Pretty much a century in just one, fun-filled episode – 650 ish to 750 is. It’s Mercia’s turn – an increasingly integrated Mercia, growing in power. With yer Wulfhere’s and Æthelbalds, Mercia’s hegemony was held back only by Ine of Wessex and Wihtred of Kent.
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AS 11 The rise of Mercia
Hello everyone and welcome to the Episode 11 – The Rise of Mercia Mercia. Before I pile ahead, some notices for you; remember to check out the Agora Podcast Network, and the associated website, inspiringly names agorapodcastnetwork.com; and do check out this month’s featured agora podcast which is Thom Daly’s American Biography. I think you will like Thom’s podcast, because it’s about the history of a country through it’s people; about the lives of people who shaped it – and not necessarily the ones you’d always expect. So give it a go – you can find it on iTunes, or the website americanbiographies.webs.com. And there’s a link on my website to boot.
So, this week we return to the political story of blighty, as it will not be known for another 1200 years or so. It’s a bit messy, but we kind of left the world of the AS politics with the defeat of Penda by Oswiu of Nothumbria, and with his son Wulfhere being spirited away under the think protective cloak of class warfare, and the loyalty of Penda’s thegns, Immin, Eafa, and Eadberht. For 3 years, the iron boot of Northumbria, in the form of direct rule by Oswiu; but the force was strong in Mercia, and by 658 Wulfhere’s thegns had raised rebellion and re-established the independent house of Mercia.
Now, you might want to hop along to the website and have a look at my regnal lists – I swear they give you a really good idea of who is ruling in which kingdom at which time. It will show you that Mercia is blessed, with the odd hiccup, with a series of competent and long-lived kings all the way to the 9th century.
We are in a period then, in which the biggest defining feature politically, is what has been Mercian supremacy, or Mercian Hegemony. It’s always seem to me that historians have the same relationship with a bit of good, honest labelling as medieval monks did with sex – they can’t help loving it, but hate themselves for doing do, and so whenever a historian uses a phrase like Mercian Hegemony they are then required to go through 2 paragraphs of self flagellation, whipping themselves with a knotted lash while kneeling naked in front of the altar of history. I suppose the problem is, like the use of the word Heptarchy, that such terms simplify in a way that is helpful to explain, but also obscures the subtleties and complexities. Ho hum. Anyway, Mercian hegemony [swish – aaagh, wish – aagh] – however much the phrase conceals, the kings Wulfhere, Aethelred, Aethelbald, Offa and Coenwulf built a dominance over the AS kingdoms that began to look like the ultimate future – until a West Saxon called Egbert came along, and before the Vikings arrived and changed the rules of the game. The success and dominance of the Mercians began to look awfully like a proto united England, land of the Angles. There is even the odd soupcon of claims to be kings of all the English, which I’ll describe as we go through, but they are fleeting and short lived. Actually, despite Frank Stenton’s excited claims that here was the start of England, in fact a much more likely interpretation of events is that the Mercian Hegemony represents simply the most successful competitor in the world of the Heptarchy, rather than a world living under a new vision of one Anglecynn living in a united English nation. It has to be said there are a few snippets of evidence that would suggest something else, which we’ll discuss as we go through.
Now Wulfhere is not a name that many people have heard of, and it is unlikely that the pubs and clubs of England will ever ring with the sound of the man’s name. Which is fair enough. But he was clearly a reasonably impressive man – a man of ‘Proud mind and insatiable will’, according to one record, whatever that exactly means; a man who had, quote, ‘inherited the valour of his father and grandfather’. And Wulfhere had the vision to achieve at least one thing that probably built the foundation of Mercia’s dominance, by giving them an unrivalled source of income.
We talked last week about the revival of trade in England, about the reappearance of the Town. Kings had realised that towns were wonderful things to have; they were a way of turning all that agricultural produce into something much more portable – i.e. money.
We talked a bit last time about the appearance of the Sceatta. Through the 7th century, sceattas had become much more widespread. But even by the time of King Aethelbald of Mercia in the first half of the 8th century, it’s not really clear how far kings controlled the minting of sceatta. They tended to be unmarked with the name or image of the king, though sometimes they had a name there, probably the name of the monyer that produced then; it’s possible mints were private concerns. The majority were produced in Kent and the Thames valley. But in the first half of the 8th century there’s a massive expansion of minting into all the AS kingdoms. And although by the time of Aethelbald, the distribution of sceatta had become much thinner, suggesting a general shortage of bullion, converting goods into coin fuelled the potential for trade.
