King Penda

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King Penda of Mercia: 606-655

‘wily and fascinating…’

a most warlike man of the royal race of the Mercians


Figure 1 Gernot Keller (Own work)- 2008-05-17-SuttonHoo.jpg – cropped & slightly brightened. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license



Mercian Background

No-one had heard of Mercia before Penda. (10) OR The kingdom of Mercia began c. 585 under Crida, who benefited from the battle of Fethanleag (Bicester) in 584. (Z) Creoda/Crida was succeeded by Wibba/Pipba/Pypba (Z) OR Pybba (5,6) 593-597. (Z) Somewhere between 594 and 603 King Pybba of Mercia conquered the West Midlands (SL56) Fethanleag is described as a battle between Britons and West Saxons: it was a draw, which allowed the Mercians to expand into the vacuum. (Z) While our understanding of Penda’s reign is quite unclear, and even the very notable and decisive battles he fought are surrounded by historical confusion, for the first time a general outline of important events regarding the Mercians becomes realistically possible. (13)

Rise to Power

Penda was (5,6) a noble of the royal house of Mercia, (8) the son of Pybba (5,6) of the Iclingas Dynasty. (6) Mercia was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in what is today the English Midlands (3,4) to the south west of Deira, surrounding the river Trent. (11) The capital of Mercia was Tamworth, which is located in present-day Staffordshire. (11) Penda’s origins are rather murky. (11)

Name Penda

The name, Penda, could be of British (Welsh) origin, which might help to explain the various alliances this pagan Saxon king had with some the Christian kings of Wales. (11) Conversely, the name might also have Germanic origins. (11) The etymology of the name Penda is unknown. (11,13) Penda of Mercia is the only monarch with this name, but a number of Mercian commoners with the same name are on record. (13) Suggestions for etymologies of the name are essentially divided between a Celtic and a Germanic origin. (13) The names of members of a Northumbrian [spiritual] brotherhood are recorded in the ninth century Liber vitae Dunelmensis, the name Penda occurs in this list and is categorised as a British (Welsh) name. (13) John T. Koch noted that, “Penda and a number of other royal names from early Anglian Mercia have more obvious Brythonic than German explanations, though they do not correspond to known Welsh names.” (13) These royal names include those of Penda’s father Pybba, and of his son Peada. (13) Continental Germanic comparanda for the name include a feminine Penta (9th century) and a toponym Penti-lingen, suggesting an underlying personal name Pendi. (13)


We do know that he was the son of Pybba, (11,12) possibly one of twelve sons, but some of the names listed as sons of Pybba could have been added to his line after the fact by other kings purporting to be descended of Pybba as well. (11) Pybba was an Iclingas, from the House of Icel, (11,13) a legendary (or perhaps semi-legendary) figure from the time when the Anglo-Saxons were first migrating to Britain after the Roman legions left. (11) And Icel’s lineage went right back to Woden, (11,13) one of the Saxon gods. (11) Penda realigned the Mercian throne with the original Icel dynasty. (5) Having Woden in your lineage was an important thing for the Saxon kings. (11) So if your own family history couldn’t be traced that far back, it would be in your advantage to claim that you were related somehow to someone who certainly could, and in that way gain legitimacy for your kingship. (11) And after a few generations had passed, who was going to dispute the claim? (11) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives his descent as follows: Penda was Pybba’s offspring, Pybba was Cryda’s offspring, Cryda Cynewald’s offspring, Cynewald Cnebba’s offspring, Cnebba Icel’s offspring, Icel Eomer’s offspring, Eomer Angeltheow’s offspring, Angeltheow Offa’s offspring, Offa Wermund’s offspring, Wermund Wihtlæg’s offspring, Wihtlæg Woden’s offspring. (13) Penda, being a legitimate son of Pybba, definitely had the credentials, then, to be king, but interestingly enough there is some doubt about how and when he actually gained the throne. (11) The Historia Brittonum says that Pybba had 12 sons, including Penda, but that Penda and Eowa of Mercia were those best known to its author. (13) (Many of these 12 sons of Pybba may in fact merely represent later attempts to claim descent from him. (13) ) Besides Eowa, the pedigrees also give Penda a brother named Coenwalh from whom two later kings were said to descend, although this may instead represent his brother-in-law Cenwalh of Wessex. (13)

Circumstances of Penda’s accession to power

See Appendix 1

As King

In his Historia Brittonum, Nennius writes that Penda quickly declared Mercia’s independence from a Northumbrian overlordship. (10) There is no doubt he was a powerful king. (11) Once crowned he managed to hold onto his throne for twenty-two years (if you agree with Bede), and that is a long time by the standards of the day. (11) Throughout his reign he did what successful Saxon1 kings did best: made war on his neighbours in order to expand his kingdom and have more tribute to distribute to his loyal retainers. (11)

