Offa: The Quality of Mercia

After the revelations over the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard a few years ago, which has led to a re-evaluation of Anglo Saxon culture, we welcomed as our July speaker Richard Stone, who gave us a fascinating talk on the Anglo Saxons and the Kingdom of Mercia.

The Roman evacuation of Britain was well underway by the end of the fourth century and it is thought that by about 450, Britons watched the last Roman soldiers and supporters sail from these shores, leaving a conglomeration of warring tribes. At this date, it is thought that there was no concerted invasion across the North Sea by Angles (from north Germany), Jutes (from Jutland) and Saxons (from north Germany and the Netherlands). Rather, the arrival first of mercenaries to support tribal fighting, but then a slow accumulation of incoming settlers, seeking new lands to settle. Collectively, we know them as Anglo Saxons. By 650, they had effectively supplanted the indigenous Britons, who were either driven westwards into south west Britain and Wales, or incorporated into the fabric of society, probably by marriage.

Most of what we now know as England was dominated by six Anglo Saxon Kingdoms, of which Mercia was the largest, extending to the Humber Estuary in the north, the borders of East Anglia and Wales and into the South Midlands. In the early part of the eighth century, Mercia was ruled wisely for about forty years by Aethebald. Sadly, despite this long period of settled rule, he was murdered by his bodyguard at nearby Seckington and was buried in Repton. The crypt of the existing church, built on the site of an earlier one, is reputed to be his last burial place. A period of turmoil ensued, but in 757 Offa assumed the throne. His rule became a golden age for Mercia. He expanded his kingdom to assume overlordship of the kings of Northumbria, Kent and Sussex and pushed back Welsh raiding parties, creating a secure border which we know today as Offa's Dyke. There is some doubt as to whether Offa was the dyke's original builder. Evidence suggests that the was some form of ditch on parts of the route prior to Offa's work. Nevertheless, this 177 mile feature is remarkable. The scale of the works implies that Offa had resources in terms of money and men which he could command to undertake the work. Analysis shows that it was almost certainly built in sections by different groups under his overall control.

Offa married a Briton, Cynebryth, and ensured control over Wessex and Northumbria by marrying his daughters to the royal families of those kingdoms. By 774, his control, either directly or indirectly, over much of England gave him the title of "King of the English". In effect, he was our first national monarch. To hold this kingdom together when communications were so primitive required local support. This he ensured by creating his own "civil service" of local administrators, as well as ensuring loyalty and support from religious foundations, some of which he established himself. St Alban's Abbey is a notable example. He would also spend considerable time travelling his kingdom, showing himself, holding courts and dispensing justice. For this he needed a series of strategically placed palaces. He also needed money. This was raised through a taxation system known as tribal hidage. Or, at least, that is what eminent scholars think. It was a form of tribute collected by Offa from the thirty-five Anglo-Saxon tribes that constituted his wider Kingdom. The collection of tribute in the form of money required a sound currency, and Offa duly ensured that his currency was soundly based, introducing a new silver penny and consolidating the denominations in a form which lasted until 1971. There were twelve pennies to one shilling and 240 pennies in a pound.

As befits a monarch with an extensive kingdom he was in contact with other monarchs in wider Europe, most notably Charlemagne. Their relationship is revealed in some interesting exchanges of letters.

Offa died of battle wounds on 26th July 796. We do not know where he was laid to rest. Tamworth, his capital, or perhaps Repton, where the revered Aethelbald was interred, have been suggested, as has Bedford Priory (now occupied by a more recent parish church). His son, Egfrith, succeeded him, but failed to hold this large kingdom together. Soon parts broke away and Britain again became a series of smaller, fragmented, kingdoms until 1066.

Richard's talk shed much light on what has been a long lost and perhaps misunderstood era for many of us. As research continues this era is slowing giving up its secrets and it is becoming clear that the 500 or so years of Anglo Saxon rule was a progressive era.

Roger Hockney
July 2019