Towns were a wonderful way of making money, period. A bit like granny, they smelt a bit but had a heart of gold. Mercia was also blessed with one of the most valuable sites in England – Droitwich. Droitwich happens to sit over a bed of rock salt, and up through the ground bubbles a spring of Brine, 30% of which is salt. For those of you who know about these things, I’m told that’s 10 times more concentrated than salt water. From the Iron Age, the citizens of Droitwich had earned themselves a living by boiling that down into rock salt again, and in fact some AS charters refer to it as Saltwich, town of salt. Mercian kings guarded their gold mine jealously, though with a bit of judicious sharing with the church; and given that a lot of practical people gathered there, it would become a mint as well.
OK, but while that’s good, that’s not the main story. The Mercian kings wanted a way to convert all this salt and the other stuff their people produced into hard cash as much as where they could. Like all the other kings, they had their royal vill and associated towns at Repton and Tamworth, but London was already becoming the glittering prize. As I think we said last week, Londonburgh, the old Roman London was pretty much deserted. But by the 670’s there was some limited settlement around the modern day Charing Cross area, with timber riveted embankments on the Thames. From there, the settlement spread inland, with roads running north to south. Then in the first half of the 8th century, the pattern becomes more organised and extensive, in London as at places like Ipswich and Southampton. Settlement spread all the way up to Aldwych, and north to today’s Covent Garden. The 730’s to 770’s saw a period of consolidation and prosperity. The excavations at Covent Garden showed a well maintained network of roads and alleyways, with timber drains on either side, and evidence of consistent maintenance. Most of the buildings had street frontages, separated by small streets; many had yards at the rear, and at the edges pits used for the smelly job of tanning. The evidence was for a whole range of crafts taking place – metalworking, weaving, textiles, bone and antler working; some small scale, others larger and more specialised like a large smithy. Materials collected demonstrated links with Rhineland, low Countries and Northern France. Londonwic might have been tiny by comparison with today, but already it was becoming the major trading centre in England, the perfect place for traders from the continent to bring their wares to England. And traders and markets also meant the most lucrative income of all, from tolls. Kings did love a good toll. Through this period the evidence for royal regulation of trade grows; in a lawcode for example, we see the first reference to the wic-reeve; to the idea that the wic-reeve collected tolls in a specially constructed hall.
Certainly for the Essex kings Sigehere and Saebbi, until the arrival of David Beckham, London was the jewel in Essex’s crown. Sigehere and Saebbi actually ruled together, in seemingly a relatively harmonious way. But in 664 there was a terrible plague. the two fo them reacted differently – Saebbi was super religious so he developed terrible sored on his knees from all the extra praying he did – actually, I just made that up, sorry, but the point is that his Christianity did not waver. Whereas Sigehere was full of fury and betrayal, and took his people back to paganism.
It could be this that sparked Mercian intervention in the land of the East Saxons, though we don’t really know. We do know that Wulfhere was fiercely Christian. Unlike his pagan father, Wulfhere was determined that Mercians should be Christian, and in the words of Bede
‘Free under their own king, they gave willing allegiance to Christ their true king, so that they might win his eternal kingdom in heaven’
We don’t know why and when Wulfhere became Christian, but it could have been his Kentish wife, Eormenhild; maybe it was part of the deal. Or maybe he was Christian anyway. But whatev’s, with all the enthusiasm of the convert, Wulfhere gave land away to the church, and enforced the religion in his lands. And not just in his own lands. When he heard about the East Saxons and their backsliding, he intervened and forced his Bishop on them, to explain that it wasn’t God’s fault they were dying like flies, it was probably their own sins that was the root cause, and to bring them back to the true path. And by some time around here, by 666 London came under Mercian control; as evidenced by charters and grants of land signed by Wulfhere. And there Lundenwic would stay, at very least until the end of the 8th century.
