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Anglo-Saxon Britain

The Rise of Ceolwulf II and the Last Days of Mercia

by Mick Baker, 2 May 2007

For seven years, the Great Army of Vikings led by Ivarr the Boneless and Halfdan 'Wide Embrace' had been ravaging England.

Northumbria had been conquered, and their rival kings - Osberht and Aelle - had been slain. East Anglia was also taken, and its king, Edmund, martyred for refusing to abandon Christianity and accept the Viking gods. In the south, Alfred, the young king of Wessex, paid off his enemies as he tried to rebuild his kingdom's armies after years of warfare.

Mercia, the great kingdom which spread from the Thames to the Humber, also suffered from Viking raids, and three times King Burgred, 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 drove out the same Burgred who had appeased them those three times.


The Mercian mausoleum at Repton

Repton was the Mercian capital and also the site of the kings' mausoleum, located under the tenth century St Wystan parish church


The Great Army of Ivarr the Boneless and Halfdan 'Wide Embrace' wintered at Nottingham, either with the connivance of Burgred, the Mercian king, or because he was powerless to oust them.

The option of submitting to the Vikings, offering them tribute and/or assistance in return for remaining unmolested may seem somewhat cowardly, but it was nonetheless a common ploy. Used by the East Angles in 866, Burgred employed such tactics in 869, 871, and 872.

Burgred was closely allied to Wessex during the latter years of Æthelwulf's reign and that of Æthelred I. The coinage of the two kingdoms has even been described as 'a single unified coinage' by one authority, such was the affinity of these monarchs.


Burgred offered asylum to the Northumbrian 'quisling', Egbert I (the so-called Viking 'puppet king') and also to Archbishop Wulfhere, when their people expelled them.

Clearly Burgred was an appeaser as far as the Great Army was concerned - not that he had much choice. No English army had so far stood against them.


Ricsige was elevated as the new king of English Northumbria and he recalled Archbishop Wulfhere.

Egbert I died, possibly engineered by Burgred in a feeble attempt to assert himself.


The Vikings moved from Lindsey and made their winter quarters at Repton, the burial place of Æthelbald (king of Mercia 716-757) and the centre of Mercian royalty ('the line of Wiglaf').

The incumbent king, Burgred, fled to Rome where he died the following year. He was married to Æthelswith (married 853 and died 888 in Pavia), the sister of Æthelred I, king of Wessex.


A charter issued by Ceolwulf - a typical Saxon charter - certainly does not indicate that the Mercians were dancing to the Vikings' tune.


The Vikings divided Mercia, giving the western half to Ceolwulf, whilst the Great Army appropriated the rest.

With the benefit of hindsight we can obtain a better picture of Ceolwulf. Despite having been called 'a foolish king's Thane' by the pro-Wessex Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ceolwulf evidently enjoyed cordial relations with Alfred, king of Wessex and he was accepted as the legitimate king of Mercia. The two kings issued coinage of a similar design.


The death of Ceolwulf II.


It has been suggested that the Danish occupation of Repton was quite possibly aided by Burgred's political opponent, Ceolwulf II, of whom the Wessex propaganda machine, the ASC, had written 'a foolish king's Thane' and:

He swore them oaths and gave hostages, so that it would be ready for them on whatever day they would have it, and he himself ready, and all those who would follow him at the force's need.

It is easy to see Ceolwulf as a latter-day quisling who is only interested in feathering his own nest. After all, a Viking army was stationed in the heart of the kingdom and was raiding monasteries and plundering the rich lands with no sign of redress.

The blood of kings

There is the distinct probability however, that far from being a Viking puppet, Ceolwulf II did indeed have the blood of kings in his veins.

It seems likely that he was a direct descendent of Ceolwulf I and Coenwulf (of the rival 'C' dynasty). It is also a possibility that those Mercians who supported him had promoted him, at Burgred's defection, rather than suffer a king appointed by the Vikings. Another possibility is that the Mercians themselves toppled Burgred, with whom they had become disaffected, in order to promote his political rival, Ceolwulf; the Vikings being a mere catalyst to events. This suggests that the Mercians retained at least some control.

Certain areas to the south and west lay beyond Viking reach, which provided some grounds for hope that the kingdom may survive. By working with the Vikings, Ceolwulf II may just have preserved a rump of Mercian independence. Perhaps less a quisling, more a Marshall Pétain. Ceolwulf and his bishops perhaps should be regarded as having accepted office to save their people from worse miseries, rather than as a bunch of self-interested traitors.

Friendship with Wessex

It has also been suggested that the later similarities of design in the coinage of Alfred and Ceolwulf II is evidence of a similar relationship to that of Burgred and Alfred's predecessors, indicating that the two kings were allies. Therefore the so-called 'two emperors' and 'cross and lozenge' coinages were minted in the names of both kings, and it is certainly true that Ceolwulf was recognised as the legitimate ruler of Mercia.

The derogatory and vitriolic tone of the pro-Wessex Chronicle may suggest that Ceolwulf II was not regarded as a friend of Wessex, and it has therefore also been mooted that the likelihood is that joint coinage and design similarities were introduced to ease trade and the process of exchange (to wit the euro!).

However, the fact that the two kings used the same moneyers would mitigate against this latter interpretation.

A similar design exists for Halfdan of Danish Northumbria, and by no stretch of the imagination could he be regarded as a friend to Anglo-Saxons; he was attempting to gain some trade advantage by mimicking the coins of his English neighbours. In this case it was just such a scheme.

Mercian domains

Ceolwulf extended his control over southern Mercia, and the Vikings clung on to the north. Nobody knows now exactly where the border was.

Ceolwulf ruled for five years, in alliance with Alfred, but seems to have died around 879. Subsequently, Alfred's historians partially re-wrote history to justify the supremacy of Wessex over the Midlands.

Alfred's son-in-law, Æthelred, undoubtedly ruled Mercia but seems not to have taken the title of king. On his death, his wife (Alfred's daughter) Æthelflæd was termed 'Lady of the Mercians', and she did much to preserve a vestige of Mercian independence, working on their behalf rather than for Wessex. She died in 918.

Many commentators view this as the point which marks the beginning of an 'English kingdom' and the end of independent Wessex and Mercia. However, things were not as simple.

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 eight hundred metres from the view shown here), and building a burgh which may have formed the basis of the later Norman castle

The people wanted to keep their independence whilst retaining the alliance with Wessex. Therefore, Æthelflæd was succeeded by her daughter, Ælfwynn, as 'Lady of the Mercians', although her uncle, Edward the Elder of Wessex no doubt exerted considerable influence.

Ælfwynn, though, was not her mother and although circumstances were similar to when Æthelflæd assumed power in 911, they were not the same. The inexperience of the young Ælfwynn was soon demonstrated and her reign apparently foundered. She remained in her position for six months before being deposed by Edward, who subsequently ruled Mercia directly.

The Mercian nobility were acutely aware of the ever-present threat of Vikings on their borders, and the alliance with Wessex was essential to the preservation of their kingdom. Ælfwynn had apparently proven to be unsuitable as their leader in such difficult times, so they accepted and encouraged what they assumed was the temporary rule of Edward.

It was understood that the succession would pass to Athelstan whilst Edward's elder son, Ælfweard would ascend the throne of Wessex. Edward was therefore not the first king of a united England, but rather the king of two independent kingdoms - a situation which didn't really begin to be resolved until the accession of Æthelred II.



Text copyright © Mick Baker. An original feature for the History Files.