Mercia's British Alliance
by Peter Kessler & Edward Dawson, 11 March 2016
Was the Mercian kingdom more British than Angle?
It's a curious question given that Mercia is often acclaimed as
being one of the great English kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon era.
In fact, during much of the eighth century Mercia
was clearly the greatest of the kingdoms south of the River Humber.
Its kings ruled either directly or through vassals all of the
Anglo-Saxon lands. They pursued a policy of aggressively enforcing
that dominance by invading any region that dared to display
pretensions towards renewed independence.
This dominance gradually faded after the death of
Offa in 796, and could said to have ended with defeat at the Battle
of Ellandon (Wroughton, near Swindon) in 825 at the hands of the
rising West Saxons. However, it had rather peculiar and unusual
In the early days of the kingdom, Mercians more
often sided with Britons, not other Angles or Saxons. In fact, they
sided with Britons to fight against other Angles and Saxons
and, for quite some time, the alliance was a very successful one.
This seems to have been largely forgotten, but seventh century
Mercia was a staunch ally of the Britons of the west.
How on earth did this seemingly strange alliance
The early Mercians were known as the Iclingas. As
mentioned in the Mercian list of rulers (see links, right), it seems
reasonable to assume that they arrived in Britain via the East
Anglian coast. This was perhaps the most popular route in the late
fifth century and early sixth for Angles entering Britain (the Wash
being the other main entry point in this region).
It's impossible to know the precise circumstances
of that entry into Britain. Only archaeology and recorded population
movements give us any clue to events in an otherwise 'dark' East
In theory, in their earliest days in Britain from
around AD 500, the Iclingas may have served in some capacity as a
foederati force for a proposed British territory known as Caer
Went, which was centred around the city of Venta Icenorum (modern
Caistor-by-Norwich). Alternatively, they may have opposed Caer Went
and played a part in its downfall but, either way it seems quite
reasonable to assume that there was some intermarriage with the
existing British population.
This map of Britain between around AD 500-550 shows the most
probable route of migration for the Iclingas, from the East
Anglian coast to their early position in the Midlands,
apparently close to the Tomsæte
Who were the Hwicce?
Æthelfrith's Growing Fyrd
West Saxon Ethnic Cleansing?
Who Were the Jutes?
RULERS OF BRITAIN:
The Mercian Tribal Hidage
If Caer Went was indeed managing the defence of the East Anglian
region in the late fifth century, it seems to have fallen to
invading Angles fairly quickly, by around 500. If the Iclingas
served it at all, they did so only briefly. If they opposed
it then they weren't permitted to make the most of the success.
Forced westwards, possibly by a rival group of
Angles, the warband of the Iclingas ended up on the western edge of
the Anglian penetration into Britain, in the East Midlands. The
reasoning behind this is detailed in the Mercian list and does not
require repeating here, but they initially followed a path that had
become well-trodden in the past half century. And then they went
Settling the Midlands
Any intermarriage with the Britons of Caer Went may
have made it easier for native Britons further west to accept them,
and would also explain in part the later Mercian tradition of allying
themselves to British elements against common Anglian foes. However,
simple intermarriage between Angles and Britons was also taking place
along the Lincolnshire coast, and in western Kent, and of course in East
Anglia, and this didn't produce kingdoms that allied themselves to
So what happened to the Iclingas to change that?
Simply the fact that they were surrounded by Britons, and largely
out of touch with the main, new centres of Anglian occupation to the
east may have been enough to change things.
Arriving at the farthest edge of the East
Midlands, the Iclingas would have been a small, mobile warband who
probably saw an opportunity to take over a British territory and its
people. As mentioned, they may already have had a few British-born
brides with them, and would certainly find many more now, and this may
have blurred the lines for them. They could almost have become more
British than Anglian through a couple of generations of intermarriage
with the local females and interaction with the local males.
Even given the likelihood that they replaced an
existing British strata of nobility with a Germanic one, they may
simply have been too few to have established a fully Germanic
society over their new subjects. Instead, and perhaps almost
uniquely, the sharing may have worked equally in both directions,
producing a true Anglo-Briton hybrid state.
Something similar can be seen more clearly at a
later date, between the Hwicce and their native British subjects,
but the Iclingas seem to have done it first, and without any
surviving records to show it.
Cearl and the 'unusual' Angles
Cearl of the Mercians (606-626) was rumoured to
have taken part in the Battle of Caer Legion, siding with western
British princes against Æthelfrith of Bernicia. A Mercian alliance
with the British kingdoms was clearly unusual in terms of the gradual
Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain, but it could have been this act that
set a precedence. Mercia certainly did act in alliance with the
Britons on several occasions over the next century.
Bearing in mind the theory that the early Iclingas
had heavily intermarried with British women, it could be the case that,
a century after they had arrived in the Midlands, the Mercians were
now as much British as they were Angles - the already-mentioned hybrid
However, Mercia's potential 'hybrid' nature was not
its only peculiarity.
Cearl is not mentioned in the Mercian royal genealogy
and his position in the list of kings 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 - and 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 bore no love for the Mercians,
clearly labelled him as such.
Cearl 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 was 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? Mercia frequently showed a glaring difference
in the names of its kings from most of the other Anglo-Saxons.
The answer could lie in Mercia's make-up as a
kingdom. Despite its proposed heavy mix of Britons in the
population, Mercia probably still saw itself as a direct descendant
of the old kingdom of Angeln. It may have maintained the traditions
of true Germanic-style democracy (that is, being governed by elder
electors who were the true holders of power), in which case Cearl may
have been elected on the basis that he swore to uphold established
ties of alliance with the British against the rather overly-powerful
It seems likely that Mercia was a centre of cultural
resistance to royal dictatorship and/or royal aggrandisement. This
assumption is based upon the fact that 'grand' kings (arrogant,
dictatorial ones) appear usually to have two-part names. The common
Anglo-Saxon man would have one simple name if he wished to be seen
not to be haughty (a bit of a social failing if you were an
Anglo-Saxon of the early tribal and settlement period, if not so
much so later).