Wulfhere fulfilled the traditional role of all good AS kings and threw his weight around, extending Mercian influence beyond London into Kent and Wessex. Wulfhere would have remembered the sting of defeat at the hands of Oswiu and the death of his father. It appears that chucking them out of Mercia was not enough – he wanted revenge. The crowning glory of his lordship was to be the final reversal of that pain and humiliation of his youth, with the subjugation of the North. He built a great army, twisting the collective arms of the southern kingdoms, no doubt filling their heads also with visions of plunder and glory. And by 674 he was ready, taking his alliance north of the Humber to visit the sins of the father Oswiu on his son Egfrith. But as Enoch Powell once remarked, all political careers end in failure, though I doubt Enoch was thinking of Wulhere when he said it. The result of the grand alliance was defeat, despair and humiliation, with a horrible defeat at the hands of Egfrith, forced to pay tribute. And probably even worse, forced to yield control of the entire lands of Lindsey, modern Lincolnshire, to the grubby hands of the Northumbrians. It’s also possible that marriage was part of the deal, since Wulfhere’s brother Aethelred was married to Egfrith’s sister, Osthryth. Now, once the word went around that Wulfhere had fluffed it, the wheels started coming off; despite apparently winning a battle against Wessex in the south, Mercian dominance over Wessex and Kent evaporated, and when he died in 675 in his mid-30’s, it appeared that talk of a Mercian supremacy had been premature, and Wulfhere a false dawn; all he had bequeathed to his successors was London. But that was a jewel without doubt.
Up next then was another son of Penda, Aethelred. To a degree, Aethelred steadied the Mercian ship, defeating the Northumbrian Egfrith at the battle of the Trent, bringing Lindsey back under Mercian control. He made great efforts to do the same in the south, but never managed to re-establish the brief dominance big brother Wulfhere had managed. Possibly the most interesting thing about Aethelred’s reign was an incredibly frustrating line from Bede, remarking that Aethelred’s wife, the Northumbrian Osthryth was murdered by the Northumbrian thegns. So just hang on a moment here. Most of the historian I have read sagely remark that maybe this was the result of continuing antipathy between Northumbria and Mercia. Fine. But what does it say about Aethelred? Did he approve? Did he watch? Was he jolly grumpy but was too weak to object? I would have said that killing your boss’s wife would probably be construed as an unfriendly thing to do, and has to say something about Aethelred’s status.
Because it doesn’t appear that Aethelred was estranged from his wife; certainly, he sent her off to be buried at the monastery of Bardney, and in 704 he abdicated and went to join her as the Abbot of the place, there to die 5 years later. Fron there for the next 10 years, the Line of Penda rather runs into the swamps; the next king cenred was more interested in God and resigned to go to room, while conversely the next guy apparently went mad and died because he had spent his life feasting fornicating with nuns and ravishing monasteries. But then it was a monk who told us that so, you might want to treat that with caution.
But for a period certainly, the Mercian rulers faced a different political situation; although Northumbria was now less of a threat, after their defeat at the hands of the Picts, Kent and Wessex were ruled by stable and competent rulers, Wihtred of Kent and Ine of Wessex. Both ruled for a long time between 688 and 726. Both were able to a degree at least, resist Mercian ambitions and even, in the case of Wessex at least, extend their own.
One of the things that wihtred and Ine had in common was the law code – each of them creates a law code, and they are very different, but in their own way showcase something of the way in which AS society and had and haden’t changed.
Wihtred’s code displays something of the special nature of the relationship with the church that Kent had always had. The lawcodes are less about the regulation of society, and more about Christianity, the church and its rights, since apart from 4 clauses it relates exclusively to the church. It is a symbol of the end of the conversion period in a sense; it enacts penalties for paganism, for breaking the rules of the church; paganism has moved from being an unpopular choice to being deviant. It points also to one of the outstanding issues of the 8th century in England – the rise of the power, wealth and influence of the church, which we’ll come to more and later. The church is declared free of taxation. Now this is a big thing, and will get bigger; as the wealth of the church grows, having a significant part of your kingdom free of taxation makes a nasty sized dent in your income. But in status also the church and its ministers are exalted; a Bishop’s oath, for example, just like the oath of a king, is declared incontrovertible.
There is secular interest in Wihtred’s codes too. The first lies in the role of lordship; while in many ways Whitred’s codes still feel like the laws of a primitive Germanic society as far as the historian Frank Stenton is concerned, none the less they appear to recognise the existence of a nobility whose title derives from birth, and not only from service to the king, recognising the increasing stratification of society. The second is simply in their existence. Both Wihtred’s successors had also issued codes. Kings in ASE were no longer simply war leaders, though they would always be that. They had a responsibility towards their people beyond enriching them, they had a responsibility to bring order, peace and justice; they were expected to patronise the church and promote Christianity, to promote learning and wisdom. Not just to go a nick a mars bar from the guy next door.
