign of Merfyn Vrych of Gwynedd those Britons residing in England (probably in western Mercia) are obliged to renounce their British ancestry or leave the country and their homes within three months. Perhaps it is this insult that prompts the king to engage in battle against Beorhtwulf. The battle at Cyveiliawc (otherwise called Ketill or Cetyll), is apparently very severe and Merfyn Vrych is killed. In the same year another battle is fought at Fferyllwg, 'between the Wye and the Severn', and this time it is the Welsh who carry the day.

849

A charter referring to the district to the south-west of Birmingham mentions the boundary of a folk called the Tomsaetan, the dwellers by the Tame, or Tame settlers. Another document shows them to be ruled by their own ealdorman (effectively a sub-king in former days), while the country contains the monastery of Breedon on the Hill, in northern Leicestershire. This is more than forty-eight kilometres (thirty miles) in a straight line from Birmingham, so the Tomsaetan territory is clearly large and their presence within Mercia is doubtless important.

Vikings

851/852

A force of 350 Danish ships sails into the Thames estuary, sacks London (for the second time, the first being in 842) and puts to flight a Mercian army under Beorhtwulf. The king is thought to be killed during the battle, or perhaps afterwards, although this is not recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In the same year, Wessex wins a famous victory over Danes (quite possibly the same force of Danes) at Aclea (perhaps in Surrey), and then a great sea victory off Sandwich.

852 - 874

Burgreda / Burhed

Expelled by Danes and died on pilgrimage to Rome in 874/875.

852/853

It is becoming clear to the kings both of Mercia and Wessex that greater cooperation between them is required before they are swamped by the growing Viking threat. Almost immediately after taking the throne, Burgreda is forced to ally with Æthelwulf of Wessex in order to counter attacks both from the Welsh in the west and the Vikings in the east. Burgreda successfully defends Mercia for twenty years.

870 - 871

Fresh from destroying the East Anglian kingdom the year before, the 'Great Host' of Danes destroys the great abbey of Medeshamsteade (Peterborough) and lays waste to the surrounding countryside to an extent that it remains a wilderness a century later. Then, in 871, Halfdan, brother of Ivarr the Boneless of the Viking kingdom of Dublin, leads the army into Wessex.

874

Burgreda has attempted to maintain the kingdom in the face of Danish attacks, but much of Mercia is now overcome by Halfdan, and the remainder submits to the overlordship of Wessex. Large swathes of eastern Mercia are lost to what, in 878, becomes the Danish kingdom of East Anglia.

874 - 879

Ceolwulf II

FeaturePossible descendant of Ceolwulf I. Last king of Mercia.

878

Following the defeat of Guthrum's Vikings at the hands of Alfred of Wessex, the Peace of Wedmore allows a now-Christian Guthrum to return to East Anglia, where he rules what had once been East Anglia, Essex and eastern Mercia.

Viking helmet

879

Following the death of Ceolwulf II, Alfred the Great, king of the West Saxons, shows just how much greater his influence over the Mercians now is when he places his son-in-law on what remains of the throne of Mercia. Although Æthelred holds a king's sway he is known as the 'Lord of Mercia'.

MapLords of Mercia
AD 879 - 924

Beginning in 868, Mercia began to feel the intense pressure of having the Danish 'Great Army' on its doorstep. Three times King Burgreda, supported by his West Saxon allies, withstood the inevitable by 'coming to an agreement' with his opponents. But, in 874, the Vikings moved their winter quarters from Lindsey to the Mercian royal residence at Repton, and Burgreda was driven out. His successor, Ceolwulf, couldn't play quite the same game and was forced to accept a reduced Mercia, with the Vikings controlling the eastern half and he virtually a vassal of Wessex.

Mercia was effectively downgraded once it had to look to the West Saxons for protection, although issues of coinage would support the idea that they had become increasingly closely linked in the years following the initial Danish invasion of Northumbria. Despite the hopes of its people, Mercia never regained independence, although it did retain an independent identity until shortly after 1066. Rather than attempt to unite the two kingdoms under one ruler, Alfred the Great married his daughter Æthelflaed to the weak Mercian prince Æthelred. Then Æthelred was appointed to govern the surviving Mercian territories with the titles of 'Lord of Mercia' and 'Eorlderman of the Hwicce'. His origins are uncertain, with scholarly opinion placing his powerbase in the domain of the Hwicce. He did not witness either of Ceolwulf's surviving charters, so his rise to power seems to take place only alongside West Saxon supremacy.

879 - 911

Æthelred / Ethelred II

Son-in-law of Alfred the Great of the West Saxons.