This distinguished the 'better' men from the
haughty royals and nobles who had double names. Even a simple modern
name can be a double name, such as Edward, which is formed of 'Eda'
(also in use as Oda, Otha, and Otto), plus '-ward', meaning a guard.
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
King Æthelred of Mercia (675-704) had a haughty
double name, but most of the early Mercian kings did not; Cearl and
Penda are single-word names. This implies that they were not busy
being too proud for their own good and also, by extension, that
their kingships may have been tempered by the aforementioned council
of elders who were responsible for electing kings. 
Sadly for Cearl, some scholars argue that when
the British (and possibly Mercians) were defeated in battle in 613,
it effectively ended Cearl's non-dynastic reign and opened the way
for Penda son of Pybba to regain the throne for the Iclingas.
In AD 633, Penda of Mercia allied himself not to
other English kingdoms but to the Brito-Welsh of the West Midlands
In this year, already working in alliance with
Cadwallon, king of Gwynedd and high king of the Britons, Penda
killed Edwin of Bernicia and Deira at the Battle of Hatfield
Chase (just outside the western borders of Lindsey - modern
It seems that, up until this great victory, Penda
was in fact the junior partner in the alliance. Mercia's position
and existence as a kingdom still seemed to be a matter of some
doubt, despite recent territorial gains, and fighting against the
Northumbrians would always be a status-enhancer, not just in this
But perhaps a more concrete underlying reason was
the very hybrid nature of Mercia. All Anglo-Saxon kingdoms included
a large proportion of Britons in their number. It's simply the case
that most of these Britons adopted the language and customs of their
conquerors and 'became' Anglo-Saxons to be able to fit in, survive,
and perhaps prosper.
Once again, Mercia seems to exhibit a different basis
in its make-up - not fitting quite the standard pattern for a Germanic
kingdom that the others followed. Instead it seems to have been a true
product of its surroundings and people - an Anglo-Briton state that
valued its British roots as much as it valued its Germanic traditions
and forms of government.
Penda's cooperation and alliance with Cadwallon
lasted until his death at the hands of the Bernicians in battle in
654. Two years later, Penda's closest ally, the British territory of
Pengwern in the West Midlands, fell to the Bernicians, and Mercia
was an occupied state.
The traditional alliance with the Britons was
ended. Never again would Mercia team up with 'the other side' to
fight fellow Angles and Saxons.
The Pictish connection
However, this doesn't seem to have been the end of
Mercia's tradition of bucking trends.
Following the death of Æthelbald in 757, Geoffrey
Tobin has pointed out that 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
This raises the possibility that, somewhere along
the line, a Pictish princess has married into the kingdom (the Picts
were known to be strong adherents to the concept of matrilineal
descent). In the last four generations of Mercian rulers, prior to
the Viking conquest and domination by the West Saxons, it is very
clear that each 'Lady' of the Mercians (ie. queen) is the daughter
of the previous lady.
Shown here is a silver penny that is in very good condition,
which was issued during Offa's reign and minted in London by
Eadhun, although Mercian dominance of London would eventually be
replaced by West Saxon dominance
This practice would certainly explain the otherwise strange selection
of the unhappy Beornraed as the next king after Æthelbald. Even Offa
(757-796), the most powerful Mercian king, married one Cynethryth,
whose name suggests a descent from Cynewise, wife of Penda and one of
their daughters (either Cyneburh or Cyneswith).
Cynethryth issued coins in her own name, indicating
that she was queen in her own right. So for all his fame perhaps Offa
ruled only as her consort.
Even following West Saxon domination, the Mercians
showed no reluctance to accept a female ruler. Æthelflaed (911-918)
led them as a true warrior queen even while being subject to a
degree to overlordship by Wessex.
One last thing
Finally, there is one more unusual point in favour
of the hybrid Mercia theory.
In most of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the native
Britons became second class citizens, often enslaved and with very
Unusually it appears that inside Mercia, Britons
were tolerated as free citizens and were not enslaved. There was, of
course, intermarriage, perhaps most visibly in Lindsay (modern
Lincolnshire, which fell under Mercian dominance by AD 658). Lindsay
itself had fallen under the control of a small number of Angles who
adopted Romano-British traditions and offices wholeheartedly. The
Iclingas may have followed this same practice.
It was only later that native Britons were ordered
either to declare themselves as Angles, or leave Mercia and go west
into Wales. That in itself was very telling because it meant that
Britons lived in Mercia as free men up until that point. After the
edict not all Britons left or converted, and one subsequent incident
recorded an attack on a party of Anglo-Saxon clerics by Britons in
the area of the Wash. These Britons certainly did not come from
It appears that, until Mercia's powerful mid-eighth
century days, Britons in the kingdom were treated on practically an
equal basis as Angles. That covers a period of about three hundred
years, ending well after the period of migration and the formation
of early England. Could it have been because Angles and Britons in
the kingdom were closely related?
Even at the very end of its independent existence,
Mercia was still bucking the trend, still exhibiting closer ties to
the native Britons that was usual with Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
Dornier, Ann (Ed) - Mercian Studies,
Leicester University Press 1977
Leahy, Kevin - The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of
Meyers, J N L - The Oxford History of
England: The English Settlements
Stenton, Sir Frank - The Oxford History of
England: Anglo-Saxon England
Zaluckyj, Sarah & Feryok, Marge - Mercia:
The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Central England, 2001
Text copyright © P L Kessler and Edward Dawson. An original
feature for the History Files.