They came from three very powerful peoples of Germany, that is, the Saxons, the Angles and the Jutes… From the Angles, that is, the country which is called Angulus, and which is said, from that time, to have remained desert to this day, between the provinces of the Jutes and the Saxons, are descended the East Angles, the Middle Angles, the Mercians, all the race of the Northumbrians, that is, of those nations that dwell on the north side of the river Humber, and the other peoples of the Angles.
Bede Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum I, 15

Mercia – the kingdom of the Mercians, i.e. Marcher-people (borderers) – which eventually encompassed the whole of the English midlands, stretching as far south as the Thames-Avon line, apparently developed from settlements around the upper Trent .[*] Mercia’s influence reached its zenith during the reign of Offa in the latter half of the 8th century. Wessex (the kingdom of the West Saxons), however, became the dominant power after decisively defeating the Mercians in 825. Later in the 9th century, Mercia was conquered by the Danes. The country was partitioned – the western half remained in Anglo-Saxon hands, whilst the eastern half was settled by the Danes. The West Mercians accepted the overlordship of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex. Mercia was never again an independent kingdom.

King of the Mercians

585 ? – 593 ?  Creoda ?

593 ? – 597 ?  Pybba ?

597 ? – 626 ?  Cearl

The early history of Mercia is very obscure. Felix, in his ‘Life’ of St Guthlac, says (Chs.1–2) that Guthlac’s father was “a certain man of distinguished Mercian stock named Penwalh”, and that: “the descent of this man was traced in set order through the most noble names of famous kings, back to Icel in whom it began in days of old.”  In an Old English translation/paraphrase of Felix’s Latin work, which survives in a single late-11th century manuscript (British Library MS Cotton Vespasian D xxi), Guthlac’s father is said to be: “of the oldest and noblest family, who were named Iclingas [from Icel of course].”

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 626, provides the following genealogy: “Penda was son of Pybba, Pybba of Creoda, Creoda of Cynewald, Cynewald of Cnebba, Cnebba of Icel, Icel of Eomær, Eomær of Angeltheow, Angeltheow of Offa, Offa of Wærmund, Wærmund of Wihtlæg, Wihtlæg of Woden.”


The above genealogy appears in Manuscripts B and C of the Chronicle. In Manuscript A it has been erased.
The pedigree of Penda’s son, Æthelred, in the so-called Anglian Collection, inserts another generation, one Weothulgeot, between Wihtlæg and Woden. In §60 of the Historia Brittonum, a further ancestor, Weaga, is placed between Weothulgeot and Whitlæg – however the generations between Eomær and Pybba are not present.
Offa, the son of Wærmund in the genealogy, is the hero of legend, Offa of Angeln (the Continental Anglian homeland), who is mentioned in the Old English poems Widsith and Beowulf.[*]
Offa ruled Angeln, Alewih the Danes,
who was the bravest of all these men [a list of various Continental rulers precedes this passage],
but he did not outmatch Offa in courage,
for Offa, first among men, fought for and won
the greatest of kingdoms even while a youth.
No one of like age was warrior enough to achieve
greater deeds of valour…
Widsith lines 35–41
… that chief of heroes,
of all mankind, as men have told me,
the best between the two seas,
of all the races of men; therefore Offa,
in gifts and battle, spear-bold man,
was widely honoured, and held in wisdom
his own homeland…
Beowulf lines 1954–1960
The extant Beowulf text proceeds to say: “From him [Offa] arose geomor”.  Scholars generally amend geomor (which means ‘sad’) to the name Eomer (i.e. Eomær in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle genealogy).[*] The text then says that Eomer is the nephew or grandson (the word nefa can be either) of one Garmund. Garmund is generally taken to equate with Wærmund in the Chronicle. All this being the case, the Beowulf text apparently presents Eomær as the son of Offa – not the grandson, as the Chronicle and other sources do.

Presumably(?), Icel was regarded as the founder of Penda’s dynasty because it was he who migrated from the Continental Anglian homeland to Britain.

Bede makes a passing reference (HE II, 14) to “Cearl, king of the Mercians”, being the father-in-law of the exiled future king of Northumbria, Edwin. This would put Cearl, who does not feature in any extant genealogy, on the Mercian throne at some time between about 604 and 616.

Henry of Huntingdon states: “The kingdom of Mercia began, and so far as I can gather from what has been written down, Creoda was the first to possess it.” (HA II, 26).  Henry implies that this was in 585. Following an elaborated account of a battle placed s.a. 592 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Henry notes: “After this Creoda, king of Mercia, died. His son Pybba succeeded him.” (HA II, 27).[*]  And then, with an implied date of 597: “After Pybba, there reigned Cearl, who was not his son but his kinsman.” (HA II, 27).  The next Mercian reference made by Henry is the notice (HA II, 31) of the accession of Penda, complete with his genealogy, as per the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, where the event is placed s.a. 626. There is no reason to suppose that Henry’s statements concerning the succession of the previous kings are anything other than conjectures based on Bede and the Chronicle.[*]

Mercian history, in effect, begins with Penda.

626 ? – 655  Penda

Son of Pybba.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle s.a. 626: “Penda held the kingdom 30 winters; and he was 50 winters old when he succeeded to the kingdom.”[*]  It is highly unlikely that Penda was fifty when he became king of Mercia (far more likely that he was fifty when he was killed), and it is also possible that he didn’t actually become king until considerably later than 626.

In 628, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: "Cynegils [the West Saxon king] and Cwichelm [Cynegils’ son] fought against Penda at Cirencester, and afterwards came to an agreement.”  It seems likely that Cynegils ceded Cirencester and territory along the Severn to Penda – the Mercian sub-kingdom of the Hwicce (roughly, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and western Warwickshire) quite possibly dates from this period.[*]

Bede (HE II, 5) reports that Edwin, the Christian king of Northumbria, secured the overlordship of “all the inhabitants of Britain, both English and Britons, except only the people of Kent”.  Penda was obviously ambitious, and he saw a further opportunity to increase his power when Cadwallon, king of Gwynedd, rebelled against Edwin.

… [Cadwallon] was supported by the vigorous Penda, of the royal family of the Mercians, who from that time governed that nation for 22 years with varying success.  A great battle being fought in the plain that is called Hæthfelth [usually identified as Hatfield Chase, near Doncaster], Edwin was killed on the 4th of the Ides of October [12th October], in the year of our Lord 633, being then 48 years of age, and all his army was either slain or dispersed.[*] In the same war also, Osfrith, one of his sons, a warlike youth, fell before him; Eadfrith, another of them, compelled by necessity, went over to King Penda, and was by him afterwards slain in the reign of Oswald, contrary to his oath.
At this time a great slaughter was made in the Church and nation of the Northumbrians; chiefly because one of the commanders, by whom it was carried on, was a pagan, and the other a barbarian, more cruel than a pagan; for Penda, with all the nation of the Mercians, was an idolater, and a stranger to the name of Christ; but Cadwallon, though he professed and called himself a Christian, was so barbarous in his disposition and manner of living, that he did not even spare women and innocent children, but with bestial cruelty put all alike to death by torture, and raged through all their provinces for a long time, intending to eradicate all the race of the English within the borders of Britain.
HE II, 20

Presumably Penda soon returned to Mercia. Cadwallon remained in the Northumbrian provinces for a year, “ravaging them like a furious tyrant” (HE III, 1), before he was defeated and killed by Edwin’s eventual successor, Oswald, who succeeded in re-establishing Northumbrian supremacy. Oswald and Edwin were, however, from rival Northumbrian dynasties – Edwin had exiled Oswald – so, presumably, it was as a conciliatory gesture towards Oswald that Penda killed Edwin’s son, Eadfrith, who had previously surrendered to him (mentioned by Bede above).

On 5th August 642, Penda’s forces defeated the Northumbrians “in a great battle … at a place called in the English tongue Maserfelth” (HE III, 9).  Oswald was killed – “the king who slew him [i.e. Penda] commanded his head, and hands, with the arms, to be cut off from the body, and set upon stakes” (HE III, 12).[*]  The battle site, Maserfelth, is usually, though not with absolute certainty, identified with Oswestry (‘Oswald’s tree’).

The, somewhat erratic, Historia Brittonum (§65) seems to imply that it wasn’t until after Maserfelth (“the battle of Cocboy”) that Penda became king of Mercia:

Penda son of Pybba reigned ten years. He first separated the kingdom of the Mercians from the kingdom of the Northerners. And he killed Anna, king of the East Angles, [in 654] and Saint Oswald, king of the Northerners, [in 642] by treachery. He fought the battle of Cocboy, in which fell Eowa son of Pybba, his brother the king of the Mercians, and Oswald, king of the Northerners; and he gained the victory by diabolical art. He was not baptized and never believed in God.

This is echoed by another Welsh source, the Annales Cambriae, which states: “The battle of Cocboy in which Oswald king of the Northerners and Eowa king of the Mercians fell.”[*]  It may well be that Penda and Eowa were joint kings of Mercia at the time – such arrangements were not uncommon in other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms – and Penda became sole king on Eowa’s death.

Round about this time (it may have been before or after Maserfelth – Bede doesn’t provide a date and other evidence, such as it is, is not conclusive): “the nation of the Mercians, under King Penda, made war on the East Angles” (HE III, 18).  Sigeberht and Ecgric, the ex-king and incumbent king of the East Angles, were killed.

