After Wulfhere, Aethelred and Aethelbald laid the foundations, a prince from the Hwicce, Offa, took Mercia to its greatest achievements.
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Cynewulf and Cyneheard
In 755, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle suddenly breaks into lyricism, with a story about the King of Wessex that has all the hallmarks of a great ballad told in the halls of the powerful – which someone wrote down.
The link to Cynewulf and Cyneheard on Youtube is here, so you can go and like it or whatever one does. Below is the main part of the entry for 755, which is probably the wrong year
This year Cynewulf, with the consent of the West-Saxon council, deprived Sebright, his relative, for unrighteous deeds, of his kingdom, except Hampshire; which he retained, until he slew the alderman who remained the longest with him. Then Cynewulf drove him to the forest of Andred, where he remained, until a swain stabbed him at Privett, and revenged the alderman, Cumbra. The same Cynewulf fought many hard battles with the Welsh; and, about one and thirty winters after he had the kingdom, he was desirous of expelling a prince called Cynheard, who was the brother of Sebright. But he having understood that the king was gone, thinly attended, on a visit to a lady at Merton rode after him, and beset him therein; surrounding the town without, ere the attendants of the king were aware of him. When the king found this, he went out of doors, and defended himself with courage; till, having looked on the Ætheling, he rushed out upon him, and wounded him severely. Then were they all fighting against the king, until they had slain him. As soon as the king’s thanes in the lady’s bower heard the tumult, they ran to the spot, whoever was then ready. The Ætheling immediately offered them life and rewards; which none of them would accept, but continued fighting together against him, till they all lay dead, except one British hostage, and he was severely wounded. When the king’s thanes that were behind heard in the morning that the king was slain, they rode to the spot, Osric his alderman, and Wiverth his thane, and the men that he had left behind; and they met the Ætheling at the town, where the king lay slain. The gates, however, were locked against them, which they attempted to force; but he promised them their own choice of money and land, if they would grant him the kingdom; reminding them, that their relatives were already with him, who would never desert him. To which they answered, that no relative could be dearer to them than their lord, and that they would never follow his murderer. Then they besought their relatives to depart from him, safe and sound. They replied, that the same request was made to their comrades that were formerly with the king; “And we are as regardless of the result,” they rejoined, “as our comrades who with the king were slain.” Then they continued fighting at the gates, till they rushed in, and slew the Ætheling and all the men that were with him; except one, who was the godson of the alderman, and whose life he spared, though he was often wounded. This same Cynewulf reigned one and thirty winters. His body lies at Winchester, and that of the Ætheling at Axminster. Their paternal pedigree goeth in a direct line to Cerdic.
We left the situation last time with a brief period of civil war that brought to the throne of Mercia a young prince called Offa, of the line of Penda’s brother, Eowa. His predecessor had been able to claim a degree of dominance over the kingdoms south of the Humber – but all that was gone now. Mercian control over East Anglia and the East Saxons anyway. In Kent, Aethelbert II has re-established the line of Oisc, son of Hengest, independent of Mercian control. Wessex was an interesting case. Between the two kingdoms, to the west in modern day Somerset and Gloucestershire was an area the control of which flip flopped between the two, and under Aethelbald, Mercia had dominated. In fact, Wessex held the older claim; when Aethelbald died at the hands of his bodyguard, the new king of Wessex, Cynewulf, moved straight back in. And no one south of the Humber managed to tell Northumbria what to do, despite the fact that the stability of rulers they’d enjoyed was most definitely a thing of the past.
Offa was every bit as aggressive and ambitious as Aethelbald. But his career allows him to lay claim to being the greatest and most magnificent king before Alfred, and he was to prove that he had a grander and wider vision than Aethelbert, and even than Wulfhere. The question facing him was whether he could succeed where Wulfhere and Aethelbald had promised, but really failed to fully deliver.