The same applies to the laws that Ine issued. But Ine’s code is much wider and of a different quality. It is not just a series of penalties for offences; it is a coherent attempt to bring together a comprehensive set of rules that govern a Christian society, brought together by the king his nobles and his clergy.
The law codes have survives because King Alfred attached them to his code; for that reason, they may not be complete; Alfred had a habit of taking out stuff he didn’t agree with. But their survival through this route illustrates their importance, 150 years after their creation.
The laws tell us something of AS society. The structure of society described is pretty simple – The King, his thegns, and the Ceorls. Slaves are also around, but essentially invisible – they don’t really count, though they are given some rights.
There is no feudal structure here – i.e. the Thegn is not an intermediary between the Ceorl and the King, there is instead a direct relationship. There is no mention anywhere of a role for the Lord in administering justice as an intermediary between king and his people.
The Ceorl was a free man; he therefore had the right to bear arms, unlike later centuries after the Normans arrived. He was considered eligible for military service, and to be involved in folk meetings. The Ceorl’s free status is indicated by the fact that he has a wergild – a value placed on him should he be killed by another. In Ine’s laws, the Ceorl’s wergild was set at 200 shillings, 1/6th of the wergild of the Thegn. As we mentioned a couple of episodes ago, though, what is agreed on by all historians is that the status of the Ceorl is already in decline, a decline that will over time towards the 11th Century and the arrival of feudalism, so much so that the word Ceorl acquires the slightly perjorative sense that remains with it today.
The law codes make provision for both British and Saxon subjects, and although they are biased towards the Saxons, they are by no means oppressive. They support the view we’ve all pretty much agreed with now that the AS invasions did not result in the complete displacement of the British, but rather an assimilation. And finally, the word English is used; maybe a tantalising glimpse of the beginning of a single AS consciousness.
Ine ruled for 37 years, and although the events of his reign are rather obscure, there’s no doubt that he was a powerful and statesmanlike ruler. In this he was helped by his father; very unusually, Ine became king while his father was still alive. It’s evidence, if any more were needed, that any aetheling, and member of the royal family could become king, and the instability this could cause. While Ine was therefore given a helping hand, don’t for a moment imagine that meant he had a trouble free existence throne-wise. Just like every other kingdom throughout the 7th and 8th century, there are all kinds of spats when other kings, like the East Saxons harbour royal West Saxon exiles at their court; in 721, Ine kills a royal pretender. But there’s no sign that, apart from the wearying requirements of the AS king to murder a few rivals, that Ine was ever insecure in his rule.
Ine doesn’t live in history because he was an outstanding warrior, but he does his bit according to his idiom. Although he never appears to attempt to establish an overlordship of Mercia, he clearly holds sway over Wessex without reference to Mercia, and established control over Sussex and Kent. It’s under Ine that one of the remaining British kingdoms appears to have finally fallen; Dumnonia, Devon in the south West, finally appears to have come within the kingdom of Wessex, leaving only Cornwall holding out for independence.
But just as his laws speak of Ine’s consciousness of an enhanced role and responsibility, so does his relationship with the church. Ine does what was now par for the course; he bequeaths all kinds of lands and riches to the Church. But he is after of the church too. He drew together the disparate and slightly chaotic, independent institutions of the conversion period Wessex into a structure under a single Bishop in Dorchester.
By the time Ine had followed a reasonably common route into retirement – abdicating his throne and travelling to Rome to die – there was a new king in Mercia. Aethelbald became king of Mercia in 716. With Aethelbald, the line of Penda finally came to an end, since he was descended from Penda’s brother, Eowa.