Penda evidently (HE III, 7) married-off his sister (her name is not recorded) to, the pagan West Saxon king, Cenwalh. Cenwalh unwisely discarded her, and took another wife. In 645, Penda drove him from Wessex. For three years, Cenwalh was an exile in East Anglia, where he had been given refuge by Anna, who had succeeded Ecgric as king there. During his time with Anna, Cenwalh was converted to Christianity, and in 648, perhaps with the help of Anna, he recovered the West Saxon throne. There is no record of any subsequent conflict between Penda and Cenwalh. Around 650, Penda attacked East Anglia and succeeded in, temporarily, expelling Anna.

Penda also harassed Northumbria. At one time, before 651, Bede reports that:

… the hostile army of the Mercians, under the command of Penda, cruelly ravaged the regions of the Northumbrians far and near, even to the royal city which has its name from Bebba, a former queen [i.e. Bamburgh]. Not being able to take it by storm or by siege, he endeavoured to burn it down; and having pulled down all the villages in the neighbourhood of the city, he brought thither an immense quantity of beams, rafters, partitions, wattles and thatch, wherewith he encompassed the place to a great height on the land side, and when he found the wind favourable, he set fire to it and attempted to burn the city.
At that time, the most reverend Bishop Aidan [bishop of Lindisfarne, d.651] was dwelling in the Isle of Farne, which is about two miles from the city; for thither he was wont often to retire to pray in solitude and silence; and, indeed, this lonely dwelling of his is to this day shown in that island. When he saw the flames of fire and the smoke carried by the wind rising above the city walls, he is said to have lifted up his eyes and hands to heaven, and cried with tears, “Behold, Lord, how great evil is wrought by Penda!”  These words were hardly uttered, when the wind immediately veering from the city, drove back the flames upon those who had kindled them, so that some being hurt, and all afraid, they forebore any further attempts against the city, which they perceived to be protected by the hand of God.
HE III, 16

The Northumbrian king Oswiu did not have as much authority as his brother Oswald had enjoyed. He was king in Bernicia only. In 651 Oswiu had the king of Diera, the other half of Northumbria, murdered. Oswald’s son, Œthelwald, then appears as king of Diera. Later events tend to suggest, however, that Œthelwald owed his position to the support of Penda, rather than the benevolence of, his uncle, Oswiu.

The several different peoples who occupied the eastern Midlands, the buffer between Mercia and East Anglia, were collectively known as the Middle Angles. In 653 Penda made his son, Peada, who was, says Bede (HE III, 21), “an excellent youth, and most worthy of the name and office of a king”, ruler of the Middle Angles. (There is no evidence that the Middle Angles had been ruled as a single unit before this.) Peada promptly visited Oswiu:

… requesting to have his daughter Alhflæd given him to wife; but he could not obtain his desire unless he would receive the faith of Christ, and be baptized, with the nation which he governed. When he heard the preaching of the truth, the promise of the heavenly kingdom, and the hope of resurrection and future immortality, he declared that he would willingly become a Christian, even if he did not obtain the maiden; being chiefly prevailed on to receive the faith by King Oswiu’s son Alhfrith, who was his brother-in-law and friend, for he had married his sister Cyneburh, the daughter of King Penda.
HE III, 21

The newly baptized Peada, accompanied by four priests, journeyed to his new realm.

The aforesaid priests, arriving in the province with the prince, preached the Word, and were heard willingly; and many, as well of the nobility as the common sort, renouncing the abominations of idolatry, were daily washed in the fountain of the faith.
Nor did King Penda forbid the preaching of the Word even among his own people, the Mercians, if any were willing to hear it; but, on the contrary, he hated and despised those whom he perceived to be without the works of faith, when they had once received the faith of Christ, saying, that they were contemptible and wretched who scorned to obey their God, in whom they believed. These things were set on foot two years before the death of King Penda.
HE III, 21

In 654 Penda attacked the East Angles, killing their king, Anna. It will soon become apparent that Anna’s successor, his brother, Æthelhere, was quite possibly appointed by Penda.

After a period of seemingly peaceful toleration, in which a daughter and a son of Penda married a son and a daughter of Oswiu, Penda renewed his campaign against Oswiu.

… King Oswiu was exposed to the cruel and intolerable invasions of Penda, king of the Mercians, whom we have so often mentioned, and who had slain his brother; at length, compelled by his necessity, he promised to give him countless royal ornaments and gifts, greater than can be believed, to purchase peace; provided that he would return home, and cease to waste and utterly destroy the provinces of his kingdom.
HE III, 24

A somewhat confused report in the Historia Brittonum (§§64–65) suggests that Penda and his allies, “the kings of the Britons”, besieged Oswiu in a stronghold called Iudeu (widely, but by no means certainly, identified with Stirling): “Then Oswiu delivered all the wealth, which was with him in the city, to Penda; who distributed it among the kings of the Britons; that is the ‘restitution of Iudeu’.”  It may have been at Iudeu that Oswiu was obliged to hand over his son, Ecgfrith, to Penda as a hostage – the boy being sent into the care of Penda’s wife in Mercia.

Bede, however, says that Penda would not to come to terms with Oswiu:

The pagan king refused to grant his request, for he had resolved to blot out and extirpate all his nation, from the highest to the lowest; whereupon King Oswiu had recourse to the protection of the Divine pity for deliverance from his barbarous and pitiless foe, and binding himself by a vow, said, “If the pagan will not accept our gifts, let us offer them to Him that will, the Lord our God.”  He then vowed, that if he should win the victory, he would dedicate his daughter to the Lord in holy virginity, and give 12 pieces of land whereon to build monasteries. After this he gave battle with a very small army; indeed, it is reported that the pagans had an army thirty times larger; for they had 30 legions, drawn up under most noted commanders. King Oswiu and his son Alhfrith met them with a very small army, as has been said, but trusting in Christ as their Leader; his other son, Ecgfrith, was at that time kept as a hostage in the province of the Mercians, at the court of Queen Cynewise. King Oswald’s son Œthelwald, who ought to have helped them, was on the enemy’s side, and led them on to fight against his country and his uncle; although at the very time of fighting he withdrew from the battle, and awaited the outcome in a place of safety. —
— The engagement began, the pagans were put to flight or killed, the 30 royal commanders, who had come to Penda’s assistance, were almost all of them slain; among whom was Æthelhere, brother and successor to Anna, king of the East Angles. He [Penda] had been the occasion of the war, and was now killed, having lost his army and auxiliaries.[*] The battle was fought near the river Winwæd [unidentified], which then, owing to the great rains, was in flood, and had overflowed its banks, so that many more were drowned in the flight than destroyed in battle by the sword.[*]… King Oswiu concluded this war in the region of Loidis [Leeds], in the thirteenth year of his reign, on the 17th of the Kalends of December [i.e. 15th November, the year being 655], to the great benefit of both nations; for he delivered his own people from the hostile depredations of the pagans, and, having made an end of their heathen chief, converted the Mercians and the adjacent provinces to the grace of the Christian faith.
HE III, 24

Bede includes Edwin and Oswald, Oswiu’s predecessors, in a list (HE II, 5) of seven Anglo-Saxon kings who secured the overlordship of all the English kingdoms south of “the river Humber and the borders contiguous to it” – a distinction later given the title Bretwalda by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Penda does not feature in the list, but at the time of his death he was certainly the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kings (as testified by the coalition he mustered for the final showdown with Oswiu). Bede, being both Christian and Northumbrian, can hardly be described as an impartial reporter, and he tends to depict the contest between Penda and Oswiu as ‘belligerent pagan baddy’ versus ‘decent Christian goody’. It seems reasonable, though, to suppose that it was actually a war fought with equal vehemence by two equally ambitious rulers. After Penda’s death, Oswiu secured control of all Northumbria, annexed Mercia and acquired overlordship of the other southern English kingdoms. He is the final name on Bede’s list, and, consequently, the seventh Bretwalda listed by the Chronicle.[*]

655 – 658  Northumbrian rule

In 653, Penda’s son, Peada, had introduced Christianity to Middle Anglia (where he ruled for his father) as a condition of his marriage to Oswiu’s daughter, Alhflæd. Bede reports that Peada:

… received four priests, who by reason of their learning and good life were deemed proper to instruct and baptize his nation … These priests were Cedd and Adda, and Betti and Diuma; the last of whom was by nation a Scot [i.e. an Irishman], the others English… But when he [Penda] was slain [15th November 655], and the most Christian king, Oswiu, succeeded him in the throne [i.e. he annexed Mercia] … Diuma, one of the aforesaid four priests, was made bishop of the Middle Angles and also of the Mercians, being ordained by Bishop Finan [bishop of Lindisfarne]; for the scarcity of priests made it necessary that one prelate should be set over two peoples.
HE III, 21
… King Oswiu ruled the nation of the Mercians, as well as the other peoples of the southern provinces, for three years after King Penda was killed … At this time he gave to the above-mentioned Peada, son of King Penda, because he was his kinsman, the kingdom of the Southern Mercians, consisting, as is said, of five thousand families, divided by the river Trent from the Northern Mercians, whose land contains 7 thousand families; but Peada was foully slain in the following spring [656], by the treachery, as is said, of his wife, during the very time of the Easter festival.
HE III, 24

658 – 675  Wulfhere

Son of Penda.

Bede states that:

Three years after the death of King Penda, the leaders of the nation of the Mercians, Immin, and Eafa, and Eadberht, rebelled against King Oswiu, setting up for their king, Wulfhere, son to the said Penda, a youth whom they had kept concealed; and expelling the ealdormen of the foreign king, they bravely recovered at once their liberty and their lands; and being thus free, together with their king, they rejoiced to serve Christ the true King, for the sake of an everlasting kingdom in heaven. This king ruled the nation of the Mercians 17 years …
HE III, 24

Having liberated Mercia, Wulfhere proceeded to expand his borders and establish his supremacy over the other southern English kingdoms.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 661, records an offensive against the West Saxons: “and Wulfhere son of Penda committed ravage on Ashdown.[*]… And Wulfhere son of Penda committed ravage on Wight, and gave the people of Wight to Æthelwold, king of the South Saxons, because Wulfhere had received him at baptism.”[*]  Æthelwold is called Æthelwalh by Bede, who says (HE IV, 13) that Wulfhere, in fact, gave Æthelwalh: “the province of the Meonware, in the country of the West Saxons” (i.e. the Meon valley, in what is now Hampshire, opposite the Isle of Wight), as well as the Isle of Wight (which still had its own king at this time).

