Mercia was one of the early medieval kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England that, taken together, were known as the Heptarchy. Beginning in the middle of the seventh century, Mercia held a dominant position over the other English kingdoms that hardly waned until the early 800s.
The name Mercia comes from merce, "people of the Marches" (or boundaries, or borders); and, originally, the kingdom was primarily made up of borderlands. To the east were the lands that the Anglo-Saxons had settled; to the west, the territory into which the newcomers had driven some of the Celts that had inhabited those lands. Early Mercia included all or parts of present-day Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire, the West Midlands and Warwickshire. Eventually, the kingdom expanded to encompass present-day Gloucestershire and parts of Cheshire, Hereford, Salop and Worcester. At its height, Mercia ranged from Wales in the west to East Anglia in the east, and from the river Humber in the north to the Thames in the south.
The earliest king of Mercia that scholars have any dependable information about is Penda, whose thirst for conquest increased Mercian territory and made the kingdom an early powerhouse. Penda's victories included the subjugation of the Hwicce (a West Saxon people) and East Anglia, the temporary ejection of King Cenwalh from Wessex, and two invasions of Northumbria that, each time, resulted in the death of the Northumbrian king. Penda was a pagan, but he allowed his son Peada to introduce Christianity into Middle Anglia.
Wulfhere and Aethelred
After Penda's death during yet another invasion of Northumbria (655), Mercia came temporarily under the control of the Northumbrians. But a few years later the Mercians shook off the overlordship of Oswiu of Northumbria, and Penda's son Wulfhere came to the throne. Continuing in the tradition of his father, Wulfhere managed to extend the borders of the kingdom in all directions. Early on in his reign he captured Lindsey from Northumbria and saw a successful campaign against Wessex. In the 660s, he took control of London away from Essex. Wulfhere was also a zealous proponent of Christianity, not only spreading it throughout Mercia, but forcing the people of Essex and Sussex to accept the religion. He is even believed to have founded a monastery or two.
Wulfhere suffered a severe setback when his campaign against Northumbria failed in about 674. He died a year later, and the throne passed to his brother Aethelred. Like Wulfhere, Aethelred was both a conqueror and a Christian; on the one hand, he took Rochester from Kent in 676 and defeated the Northumbrians in 679, and on the other hand he built and supported many churches within Mercia.
Instability in Mercia
In 704 Aethelred abdicated in favor of Wulfhere's son Coenred (Cenred) and retired to a monastery. His successor reigned only five years before following suit, going to Rome. Although Church sources reveal Coenred to have been active in ecclesiastical matters, and some scholars claim he was pious and peace-loving, it's possible that he was forcibly removed from the throne and coerced into taking up the monastic life in order to disqualify him from ruling the kingdom.
Coenred was succeeded by his half-brother Ceolred, whose reputation is pretty dreadful. Ceolred is said to have suppressed monasteries, led a life of dissolution and, according to Saint Boniface, died out of his mind. Ceolred reigned only seven years (which couldn't have been short enough for most of Mercia); his successor may have been his brother Ceolwald. If so, Ceolwald reigned for less than a year, because before 716 was out, Aethelbald was on the throne.
Mercian Power on the Rise
Aethelbald was only distantly related to his predecessors; his grandfather had been Penda's brother Eowa. When he came to power, Ine of Wessex and Wihtred of Kent stood ready to oppose him. Both kings were strong leaders who had ruled for more than twenty-five years, and Aethelbald had no real chance against them. But in 725 Wihtred died, and in 726 Ine abdicated. Aethelbald saw his chance, and within five years he had become chief king of a confederation of southern kingdoms, exerting authority over both Wessex and Kent. While Aethelbald was king, London came under Mercian control. In one of his charters he went so far as to use the title rex Britannia -- a Latin term we translate as "King of Britain," but which may have been intended specifically to represent the Anglo-Saxon term, Braetwalda.
Saint Boniface took Aethelbald to task for his loose lifestyle and for violating church rights, but the king was always generous to the Church, and in 749 he liberated the English churches from many public financial burdens. Still, he is generally regarded as a tyrant and a brute. He was murdered by his own bodyguard in 757.
The exact motive for Aethelbald's murder is unknown; it might have had something to do with a clan feud, or it may simply have been a personal grudge against a despot. Whatever the reason, his death was followed by civil war. Beornred, whose claim to the throne is unclear, led forces against Offa, son of Thingfrith, a descendant of Eowa.