Alliance with Wessex

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for that year says that Cyngils, king of Wessex, and Cwichelm his son (8) (Cynegils and Cwichelm were the joint kings of Wessex (10)) ‘fought with Penda at Cirencester and came to an agreement with him there’. (8) This was a defensive pact against the growing power of Northumbria; (10) and it was sealed by the marriages (8,10) of Penda’s sister to Cynegils’ younger son, Cenwalh; (10) However, when Cwichhelm went on the offensive, by trying to assassinate Edwin of Deira, Penda may have felt it best to annul the allianCE. (10) The Wessex armies were subsequently crushed by the vengeful Northumbrians. (10)

Battle of Cirencester 628

After Cwichhelm’s defeat, Penda seized the advantage and invaded the kingdom of his one-time allies. (10) OR He first appears in history (2) in the 7th-century (3) when he won (2,6) the Battle of Cirencester (3,4) (in present-day Gloucestershire) (4) in 628, (3,4) Penda defeated (4,5) Wessex (5,8) OR the HwicCE. (4) It’s likely Penda got control of the territory of the Hwicce at this time (8,10) in the Severn Valley (3,5) OR Cirencester. (8) OR roughly Gloucestershire. (10) This area had nominally belonged to Wessex since AD 577. (10) The Hwicce were West Saxons (4) OR largely British. (10) This took place before he was king. (2) OR 2 years AFTER he became king (6)

Alliance with Gwynedd

And so began King Penda’s infamous career of aggressive warfare on all frontiers. (10) Tradition says that, around two years later, (c. 630) Penda had turned his attention to the Dumnonians of South-Western Britain, and it was at the Siege of Exeter that he encountered (10) King (4,7) Cadwallon (1,2) ap Cadfan (8) of Gwynedd (4,7) (in northern Wales) (4) Cadwallon had returned from a brief exile in Brittany, after being expelled by his sworn enemy, King Edwin of Northumbria. (10) Penda raised the siege and the two parties then entered into peace negotiations which led to (10) a great (1,2) crafty and unlikely (12) alliance between Mercia and Gwynedd. (1,2) It has been suggested that the firm alliance between Penda and various British princes might be the result of a “racial cause.” (13) Penda controlled much of Britain from 630 CE until 655 CE. (7)

The Invasion of Northumbria

The twin-army regained Gwynedd at the Battle of the Long Mynd. (10) He then allied with (1,2) Cynfeddw, prince of Gwent, (7) who, like Cadwallon, was no friend of the Northumbrians. (7,8) Penda and Cadwallon invaded Northumbria (4,8) in 632. (4) OR 633. (8) Together the Mercians and the Welsh ransacked the North over a period of three years of campaigning, 630-33, (10) but Bede makes no mention of Penda’s presence in the preceding siege and battle (13) in 632 (Wik) in which Osric of Deira was defeated and killed. (13) The reputation of Cadwallon, himself a Christian, suffered by association with Penda: in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, written in the early eighth century, Bede of Jarrow describes him as ‘a barbarian more savage than any pagan’ with ‘no respect for the newly established religion of Christ’. (12) Bede’s invective was not tempered by the fact that Cadwallon was a Celt. (12)

The Battle of Hatfield Chase 633

This campaign against (1,2) the powerful Northumbrian king (3,5) Edwin, (1,2) ended in victory (2,3) for their combined armies (8,10) at Hatfield Chase, (2,3) in 633. (1,3) Edwin was killed, (4,8) and the kingdom of Northumbria collapsed. (5,10) Cadwallon2 remained in Northumbria (8,10) for a year (8) OR almost a year (10) destroying everything he could, (8,10) although it is not clear what part the Mercian army played in the carnage. (10,13) Bede speaks of ‘the pagans who had slain Edwin’ — this may well be a reference to the Mercians under Penda, although conceivably it could be an insulting reference to the Cadwallon’s pre-Whitby Christian British. (13) He says that they burned a church and town at Campodonum, although the time at which this occurred is uncertain. (13) One of Edwin’s sons, Eadfrith, fell into Penda’s hands. (8,13) Penda left and returned to Mercia. (8) He took Eadfrith with him as a prisoner, perhaps to set up as a puppet ruler in Northumbria under Penda. (8) After the battle Penda became (2,4) Anglo-Saxon (3,4) king of Mercia. (1,2) Referring to Penda’s successes against the West Saxons and the Northumbrians, D. P. Kirby writes of Penda’s emergence in these years as “a Mercian leader whose military exploits far transcended those of his obscure predecessors.” (13) This is what Bede says, and most historians prefer Bede’s dates. (11,13) OR he had been king since 626. (8) OR In 633 he was forced to recognize Northumbrian overlordship. (4) OR was the central figure in English history (7,8) from 632 (8) OR 630 (7) until his death. (7,8)