Despite that Aethelbald was something of a character, and seems to have inherited something of Penda’s character. So much depends on the words you use doesn’t it? So to one historian, the words ‘tough and vigorous’ seems like an appropriate way of describing him. To others, violent and turbulent fits the bill better. Hate it or loathe it, Aethelbald was not the kind of guy to die peacefully in his bed. His life is in many ways the very template of the AS king in the Heptarchy – wars all over the place. Wandering into Somerset to do a bit of ravaging and give the king of Wessex a kicking. Fighting the Welsh one day; then teaming up with the Picts in Scotland against the old enemy Northumbria. There is simply no way of relating Aethelbald’s life in detail that would not include a rather wearying list of battles and struggles for dominance – which is the problem with telling the story of these centuries to be honest. So let’s not do that – but just to take the point that whatever words you use to describe Aethelbald, you really, really ought to find a place for belligerent.
You might find place also for ‘divisive and unpopular’. He was forced, for example, to make a payment to an abbess for striking one of her family. The church had a real downer on him. He appeared to take a cherry-picking approach to Christianity preferring the pagan, multi wife approach, and so that’s what he went for, along with a harem on concubines. Including, of course the mandatory accusation of nun fornicating. The key giveaway really is the manner of his death. Because after his long and generally successful reign, Aethelbald was killed by his bodyguard, who killed him while he slept. The thick smoke of such a betrayal of the warrior code suggests that there’s a fire somewhere.
Having said all of that, the case for the prosecution as it were, Aethelbald was without doubt successful by the yardstick of 8th century AS England. It took a while to come; really it’s not until the deaths of Wihtred of Kent in 725 and the abdication of Ine of Wessx in 726 that Aethelbald comes to the fore, and where we get just the faintest whiff, the skinniest soupcon, a very smidgen of a suggestion that folks out there were thinking of one kingdom of the AS’s rather than a bunch of warring independent kingdoms. There’s much modern debate on this; a lot of picking away at the evidence to question whether Aethelbald was as powerful as it appeared, and a general downgrading of his dominance over other kingdoms. For me, I’m going to follow Bede, who essentially help him out as the overlord of all the kingdoms south of the Humber. He was there, afterall.
But the whiff, soupcon and indeed smidgen come from a charter in 736, which bears a famous line which describes him as king not only of the Mercians but also of all the provinces which are known as the Sutangli – i.e. the Southern English. How it’s true as opposed to vainglory is up for grabs to a degree, but it’s also clear that we are still in the traditional position of imperium, or Bretwalda territory – Aethelbald was the biggest fish in the AS pool.
One other thing to note about our Aethelbald, which we’ll deal with also as part of bigger themes. Aethelbald essentially folds under pressure and insults from the church, and he too, just like Wihtred, exempted church lands from tribute and burdens – but with a kicker. This is that the church would continue to be responsible for what were called common burdens – namely the maintenance of bridges on their lands, and maintenance of fortifications. It’s a compromise that became a standard. And let’s here the positive messages; Boniface the missionary we talked about last time sung with praise his liberal almsgiving, reported him as quote ‘famed as a defender of widows and of the poor’. So that’s good then. I should note that Boniface did also slip into his missive that Aethelbald had violated church privileges, quote ‘with greater violence and extortion than any Christian kings have ever done’, had never taken a lawful wife and had fornicated with nuns, but hey, you can’t have everything.
Essentially, Aethelbald had asserted Mercian leadership south of the Humber, without ever being without challenge; and to probably extent of a recognition of pre-eminence and a bit of tribute taking. But, the manner and suddenness of Aethelbald’s death also raised the spectre of a period of political chaos in Mercia.
There was more than one aetheling knocking about. One of these was a young man from the lands of the Hwicce, called Offa. Probably named after one of the distant and legendary ancestors of the Mercians, Offa king of the Angeln, Offa had been patronised by Aethelbald’s court. He was a descendent, like Aethelbald, of Eowa, Penda’s brother, and Aethelbald’s cousin. Quite a lot of clever money would probably have been on Offa to succeed, but the laws of chaos will out, and in 1757, on Aethelbald’s murder, it was in fact a man called Beornred who became king of the Mercians. Who knows, maybe the murder of Aethelbald was orchestrated by Beornred, but as it was, his bid for power was to no avail. Within a few months, he had been driven out, and Offa had asserted his right to lead. In Offa, the rise of Mercian power becomes genuinely converted into Mercian supremacy.
But we’ll hear about that next time, not today.
Meanwhile as ever, grovelling a tearful thanks to all of you listeners out there for whom the Anglo Saxons are not the forgotten backside of English history, but it’s living breathing heart. Have fun everyone, joy laughter and delights beyond measure, and see you next timeski.