In 664 a devastating plague struck Britain. At the time, Sigehere and Sæbbi were co-kings of the East Saxons, but they were: “subject to Wulfhere, king of the Mercians” (HE III, 30).  Cedd, bishop of the East Saxons, died of the plague. In the hope of fending off the sickness, Sigehere led a pagan revival in his territory. Wulfhere sent Jaruman, bishop of the Mercians (including the Middle Angles and also Lindsey): “to correct their error, and recall the province to the true faith. He [Jaruman] acted with much discretion, as I was informed by a priest who bore him company in that journey … and travelling through all the country, far and near, brought back both the people and the aforesaid king to the way of righteousness … Having thus accomplished their works, the priests and teachers returned home with joy.” (HE III, 30).  When the bishop of Winchester, Wine, was expelled by the West Saxon king, Cenwalh, probably in 666, he: “took refuge with Wulfhere, king of the Mercians, of whom he purchased for money the see of the city of London [chief town of the East Saxons], and remained bishop thereof till his death.” (HE III, 7).

In 666, Wilfrid, at that time bishop of York designate, returned from Gaul, where he had been ordained, to find that Chad (brother of Cedd) had been made bishop of York during his, prolonged, absence. Stephen the Priest, Wilfrid’s biographer, says (Ch.14) that Wilfrid: “returned to his post of abbot of the monastery and humbly dwelt once more in Ripon for 3 years, except for the frequent occasions when Wulfhere, king of the Mercians, out of sincere affection for him, invited him into his realm to fulfil various episcopal duties.”  Bishop Jaruman had died, but, for the time being there was no archbishop of Canterbury to ordain a replacement, so Wilfrid was ‘temping’ in Mercia. Stephen continues: “The Lord raised up for himself this most kindly monarch, who, amongst his other good deeds, for the benefit of his soul, granted our bishop many pieces of land in various places, on which he forthwith founded monasteries for the servants of God.”

In 669, Theodore (a monk from Tarsus who had been selected and ordained by the pope) at last arrived in Britain to begin his tenure as archbishop of Canterbury. Theodore judged that Chad’s position at York was illegitimate, and he had to relinquish it to Wilfrid. Mercia needed a bishop, so Wulfhere asked Theodore:

… that a bishop should be given to him and his people; but Theodore would not ordain a new one for them, but requested of King Oswiu that Chad might be their bishop. He then lived in retirement at his monastery, which is at Lastingham, while Wilfrid administered the bishopric of York, and of all the Northumbrians, and likewise of the Picts, as far as King Oswiu was able to extend his dominions… Chad having received the bishopric of the nation of the Mercians and of the people of Lindsey, took care to administer it with great perfection of life, according to the example of the ancient fathers. King Wulfhere also gave him land of the extent of 50 families, to build a monastery, at the place called Ad Barvae, that is ‘At the Wood’ [Barrow on Humber?], in the province of Lindsey, wherein traces of the monastic life instituted by him continue to this day.
He had his episcopal see in the place called Lichfield, in which he also died, and was buried, and where the see of the succeeding bishops of that province [i.e. Mercia] continues to this day.
Bede, HE IV, 3

Chad died in 672.

In his place, Theodore ordained Wynfrith, a man of good and sober life, who presided, like his predecessors, in the office of bishop for the provinces of the Mercians, the Middle Angles, and the people of Lindsey; of all which, Wulfhere, who was still living, was king.
HE IV, 3

Lindsey covered much of modern-day Lincolnshire – indeed, it is named after the Roman name for Lincoln (Lindum Colonia). Its borders are fairly precisely known: the river Humber to the north; the sea to the east; the Foss Dyke and river Witham to the south; in the west, the river Trent, but including the Isle of Axholme, in the marshes (now drained) to the west of the Trent. Bede refers to Lindsey in the way that he refers to kingdoms, but he does not mention any kings of Lindsey. Lindsey was evidently, however, a kingdom. The pedigree of a king of Lindsey called Aldfrith appears in the Anglian Collection, though his reign cannot be securely dated.[*] Lindsey has no recorded independent history. From 627 – its earliest appearance in the record: “the province of Lindsey, which is the first on the south side of the river Humber, stretching as far as the sea” (HE II, 16) – it appears as a satellite of either Northumbria, as was the case in 627, or, as here in Wulfhere’s day, Mercia.

The Mildrith Legend texts provide some details of relations between Mercia and Kent. Wulfhere was married to Eormenhild, daughter of Eorcenberht, king of Kent. Wulfhere’s brother, Merewalh, was married to Domne (‘Lady’) Eafe, daughter of Eorcenberht’s brother. In one of the Mildrith Legend texts, found in the Historia Regum, Merewalh is called “king of the Mercians”. In two other texts[*], however, it is made clear that he ruled a western part of Mercian territory, i.e. the Westerna, usually called the Magonsæte (Herefordshire and southern Shropshire).

Eorcenberht died in 664, and was succeeded by his son, Egbert. Egbert was involved in the murder of his two cousins, Æthelberht and Æthelred, the brothers of Domne Eafe, which is the central event of the Mildrith Legend. Merewalh and Domne Eafe had separated by this time, and, in recompense for the murders, Egbert gave Domne Eafe land on the Isle of Thanet, where she founded a monastery (Minster Abbey), and became its first abbess. (Her daughter, Mildrith, succeeded her.) Egbert died in 673. The date of the succession of his brother, Hlothhere, is, however, somewhat uncertain. The dynastic rivalries apparent from the Mildrith Legend may have resulted in a dispute over the kingship. Possibly Wulfhere opposed Hlothhere’s succession, and it may be that Kent was without a king of its own for a year, leaving Wulfhere in control. What is clear is that, about the time of Egbert’s death, Surrey, which had been in Egbert’s hands, was taken-over by Wulfhere – a charter (S1165) records a land-grant to the monastery of Chertsey made by one Frithuwald, who was ruling Surrey as Wulfhere’s sub-king (subregulus). The grant was witnessed by a further three sub-kings (Osric, Wigheard, and Æthelwald), whose provinces are not named, and confirmed by Wulfhere at his residence at Thame, Oxfordshire.

There is no direct evidence of Wulfhere’s involvement in East Anglia, nor does Bede place him in his list (HE II, 5) of overlords of the southern English (i.e. south of the Humber) – and, consequently, he is not named as a Bretwalda by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – but it seems very likely that in 673 Wulfhere was, indeed, in that position. The following year, being “proud of heart and insatiable in spirit”, says Stephen the Priest (Ch.20), Wulfhere decided to extend his overlordship north of the Humber also. Accordingly, he “roused up all the southern nations” and invaded Northumbria. Wulfhere’s plan went woefully awry. The Northumbrian king, Ecgfrith, “by the help of God overthrew them with his tiny force. Countless numbers were slain, the king [i.e. Wulfhere] was put to flight and his kingdom laid under tribute”.  As a result of Wulfhere’s defeat, Lindsey was taken back into Northumbrian ownership.[*]

Wulfhere’s grip on power in southern England had been loosened, and in 675 he would appear to have faced a West Saxon challenge: “Wulfhere son of Penda and Æscwine [“son of Cenfus” adds MS E] fought at Biedanheafde [unidentified]; and the same year Wulfhere died, and Æthelred succeeded to the kingdom.” (ASC s.a. 675).[*]  Bede records Wulfhere’s death only in the annalistic summary at the end of HE (V, 24): “In the year 675, Wulfhere, king of the Mercians, when he had reigned 17 years, died and left the government to his brother Æthelred.”

675 – 704  Æthelred (St Ethelred)

Son of Penda.

Mercian authority over the other major English kingdoms south of the Humber would appear to have crumbled following the defeat of the combined southern forces of Wulfhere, Æthelred’s predecessor and brother, by, the Northumbrian king, Ecgfrith. Indeed, Stephen the Priest (Ch.20) says that, as a result of the defeat, Mercia was “laid under tribute” to Northumbria.

Without further explanation, Bede reports (HE IV, 12):

In the year of our Lord 676, when Æthelred, king of the Mercians, ravaged Kent with a hostile army, and profaned churches and monasteries, without regard to pity, or the fear of God, in the general destruction he laid waste the city of Rochester; Putta, who was bishop, was absent at that time, but when he understood that his church was ravaged, and everything taken away from it, he went to Seaxwulf, bishop of the Mercians, and having received of him a certain church, and a small piece of land, ended his days there in peace; in no way endeavouring to restore his bishopric …

If Æthelred’s attack was an attempt to re-establish Mercian overlordship of Kent it would appear to have failed – a charter of the Kentish king, Hlothhere, dated May 679 (S8) exhibits no sign that Æthelred had any authority in Kent. Perhaps Æthelred’s purpose was rather more limited – to deter Hlothhere from attempting to take back Surrey or extend his influence in London (it is clear, from a law-code in the names of Hlothhere and his nephew, Eadric, that the Kentish kings had commercial interests in London).