It would have been lovely to know what Bede would have thought of Offa, but sadly the venerable one has now shuffled off his mortal coil. And it is painfully obvious how much our knowledge and understanding suffers as a result. There is no great Mercian chronicler to chart the career of Offa; we have to piece the story together from letters, from charters, the odd snippet in religious tracts and lives of saints and the smattering of archaeology.
What that means is that the chronology and order of Offa’s career is a little obscure in places, but then a spot of uncertainty is part of the weft and warp of the Dark Ages. Offa came to the throne in 757. There is little doubt that he was determined to re-establish and extend Mercian influence.
It appears that his attention was turned first to Kent. There, Aethlebert reigned, probably in conjunction with his brothers. But by the time of Aethelbert’s death, there was no sign of his brothers, and it is quite clear that charters are being referred to Offa for approval. We don’t know how it happened – whether through a battle or just by using the diplomatic powers of applying pressure, but for a period of 14 years Offa effectively ruled in Kent. Any other power in Kent effectively disintegrates; there appear to be a number of kings and sub kings that are referred to; one chap calls himself King of Canterbury. I may call myself in future, King of my shed. And issue passports. And stamps.
The other significant thing is that these ephemeral kings were no longer part of the ancient royal house of Kent, descended from Oisc, son of Hengest. Offa had seen to it that this potential rallying cry was removed.
It fact, that wasn’t the end of the story. No one likes to be told what to do, especially by someone with a Brummie accent. And so it was with the men of Kent. Or the Kentish men. Not being from Kent, I don’t quite understand the sensitivities around this, or even if it matters, so if you are from Kent let me know but, as a little digression for those of you who do not know Kent, I am told that who or where you live in Kent has an impact on which way round it is. So you are either a Kentishman or maid, or a man or maid of Kent. One story has it that if you live East and south of the river Medway, then you are a man of Kent. Other tradition adds that this is an old dividing line between the Jutes, the men of Kent in the East, and Saxons, kentishmen. Who knows. There are a variety of other interpretations, but the long and short is that I’m told the Men and Maids of Kent consider themselves to be significantly butcher than the Kentishmen and women; on account of having told Billy the Conq in no uncertain terms in 1067 that he needed to give them their traditional rights or they’d kick his backside – whereas the other lot just rolled over. I just put that little local wrinkle in front of you, and have no more comment to make.
Anyway, we were on brummie accents. About this time, after Offa had established his control in Kent and snuffed out the line of Oisc, the Archbishop of Canterbury died, in 765, and a new man was appointed – a local …er… Man of Kent called Jaenberht. We know very little about him but it appears from some surviving letters that he was not on good terms with Offa. It is entirely possible that we are reading too much into this, but it could be that Jaenberht was a Kentish patriot. Or Patriotic Kentishman. or whatever, he didn’t like the Mercians. It appears that Offa took the approach that he’d rule through local rulers, since a new man appears as king at this time, who shall be called Egbert. Because that was his name. Egbert appears to have lived on sufferance for the first 10 years of his reign. There is a delightful charter which gives us a glimpse into Egbert and Offa’s feelings. As far as Offa was concerned King Egbert was a man with no bacon, a cipher, there to do his bidding. As far as Egbert was concerned, Offa was a tyrant, he Egbert was the true king, and his mate Jaenberht though so too. Like a naughty kid, Egbert pushed things as far as he could to find out where the boundaries were. So he issued a grant of land, without getting it signed off with the boss first. Offa found out and came down on him like the proverbial ton of bricks. He revoked the charter, a brutal and forthright exercise of authority. The revocation of the charter survives, and the wording goes that
it was not right for a man to grant away land which his lord had given him, without his lord’s assent
Ouch. From that point, if not before, Egbert was an enemy. And in 776, Egbert came out with it, and asserted his authority, and the result was of course predictable – Offa came with an army to crush him. In 776 then, there was a battle at a place in Kent called Otford. That is literally all we know. We don’t even really know who won, but significantly Offa appeared to have no authority in Kent for 10 years until the death of Egbert in 779, since Egbert happily issues his own coins and charters without any reference to the boss. So by the looks of things, Egbert had rediscovered his bacon.
