Mercia

EngliscHeritage

Mercia

 

Includes – Cheshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Leicestershire, Rutland, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire, Warwickshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Middlesex.
This area, excluding Lincolnshire, East Anglia and Essex, comprised roughly the old Anglian kingdom of Mercia at the height of its optimum expansion. Mercia arose from the fifth-century settlements of Anglian tribes. There were three groups. One worked its way from the Wash up the River Welland, across country through what is now Rutland and Leicestershire, then down the rivers Wreak and Soar to the Trent to settle south of the middle Trent. There they mingled with a second group which penetrated later from the Humber and up the Trent. This area of settlement became North Mercia, the heart and centre of the later Mercia. A group moved from the Wash up the rivers Welland, Nene and Ouse to settle in the district now represented by Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire and parts of Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. These were the Middle Angels. They were incorporated into greater Mercia by Penda in the mid-seventh century, but for long retained a loose kind of local semi-independence, both politically and culturally. Thus, the Heathen Penda made his Christian son Peada sub-King of the Middle Angles. Later, the area had its own bishopric, split off from the greater Mercian see of Lichfield and later fixed at Leicester from 737 on until it ended during the Danish invasions. This distinction between North Mercia and Middle Anglia should be borne in mind as both groups of people developed a characteristic Christian culture and art along somewhat different lines.

Little or nothing is known about early history of Mercia, perhaps because the Mercians’ struggle against the forces of nature in clearing the forests and draining the swaps of this, at that time, inhospitable part of the country in order to establish their settlements left them little time to make history, which in those days meant making war against other tribes and leaders. They first came into the full light of history with their tough fighting, Heathen King Penda, 632-54. He, in alliance with Cadwallon, British prince of Gwynedd, defeated and killed the great Edwin of Northumbria in 632, and was later himself killed fighting against Oswiu/Oswy of Northumbria in 654. In between these years he incorporated the Middle Angles and other settlements of the south, west and south-west midlands into his kingdom and made Mercia comparable in power with Northumbria. Though Heathen he was apparently a tolerant man for he permitted his eldest son Peada to marry the Christian daughter of Oswiu/Oswy of Northumbria and to become Christian. Peada during his reign as sub-King of the Middle Angles under his father and his even shorter reign as King of Mercia, 654-6, introduced Christianity among the Middle Angles and later, among the North Mercians and endowed the great monastery at Medeshampstede, now Peterborough. Under Peada’s brother Wulfhere, 657-74, Mercia became supreme overlord of all England south of the Humber. This supremacy was however permanent owing to a temporary rise to strength and independence of southern England under two successive Kings of Wessex, Cadwalla, 685-9, and Ine, 689-726.

Wulfhere was succeeded by his brother Athelred, 674-704, a man of great piety. He continued the development of Christianity in his country with help of Wilfred of Ripon who spent the eleven years of his second exile from Northumbria, 691-702, in Mercia as a personal friend of the King and for part of that time as acting bishop of the Mercians. Athelred and Wilfred founded several monasteries, among them that at Oundle in which Wilfred was reputed subsequently to be buried. Some time during the reign of Athelred the magnificent, aisled, basilican church at Brixworth was founded. Athelred abdicated in 704 and retired to a monastery. He was succeeded by Cenred, a son of Wulfhere, who likewise abdicated in 708 and died later at a monastery in Rome. Athelred’s son Ceolred, a worthless youth, ruled 708-16 and after him came two Kings whose reigns covered eighty years and who were the founders of that Greater Mercia which exercised supremacy over all England. These Kings were Athelbald, 716-57, a descendent of Penda’s brother Eowa, and Offa, 757-96, another descendent of Penda’s brother and a distant cousin of Athelbald.

After quietly consolidating his country, and after the abdication of Ine of Wessex in 726, Athelbald made himself supreme overlord i. e. Bretwalda, of all England south of the Humber. His successor Offa brought Northumbria, too, under his suzerainty and Offa’s reign indeed was the great age of the Mercian kingdom. This rise to power is indicated by the successive titles adopted by these two Kings, as seen in their various charters. Athelbald from ‘King of the Mercians’ became ‘King of the south Englsc’, King not only of the Mercians but of those neigbouring peoples over whom God has set me’, and ‘Rex Britanniae’. Offa went further and spoke of his kingdom as ‘Kingdom of the whole land of the Englisc’, (regnum totius Anglorum patriae) and his contemporaries addressed him as ‘King of the Englisc’, the first ruler of that title. Offa has been called ‘the Great’ and was not underserving of that description. He was the first Englisc King to realise the importance of close intercourse with other nations and to have a definite foreign policy. He corresponded and negotiated, on commercial as well as political matters, with Charlemagne on terms of equality. In his reign, too, a papal legatine mission visited England from Rome in 786, the first such mission in Anglo-Saxon/Englisc history and the last until the reign of Edward the Confessor more than 250 years later. Towards the end of his reign he built the well-Known Offa’s dyke, more than 70 miles of earthworks put up not as a defence but more probably as a frontier demarcating his boundary with Wales.