At some stage, Æthelred had married Ecgfrith’s sister, Osthryth. Nevertheless, in 679, Æthelred and Ecgfrith fought “a great battle … near the river Trent” (HE IV, 21), from which Æthelred emerged as the victor. Ecgfrith’s young brother, Ælfwine, was killed in the fighting. In order to prevent the situation escalating into a protracted, bloody, feud, Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury, brokered a peace agreement. Æthelred paid the appropriate wergild to compensate Ecgfrith for the loss of Ælfwine: “and this peace continued long after between those kings and between their kingdoms.” (HE IV, 21).  When Wulfhere had been defeated by Ecgfrith in 674, Lindsey (the northern half of modern-day Lincolnshire) had been taken into Northumbrian ownership. As a result of his victory on the Trent, Æthelred regained Lindsey, which thereafter stayed in Mercian hands.

It seems likely that, after securing Lindsey, Æthelred pushed his area of authority into, what is now, northern Wiltshire, at the expense of the West Saxons – he features in charters dated 681 (S71, S73), granting land to Abbot Aldhelm of Malmesbury, in company with his “relative”, Cenfrith. (Cenfrith is described as comes and patricius, titles borrowed from Roman usage, indicating a person of rank and command, equating to the Anglo-Saxon ‘ealdorman’.)

When, in 681, Wilfrid, bishop of York, was expelled from Northumbria by Ecgfrith, he found refuge, according to Wilfrid’s biographer, Stephen the Priest (Ch.40), with a nephew of Æthelred’s called Berhtwald. But when Æthelred and Osthryth heard about it, they pressured Berhtwald (“if he valued his own safety”) into expelling Wilfrid from Mercian territory – “This they did to flatter King Ecgfrith”, says Stephen. (Wilfrid made his way to Centwine, king of the West Saxons.) Perhaps it was this same Berhtwald who, on 30th July 685, granted land to Abbot Aldhelm (S1169) as Æthelred’s sub-king.[*]

In 685, the West Saxon Cædwalla began his meteoric career. In 688, by which time he was in control of all the English south of the Thames, and probably the East Saxons too, he abdicated and travelled to Rome. (He was baptized there, and died a week later.) At the time of Cædwalla’s ascendency, the East Saxons were ruled by kings Sigehere and Sæbbi. Charter evidence indicates that Sigehere aligned himself with Cædwalla and assisted him in his take-over of Kent (S233). Sæbbi, on the other hand, possibly didn’t support Cædwalla. In 689, Swæfheard, Sæbbi’s son, was sharing the rule of Kent with Oswine, a member of the Kentish royal family – but one “of doubtful title”, opines Bede (HE IV, 26). Both Swæfheard and Oswine recognized Æthelred as their overlord (S10, S12). Since by this time Sigehere has disappeared from history, it may be that Æthelred and Sæbbi had acted in cahoots to eradicate the influence of Cædwalla and Sigehere, and plant rulers of their own selection in Kent. However, in late-690 or 691, Wihtred – the “lawful king” of Kent, says Bede (HE IV, 26) – would seem to have overthrown Oswine. Swæfheard, though, retained his share of the kingdom until sometime between July 692 and July 694, at which time Wihtred became sole king of Kent – neither Sæbbi nor Æthelred retaining any authority there.

The kingdom of the East Saxons included the, presumably, once independent province of the Middle Saxons (modern-day Middlesex and south-eastern Hertfordshire), and London was the main East Saxon town. Charters indicate that Æthelred acquired authority in London and the Middle Saxon lands, but not in the East Saxon heartland. Possibly, Pæogthath, who appears with the title comes, in the company of one of Sæbbi’s successors, granting land in Twickenham to the bishop of London, “with the authorisation of King Æthelred” (S65, dated 13th June 704), was the Mercian representative in Middle Saxon territory.

Surrey had been in Wulfhere’s possession in about 673 (S1165), by 688 it was in Cædwalla’s hands (S235), and by 693 Æthelred was in control there (S1248).

Stephen the Priest (Ch.43) says that Archbishop Theodore, in his old age and bad health, was troubled by his conscience for his complicity in Wilfrid’s overthrow.[*] In about 686–7, having made his own peace with Wilfrid, Theodore wrote to various worthies, urging reconciliation with Wilfrid. Stephen quotes the letter written by Theodore to Æthelred, which commences:

To the most glorious and excellent Æthelred, king of the Mercians, Theodore, by the grace of God, Archbishop – Everlasting salvation be yours in the Lord. Most beloved son, may your wondrous holiness know that I have made peace in Christ with the venerable Bishop Wilfrid, and therefore, beloved, I urge you with paternal love, and I charge you by the love of Christ, to grant your protection to his holy devotion to the utmost of your ability, with the help of God, all your life long, as you have always done; because for a long time, while deprived of his own possessions, he has laboured much in the Lord among the heathen…

Accordingly, Æthelred:

… received our bishop gladly and in a canonical manner, returned him many monasteries and lands in his own right, treated him with the utmost respect, and continued his faithful friend without ceasing until the end of his life.

Ecgfrith’s successor, Aldfrith, also responded favourably to Theodore’s entreaties, and, in 687, recalled Wilfrid to Northumbria.  In 692, however, Wilfrid was expelled again. He “went to his faithful friend Æthelred, king of the Mercians, who received him with great honour”, says Stephen (Ch.45).  Æthelred gave Wilfrid employment as bishop of the Middle Angles.  Archbishop Theodore had died on 19th September 690, and his successor, Berhtwald, would not be in place until 31st August 693. The bishop of the Hwicce, Bosel, had become too ill to perform his duties, and so, in the absence of an archbishop, Wilfrid, “by order of King Æthelred” (HE IV, 23), consecrated Oftfor, Bosel’s replacement.

Wilfrid spent some eleven years under Æthelred’s wing, but he clearly hadn’t abandoned his claim to the see of York. In about 703, after Aldfrith and Archbishop Berhtwald had tried to force Wilfrid to give-up all his property except the monastery at Ripon (North Yorkshire), where he was to remain quietly and not carry out any duties as a bishop, Wilfrid, with the backing of his loyal friend Æthelred, decided to plead his case before the pope.

Bede brings his Ecclesiastical History to a conclusion with a annalistic summary (HE V, 24). It contains the entry: “In the year 697, Queen Osthryth was murdered by her own nobles, to wit, the nobles of the Mercians.”  Nothing else is known about this occurrence. The next-but-one entry reads: “In the year 704, Æthelred, after he had reigned 31 years over the nation of the Mercians, became a monk, and gave up the kingdom to Cenred.”

704 – 709  Cenred

Son of Wulfhere.[*]

There are no chronicled incidents, but Cenred would appear to have had his work cut out fighting the Welsh. Felix, in his ‘Life’ of St Guthlac, begins an anecdote: “Now it happened in the days of Cenred king of the Mercians, while the Britons, the implacable enemies of the Saxon race, were troubling the English with their attacks, their pillaging and their devastations of the people …[*]” (Ch.34).

Charter evidence indicates that Cenred continued the relationship with the East Saxons established by his uncle and predecessor, Æthelred – that is, he had authority in London and Middle Saxon territory, but not in the East Saxon heartland.[*] The control of Surrey appears to have remained a contentious issue. The purpose of a council at Brentford – mentioned in a letter from Waldhere, bishop of London, to Berhtwald, archbishop of Canterbury, written in 704 or 705 – may have been to address the issue. Certainly, not long after, Surrey was transferred from the London diocese to the, West Saxon, Winchester diocese.[*]

Meanwhile, Bishop Wilfrid had been in Rome, putting the case for his reinstatement at York to the pope. The pope (John VI) had composed an open letter (Vita Sancti Wilfrithi, Ch.54) to Æthelred, who was still king of Mercia at the time the letter was written, and Aldfrith, the Northumbrian king who had, back in 692, expelled Wilfrid, in which he ordered Archbishop Berhtwald to convene a synod to finally work out an agreement that was acceptable to all parties. In 705, Wilfrid arrived back in England. Stephen the Priest reports that: “our holy bishop came to King Æthelred who had once reigned over the kingdom of the Mercians and was always a most faithful friend of his. The king actually wept through excess of joy; they kissed and embraced each other, and Wilfrid was as usual most honourably received by his friend.” (Ch.57).  At Æthelred’s insistence, Cenred agreed to support Wilfrid. Aldfrith, though, was immovable – he would have nothing to do with Wilfrid. By the end of 705, however, Aldfrith was dead, and Berhtwald held a synod the following year, in the reign of Aldfrith’s son, Osred. The matter was settled – Wilfrid returned to Northumbria, though he was not restored to the see of York[*].

In 709:

… Cenred, who had for some time nobly governed the kingdom of the Mercians, much more nobly quitted the sceptre of his kingdom. For he went to Rome, and there receiving the tonsure and becoming a monk, when Constantine was pope [708–715], he continued to his last hour in prayer and fasting and alms-deeds at the threshold of the Apostles. He was succeeded in the throne by Ceolred, the son of Æthelred, who had governed the kingdom before Cenred.
Bede HE V, 19

Cenred was accompanied to Rome by a rather obscure East Saxon ruler called Offa, who similarly became a monk and spent the rest of his life there.[*] Actually, a note in the Liber Pontificalis (Book of the Popes) suggests that neither Cenred nor Offa survived for very long in Rome: “In his [Constantine’s] time two kings of the Saxons came with many others to pray to the apostles; just as they were hoping, their lives quickly came to an end.”  It seems a reasonable bet that the “two kings of the Saxons” were Cenred and Offa.

709 – 716  Ceolred

Son of Æthelred.