But if you thought this might be a new beginning for Kent, you would be sadly mistaken – it was a false dawn. It’s true that he was succeeded as king of Kent by – a rather obscure figure called Ealhmund. Ealhmund may have been a west saxon, since his son would become a super successful king of Wessex, but Ealhmund did not last long as king of Kent. By 785, Offa had cleared out any pesky little kings, and ruled direct until his death in 796. This is effectively the end of Kent’s independence. After Offa died, there was another attempt to break away as a man called Eadberht Praen. He lasted 3 years, until the King of Mercia came down, burned Kent, blinded Praen and cut his hands off. And that was that. The end of Kent, or at least the end of Kent as an independent kingdom. Kent would still have a boss – because after all everyone needs a boss don’t they? You can’t have enough bosses, a boss a day keep the doctor away, but Kent’s local boss would become an Earldorman, not a king.
Which is the same approach our Offa took to Mercia. Now I am guilty, very guilty, of casually referring to Mercia as one place, as though it was all integrated and centralised; though in my defence we did talk about this a few episodes ago; that Mercia sat in the middle of a complex bunch of tribes and petty kingdoms, as evidenced by that most delightful of AS documents, the Tribal Hidage. I am sure you have been wearily shaking your head in despair at my casual and cavalier approach to the history of the Mercian people. You will have shouted at your MP3 player, calling on the gods of the Hwicce to rise from their meadhall and visit their vengeance upon me in my shed.
Well, the Gods of the Hwicce had better get on with it, because although I am of course truly sorry, the Gods of the Hwicce have now run out of time, because under Offa, sub kings disappear PDQ, pretty damn quick. Let us turn to one Ealdred, a man who considered himself to be king of the Hwicce, along with his brothers Eanberth and Uhtred. Eanberht had no pretensions to independence, don’t get me wrong, he was duly subservient to Offa like all his forebears had been since Penda had wandered along and made it clear that this was the way it was going to work, but he was very keen on the K word. But Offa considered him to be no such thing, he styled him as a dux in latin, Duke, or Ealdorman. Under his, Eanberht’s successors, this becomes less of an issue; there are now simply Ealdormen of the Hwicce, and that’s the way it is.
Now also in my defence, the Hwicce were probably the last of the group of kingdoms that had sat around the core of Mercian power; but Offa completed the process; the Magonsaete, the woreocesate, the Hwicce, the Tomsaete, the Middle Angles; their status as non royal regions of the greater Mercia are now all confirmed, and finalised if there was any remaining doubt.
Which brings us, as night follows day, to the South Saxons. Now a few of you have complained bitterly – well one of you has complained, mildly – that in my regnal lists I failed to add the South Saxon kings. Well, the truth is that after getting off to a flyer in the 5th century under Aella, the South Saxons had retired behind the Weald, and just got on with being South Saxon. Every so often some dude from Wessex, such as Caedwalla, would appear and do a bit of ravaging n’all, but eventually they’d leave. Politically it was a bit of a mess; or, maybe a land of milk and honey because there was no one madly ambitious bloke trying to get everyone to go and beat everyone else up. Sussex wasn’t the biggest place by any means, and yet it was still split up between several rulers. I have an image of hairy Saxons chilling on hammocks along the sands at Eat Wittering or something like that. Well Offa put a stop to any of that. Some of the South Saxons tried to stand up for themselves; the men of Hastings for example arranged themselves for battle. But against the combined might of Mercia they had as much chance as a bun left alone with my dog.
