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Anglo-Saxon England

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 which 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 beginnings.

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 come about?

Early days

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 Anglia.

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.

Map of Britain AD 500-550
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

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 which had become well-trodden in the past half century. And then they went even farther.

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 which allied themselves to Britons.

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 which 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 state.

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 Bernicians.

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 which 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. [1]

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.

Penda's alliance

In AD 633, Penda of Mercia allied himself not to other English kingdoms but to the Brito-Welsh of the West Midlands and Wales.

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 Lincolnshire).

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 period alone.

[1] As a side note to this, the Norse settlers in Iceland were so sick of arrogant, dictatorial kings that their council met and didn't elect a king but instead ruled directly. That council, called the Alþingi (anglicised as Althing), still meets in the form of the island's national parliament, and is one of the oldest democratic bodies in the world.

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 which the others followed. Instead it seems to have been a true product of its surroundings and people - an Anglo-Briton state which 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 monarchs.

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.

Coin issued under Offa
Shown here is a silver penny which 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 few rights.

Unusually it appears that within 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 wholeheartedly adopted Romano-British traditions and offices. 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 had 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 Wales!

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 than was usual with Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.


Main Sources

Dornier, Ann (Ed) - Mercian Studies, Leicester University Press 1977

Leahy, Kevin - The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Lindsey

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.