It is said that Ceolred’s mother was not Osthryth, the wife of Æthelred who was murdered in 697. Assuming that to be true, and that Ceolred was born in wedlock to a subsequent wife, then he cannot have been older than eleven when he succeeded to the throne. Bede says nothing about him. He evidently retained the overlordship of London and the Middle Saxons that his father established and Cenred continued,[*] and at some point during his reign, his eventual successor, Æthelbald, was driven into exile.[*]

Stephen the Priest puts words in the mouth of Bishop Wilfrid: “our two abbots Tibba and Eabba are here [Ripon], sent from Ceolred, king of the Mercians, asking me to go to confer with him, and they have persuaded me to consent to this for the sake of the position of our monasteries in his kingdom; for he promises to order his whole life after my instruction.” (Ch.64).  Ceolred had just become king at this time. Unfortunately, since the new king was evidently in dire need of the bishop’s “instruction”, Wilfrid died whilst en route to meet with him[*]. The ‘Apostle of Germany’, St Boniface, and a number of other Continental bishops, sent a long letter of criticism to Ceolred’s successor, Æthelbald, in which the following passage appears:

… after the Apostolic Pope Saint Gregory sent preachers of the Catholic faith from the Apostolic See, and converted the race of the English to the true God, the privileges of the churches in the kingdom of the English remained untouched and unviolated up to the time of Ceolred, king of the Mercians, and Osred, king of the Deirans and Bernicians. At the suggestion of the devil these two kings showed, by their accursed example, that these two deadliest of sins could be committed publicly against the evangelical and apostolic precepts of our Saviour. And lingering in these sins, namely lust and adultery with nuns and the destruction of monasteries, condemned by a just judgment of God, they were cast down from their royal thrones in this life, and surprised by an early and terrible death; deprived of the light eternal they were plunged into the depths of hell and the bottom of the abyss.[*]

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the year 715 reads: “In this year Ine [king of the West Saxons] and Ceolred fought at Woddesbeorge.”  Woddesbeorge (or Wodnesbeorge), i.e. ‘Woden’s barrow’, is identified with a Neolithic long barrow known as Adam’s Grave, Wiltshire. The outcome of the battle is unknown.

The Chronicle entry for the next year, 716, reports: “Ceolred, king of the Mercians, died, and his body lies in Lichfield, and Æthelred’s, the son of Penda, at Bardney.[*] Then Æthelbald succeeded to the kingdom of the Mercians, and held it 41 winters.”[*]  The previously cited letter of Boniface et al. to Æthelbald describes the manner of Ceolred’s death:

… while Ceolred, your worthy highness’ predecessor – as those who were present testify – was feasting splendidly among his nobles, an evil spirit, which by its persuasions had seduced him into the audacious course of breaking the law of God, suddenly turned him in his sin to madness; so that without penitence and confession, insane and distraught, conversing with the devils and cursing the priests of God, he departed from this light assuredly to the torments of hell.

716 – 757  Æthelbald

Son of Alweo, Alweo of Eowa (Penda’s brother).

The monk Felix, in his Vita (Life) of St Guthlac, written about 730–740, says that Æthelbald had been driven into exile by his predecessor, Ceolred. Æthelbald would visit Guthlac – a reclusive monk living in the Middle Anglian fens at Crowland, in modern Lincolnshire, and himself of Mercian royal descent with a military background[*] – for advice and guidance. Guthlac is said to have counselled him to be patient because he had prayed on his behalf, and God would help him gain the kingdom:

… He will bow down the necks of your enemies beneath your heel and you shall own their possessions; those who hate you shall flee from your face and you shall see their backs; and your sword shall overcome your foes.
Vita Sancti Guthlaci Ch.49

Guthlac died in 714 and was buried in his chapel. A year later, his body, when it was being transferred to a new tomb, was found to be incorrupt (a sure sign of saintliness). Guthlac is purported to have appeared to Æthelbald in a vision, prophesying his succession to the throne within a year – “and now, built around it [Guthlac’s tomb], we behold wonderful structures and ornamentations put up by King Æthelbald in honour of the divine power: here [at Crowland] the triumphant body of the great man rests in blessedness until this present time” (Ch.51).

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle s.a. 716: “Ceolred, king of the Mercians, died … Then Æthelbald succeeded to the kingdom of the Mercians, and held it 41 winters. Æthelbald was son of Alweo, Alweo of Eowa, Eowa of Pybba[*]”.

Felix calls the Britons: “the implacable enemies of the Saxon race [i.e. the English]” (Ch.34).  Indicating the year 722, the Annales Cambriae record: “the battle of Hehil among the Cornish, the battle of Garth Maelog, the battle of Pencon among the south Britons, and the Britons were the victors in those three battles.”  Clearly, it was the English who were defeated in all the battles (the site of none of them is known with certainty). Since it was the Cornish Britons who were the victors at Hehil, it would have been the West Saxons who were the losers. The “south Britons” are the natives of southern Wales, and the English beaten at Pencon and Garth Maelog would have been the Mercians.

Bede reports (HE V, 23) that in 731, the time he was writing, all the “southern provinces, as far as the boundary formed by the river Humber, with their several kings, are subject to Æthelbald, king of the Mercians.”  Remarkably, though, Bede had previously (HE II, 5) not included Æthelbald in his list of similarly qualified overlords. Similarly, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which grants the title Bretwalda to all the kings in Bede’s list of overlords of the southern English, does not accord the honour to Æthelbald – although, in a charter of 736 (S89), he is styled rex Britanniæ, which, it might reasonably be supposed, is the Latin equivalent of Bretwalda.[*] At any rate, Bede doesn’t give any indication of the means by which Æthelbald achieved such pre-eminence, but messy successions after the death of Wihtred in Kent (725) and abdication of Ine in Wessex (726), both of whom had reigned for over thirty years, probably provided the opportunity.

The boundary between Mercia and Wessex was, in effect, marked by the rivers Thames and Avon. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 733, notes that “Æthelbald captured Somerton”.  Somerton (in Somerset) was in West Saxon territory, indeed, Æthelweard (II, 14) calls it a “royal vill”.  Somerset wasn’t the only area where Æthelbald appropriated territory from the West Saxons – he gave the monastery of Cookham, in Berkshire, to the church of Canterbury (S1258).[*]  An entry in the ‘Continuation’ of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica reports, s.a. 740, that: “Æthelbald, king of the Mercians, through wicked deceit, wasted part of Northumbria, their king, Eadberht, with his army, being employed against the Picts.”  Possibly Æthelbald was, here also, intent on making territorial gains at the expense of his neighbour. The freedom with which his charters show Æthelbald operating in the province of the Middle Saxons and London, indicate that ownership of those territories finally passed from Essex to Mercia during his reign.

In 746 or 7, Archbishop Boniface and a number of other Continental bishops sent a joint letter to Æthelbald. It begins innocuously enough, with compliments:

We have heard that thou givest many alms, and upon this we congratulate thee … We have heard too that thou dost strongly check theft and iniquity, perjury and rapine, and art known to be a defender of widows and the poor and hast peace established in thy kingdom. And in this too, praising God we have rejoiced …

However, this is just a preamble to the main reasons for the letter:

But among these reports one rumour of evil character concerning your highness’ life has come to our hearing; we were cast down by it, and wish that it were not true. From many sources we have learned that thou hast never taken a wife in lawful marriage… If thou hast determined to act thus because of chastity and abstinence, that thou mayst abstain from intercourse with a wife for the love and fear of God, and hast shown this to be something truly accomplished for God’s sake, we rejoice thereat; such a course deserves not blame, but praise. If, however, as many say – God forbid – thou hast never taken a lawful wife nor preserved a chaste abstinence for God’s sake, but, under the sway of lust, thou hast destroyed by licence and adultery thy glory and renown before God and men, we are greatly grieved: such conduct must be regarded as criminal in the sight of God and destructive of your reputation before men. And what is worse, those who tell us this, add that this crime of deepest ignominy has been committed in convents with holy nuns and virgins consecrated to God. There can be no doubt that this is a twofold sin… Fornication is more grave and repellant than almost any other sin and can truly be called a noose of death and a pit of hell and an abyss of perdition… If indeed the race of the English – as is noised abroad through these provinces, and is cast up to us in Francia and in Italy, and made a reproach even by the heathen – spurn lawful wedlock and live a foul life in adultery and licence like the people of Sodom, from such intercourse with harlots, a people degenerate, unworthy, mad with lust, will be born, and in the end the whole nation, turning to lower and baser ways, will cease to be strong in war or steadfast in faith, or honourable before men or beloved of God … Besides, we have been told that thou hast violated many privileges of churches and monasteries, and taken from them many revenues. And this, if it be true, must be regarded as a great sin … And it is said that thy prefects and ealdormen [comites] use greater violence and oppression towards monks and priests, than other Christian kings have ever done before… And so, beloved son, putting forth just counsel, we beg and pray through the living God and through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Spirit, that thou mayst remember, how fugitive is this present life, and how short and momentary is the delight of the impure flesh, and how ignominious it is for a man with his short life to leave an evil example for ever to posterity. Begin, therefore, to order thy life by better laws and to correct the past errors of youth, so that here thou mayst have praise before men and for the future rejoice in glory eternal. That thy highness may fare well and advance in good morals is our wish.[*]

Æthelbald may have been stung by this criticism, since, in 749, he issued a grant of privileges to the ecclesiastical establishments of Mercia (S92), releasing them from all obligations: “except alone those which are to be done in common and which all people are ordered to do by edict of the king, that is the building of bridges and the necessary defences of fortresses against enemies.”