Beyond that, the extent of Offa’s dominance becomes a little more problematic. Nothing survives of the relationship between the East Saxons and Mercia, so we don’t know; though we might guess that since Offa used their province of the Middlesex as his own personal backyard, we maybe have a hint; and it could also be that Offa used Ipswich as a royal mint. So the odds are that the east Saxon kings were bowing and scraping with the best of them. It’s similar with East Anglia – we can’t be sure, nothing comes out of East Anglia – still doesn’t really. That is probably because, as now I suspect, the East Anglians are not really sure the rest of us are really there, and when they do notice us, they are not really sure what the point of our existence is anyway. But again, there’s the odd straw in the wind. Or sugar beet in the wind. There is one king mentioned, a man called Aethelberht. He is mentioned because in 794, Offa caused him to be beheaded. Traditionally, if possibly unfairly, this is seen as an unfriendly thing to do, so we might guess that Aethelberht had made the mistake of finding a backbone, and raising his head against Mercian supremacy – and getting it cut off as a result. So Again, the balance of probability is that East Anglia was also ground under the Mercian boot.
Northumbria’s relatively easy; although odd. It would look like a bit of a gimme that if Offa had managed to cause all this chaos and obedience south of the Humber, north of it would be a slam dunk; the old Northumbrian stability Bede had gloried in of the late 7th century was dead and gone, and the regnal list for Offa’s period looks more like a pizza than a list. But clearly they make ‘em tough up there; Offa quite clearly never managed to establish himself. Having said that, in 792 he married Aelfflaed, the daughter of the king of Northumbria; and you have to think Offa would have made some political capital out of it. But seriously we see no more; there are no Northumbrian charters counter sealed by Offa, or which refer to Offa.
Maybe the biggest bone of contention over which the dogs of history have fought is about Wessex, and its relationship with Mercia. The king of Wessex was a man called Cynewulf, who came to his throne in the same year, 757, that Offa came to his. As I said at the start of todays’ matherings, in the bun fight that accompanied Offa’s arrival, Cynewulf’s immediate action was to take back control of the upper Thames that Athelbald had wrested from them.
Clearly, Offa was not the kind of bunny to be happy with such a thing. There would be little doubt that he’d have pushed and tested the independence of Wessex as hard as he could, but there’s not a lot of evidence he succeeded. Until 20 years later, in 779, the ASC tells us
This year Cynewulf and Offa fought near Bensington and Offa took the town
Still, we have no evidence that the Wessex legs then danced to the Mercian tune. But then in 786 we get the oldest piece of prose poetry in Old English that was written down. And it concerns Cynewulf. And I am going to tell you about it.
The ASC is very often a pretty laconic piece of work. You know the sort of thing, like the entry in 645: Cenwalh was driven from his kingdom by king Penda.
That’s it. A bit of background would have been useful, but no. Or indeed the entry for 776 about the battle of Otford, which said ‘the Mercians and the Kentish fought at Otford.’ That’s your lot – not even a mention of who won. But in 757 suddenly it goes potty, and gets all excited with a long piece of prose, which we discussed a few episodes ago as an example of lordship, and the bond between the lord and his man. Suddenly, from being a chronicle about God, the odd battle and lights in the sky, the ASC sings about a story which has violence, bravery, loyalty and even sex. It bears all the hallmarks of a story that had been told in the halls of the great, an oral tradition that someone had decided to write down. It’s always nice to hear these things spoken properly, so I have found something on the interweb on You Tube from a chap who’s permission I was unable to ask; so hopefully he doesn’t mind, and there’s a link on the website – anyway, you can hear it after the credits if you so desire.
Anyway, the political significance was that in 756, the crown of Wessex had passed to an aetheling called Sigebryth, But there was another aetheling in the wings who thought he was a better aetheling; his name was Cynewulf. Cynewulf got the leading councillors of the king to back him, and drove Sigebryht out, where he ended up being stabbed in the wastes of the weald by a cowherd. That’;s in Sussex. Wastes of the weald isn’t a euphemism for anything. So Cynewulf became king of Wessex, as we said, in 757.
Fast forward 30 years to 786. For the last 30 years there was at least one person or faction that remembered the death of Sigebryht; his brother Cyneheard was one of them. So as you’ll hear if you listen, Cyneheard surprised and killed Cynewulf while he was visiting his fancy woman in Merton; but the king’s men avenged him and Cyneheard also ended up in the dustbin of history, along with a bunch of loyal and brave – and also dead – thegns.