The power of Mercia declined under Cenwulf, 796-821, Offa’s distant cousin and successor and the last King of the House of Penda, and the supremacy of Mercia disappeared forever in the great and decisive victory of Egbert of Wessex at Ellundun in 825.

It was long thought that Mercia was a culturally backward kingdom, a mainly militaristic state, a kind of Anglo-Saxon/Englisc Sparta. This was due probably to the fact that she produced no early chroniclers. Early literary references to the region are mainly in Northumbrian and South Englisc annals written by chroniclers who would have regarded Mercia as an enemy. Historical and archeological research in the 20th century has revealed a different picture. Study of existing illuminated manuscripts and monuments proves that though in quality and quantity Mercian art may not have equalled the best of the earlier Northumbrian or the later South Englisc it was far from being inconsiderable or insignificant; it was in fact fine. It indeed true that the great centre of Anglo-Saxon/ Englisc art travelled south following the political ascendancy. It arose and reached its first peak in Northumbria in the last third of the seventh and the first half of the eighth century. After the Northumbrian political decline it flourished in Mercia in the last quarter of the eighth and the first half of the ninth century, after which it passed to wessex.

Mercia had two ecclesiastical centres from an early date; Lichfield, which was the seat of a bishopric from 669 and for a short period, 788-803, was an arch-bishopric set up by Offa in opposition to that of Canterbury; and Repton, where a double monastery for men and women was founded by Diuma, first bishop of the Mercians and Middle Angles, appointed by Peada in 652. Both were in North Mercia. The political capital, that is the main residence of the King, had been moved from Tamworth to Repton by Penda.

The Book of Cerne, an illuminated book which proved many motifs to contemporary and the later artists and sculptors, has been described by T. D. Kendrick as ‘the first indubitable Mercian book’, made probably at Lichfield between 818 and830, that is at the very end of the period of Mercian military supremacy.

In sculpture she produced three distinct schools. The Mercian standing crosses were of characteristic type and design, clearly distinguished from those of other regions. The East Mercian or Fenland school of figural and ornamental sculpture, developed among the Middle Angles, produced very beautiful carvings, many of which remain today, though some in much weathered condition, Breedon-on the-hill, Peterborough, Fletton and Castor. these date to the eighth and early ninth centuries. In south and south-west Mercia the sculpture was influenced partly by East Mercia but more importantly from Wessex and the continent. A good example of this is the Lechmere stone at Hanley castle, Worcestershire which, showing a Crucifixion scene, has a plant growing from each side of the base of the cross. Very similar motifs are found on a cross at Whitchurch and also on the Cruxifixion panel at Romsey, both are in Hampshire.

In architecture, too, Mercia was not behind the other great areas of the country. Three of the greatest and finest Anglo-Saxon/Englisc churches are to be found there; the late seventh-century aisled and apsed basilican church at Brixworth, Northamptonshire, the church with its famous crypt at Repton, Derbyshire, perhaps 750-800 originally, which was burnt by the marauding Danes in 876 and not rebuilt till 974-and the early eighth century apsed church at Deerhurst, Gloucestershire. All three were monastic.

Most of the churches discussed below, and of course all the towers, are post-870, many being of the tenth and eleventh centuries. That is, they were built long after the ascendancy and even the independence of Mercia had passed away, when Mercia had become merely a region of England after the re-conquest from the Danes and unification of the country by Edward the Elder, 900-24, and Athelstan, 924-39. But many of these churches are rebuildings of earlier churches founded in the Early Angles period before the first Danish invasions and destroyed, partially or completely, during those invasions. In the existing churches are many remains of the earlier ones, as is plainly evident at Brigstock, Deerhurst and elsewhere.

 

Kings of Mercia
(includes the Hwicce and Lindsey)
Creoda, not known-593
About reign – not known.

Pybba, 593-606
About reign not known.

Cearl, 606-626
His daughter married Cwenburth, married Edwin of Northumbria, with victory at the battle of the River Idle his reign became permanent no longer the life of a fugitive.

Penda, 626-655
Was clearly a great King but as a Heathen nearly all the information about his reign comes from Bede the Monk which was not always flattering.