881

One 'Edryd Long-Hair' leads a Mercian army into Gwynedd, but is defeated by the sons of Rhodri Mawr at the Battle of the Conwy. The Welsh annals refer to this as 'revenge by God for Rhodri'. Welsh historian Thomas Charles-Edwards equates 'Edryd Long-Hair' with Æthelred, his intention being to re-impose Mercian overlordship in the Welsh principalities, but this setback ends that hope as far as he is concerned. He does however continue to exercise overlordship over Glywyssing and Gwent in the south-east.

883

Alfred of the West Saxons takes London from the Danes and entrusts its safety to Æthelred. This act shows the wisdom of accepting West Saxon support, as Mercian lands in the east are gradually restored to Anglo-Saxon control.

886

By this time Alfred the Great is apparently acknowledged king of all English not under Danish rule (the latter being exercised from the Danish kingdom of East Anglia). Æthelred continues to govern the remnants of Mercia in Alfred's name as an ealdorman, but his wife may also play a role in political events. The Welsh principalities now look to Alfred as their overlord, not Æthelred. He is forced to accept that Mercian independence is a thing of the past.

896

Vikings have been wintering at Quatford (near Bridgnorth in western Mercia), but in the spring of this year they ravage the kingdoms of Brycheiniog, Gwent, and the Gwynllg region of Glywyssing. Asser records that Elisedd of Brycheiniog requests help from Alfred of Wessex, but this may also be due to pressure from Anarawd ap Rhodri, the powerful king of Gwynedd and Deheubarth who is keen on expanding his areas of control.

Valley of the River Severn
The Vikings found quarters at Quatford in Mercia, occupying a commanding position over the valley of the River Severn (just half a mile from the view shown here), and building a burgh which may have formed the basis of the later Norman castle

c.900

The shiring of Mercia begins about this date, which results in the county boundaries which exist until 1974. Some of the old tribal or kingdom names survive long after this period, including the Peak District, and 'Magonsaetan' which is named in the twelfth century Chronicon of John of Worcester.

911 - 918

Æthelflaed / Aethelflaed

Wife. Daughter of Alfred. Lady of the Mercians. Died 12 June.

916

Having submitted to Alfred of Wessex for help in the late ninth century, Brycheiniog has largely been seen as that kingdom's vassal. Now Deheubarth to the west is on the rise and Brycheiniog finds itself being tugged in both directions. Æthelflaed, lady of the Mercians, now invades and captures the royal domain at Llangorse, on 19 June. The queen and various others are taken, she presumably being the wife of Gryffydd, although precise dates for most of Brycheiniog's kings are unavailable. What happens to the captives is not known.

917 - 918

Æthelflaed captures the borough of Derby from the Scandinavian rulers of York. The following year the people of Leicester submit without battle, and York promises to accept Æthelflaed as its overlord, 'Lady of the People of York'. Although she dies before this can be effected, her brother, Edward, king of Wessex, succeeds her and probably attempts to enforce the promise.

St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester
The Priory of St Oswald was dedicated in 890 by Æthelflaed as a house of secular canons. It was built, probably with stones taken from a nearby Roman temple, in the days when Gloucester was a royal town

918 - 919

Ælfwynn / Elfwynna

Daughter. Lady of the Mercians. Ruled only temporarily.

919 - 924

On the death of Æthelflaed, control of Mercia passes to her brother, Edward, king of Wessex. Ælfwynn is removed and sent back to Wessex, to a convent, and the governorship of Mercia is taken directly by the kings of Wessex. All attempts to maintain the relative fiction of Mercia being a separate entity are ended by Edward, who wants nothing more than to unite the English under one rule.

924

Æthelstan / Athelstan

Son of Edward of Wessex. Became king there in 924.

924

Æthelstan rules Mercia for sixteen days at which point his half-brother, Ælfweard, king of Wessex, dies. Æthelstan assumes the Wessex crown in addition to his Mercian title. With the submission of Viking York, Scotland, Strathclyde, English Northumbria (Bamburgh), Dumnonia and the Welsh kingdoms, Æthelstan becomes the first king of England.

924 - 955

Mercia is ruled directly by the kings of Wessex, during which time Æthelstan's united kingdom of all the English is reformed following a minor resurgence by York. The accession of Edgar in 959 fully and finally confirms the union of all England.

Earls of Mercia
c.AD 950 - 1071

Following the union of all the Anglo-Saxon and Danish peoples of England under one king, Mercia remained a powerful domain with a very important heritage. The earldom covered much the same territory as the former kingdom and the earl was a key player in English politics. Governed initially by ealdormen during the period of Wessex domination, the Old English title became that of earl under the subsequent Danish kings. During the reign of Edward the Confessor, Leofric of Mercia was the main rival of Earl Godwine, the power behind the throne. He was guaranteed eternal fame by the act of his wife, Lady Godiva, in riding naked through the streets of Coventry as a form of protest.

c.950 - 983

Ælfhere

Of Wessex origin, perhaps with royal blood.