The result was a new king in Wessex, a man called Beorhtric. Here was Offa’s chance to gain influence and control in Wessex – a new inexperienced kid on the block, who would be overawed and impressed by Offa’s magnificence. Offa did not go for brute force, he went for the iron fist in the velvet glove approach; offering alliance, and marriage to the great man’s daughter, Eadburgh. Whether or not he liked the situation he was in, Beorhtric accepted the offer, and Wessex was a partner of Mercia from that point forward. When I say partner, what I mean of course is junior partner. In fact, Beorhtric was to prove immensely useful to Offa. Offa had a problem; at the time he was trying to snuff out the fires of revolt in Kent, with Egbert’s successor, Ealhmund. Eahlmund had a son – Ecgbert, and Ecgbert needed to go, because while he was still there, Kent would have a symbol to follow. What we don’t know, incidentally, is whether Eahlmund and Ecgbert were by background Kentish or West Saxon. Obviously, Lizzie our current queen is figured to be a descendent of Cerdic, like every West Saxon Aetheling. Well; if Ealhmund and Ecbert were Kentish, then I have bad news for her. But that will be for some future time.
Anywho, the point is that Beorhtric helped Offa out, and helped him push Ecgbert out and snuff out the spirit of revolt in Kent.
So essentially, to sum up, in the final analysis when all’s said and done, when the nineth stitch has saved the time, Offa by the 780’s was without doubt the king of the dung heap. It had taken him a while to get there, 25 years or more, but as Disraeli was to celebrate in 1868, he had without doubt climbed to the top of the greasy pole. Which is where we get the debate about Offa’s ambition and world view. Was he a traditional hegemon, bretwalda, primes inter pares, the Mercian king who had managed to impose himself on all the rest? Or did he have a wider vision – one kingdom of the English people united together in the face of the hostile Celts?
By and large, Offa called himself Rex Merciorum – king of the Mercians. And this defines him as the successful Mercian warlord making the English south of the Humber dance to his tune. But his predecessor, Aethelbald had made the odd claim for more; the best example being a description on a charter describing himself as ‘rex non solum marcersium sed et omnium provinciarum generale nomibe Sutangli dicuntur’, which is quite a complicated title – king not just of Mercia, but of all the lands described as the land of the South English. Generally Offa seemed to have aimed lower, though I doubt modesty was Offa’s strong suit, and as I say he usually called himself simply Rex Merciorum. But in 774 we suddenly get a couple of documents where he calls himself Rex Anglorum, and rex totius Anglorum patriae; king of the English, king of all the fatherlands of the English. Is this a small sign of the more ambitious, visionary Offa, maybe hidden by the years? Should it be Offa, not Alfred, who we think of as the father of the nation?
The answer appears to be no. Both these charters are slightly problematic in that they are later reproductions, we don’t have the originals. There is something of a game that religious houses play, which I am sure will shock you. They made up charters sometimes to prove title to land they wanted – usually not being quite barefaced enough to just steal land, normally just to put a legal basis behind land they’ve held for a while anyway. So the bigger and grander the charter and the grantor of the charter, the better. Having said that, there’s no particular reason to doubt these two; but they are outliers. Everything else we know about Offa suggests that he is a king of the Mercians, and that’s the way he thinks.
It’s useful to think about Offa’s reign, though, in the context of one of the greatest figures in European history – the Emperor Charles the Great; otherwise known of course, as Charlemagne. Charlemagne is of course a quite exceptional figure, who’s long reign transformed the map of Europe, and in 800 created the first run at a new western Roman Empire – what we have come to know as the Holy Roman Empire. Now Offa was dead by the time Charlemagne was anointed by Pope Leo in Rome in 800, but well before that Charlemagne had made his court the model for any other kings to emulate and envy. As Offa’s power grew he looked over the channel and had the nerve to consider himself Charlemagne’s equal.
