Offa of Mercia


The outstanding figure of the second half of the Eighth Century in Britain is that of Offa, king of Mercia, who was the contemporary of Charlemagne, the great ruler on the Continent, and reigned from 757 to 796 A.D., being fourth in  descent from the brother of the famous Penda, the subject of a previous chapter.

The Kingdom of Mercia at that time comprised all the Midlands, from the Thames and Estuary of the Severn on the south to the mouths of the Humber and the Mersey on the north, and from the borders of Wales on the west to those of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex on the east. The inhabitants of this realm were mainly Angles from the east together with some Saxons from the south; but it is probable that there were many people of British descent in the western half of the country, for it will be remembered that in the reign of Penda it seemed quite natural that the British should fraternise and fight side by side with the Mercians, and remain for many years garrisoned in their territory, while in the Ninth Century we fine them united again against the Danes.

During his long reign of nearly forty years Offa extended the power of Mercia on every side, and in the end was regarded as the overlord/Bretwada of all the Anglo-Saxon realms. His chief residence was at Tamworth in Staffordshire, where his palace is said to have been the wonder of the age. Tamworth is a little town, situated at the junction of the rivers Tame and Anker; and just above the place where the waters meet there is a mound whereon stand the picturesque remains of a mediaeval castle rising amidst the trees. There is perhaps some pre-Norman masonry in the walls of this building, and though it probably dates from 913 A.D., when Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, fortified the site, some of the earthworks may belong to Offa`s residence, though the site of the latter building is sometimes thought to be a little distance away. Certainly the moat which surrounded the town, and which is still visible in places, was made by Offa, and even today it is spoken of as Offa`s, or the King`s, Ditch.

In Tudor and Jacobean days a manor-house was erected inside the castle walls; and the principal rooms of this building are now open to the public, and are used as a museum, from the windows of which you may look for miles/kms across the flat Staffordshire country where once Offa`s subjects dwelt; but after all these centuries of occupation and reconstruction the traces of the Mercian royal palace are not easy to find, though your attention may drawn to the old causeway across the moat, where some “herringbone” masonry which maybe Anglo-Saxon is still visible.

In the year 774 A.D., Offa defeated a Kentish army at Otford, near Sevenoaks, and the Kingdom of Kent became a tributary to him. In 777 A.D., he defeated Cynewulf, King of Wessex, at Benson, at the foot of the Chilterns, near Dorchester-on-Thames, and annexed a wide area of West Saxon territory.

The heroic story of the death of this Cynewulf some years later is recorded in  such detail in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and so clearly reveals the reckless gallantry of the age, that some more should be said about this incident. He had gone, it seems, to visit a lady with whom he was in love who lived at Merton in Surrey; and, owing to the romantic nature of his errand he had taken with him as a retinue only a few of his friends, including one who was a Briton from Wales.

A certain bold prince named Cyneard, who believed himself to have a right to the throne, was at the time in  revolt against him; and, being in the neighbourhood and hearing that Cynewulf was so thinly attended, he galloped over to Merton with a number of his men, and suddenly surrounded the house, intending, one may suppose, to kidnap the King, his rival.

Cynewulf, however, dauntlessly brave, snatched up his sword, and, rushing single-handed from the lady`s room, flung himself at Cyneard, whom he wounded severely; but the rebels closed in on him and he fell dead under the rain of blows.

Hearing the noise the King`s friends, who were in another part of the house, ran out, only to find their sovereign lying lifeless in the courtyard, whereupon Cyneard called on them to acknowledge him King, promising them wealth and position; but they, though outnumbered and trapped, would not listen, and in the ensuing fight they all lost their lives, except the Briton who, being terribly hurt, was left for dead, yet afterwards recovered. The wounded Cyneard, unable to move, was forced to spend the night with his companions at the house; but early next morning, the dead King`s men arrived unexpectedly on the scene and ordered them to surrender. The rebels, now trapped in their turn, replied that they were just as ready to die for Cyneard as the men slain on the previous day had been to die for Cynewulf; and thereat the royal officers broke into the house, where, after a stiff fight, Cyneard and his party were all killed.

The body of Cynewulf was carried to Winchester where it was buried, and that of Cyneard was interred at Axminster, and the matter was closed – being just an incident in the gallant tale of those stirring days, yet one which warms the heart to read of, for it reveals the death-disdaining loyalty and devotion alike of Englishman and Briton, and their most engaging tenacity of purpose, already set deep in the national character. It is an incident wherein we may see one of the first appearances of the bulldog.

