The Rise and Fall of Mercia

Mercia was the height of stability, and strength, in the hundred years before the reign of Alfred the Great, but why did that strength fade?
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Throughout the 700s, the ancient Saxon kingdom of Mercia was the powerhouse in Saxon England. The key to its success, as in the Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria and Wessex both before and after it, was the longevity of its kings. First, King Æthelbald, and then his successor, although not his descendant, King Offa, (who did claim descent from the seventh century pagan king Penda, or rather, his brother, Eowa).

Between them, Æthelbald and Offa ruled Mercia from 716-757 and 757-796, after the brief reign of Beonred in 757 only. This was a substantial period of time during which King Offa entered negotiations with Charlemagne for a union between his daughter and Charlemagne’s son (which ultimately didn’t come to fruition), he attempted to create an archbishopric in Lichfield to rival that of Canterbury and York, and his daughters were married to the kings of Wessex and Northumbria. Dr J Story has noted that, “A long reign was thought noteworthy by contemporary chroniclers and does, at the very least, suggest that a ruler was doing something right…A long reign was a direct reflection of a king’s abilities on the battlefield as well as in the chamber of politics.”

While there is no native source for Mercia’s triumph throughout the eighth century, which makes it difficult to unpick all the details, its dominance is not doubted. But the years of triumph were not to last, although they did extend into the first quarter of the eighth century.

While King Offa was briefly succeeded by his son, Ecgfrith, the next to enjoy a long reign was Coenwulf, perhaps a distant relative of Offa, and then his brother, Coelwulf, (after Coenwulf’s son predeceased him) which takes the chronology to the beginning of the 820s, a time when Mercia was, perhaps unexpectedly after so many years of apparent stability, plunged into crisis after three long and stable reigns.

During the eighth century, Mercia had expanded far outside the boundaries traditionally assigned to it in the English Midlands. Not only was the southern kingdom of Kent a part of Mercia, but so too was the kingdom of the East Angles. And it is also stated that King Ecgberht of Wessex was forced to seek sanctuary amongst the Carolingians when Mercian aggression threatened to overwhelm him as well. Mercia was aggressive and powerful, its kings long-lived, and even its queen, the wife of Offa, was powerful enough to have her own coinage issued showing her image. She is the only Saxon queen to have achieved this.

And yet, despite a great victory for King Coelwulf over the Welsh of Powys in the early 820s, he was quickly deposed, and another took his place, King Beornwulf. Beornwulf’s ancestry is unknown. We don’t know why he was suddenly acceptable to the Mercian witan. We don’t know why King Coelwulf suddenly wasn’t, but it is believed that Coelwulf outlasted the coup that removed him from power, although he didn’t remain as king. But Beornwulf was not a successful king, and the 820s issued in a period of such instability that King Ecgberht of Wessex (long returned from the Continent) was briefly able to claim the kingship of Mercia for himself from 827 for two years, the kingdom of Kent was lost to the Mercian kingship and not one, but two kings died fighting the resurgent kingdom of the East Angles, desperate to cast off the yoke of Mercian overlordship.

This, then, is a fascinating period, and what adds to the intrigue is the distinct lack of information, and more, what information we do have is either tinged with a Northumbrian or a Wessex bias. Mercia is written about by a Northumbria notably in decline, and a Wessex notably on the rise. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (our Northumbrian source) was written in the 730s, while the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a predominately Wessex project) began no later than 890 and no earlier than the start of King Alfred’s reign in 871. Bede did accept that King Æthelbald was the overlord of Southumbria, which shows that his domination was accepted at the time (Southumbria is a name given to the area South of the Humber, just as Northumbria applied to that North of the Humber).

But other than that, this entire period falls outside the scope of either of these accounts of Saxon England, and Mercia has no native source of its own. There are some tantalising glimpses in the letters written by Alcuin in the 790s, but again, this is nearing the end of the period of domination. If we only knew more, then it might be possible to disentangle the events and make some sense of them rather than just being able to state the facts, which are still much debated.

Throughout the 820s, Mercia experienced a rapid succession of kings. Coenwulf died in 821. His brother succeeded him to 823 or perhaps 825. He, in turn, was succeeded by King Beornwulf, who not only faced King Ecgberht of Wessex at Ellendun, somewhere in Wessex, and lost the kingdom of Kent in the process but was also killed, we are told, in a battle against the king of the East Angles.

In turn, King Beornwulf, was succeeded by King Ludica, who was to follow the fate of King Beornwulf in dying in battle against the kingdom of the East Angles and then King Wiglaf emerges as the next king. And under Wiglaf’s kingship, King Ecgberht wrought his ultimate revenge when he had himself declared king of Mercia, perhaps in final retribution for his exile on the Continent. King Wiglaf’s kingship was reasserted, although it has been argued that Wiglaf was restored only with King Ecgberht’s permission.

So, not one but two kings were deposed, not one but two kings were killed in battle, and only King Wiglaf, an obscure person who isn’t found in the surviving charter evidence before his kingship, emerges as a king, but a king who had to reclaim his kingship from King Ecgberht of Wessex after only two years.

As far as is known, and so little is known that this might be proved incorrect in time, none of these kings were related to one another, or to the king who ruled before them. Equally, the existence of some of these kings can only be inferred from scant sources. Ludica’s name is confirmed by coinage but only from ten coins, and he’s mentioned by name only once in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, when recording his death.

What, then, was happening? It’s easy to see the kingdom as experiencing a short and very sharp decline. What’s more difficult to determine is why that happened. Why was Coelwulf deposed? Why could King Wiglaf claim the kingship of Mercia? A tantalising document from the religious Council of Clofesho in 825 states, “much discord and innumerable disagreements arose between various kings, nobles, bishops and ministers of the church of God on very many matters of secular business.” This speaks to a time of civil war, perhaps even civil unrest, in the once mighty kingdom of Mercia. As Dr J Story has commented, “dynastic rivalry served to undermine Mercian authority over the rest of Anglo-Saxon England.”

And yet, there was some continuity in the governorship of Mercia. This is perhaps overlooked, as often happens with many of the ealdormen who aren’t as well known as the kings. But, there are charters surviving from this period, admittedly not many of them. These documents, which might not survive in their original form, often contain witness lists, and these witness lists are a ‘who’s who’ of Mercia in the 820s, listing the names of ealdormen, bishops and others. And two ealdormen, named Sigered and Mucel, appear to have survived the crisis of the 820s, and it must be assumed, retained their positions, witnessing charters under several different Mercian kings. While, sadly, we don’t know precisely where these ealdormen held power in Mercia, their survival is telling, as is the fact that many of those other named individuals didn’t survive more than one or two of these rapid reigns. Continuity can also be found among the bishops, Æthelwold, bishop of Lichfield, Ræthhun of Leicester and Heahberht of Worcester, all held their positions throughout this period.

It would be tempting to suggest that Sigered and Mucel were perhaps members of a party that ‘went with the flow’ doing whatever was necessary to retain their control. Equally, it might be possible that they rose and fell with certain kings? Did they back certain individuals, or did they merely stay neutral? Perhaps, we should see some sort of Romanesque political intrigue here. Maybe we shouldn’t. However, this background to Mercia, a once mighty kingdom to one that had fallen to bickering and in-fighting, is only part of the story, for the Viking Raiders were coming. Their arrival at Lindisfarne might be well known and dated to 793, but the real Viking Age of England was just beginning, and Mercia was not in a strong position to withstand these attacks.

MJ Porter is the author of the Eagle of Mercia Chronicles.