Peada, 655-656
Son of Penda made King of the Middle Angles, he missed the debacle at the battle of Winwaed only to be murdered by the treachery of his wife.

Oswiu of Bernicia, 655-658
Victor over Mercia after battle of Winwaed lost control in 658 after a rebellion.

Wulfhere, 658-675
Young son of Penda became King of Mercia after the rebellion by three ealdorman against Oswiu.

Aethelred I, 675-704
Third son of Penda abdicated in 704 to become Abbot at the monastery of Bardsey.

Cenred, 704-709
Son of Wulfhere, succeeded his uncle Athelred but like him abdicated in 709 to go to Rome, accompanied by Offa ofthe East Saxons.

Ceolred, 709-716
Son of Aethelred succeeded when his cousin Cenred abdicated.

Ceolwald, 716
Nothing is known at present.

Aethelbald, 716-757
Son of Alwih. Murdered by his own guards at Seckington, near Tamworth.

Beornred, 757
Little is known of this King, after a few months dispossessed by Offa.

Offa, 757-796
One of the great Kings of Mercia, built Offa’s Dyke amongst other things.

Ecgfrith, 796
Son of Offa, became King in 787 by his father but only lasted 141 days after Offa’s death.

Cenwulf, 796-821
Another formidable Mercian King who suspiciously took the throne not long after the young Ecgfrith was crowned and was ruthless.

Ceolwulf I, 821-823
Brother of Cenwulf, was expelled from the Kingdom two years later.

Beornwulf, 823-826
Seized power from Ceolwulf lost the battle of Ellendun against Wessex and was slain in battle against the East Anglians.

Ludeca, 826-827
His origins are not known slain in battle against the East Anglian when he went to avenge the death of is predecessor.

Wiglaf, 827-829
Took the throne after the death of Ludeca but Mercia losing power and Ecgberht of Wessex who drove him out of the Kingdom.

Ecgberht of Wessex, 829-830
he ruled the Kingdom until Wiglaf came back and regained his Kingdom.

Wiglaf, 830-840
He continued to rule till his passing in 840.

Berhtwulf, 840-852
He saw the virtual annihilation of Mercia by a new enemy called the Vikings, in the end he retired to Rome.

Ceolwulf II, 874-878
A Thegn set on the throne by the Vikings.

Aethelred II, 879-911
Origins unknown put in place by Alfred ‘the Great’ after much of Mercia had been recovered from the Vikings.

Aethelflaed ‘the Lady of the Mercians’
Daughter of Alfred ‘the Great’ who ruled Mercia after the passing of her husband, passing herself in 918.

Aelfwynn, 918
Became Queen of Mercia after the passing of her mother but was soon dispossessed by Edward ‘the Elder’ her uncle.
Hwicce
This small Kingdom led an obscure existence in the seventh and eighth centuries, being approximately in part of present Worcestershire, part of West Warwickshire and part of north Gloucestershire, they appear to be both Saxons and Angles whose small Kingdom became part of Mercia, but its existence is reflected in the diocese of Worcester, established in 675 to look after the spiritual needs of the Hwicces.

Eanhere
First King to be identified who ruled in the mid-seventh Century, with his brother were Christian.

Osric, 676-691?
Possible nephew of Eanhere, and son of Eanfrith, Eanhere’s brother.

Oshere, 693-716?
Issued a charter in 693.

Aethelheard
Gave land grant in 704, also associated with Aethelweard possible joint rulers, sub-Kings to Mercia.

Aethelric
Son of Oshhere, reigning approximately 716-737, a sub-King of Mercia.

Eanberht
Joint ruler with Uhtred and Aldred, charters by him in 757 and 759 believed passed on before the other Kings.

Uhterd
Joint ruler by charters with Eanberht and Aldred in 737 and 759, but grants made alone in 767 and 770 may have excluded Aldred as he made charters in 778.

Aldred
Joint ruler of Hwicces with Eanberht and Uhtred in 750s, made a grant himself in 778 to St. Mary’s, Worcester, he like the rest were acting as sub-Kings to Mercia.

Lindsey
Lindsey had its own Kings, but was never strong enough to play an independent role so was dominated either by Mercia or Northumbria, a list of Kings have been identified with ascendancy going back to Woden, becoming part of the Danelaw on Danish invasion and settlement.

Mercian Churches
All Saints Church
Brixworth, Northamptonshire

All Saints Church
Earls Barton, Nr Northampton, Northamptonshire

Saint Mary’s Priory Church
Deerhurst, Gloucestershire

Odda’s Chapel
Deerhurst, Gloucestershire

Saint Peter’s Church
Barton upon Humber, Lincolnshire