Meanwhile, in 740, Cuthred had succeeded to the West Saxon throne. In 743 Æthelbald and Cuthred, together, “fought against the Welsh” – no further detail is provided by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Possibly Cuthred was duty-bound to accompany Æthelbald, his overlord, on campaign. Cuthred, however, was not content to be subject to Æthelbald – the Chronicle, during its report of his accession, had commented that: “he warred boldly against Æthelbald, king of the Mercians.”[*]  In 752, Cuthred: “fought at Beorhford [unidentified] against Æthelbald,[*] king of the Mercians, and put him to flight.”[*]  Wessex was apparently independent of Mercia until Cuthred’s death four years later. Cuthred’s successor, Sigeberht, ruled for only a year before he was overthrown and Cynewulf took the West Saxon throne. Perhaps Cynewulf owed his position to Æthelbald’s support, since he immediately appears as witness to a charter in which Æthelbald grants land in Wiltshire to a certain Abbot Eanberht (S96) – Æthelbald is styled: “king, not only of the Mercians but also of the neighbouring peoples”.  Clearly, Æthelbald was Cynewulf’s overlord. However, later the same year, 757, as reported in the ‘Continuation of Bede’: “Æthelbald, king of the Mercians, was treacherously and miserably murdered, in the night, by his own guards”.  The Chronicle adds that he “was slain at Seckington [in Warwickshire]; and his body lies at Repton”.[*]  Æthelbald’s killing precipitated civil war in Mercia. Cynewulf was able to capitalize on the situation. He evidently recovered territory previously lost to Mercia – he could grant land freely in Wiltshire (as demonstrated by S260, dated 758), and he took the monastery of Cookham, in Berkshire, into his own ownership.[*] He also annexed land from the Mercian sub-kingdom of the Hwicce (S265).

