1.5 The Life and Times of Penda, Pt I

7th Century England was inherently unstable, populated by a patchwork of communities, petty kingdoms successful and less so. Into this pagan mix also comes the lure of Christianity again. Meanwhile, in central England a pagan warrior called Penda became king, probably in 626.

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The arrival of Christianity

With the benefit of hind sight, it seems inevitable that England would become Christian once more, and with the perspective of centuries it seems like a smooth conversion. But actually it was more complicated than that. There were false starts and setbacks along the way. The East Saxons are a good example.

In 597, Æthelbert of Kent invited the Bishop of Rome to send him a mission, since his new, Frankish and Christian wife Bertha was also Christian. Augustine arrived with a group of Monks. Christianity had stronger attractions to Æthelbert that the saving of his immortal soul for all eternity. He liked the idea of the control the Church and Priests gave him over his people, he liked the gift of writing.

Æthelbert had imperium over all the other Anglo Saxon kingdoms, so he sent for the East Saxon king, Saberht, and told them they would now be Christian. They happily complied; they even founded a new church in London – St Pauls, and got themselves a Bishop of London. But really, their conversion was skin deep. When Saberht died, his son Sexred became king, and came to the good Bishop asking to make sure that the supply of magic bread kept coming. The good Bishop was horrified, and explained they’d have to be baptised. Sexred would have none of that, the Bishop was out on his ear and the East Saxons were pagan again.

It could be that the most important conversion was actually Edwin of Northumbria. Edwin acquired a Kentish, Christian wife, but resisted the lure of Christianity. Until eventually he had a council with his thegns, and Coifi, his pagan priest. One thegn swung the debate with his reflections, and Northumbria became officially Christian:

This is how the present life on earth, King, appears to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us. You are sitting feasting with your ealdormen and thegns in the winter time; the fire is burning on the hearth in the middle of the hall, and all inside is warm, while outside the wintry storms of rain and snow are raging; and a sparrow flies swiftly through the hall. It enters in at one door and quickly flies out through the other. For the few moments it is inside, the storm and wintry tempest cannot touch it, but after the briefest moment of calm, it flits from your sight, out of the wintry storm and into it again. So this life of man appears but for a moment; what follows or indeed what went before we know not at all. If the new doctrine brings us more certain information it seems right that we should accept it.

The arrival of Penda

We don’t know exactly when Penda was born; probably somewhere around 600. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle (ASC) has him becoming king in 626:

626: And this year Penda succeeded to the kingdom, and reigned thirty years; and he was fifty years (old) when he succeeded to the kingdom. Penda was the son of Pybba, Pybba son of Creoda, Creoda of Cynewald, Cynewald of Cnebba, Cnebba of Icel, Icel of Eomaer, Eomaer of Angeltheow, Angeltlieow of Offa, Offa of Waermund, Waermund of Wihtlseg, Wihtlaeg of Woden.

Bede, however, claims 633, and Nennius 642.

Either way, Penda was soon in action. The ASC again:

628: This year Cynegils and Cuichelm fought against Penda at Cirencester; and then made a treaty.

In all probability this is a struggle between Mercia and the Gewisse, or West Saxons, over who bossed the kings of the Hwicce in Gloucestershire. By such a process was the greater Mercia of the 8th century put together; the take over of influencing of communities and petty kingdoms. The fact that the ASC, a deeply West Saxon publication, did not record the Battle of Cirencester as a victory for the Gewisse, probably means Penda walked all over them. Certainly the Hwicce would remain in the Mercian sphere of influence.

16 thoughts on “1.5 The Life and Times of Penda, Pt I

  1. One appears to be justified in suggesting that whoever published “The Life and Times of Penda” has no interest in high-quality scholarship about Anglo-Saxon England. Or is it perhaps against their principles to recognise such scholarship?
    Among the questions the piece raises are: Firstly – who wrote it? Secondly – Why does the person not cite his/her sources accurately? Concerns continue to such details as: Why does the person anachronise by mixing terms like “Hwicce” and “Gloucestershire”? Finally, one observes – The text also needs competent proofreading by someone educated in, and at home with, English.
    Overall, this piece is ignorant, arrogant, supercilious, presumptuous, and cavalier. Unless they want a reputation for publishing low-quality work, whoever is behind HISTORYOFENGLAND.TYPEPAD.COM should know better than to propagate such an article.

  2. Ouch. Thanks for you comments, Marya. To try to answer your questions; firstly, it’s me, David Crowther that wrote this.
    I wouldn’t say I have no interest in high quality scholarship. But clearly my article is not intended to be such a thing. It’s there to accompany a podcast, and my purpose is to engage and tell the story of Anglo saxon England. I would not pretend to be a scholar, shedding new light on Anglo Saxon history. But I do try to be accurate – and am delighted for you to point out where i am demonstrably wrong. From time to time people do this – and I am happy to put it right where I agree.
    That also has an impact on style and referencing. I am not going to hold up the narrative with constant referencing to the pantheon of academics – but you’ll see I do reference generally the main books I’ve used in a link to the website.
    On the use of anachronistic terms – I am guilty as charged. The reason I do that is that people like the Hwicce are reasonably obscure; I think it helps to relate them to modern terms.
    Proofreading is not a personal talent. You are right in that.
    Finally ignorant, arrogant, supercilious, presumptuous – ouch is all I can say.