There is some support for his view. Lord knows how anyone makes such an odious comparison, but scale of ambition might be one such benchmark. Into which argument, then, you’d roll the earthworks that Offa seems to have commissioned and built all along the Welsh border. Of course we know it’s there; I know it’s there because I’ve walked on it a few time, though truth to say in all but a few sections it’s pretty easy to miss. But the evidence for it being built by Offa relies on Alfred’s 9th century biographer, Asser. Asser suggests that the wall ran along all the 135 miles of the welsh-English border, though the modern historian views this claim with suspicion and distrust, and identifies a segment 80 miles long. But if Asser is correct, it is longer than either the Antonine Wall or Hadrian’s wall, though of course unlike Hadrian’s Wall the building is not made of stone.
We don’t exactly know why Offa’s Dyke was built. Of course, it’s natural to assume that it was like Hadrian’s wall, but it’s really super unlikely that Offa’s Mercia would have had the resources to patrol and man such a thing. It would seem much more than likely that this was the marker of the border between the Welsh and Mercians, designed to be useable by the Mercians for defense on special occasions if needs be. The alternative of course was that Offa was thinking about later generations, and giving people a great place to walk – and I can tell you that it is just that, a great walk.
Building a wall of this magnitude was a stunning achievement for the period. It shows that Offa thought big. But more than that, it shows that he had built a state with a sophisticated organisation and administration, and a state with the wealth to complete such a major project.
There were other ways in which Offa emulated Charlemagne. Like Charlemagne, Offa clearly understood the value the church could bring in building his prestige. When two papal legates visited in 787, Offa made sure he was part of the whole tour and bigging up process, making sure he was centre stage. The laws and canons they came to re-inforce included the status of the king as the lord’s anointed, which of course was most welcome.
He made sure he very conspicuously lived up to the model of the Christian king, in ways his predecessors had not. So while Athelbald had laid himself open to accusations of nun fornication; and had blatently had multiple wives and mistresses, Offa was a model of monogamy. In fact his wife Cynethryth regularly witnesses charters; she seems to have been unusually prominent at court, and throughout Offa was determined to demonstrate the legitimacy of his and Cynethruth’s reign and line.
And then there was Offa’s big project – the idea of an Archbishopric in the Mercian heartlands. Again, Offa understood the benefits of having the church under his control, and access to the administration it could provide. It had always been the case that the Archbishop of Canterbury was the primate for all the English bishops, but as we know Offa and the ABC Jaenberht really did not see eye to eye. The answer was obvious to Offa – turn the bishop of Lichfield in the midlands into an Archbishop, independent of Canterbury, for the greater glory of God and of course Mercia. Offa was able to persuade the Pope of his case; it was short lived, it has to be said and did not long outlast Offa, but Offa had made his point, and he could get what he wanted.
Another example of emulation to a degree at least came from coinage. During Offa’s reign, sceattas began to follow the Frankish model much more closely; they were flatter and thinner. The name of the king, began to appear on the coin, as kings like Offa realised that this was a good promotional opportunity. Uniquely amongst the Anglo Saxons at least, Queen Cynethryth even appears on one coin. Offa also began to control the mints; they became royal mints, whose output was controlled centrally by the king.
There are obvious advantages to this be being able to control quality, and during Offa’s reign the estimate is that 2 million sceatta were produced for him. But there were murkier reasons to control the minting process; it was a money maker in more ways than one. As coins became smaller and thinner – higher quality but none the less, containing less bullion, coins were recalled which had a higher total bullion content – and the crown pocketed the difference. It’s inflation, essentially. Nice one.
Now it might have been that Offa would have done all this anyway; but there was a model for him over in Frankia from Charlemagne. And by the 790’s, Offa ruled a vast territory by Anglo Saxon standards, and had established a court at Tamworth that was in all probability a lot more sophisticated than the traditional AS mead hall; and in all likelihood felt very much on the same level as his Frankish counterpart. And in fact there is a little exchange which kind of demonstrates this – and also demonstrates that whatever Offa might think Charlemagne seriously did not think the same way and considered Mercia to be no more than a pimple on the buttock of Empire.