955 - 959

There is a successional rift between King Edred's two sons, Edwy and Edgar. The latter takes control of Mercia and Northumbria, while Edwy rules in the south until his death in 959. Edgar then seizes complete control and becomes the second king of England.

Eadred silver penny
Shown here are both sides of a silver penny that is in surprisingly good condition and which was issued during the reign of Eadred, first acknowledged king of all England

978/9

Retainers of Queen Ælfthryth murder Edward (although this is never conclusively proven, and no one is ever brought to justice). Ælfthryth secures the English throne for her ten year-old son, Æthelred. Ælfhere of Mercia is a key supporter of the new king.

983 - 985

Ælfric Cild

Brother-in-law. Exiled.

983 - 985

Upon the death of Ælfhere, his sister's husband, Ælfric, succeeds to the position, but he is exiled in 985 on a charge of treason which is related to possibly underhand property dealings. The position of earl appears to remain vacant for a period, although Leofwine appears to fulfil at least some of the duties of office from 994. Before him, a certain Æthelsige may hold a position of some authority in Mercia, but the level of his authority is unknown.

985? - 994?

Æthelsige

King's thegn. Earl, or simply fulfilling some duties?

994 - 1007?

Leofwine

Earldorman of the Hwicce (fl 997-c.1023/1028).

1007 - 1017

Eadric Streona

Not a noble but rose thanks to the favour of Æthelred II.

1016 - 1017

With the help of Uchtred, high reeve of Bamburh, Edmund Ironsides fights strongly to prevent the Danish control of England. After a series of successes, one disastrous defeat achieved through the treachery of his Mercian ally, Eadric, is enough to end his resistance. Canute becomes king in 1016 and, following the very necessary disposal of Eadric Streona (who is dispatched by Eric of Hlathir, earl of York), Mercia is perhaps given to a Danish noble whose name is unknown, although it is also possible that it is given to Leofric. The latter is certainly earl in the 1030s, but perhaps 1017 is a little too early for him.

c.1017 - 1030

?

Unknown Danish noble? Not recorded.

c.1030 - 1057

Leofric

Son of Leofwine. Earl in 1017?

According to popular legend, Leofric's wife, Godiva (the Latinised form of the Old English Godgifu or Godgyfu), rides naked through the streets of Coventry (which at this time is little more than a small town) in order to persuade her husband to relieve the town of oppressive tax levels. She does so under escort by two knights and with all the townspeople behind bolted doors and shuttered windows. The truth of the legend has long been questioned, with a suggestion that the story may be a post-Conquest invention bemoaning the loss of English freedoms at Norman hands, perhaps invented while Godiva is still alive (she dies in 1067).

Lady Godiva
This popular romantic portrayal of Lady Godiva's ride through the streets of Coventry is certainly exhibiting a degree of artistic licence, but it does accurately show the deserted streets and closed doors of the town

1051 - 1052

In an attempt to reign in the Viking powerbase in England, Edward the Confessor has Earl Godwine removed from office. However, Edward's apparent favouritism of his Norman allies alienates many Anglo-Saxon nobles, most notably the powerful earls of Northumbria and Mercia. Invited to return, Earl Godwine sails into London and is not opposed by the royal fleet.

c.1054

Leofric and Godgifu refound the church of St Mary at Stow by Lincoln in the region of Lindsey, which had probably been founded around 975. The church is again refounded in 1091 by Bishop Remigius, this time as an abbey. However, the nave of the tenth century church cuts through seventeen burials from an earlier church, and the portacus cuts through a path that covers even earlier graves, showing a continuation of use going back several centuries.

1057 - 1062

Ælfgar

Son. Also earl of East Anglia (1053-1057).

1062 - 1070

Edwin

Son. His brother was Morcar of Northumbria. Last earl.

1066

A year after Harold's rebellious younger brother, Earl Tostig of Northumbria, flees the country, Harold's army defeats an attempted invasion of England by the Norwegian king, Harald Hadrada, who has sided with Tostig. Almost immediately afterwards, Harold has to march his tired army south to face a second invasion by William, duke of Normandy. Harold is narrowly defeated at Hastings on 14 October, and the Anglo-Saxon line of kings comes to an end. Edwin of Mercia is confirmed in his position by William, while many other English nobles are being dispossessed of their estates and titles.

1071

Edwin is implicated in the revolt of this year and is dispossessed of his title and lands by King William of England. Mercia is broken up, the new earldoms of Chester and Shrewsbury dividing regional control between them. This act very much marks the end of Old English Mercia.