  3. Quoting Grandma (from ep. 40: Bishop Trouble of THoE):
    Never apologize and never explain.
    I find the podcast to be utterly delightful as well as fascinating, and it brightens up my Sundays, which are here, alas, weekdays.
    People really should be aware that history as a scientific discipline and history as a narrative, even it if draws on scholarly work, are two different things, and I think (and let me know if I’m wrong here, David) this podcast isn’t meant to be a Scholarly piece, but merely a way of telling the story of Anglo-Saxon England, in which it excels.
    Personally, I enjoy the use of both contemporaneous and current terms as it helps to connect my highly limited knowledge of the geopolitical map of Anglo-Saxon England and the slightly less limited knowledge of that of current England.
    Regarding the typos – well, I treat the companion text on the website as notes while listening to the podcast, and the language of the podcast itself is very eloquent, or so at least it appears to me, not a native speaker.
    Keep listening to your grandmother, Mr Crowther, her words are wise indeed.

  4. I’m absolutely enjoying this podcast (and it’s big brother) for what it is: an intelligent layman’s look at Anglo-Saxon England. If I wanted High Scholarship, I’d go peruse musty books in my local uni’s library. And, frankly, David’s far more entertaining than some stuffy old PhD.
    Finally, David, I’m disappointed you didn’t accord Pybba with his proper title: as master of his own household, surely he was known as the “Grand Pybba.”

  5. I thoroughly enjoy your podcast David, please don’t be discouraged by the comments you have received. Your article may have offended the commenter’s academic sensibilities, but that does not mean she needs to resort to insults.
    Your article needs to be viewed in the wider context of what you are seeking to do with your podcasts – it is for the layman, & it’s fun!

  6. A bit harsh and pedantic I think. I also think the reviewer said the same thing with four different words. I really do not think David has an exaggerated sense of self. In fact, he seems self deprecating. He helps me understand history. He also seems to engage some very good guest podcasters. I enjoy his podcast. Keep up the good work Mr. Crowther.

  7. I am enjoying your podcast Timothy. As a Yank who played War of The Roses with my older brother (now an emeritus professor of Medieval history and archaeology), and had a cherished photo of newly-crowned ERII on my bedroom wall, I claim guest rights to the subject at had.
    I find your presentation both entertaining and informative. Ms. Bell’s argumentum seems misplaced here: while your brief summary would certainly not qualify for publication in a peer-reviewed professional journal, that is hardly the point of the exercise. What struck me is that Ms. Bell seems a trifle reticent in revealing her own interest and expertise in the subject, unlike n earlier, and politer, doctoral candidate who noted a few errors and omissions without disparagement of your endeavors.
    For any listeners who wish later to go into all the period in much greater depth and levels of analysis without enrolling in graduate school, I recommend the very excellent The British History Podcast.This is not an invidious comparison, BTW, I recommend it as a more detailed, not better, podcast. Perhaps Ms. Bell would find BHP more geared to her desires in this matter. It was a very prominent medievalist who once told me as an undergraduate handing in an examination book, when I complained that the questions were unfair because I could write for hours on each question on each of he 6 yet had only an hours to answer them all, that: “Of course, Mr. Young, you should be able to write a doctoral dissertation, or a book, and any of them, as has been done. The point is to choose the level of answer, nuance, and evidence appropriate for the constraints imposed.”

    1. Hi Christopher, and thanks – I am very glad you are enjoying the podcastm and I enjoyed your comment. Jamie and I started at very similar times as it happens – and yes, I agree with your point; different levels of detail appeal to different people. And I’m happy with any criticism honestly meant – it’s always good to get other viewpoints.

  8. It’s rare to be trolled by an academic, so one might consider it a back-handed compliment that your work is considered worthy, albeit of attack.
    Just to say that before I started listening, I had no real interest in History. It’s the accessibility of your work that sets it apart (as others have commented) and the easy narrative style. I’m only on episode 24 so I have my commute-time listening sorted almost in perpetuity.

    1. Hi there and thank you…I shall consider it a compliment. I must admit I had forgotten, so it was a trip down memory lane for me!
      I should also say that the commute is as much a boon for budding podcasters as podcasts are for commuters! I hope you enjoy it

    1. Yes, actually he’s one of mine. Last of the Pagan wariors sort of thing, the last flourishing of the old world before the onset of the new

  9. Howdy Mr. Crowther, I apparently am jumping on this podcast a few years late, but I have enjoyed the heck out of it. The tone, speed, and humor make it accessible, enjoyable, and, of course, informative. You probably have negatively effected my productivity at work, but high marks on all other fronts. The ability to hold the attention of a litigator like myself is no small feat.

    After listening to the first 10 episodes or so I am picking up on a bunch of literary references from fellows like CS Lewis that had gone over my head before. Thanks again!

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