Essentially, Charlemagne had noticed Offa, which it has to be said is compliment enough for any pimple. And so he got in touch, seeking the hand in marriage of Offa’s daughter for his son. Offa proudly responded by asking for the same in return – Charlemagne’s daughter for his son, Ecgfrith.
Well scared blue governor, you’d have thought he’d suggested an orgy with a bit of nun fornication thrown in. Furious at the pretention of the nasty little man, Charlemagne broke off all discussions. So that’s fine – Offa might see himself as Charlemagne’s equal, the Frank did not see it the same way, frankly. Much has been made of the fact that relationships were re-established; that a trade conversation ensued, that a magnificent Hunnish sword was given as a gift by Charlemagne, and that he addressed Offa as ‘dearest brother’. Much has been made to try to prove the case that Offa was indeed seen by contemporaries as the equal of the great Charlemagne. But none of this was an admission of equality, and both men would have recognised the brutal, coded diplomatic language. The sword was a typical gift of lord to retainer; while Charlemagne in the letter called himself ‘King of the Franks and Lombards and Patrician of the Romans’, Offa got ‘King of the Mercians’. The message was clear enough.
None the less, Offa came as close as any in Europe to challenging the glory of Charlemagne; the extent and manner of his rule was closer to a united England than any that had gone before; the nature of his rule was a demonstration that the Anglo Saxons were emerging from their relative isolation and becoming part of the European mainstream; negotiating with the Franks, corresponding with the papacy, holding court with pomp and ceremony just like a regular continental monarch.
In one other respect, Offa demonstrated the lessons he’d learned from Charlemagne; in the importance he ascribed to his dynasty, and the lengths he went to make sure his descendants succeeded him.
Here we are frustrated to an extent by the veil of our ignorance of the detail of Offa’s rule, because we have some very clear indications of the amount of pain Offa went to, to make sure that Ecgfrith, son of himself and Cynethryth, succeeded, and not some other aetheling from some other branch of the family.
We have a couple of indications of the paranoia and the brutality that Offa was prepared to carry out to make sure Ecgfrith ascended to the Mercian throne and leadership of the Sutangli. The first was that Ecgfrith was crowned during Offa’s lifetime, crowned as co-ruler by Offa’s shiny new AB of Lichfield. Now this is super unusual; it’s very much an assertion of the dynastic rather than tribal principle; rather than the wise men and councillors agreeing who was the best candidate to succeed the previous leader. It’s also very consciously a ceremony that emphasised the theocratic nature of kingship, on the Frankish model, and even like the eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople.
The other glimpse we get behind the curtain comes from a letter Alcuin wrote to a Mercian thegn from the court at Chralemagne. He referred to, quote,
‘how much blood the father shed to secure the kingdom for his son’
We can’t see exactly what happened in Mercia during Offa’s reign to prompt this comment, but it clearly wasn’t pretty. Like most other AS kings, Offa no doubt had to work hard diplomatically and militarily to sniff out and snuff out a number of pretenders in courts around the heptarchy. And of course one of them he couldn’t reach was the aforesaid man of Kent, Egbert, son of Eahlmund, safe from his clutches, ironically at the court of Charlemagne. So, all the more important that Offa had done everything he could to make sure his son was secure on the throne.
Offa died in July 796, a ruler who’s name should really be written more brightly and powerfully in English history, but our view of whom is simply too obscured by the veil of the dark ages. He would have been relieved to know that his son, Ecgfrith, succeeded to the throne.
But the start of Offa’s dynasty it was not to be. By December of that very same year Queen Cynethryth was grieving at her son’s deathbed, and the throne passed to Cenwulf, a distant aetheling from another branch of the royal dynasty. As Alcuin wrote to the Bishop of Leicester:
‘You know how well the illustrious king prepared for his son to inherit his kingdom, as he thought, but as events showed he took it from him…Man plans, but God decides.’
Which seems like an appropriate place to finish this week’s episode. Next time, the Mercian supremacy will continue – but the question is, for how long?