Mercia/Mainline continued
Presumably the Mercians were so-named because they were on the frontier between Anglo-Saxon controlled territory, to the east, and British (Welsh, to the Anglo-Saxons) controlled territory, to the west. A theory that the ‘march’ in question was the border between Mercia and Northumbria seems unlikely. There is no indication that the Mercians were ever known by another name, and, although they eventually had a border with the Northumbrians, in the early-7th century, when the Mercians first appear in history, they were evidently separated from them by other peoples.
Henry eschews AD dates, attempting instead to link events to the presumed regnal years (derived from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) of the kings of Wessex.
Roger of Wendover, whose Flores Historiarum employs a conventional AD dating framework, drew on Henry’s work as a source. Roger places the beginning of Mercia, with Creoda its first king, s.a. 585. He then places Creoda’s death and the succession of his son Pybba s.a. 588 – stating that Pybba “reigned three years”. The death of Pybba and succession of Cearl, “not his son, but his kinsman”, is, though, placed s.a. 594. Roger maintains that Cearl “reigned ten years” and that Penda was reigning in 610. Roger would seem to be implying that Penda succeeded Cearl in 604, but this must surely be much too early. It would seem likely that Penda was born round about 604.
In fact, Henry spells the name Creoda Crida. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that “Crida perished” in 593. The context of this entry suggests that the man in question was a West Saxon, but Henry of Huntingdon has apparently assumed that he was the king of Mercia.
Presumably the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.
There are several instances in the Beowulf manuscript where scribes have failed to recognize proper names, and have changed them into common words.
Widsith (meaning ‘far-traveller’) is named from the work’s supposed speaker, a fictional itinerant poet. It survives in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501), which was copied-out, by a single scribe, in the late-10th century, and contains the largest existing collection of Old English poetry.
The epic poem Beowulf is named after its monster-fighting hero. The story is set in the 6th century, but the sole extant manuscript (British Library MS Cotton Vitellius A xv) was copied-out, by two scribes, around the year 1000. At what stage between those dates the work was originally composed is the subject of scholarly debate – as, indeed, is the antiquity of Widsith.
This entry appears in Manuscripts A, B and C.
The monetary value, based on rank, placed on a person’s life.
Oswald was killed in battle “at a place called in the English tongue Maserfelth” says Bede (HE III, 9). Penda had the fallen king’s head and arms removed from his corpse and displayed on stakes. A year later, Osthryth’s father, Oswiu, recovered these body parts. Traditionally, Maserfelth is identified with Oswestry, Shropshire – the name being derived from the Old English Oswaldestreow (Oswald’s tree). Assuming that the residue of Oswald’s body had been left to rot on the battlefield (Bede doesn’t say where the bones were found), it, perhaps, seems somewhat strange that the remains were carted all the way to Bardney, near Lincoln. Perhaps, then, Maserfelth should be located in or near Lindsey – after all, possession of Lindsey was hotly contested by Mercia and Northumbria.
Henry of Huntingdon (HA III, 33):
It is said that Hæthfelth, ‘Turning red, steamed all over with the blood of noblemen.’ For there the strongest men suffered a remarkable and unexpected slaughter.
Reading Henry’s Historia, it becomes plain that he sees nothing unethical in employing literary licence to embellish the often terse notices of his sources. In the above instance, however, his embellishment seems to be drawn from somewhere other than his own imagination: “It is said that …”.  R.M. Wilson* suggests that here, and on five other occasions, Henry is quoting, in Latin, from a now lost Old English poem on famous battles.
* The Lost Literature of Medieval England (1952), Chapter 2 (pp.32–34).
References in two pieces of Welsh poetry indicate that Penda had British, i.e. Welsh, allies. In the 9th or 10th century Canu Heledd (Song of Heledd) appear the lines:
I saw on the ground of Maes Cogwy
Hosts, and strife of battle.
Cynddylan gave assistance.
Verse 111 (Translation in Wales and the Britons, 350–1064, by T.M. Charles-Edwards, 2013, p.392.)
Cynddylan is a Powysian chieftain. In the Marwnad Cynddylan (Death-song of Cynddylan), thought to have 7th century origins:
When Pyd’s son [i.e. Penda, son of Pybba] wished, how ready he [Cynddylan] was.
Line 28 (Translation by Joseph Clancy, in Medieval Welsh Poems, 2003.)
Maes Cogwy = ‘Field of Cogwy’.
(Cogwy is a later form of Cocboy.)
Henry of Huntingdon (HA III, 39):
… he [Oswald] was also killed by Penda the warlike, in a fierce battle at Maserfelth … Of this it is said, ‘The field of Maserfelth was whitened with the bones of saints.’
Another occasion when Henry may be quoting from a lost poem on Anglo-Saxon battles.
As originally written, it seems as though Bede is, out of the blue and without reason, blaming Æthelhere for causing the war. In Joseph Stevenson’s translation (1853), the highlighted section reads: “were almost all of them slain; among whom was Æthelhere, brother and successor to Anna, king of the East Angles, who had been the occasion of the war, and who was now killed, with all his soldiers and auxiliaries.”  The proposal made by J.O. Prestwich*, that a scribe’s omission of punctuation has resulted in this false reading, is now widely accepted. The insertion of a full stop allows Penda to be the cause of the war (as Bede surely intended), and, furthermore, gives notice of his death, which otherwise would be absent from Bede’s report.
* ‘King Æthelhere and the battle of the Winwaed’, in The English Historical Review Vol. 83 Issue 326 (1968), freely available online.
Henry of Huntingdon (HA II, 34) supplies one of his (possible) quotations:
He [Penda] was struck down, then, by King Oswiu at the river Winwæd. Of this it is said:
At the Winwæd was avenged the slaughter of Anna,
The slaughter of Kings Sigeberht and Ecgric,
The slaughter of Kings Oswald and Edwin.
This wording in Manuscripts B and C. (Old English on = ‘on’.)
In Manuscript A, Wulfhere ravaged “as far as [OE ] Ashdown.”
In Manuscript E, Wulfhere ravaged “from [OE of ] Ashdown.”
Ashdown being the Berkshire Downs.
The term ‘Mildrith Legend’ is used by D.W. Rollason to describe a diverse group of texts – Dr Rollason details eleven – linked by some connection to Mildrith (St Mildred), the early-8th century abbess of Minster-in-Thanet, Kent.
The Historia Regum is a compilation traditionally attributed to Symeon of Durham. The first item in the compilation is concerned with “the Martyrdom of Saints Æthelberht and Æthelred, youths of the royal lineage”. (Æthelberht and Æthelred were the brothers of Domne Eafe.) It is this item which is one of the Mildrith Legend texts – indeed, it represents the earliest version of the Legend. It is believed to have been composed in the late-10th or early-11th century by Byrhtferth, a monk and teacher at Ramsey Abbey (north of Huntingdon), who based it on a text composed, in Essex, in the second quarter of the eighth century.
1. The genealogical introduction to a Latin ‘Life’ of, Mildrith’s sister, Mildburh (St Milburga), probably composed towards the end of the 11th century (perhaps by Goscelin).
2. The section concerning the genealogy of the kings of Kent in a miscellany that precedes the Chronicon ex Chronicis of Florence of Worcester. (Also in the Chronicon proper, which is not a Mildrith Legend text, s.a. 675.)
Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (1990), Chapter 6 (p.107).
Anglo-Saxon England Third Edition (1971), Chapter 2 (p.47 fn.1).
The Earliest English Kings Revised Edition (2000), Chapter 5 (pp.78–9).
Stephen provides neither date nor place for Ecgfrith’s victory over Wulfhere. Bede mentions the event only in passing, whilst discussing the year 678: “Eadhæd was ordained bishop for the province of Lindsey, which King Ecgfrith had but newly acquired, having defeated Wulfhere and put him to flight; and this was the first bishop of its own which that province had” (HE IV, 12).  Peter Hunter Blair, in his paper ‘The Moore Memoranda on Northumbrian History’ (in The Early Cultures of North-West Europe, 1950), argued that the date was 674. This is now generally accepted.
‘Monastic Lands and England’s Defence in the Viking Age’, in The English Historical Review Vol. 100 Issue 395 (1985).
This annal begins: “In this year Cenwalh [king of the West Saxons] fought at Easter at Posentesbyrig [unidentified]; and Wulfhere, son of Penda, committed ravage … [etc.]”.  It is generally assumed that Cenwalh’s opponents at Posentesbyrig were “the Welsh”, i.e. the Britons. (Cenwalh was previously, s.a. 658, reported fighting “the Welsh” – i.e. the British inhabitants south-western England, not of Wales.)
In her Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (1990), Barbara Yorke remarks (Chapter 6, p.107): “at the moment the solid core of Middle Anglia, the later counties of Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, cannot be equated with any of the entries in the Tribal Hidage. Either they are to be found among some of the indecipherable peoples or they constitute the bulk of the extra 18,000 hides assigned to Mercia. Such are the problems with which the historians of Middle Anglia have to wrestle.”
Frank Stenton (Anglo-Saxon England Third Edition, 1971) does not consider the Westerna to be the same people as the Magonsæte of Herefordshire and southern Shropshire, writing (Chapter 9, p.296) that the Westerna: “should probably be sought in Cheshire and north Staffordshire.”[+]
D.P. Kirby (The Earliest English Kings Revised Edition, 2000, Chapter 1, p.9) prefers to place “the Spalda in the vicinity of Spaldwick, Huntingdonshire [now Cambridgeshire]”.[+]
Bede doesn’t refer to Elmet as a kingdom. He mentions (HE II, 14) a “forest of Elmet” in connection with “the region which is called Loidis”. Leeds is derived from Loidis, and Elmet lives on in Sherburn in Elmet and Barwick in Elmet, both to the east of Leeds.
William of Malmesbury (whose account of Wilfrid is based on Stephen’s) certainly believed it was the same Berhtwald (GP V §203): “[Æthelred] had by his brother Wulfhere a nephew called Berhtwald, of whom I spoke in my account of Bishop Wilfrid [III §102]. He did not have a king’s powers, but was a sub-king [subregulus] ruling part of the kingdom.”  William then quotes charter S1169. Within the body of the charter, Berhtwald refers to himself as king (rex), but says he made the grant with the “consent and confirmation” of King Æthelred, who was present to witness it, so clearly Berhtwald was, indeed, subordinate to Æthelred.
Henry of Huntingdon spices-up the rather spare report provided by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with some imaginative flourishes: “there was a very fierce battle between him [Æscwine] and Wulfhere the Mercian king. The Mercian king, in possession of his father’s and grandfather’s valour, was for a little while superior in battle. But both armies suffered a terrible shattering, and many thousands from both sides sank down to hell. It is worthwhile to consider how vile are the acts of men, how vile the glorious battles of kings and their noble deeds. For when the said kings had brought such great slaughter to their people for the sake of pomp, pride, and empty glory, one of them, Wulfhere, died of disease in the same year. The other died the following year. After this Æthelred reigned over Mercia.” (HA II, 37).
Regarding the manner of Wulfhere’s death, Stephen the Priest (Ch.20) simply notes that he: “died through some cause”.
1. Part of helmet cheek-piece.
2. ‘Fish and Eagles’.
3. Sword fitting or dagger hilt.
4. Folded cross.
5. Mount with entwined pattern within rectangle.
6. Hilt piece with inlaid intertwining pattern.
7. Pyramid-shaped mount or sword fixing.
8. Small round stud.
9. Pyramid-shaped mount or sword fixing.
10. Stud with chequerboard pattern.
11. Animal-headed helmet-crest terminal.
12. Folded band with Latin Biblical inscription: “rise up, o Lord, and may thy enemies be scattered and those who hate thee be driven from thy face.” (Numbers 10.35).
How the Staffordshire Hoard helmet might have looked. The Hoard contained a pair of cheek-pieces and a pair of crest terminals, which tends to suggest the remains represent just one helmet, but it is possible that there are pieces of more than one.
Photo courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust.
Actually, having announced that the kings he was listing “ruled over all the southern provinces that are divided from the northern by the river Humber and the borders contiguous to it”, Bede promptly makes an exception, stating that certainly Edwin, and apparently Oswald and Oswiu, did not in fact have the overlordship of Kent. The Chronicle makes no such exception.
It used to be thought that the Ealfrith rex, who features alongside, the great Mercian king, Offa in a charter (S1183) of the late-8th century, was Aldfrith of Lindsey, however, it is now generally accepted that Offa’s son, Ecgfrith, was meant. It would seem more likely that Aldfrith flourished in the late-7th/early-8th century.
Cedd wasn’t in Middle Anglia for long. Oswiu sent him to preach to the East Saxons, in response to a request from their king, Sigeberht.
Ætla receives a passing mention by Bede – in a list of five monks from the Northumbrian monastery of Whitby who went on to become bishops: “it may be briefly stated that he [Ætla] was appointed bishop of Dorchester.” (HE IV, 23).
The Life and Death 
of Bishop Wilfrid
Felix, a monk residing in East Anglia, seemingly wrote his Latin ‘Life’ (Vita) of St Guthlac (a Mercian hermit who died in 714) between 730 and 740.
Frank Stenton* writes: “there is every reason to believe that it was he [Penda] who first brought the Angles and Saxons of the middle and lower Severn under a single lordship, and that the under-kingdom of the Hwicce which is known to have existed within a generation of his death was in fact his creation.”  Professor Stenton adds a footnote: “The dual origin of the Hwicce makes it very unlikely that any local family can have possessed an inherent right to rule over the whole people, and strongly supports the view that the later reges, reguli, and duces who reigned among them were set in power by the kings of the Mercians.”
* Anglo-Saxon England Third Edition (1971), Chapter 2 (p.45).