In a matter of months Offa was victorious in his battle for the throne, and he began a lengthy reign. Unfortunately, the death of Aethelbald and the resulting war broke the confederation the murdered king had founded into bits, and for several years Offa had little territory to rule. But by squashing resistance from neighboring kingdoms, Offa soon put together a single entity that ruled a huge portion of southern England. By marrying his daughters to the kings of Northumbria and Wessex, he consolidated his power still further.
Offa not only expanded Mercia's power to an extent greater than it had ever been before, he elevated its prestige. He was on good terms with Pope Adrian I, who granted Offa's request to create an archbishopric of Lichfield; this liberated the Mercian church from the dominance of Canterbury, in Mercia's enemy of Kent. And though he had a dispute with Charlemagne, in 796 he made an official trading agreement with the Frankish king. Offa may be best known for the defensive earthwork he built that bears his name (Offa's Dyke), but he also established a new form of coinage, the principles of which would govern the design and production of English coins for hundreds of years.
Offa's reign is generally considered the peak of Mercia's power and prestige. He died in 796.
In 787, Offa's son Ecgfrith was anointed as King of Mercia (although Offa continued to rule). This is the first recorded consecration of an English king. Unfortunately, several weeks after Offa died, so did Ecgfrith. The throne then fell to Cenwulf, a distant relation of Offa.
Cenwulf succeeded, for the most part, in preserving the supremacy of Mercia that Offa had established. Early in his reign, he suppressed a revolt in Kent and installed his brother as king there. He also attempted to expand westward, raiding Wales on two occasions -- though he did not conquer any territory.
However, some of the connections Offa had forged began to crumble during Cenwulf's reign. In 796, the murder of Offa's son-in-law, King Aethelred of Northumbria, put an end to Mercia's influence in that kingdom. Six years later Beorhtric, king of Wessex and another son-in-law of Offa, also died, and when Egbert returned from exile to take up the crown, Wessex slipped from Mercian control. Cenwulf retained authority over East Anglia, Essex, Kent and Sussex, but he did not exercise power over all the territory that Offa had, and he did not use the title rex Britannia that his predecessors had dared to use.
Cenwulf may have been preparing to make one more assault on Welsh territory in 821 when he died, apparently of natural causes, at Basingwerk in Flintshire. His brother and successor Ceolwulf took up Cenwulf's campaign in 822, destroying the fortress of Deganwy and taking control of the Welsh kingdom of Powys. This would prove to be the last significant accomplishment made by the Kingdom of Mercia.
The Decline of Mercian Power
Ceolwulf's reign lasted barely two years; he was deposed by Beornwulf in 823. Beornwulf launched an ill-conceived campaign against Wessex and was soundly defeated at the Battle of Ellendune in 825. After this, what was left of Mercia's control over its neighbors rapidly disintegrated, and Egbert of Wessex obtained the allegiance of many of the kingdoms that had once been subordinate to Mercia. In 826, Beornwulf was killed in battle against East Anglia; in 827, his successor Ludeca met a similar fate. In 829 Egbert conquered Mercia and its dependencies, deposing King Wiglaf; and though the victory was short-lived, it marked an important achievement for Wessex, presaging that kingdom's ultimate primacy in England.
In 830 Wiglaf took the throne of Mercia once again and, it is believed, ruled independently until his death in 839. He was followed by a series of fairly-short-lived kings, who had little of note to offer Mercian history.
The Danish Incursion and the End of the Kingdom of Mercia
In 852 or 853, Burgred came to the throne. His reign would last more than 20 years, but it would not be a glorious one. After a large army of Danes came to England in the mid-860s, Burgred apparently arranged to buy them off, and they left Mercia alone for a while. Eventually, however, the Danes returned and drove Burgred out of the kingdom. He went to Rome in 874, where he died. The Danes put their own puppet king on the throne of Mercia and took over a large portion of the kingdom that, together with parts of other Anglo-Saxon lands, would come to be known as the Danelaw.
It was Alfred of Wessex who managed to keep the Danes from taking over the better part of all England. Mercia's decline would continue; and when Alfred's son, Edward the Elder, reconquered the last of what the Danes had taken in the early 10th century, Mercia would thenceforward be ruled by ealdormen in service to Wessex.
Although Mercia was ultimately subsumed by Wessex, for more than 150 years it was a very powerful member of the Heptarchy. The significance of Mercia has sometimes been overlooked, thanks in large part to the concentration of records, particularly the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, that originated in Wessex.
Sources and Suggested Reading
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Mercia and the Making of England
by Ian W. Walker
Mercia: An Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in Europe
by Michelle P. Brown and Carol A. Farr
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by James Campbell
Roman Britain and Early England
by Peter Hunter Blair
(Oxford History of England)
by Frank M. Stenton
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