To return to Offa: in ecclesiastical matters he made his influence powerfully felt; and disliking the fact that his clergy were under the orders of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and desiring to have a head of the church resident in his own kingdom of Mercia, he called a great council at Chelsea in 787 A.D., whereat, after a heated argument, it was agreed that an archbishopric of Mercia should be established at Lichfield, seven miles/11.2km from his palace at Tamworth. The consent of Rome to this was obtained; and Offa agreed to send every year to the Pope 365 gold coins to be used in providing the lights in St. Peter`s and for charitable purposes. This was probably the origin of the famous “Peter`s pence,” and it is interesting to note that some of Offa`s coins have been found in Rome.

Offa, by the way, was the first King to mint the silver penny, or denarius, in Britain; and specimens of this coin are to be seen in the British Museum.

In 793 A.D. Offa founded the famous monastery at St. Albans, placing there an abbot and one hundred Benedictine monks. St. Albans is named after a Christian Roman soldier named Albanus had been beheaded during the religious persecution of the year 303 A.D; how a shrine had been erected to his memory on a hill close to the city of Verulamium, where he had lived; and how this shrine was visited by Germanus in 428 A.D., and was supposed to mark the site of the martyrs grave.

Offa made this shrine the nucleus of his new building; and having dug up some bones which were supposed to be those of Albanus, he placed them in a costly reliquary which became the main feature of the abbey church. In 1077 A.D. the great abbey of St. Albans was built upon the site, but some of the balusters of Offa`s time were built into the wall of the south transept, where you may see them at the present day.

It seems likely that Offa also founded or restored the monastery on what was then Thorney Island, near London, which under the hands of Edward the Confessor and later kings, developed into Westminster Abbey; which will be spoke of in a future chapter.

The western frontier of Mercia always caused the King mush anxiety, for the British in Wales could neither be decisively defeated nor kept within their own territory. At last he decided to dig a trench and throw up a rampart beside it along the whole length of the frontier; and this great work, 140 miles/225km long, is still to be seen in many places, and is called to this day Offa`s Dyke.

In the south it begins at the mouth of the river Wye which flows into the Estuary of the Severn opposite Bristol; and you may trace it as it crosses the beautiful Sedbury Park, two miles/3.2km from Chepstow. Thence it follows the east bank of the Wye to a point a few miles/km west of Hereford, and so past Knighton, Clun, and Montgomery to the Severn again, near Welshpool. Proceeding northwards it then runs by Chirk and Ruabon into Flint, and reaches the mouth of the Dee some six miles/9.6km north of Mold, and twelve miles/19.3km of Chester.

You can see it best, perhaps, in the neighbourhood of Clun in Shropshire, where it passes across the wild hill-country like a gigantic furrow. Amidst these uplands it is a well-defined trench, twenty feet/6.1m wide, and as much as that depth if one reckons from the top of the embankment; but in less open country it is not clear, and here and there for miles/km together it is now wholly lost.

The British, of course, greatly resented the cutting of this tremendous boundary-line, and on one occasion they made a concerted attempt to destroy it, in answer to which Offa led a punitive expedition against them in 795 A.D. A great fight took place within sound of the sea near Rhuddlan, behind Rhyl, where a wide stretch of marsh land, now mostly drained, came down to the beach; and in the battle the popular British King Caradoc was killed, while a terrible slaughter of his men took place, the memory of which is still preserved in the plaintive Welsh national song called “Morfa Rhuddlan.”

In the Ninth Century king Ecgbert made a law imposing the penalty of death on any Briton of Wales who should be caught on the Anglo-Saxon side of the dyke; and just before the Norman conquest King Harold decreed that any Briton who should be found bearing arms on the east side of the dyke should have his right hand cut off by the officers of the law, which indicates that the Welsh cattle-raiders were busy and had to be checked.

In connection with Offa one other matter of interest maybe mentioned here. The King had a beautiful daughter named Eadburgh who was married to the vassal-king Beorhtic; but this man had a young friend who by some means so offended Eadburgh that in a fit of rage she placed a cup of poison on the table for him to drink. As luck would have it, however, her husband, instead of the proposed victim, drank it and died, at which she fled in horror to France, where the Emperor Charlemagne, taking pity on her, put her safely away in a nunnery.

But she was not made for a godly life, and her conduct so shocked the nuns that at last she was expelled; and Asser, King Alfred`s biographer, tells us that he had heard both from Alfred himself and from several English travellers that in the end she was seen in rags and tatters begging her bread in the streets of Pavia, in Lombardy. Offa`s only son died shortly after his father, leaving no heir, and thus this tragic beggar-princess was the last of the Mercian royal line

Pavia stood on the pilgrim road to Rome, and St. Boniface, writing about 747 A.D., says that there were a great many English woman of bad morals in the city, and indeed in many cities of Lombardy and France, and lastly Aethelsrith, sister of Alfred the Great, died and was buried in Pavia.