Bede gives Osric the title rex, i.e. ‘king’. In a charter dated 6th November 675 (S51), Osric, with the title rex, grants land at Bath, “for the building of a monastery for holy virgins”, with Æthelred’s agreement. A corrupt charter, apparently from 679 (S70; dated to Æthelred’s fifth year, i.e. 679, but also to AD 671, which is before he began to reign), records land-grants made by Æthelred to Osric and his brother, Oswald, “my two servants (ministri) of noble family in the province of the Hwicce”. Osric’s share, which was at Gloucester, being used to found a monastery. Gloucester Cathedral now stands on the site.
In the witness-list of a charter from about 673 (S1165), an Osric features as a subregulus, i.e. ‘sub-king’, in the company of three others with the same title. The charter records a land-grant to the monastery of Chertsey by one of them, Frithuwald, who was ruling Surrey as Wulfhere’s sub-king. The charter was subsequently confirmed by Wulfhere himself. The domains of Osric and the other two sub-kings, Wigheard and Æthelwald, are not stated, but it is certainly possible that this Osric is to be identified with Osric, ‘king’ of the Hwicce.
Whilst the ‘Angle’ part of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ provides the familiar generic label applied to the Germanic incomers and their descendants, i.e. ‘English’, the ‘Saxon’ part is also frequently used to the same effect. Here, Felix seems to adopt both conventions in one sentence. The Latin Saxonici generis, translated as “Saxon race”, is evidently being used in the generic sense, and so could be translated as ‘English’. The Mercians were of Angle descent (Bede: HE I, 15). In the context of Felix’s narrative, it seems as though his use of Anglorum gentem, translated conventionally here as ‘English’, in this instance, is specifically referring to the Angles of Mercia, rather than the English in general.
Between 708 and 715, Pope Constantine issued a privilege to the monasteries of Bermondsey and Woking. These establishments, both in Surrey, are said to be “in the province of the West Saxons”.
Waldhere’s letter to Berhtwald: Haddan & Stubbs Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents Vol. 3 (1871), pp.274–5. The privilege of Pope Constantine: pp.276–8.
For instance:
S1785 records a grant of land at Fulham, by Tyrhtil, bishop of Hereford, to the bishop of London: “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. I, Bishop Tyrhtil, had decided to proffer to and bestow on Waldhere, bishop of London, a small portion of land in return for an agreed sum of his money, with the agreement and authorisation of Sigeheard, king of the East Saxons, and Cenred, king of the Mercians, in order that [through] these benefits freely granted to the church I might be able to cleanse the consequences of my sins and gain the favoured salvation of the soul from God in His mercy.”
S1786: “I, Cenred, king of the Mercians, have begun diligently to examine what I should do for the good of my soul in order that I shall be safe on the day of the Lord, and, behold, it came to my mind that the holy church that is located in London and is called by the known designation of Paul’s burh [i.e. St Paul’s] is oppressed by greater servitude than was permitted by Æthelberht, the pious king, who founded this church and raised it with perpetual freedom. Now, therefore, I wish that the enactment of the aforementioned king be publicly renewed and most rigorously preserved.”
Barbara Yorke comments: “It is not clear whether the two men were really impelled by the desire for the monastic life, as Bede implies, or whether they were departing as political exiles.” Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (1990), Chapter 3 (p.50).
William of Malmesbury was in no doubt of the reason for Cenred’s actions: “[he was] chiefly instigated to this by the melancholy departure of a soldier, who, as Bede relates, disdaining to confess his crimes when in health, saw manifestly, when at the point of death, those very demons coming to punish him, to whose vicious allurements he had surrendered his soul.” (GR I §78).  See Bede’s story.
In a Latin compilation by Thomas of Marlborough (d.1236), titled History of the Abbey of Evesham by Sayers and Watkiss in their edition/translation (2003); §119.
A grant of land in Twickenham, to the bishop of London, made in 704 by Swæfred, the East Saxon king, and one Pæogthath, having the title comes, “with the authorisation of King Æthelred”, was confirmed by Cenred and subsequently re-confirmed by Ceolred (S65).
Boniface was an Englishman – a West Saxon, born about 675 and called Wynfrith. He was named Boniface by Pope Gregory II at Rome in 719, and was given the task of preaching to the pagan peoples of Germania. He never returned to England. He was ordained bishop, without a fixed see, in 722. A decade later he was made archbishop. Eventually, in 746/7, his see was fixed at Mainz. In 754 Boniface was killed by pagans whilst on missionary work in Frisia.
Highlighted part of annal in Manuscripts D and E only.
This notice might, perhaps, indicate that Æthelred, Ceolred’s father, also died in 716. Florence of Worcester certainly drew that inference, writing in his own entry for 716: “Æthelred, formerly king of the Mercians, but afterwards abbot of the monastery of Bardney, which he had built, departed this life, and entered on the joys of everlasting happiness, serenity and light.”  (Sadly, there were no “joys of everlasting happiness” in store for Ceolred’s soul!)  Bede, in his annalistic summary (HE V, 24), places Ceolred’s death in 716, but makes no mention of Æthelred’s death.
Apparently, both Æthelred and Osthryth, his murdered wife, were venerated as saints at Bardney. According to Bede (HE III, 11), they had both been particularly fond of that monastery, but Bede does not say it was founded by Æthelred – that notion seems to be another inference made by Florence of Worcester.
The Earliest English Kings Revised Edition (2000), Chapter 6 (p.112).
Felix says (Vita Sancti Guthlaci Ch.49) that Æthelbald: “was being driven hither and thither by King Ceolred and tossed about among divers peoples”.  When he was at his lowest ebb, Æthelbald, “as was his custom”, visited Guthlac, a hermit living in the Middle Anglian fens at Crowland (now in Lincolnshire). Guthlac reassured Æthelbald: “be strong, for the Lord is your helper; be patient lest you turn to a purpose which you cannot perform. Not as booty nor as spoil shall the kingdom be granted you, but you shall obtain it from the hand of God; wait for him whose life has been shortened [i.e. Ceolred], because the hand of the Lord oppresses him whose hope lies in wickedness, and whose days shall pass away like a shadow.”
See the whole of this Letter to King Æthelbald.
Manuscripts B and C of the Chronicle have Ceolwold, king of the Mercians, instead of Ceolred. Presumably this is a scribal error.
However, a late-11th century Mercian king-list from Worcester (Hemming’s Cartulary, British Library MS Cotton Tiberius A xiii) has a Ceolwald, given no reign-length, between Ceolred and Æthelbald. It is possible, therefore, that this, otherwise unknown, Ceolwald (the name would suggest he was Ceolred’s brother) ruled for a few weeks before being killed or exiled by Æthelbald.
This is the wording in Manuscripts D and E of the Chronicle. Manuscripts A, B and C simply state “King Æthelbald”, instead of “Æthelbald, king of the Mercians”.  Further, Manuscript A places this entry s.a. 741, instead of 740 as in the other manuscripts. (In Manuscript B the year-number is omitted.)
Now when his [Guthlac’s] youthful strength had increased, and a noble desire for command burned in his young breast, he remembered the valiant deeds of heroes of old, and as though awaking from sleep, he changed his disposition and gathering bands of followers took up arms;
but when he had devastated the towns and residences of his foes, their villages and fortresses with fire and sword, and, gathering together companions from various races and from all directions, had amassed immense booty, then as if instructed by divine counsel, he would return to the owners a third part of the treasure collected.
After about nine years of this activity, Guthlac saw the light and, at the age of twenty-four, round about the year 697, gave up his old life and became a monk.
There is an inconsistency here. Both Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle place Æthelred’s accession to the throne in 675. Both sources place Æthelred’s abdication in 704, but the Chronicle corrects Bede’s (or a scribe’s) slip-up, giving him a reign length of 29 (xxix), rather than 31 (xxxi) years.
Bede uses the Latin princeps (from which derives the modern English ‘prince’), not rex (king), to describe Peada’s position as ruler of the Middle Angles.
‘A History of Wales: from the Earliest Times to the Edwardian Conquest’ (1911) Chapter 7.
In the same charter, Æthelbald declares himself to be: “by the gift of God king not only of the Mercians but also of all provinces which are called by the general name ‘South English’ [Sutangli]”.
The ‘Continuation’ of Bede’s HE, makes it clear that this was, indeed, a rebellion against Mercian domination: “Cuthred, king of the West Saxons, rose against King Æthelbald”.  (This comment appears s.a. 750.)
Between 754 and 845 there is a chronological dislocation in all extant manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – hence it must have been in their common antecedent. The majority of entries up to 828 are placed two years too early. From then until 845 the error is increased to three years. As a consequence, Æthelbald’s death is placed s.a. 755. (In Manuscript B the year-number is omitted.)
In the main manuscripts, the Chronicle entry s.a. 755 is, atypically, lengthy. In the bilingual abridged Manuscript F, the material is drastically pruned. The notice of Æthelbald’s death has been telescoped, so that the reference to Seckington has been lost: “Æthelbald, king of the Mercians, was slain at Repton”.
Incidentally, though Æthelbald was buried at Repton, a visionary subsequently saw him (he is described as a “royal tyrant”) being punished in Hell. (This comes from an anonymous letter preserved in the Boniface collection – Die Briefe des Heiligen Bonifatius und Lullus, ed. Tangl, No. 115.)
In a symbolic gesture, Æthelbald sent a sod of earth from the monastery’s lands, and all the monastery’s title-deeds, to Cuthbert, who was archbishop of Canterbury from 740 to 760, for display on the altar of Christ Church Canterbury.
Æthelbald had previously given the monastery of Cookham to Christ Church Canterbury. After Cuthbert, archbishop of Canterbury, died, in 760, the deeds were stolen, by two of the archbishop’s former pupils, and delivered to Cynewulf, who took the monastery and all its possessions for himself (S1258).
In S265, Cynewulf grants land at North Stoke, Somerset, to the monastery at Bath – both North Stoke and the monastery being north of the Avon, in the territory of the Hwicce.
Cenred is identified as Wulfhere’s son in the collection of various lists and genealogies that precedes the Chronicon ex Chronicis of Florence of Worcester, and by William of Malmesbury (GR I §78).
Manuscripts D and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle record Cenred’s accession twice. In 704 (in accordance with Bede), like the other Chronicle manuscripts: “Æthelred son of Penda, king of the Mercians, assumed monkhood … Then Cenred succeeded thereto.”  And also in 702: “Cenred succeeded to the kingdom of the Southumbrians.”  Perhaps this entry is a duplication (taken from another source, two years adrift), but it is not completely out of the question that Cenred shared the rule with Æthelred for two years before the latter abdicated.
See The Early Kingdoms of Wales.
Bede proceeds to say that Wynfrith retired to his monastery “and there ended his life in holy conversation.”  However, according to Stephen the Priest, biographer of Bishop Wilfrid, Wynfrith was attacked and robbed whilst on his way to Rome, by Wilfrid’s enemies in a case of mistaken identity. Wynfrith was left naked but alive. This would have been in 678 (see Bishop Wilfrid.)
Nicholas Brooks writes: “there is the mysterious Tribal Hidage. Though historians have disputed its date and interpretation, there has been some consensus that it is a Mercian tribute list. Yet if it is indeed a tribute list rather than a general register of hidage assessments capable of serving a variety of purposes, then it seems unlikely to have been Mercian; for the first people whose hidage assessment is listed are the Mercians themselves … An early medieval king did not impose tribute upon his own kingdom. A Northumbrian origin for the Tribal Hidage deserves consideration since it could explain both the document’s overall form and the fact that the Elmetsaete are included while both the Deirans and the Bernicians are omitted.”
Die Briefe des Heiligen Bonifatius und Lullus, ed. Tangl, No. 10.
Highlighted section omitted in Manuscripts D and E.
In Manuscript C, incidentally, the year-number was originally 717, i.e. dccxvii. The final i was subsequently erased, bringing the date into line with Manuscripts A, D and E. It is a peculiarity of Manuscript B that after 652 the year-number is generally omitted. Such is the case here.
In the miscellany text, the Hwicce and the Magonsæte are equated, i.e. said to be one and the same, with their bishop at Worcester. There are, though, separate bishop-lists for the Hwicce, whose seat was indeed at Worcester, and for the Magonsæte (called Hecana in the list heading). Hereford was certainly the latter bishop’s seat by 800 (Birch No. 298), and it is not known to have ever been elsewhere.
Walter De Gray Birch
Cartularium Saxonicum Vol. 1 (1885).
Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum
(Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation).
s.a. = sub anno = ‘under the year’.
The Anglian Collection of royal genealogies is found in four manuscripts, the oldest of which (British Library MS Cotton Vespasian B vi) was written in Mercia in the early-9th century.
Henry, archdeacon of Huntingdon, first produced his Historia Anglorum (History of the English) about 1130. He later revisited the work – revising and extending – several times. The final version concludes with the accession of Henry II in 1154.
‘The Formation of the Mercian Kingdom’, in The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (1989).
Anglo-Saxon charters are referred to by their number in Sawyer’s catalogue.
Available online: The Electronic Sawyer.
The Mildrith Legend: A Study in Early Medieval Hagiography in England (1982).
The Liber Eliensis (Book of Ely) is a history of the monastery of Ely, from its 7th century beginnings to the 12th century.
Gesta Regum Anglorum
(Deeds of the Kings of England).
A list of saints’ resting-places, written in Old English, surviving in two 11th century manuscripts – the earliest is the Liber Vitae (Book of Life) of the New Minster, Winchester (British Library MS Stowe 944), which was evidently written in 1031.
Gesta Pontificum Anglorum
(Deeds of the Bishops of England).
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