Battle of Heavenfield, 633/4

Nominal Northumbrian monarchs came and went (10) until King Oswald of Northumbria finally crushed the Welsh at the Battle of Heavenfield, (8,10) near Hexham, in 633. (Wik) OR c.634. (8) Cadwallon, Penda’s ally, was defeated and killed. (8,10) Penda might have withdrawn from the war at some point before that, (13) since he was not present at this battle. (10,13) Penda’s successful participation in the battle of Hatfield Chase would have elevated his status among the Mercians and so enabled him to become king, and he might have withdrawn from the war before Heavenfield to secure or consolidate his position in Mercia. (13)

Penda & Northumbria after Heavenfield

Oswald of Bernicia became king of Northumbria after his victory over Cadwallon at Heavenfield. (13) Northumbria re-united. (5) Penda’s status and activities during the years of Oswald’s reign are obscure, and various interpretations of Penda’s position during this period have been suggested. (13) It has been presumed that Penda acknowledged Oswald’s authority in some sense after Heavenfield, although Penda was probably an obstacle to Northumbrian supremacy south of the Humber. (13)

Penda and Eowa

Penda’s brother Eowa (8,13) was also said by the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae to have been (13) a king of the Mercians at the time of Maserfield. (8,13) The question of what sort of relationship of power existed between the brothers before the battle is a matter of speculation. (13) Eowa may have simply been a sub-king under Penda and it is also possible that Penda and Eowa ruled jointly during the 630s and early 640s: joint kingships were not uncommon among Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the period. (13) They may have ruled the southern and northern Mercians respectively. (13) Possibly he ruled northern Mercia while Penda ruled in the south. (8,13) As King of Mercia Penda had had close ties to the HwicCE. (8,12) That Penda ruled the southern part is a possibility suggested by his early involvement in the area of the Hwicce, to the south of Mercia, as well as by the fact that, after Penda’s death, his son Peada was allowed to rule southern Mercia while the northern part was placed under direct Northumbrian control. (13) Another possibility was suggested by Brooks: Penda might have lost power at some point after Heavenfield, and Eowa may have actually been ruling the Mercians for at least some of the period as a subject ally or puppet of Oswald. (13) Brooks cited Bede’s statement implying that Penda’s fortunes were mixed during his 22 years in power and noted the possibility that Penda’s fortunes were low at this time. (13) Thus it may be that Penda was not consistently the dominant figure in Mercia during the years between Hatfield and Maserfield. (13) About 635 Penda’s brother Eowa became a king in Mercia along with Penda. (8) Mercia was peaceful from 635-642 (10) OR Penda quickly became a force to be reckoned with (11) OR Penda did not recover his independence until Maserfield in 641. (4) It has been suggested that Penda’s strength during Oswald’s reign could be exaggerated by the historical awareness of his later successes. (13) Kirby says that, while Oswald was as powerful as Edwin had been, “he faced a more entrenched challenge in midland and eastern England from Penda”. (13)

Murder of Eadfrith

At some point during Oswald’s reign, Penda had Edwin’s son Eadfrith killed, (8,13) “contrary to his oath”. (13) The possibility that his killing was the result of pressure from Oswald—Eadfrith being a dynastic rival of Oswald—has been suggested. (13) Since the potential existed for Eadfrith to be put to use in Mercia’s favour in Northumbrian power struggles while he was alive, it would not have been to Penda’s advantage to have him killed. (13) On the other hand, Penda might have killed Eadfrith for his own reasons. (13) It has been suggested that Penda was concerned that Eadfrith could be a threat to him because Eadfrith might seek vengeance for the deaths of his father and brother; it is also possible that Mercian dynastic rivalry played a part in the killing, since Eadfrith was a grandson of Penda’s predecessor Cearl. (13) Presuming that this battle took place before the Battle of Maserfield, it may have been that such an expression of Penda’s ambition and emerging power made Oswald feel that Penda had to be defeated for Northumbrian dominance of southern England to be secured or consolidated. (13)

Penda and the East Angles

Penda, meantime, was looking to his eastern borders where the old Mercian homeland had come under the rule of East Anglia. (10) Determined to build on his triumphant Welsh alliance, the Mercian monarch invaded Middle Anglia in AD 635. (10) He repeatedly (3,8) defeated the East Anglians. (1,3) He killed the current East Anglian king, called Egric in battle: (8,10) the time at which the battle occurred is uncertain; it may have been as early as 635, but there is also evidence to suggest it could not have been before 640 or 641. (13) He also killed the former (13) King Siegbert OR Sigebert (8,10) OR Siebert. (7) Sigebert (8,10) had converted to Christianity and spent much of his time as king of East Anglia spreading Christianity by setting up monasteries around the kingdom. (7) He had then retired to a monastery. (7) Sometime after 633 (7,8) in 635, (7) Sigebert (8,10) who had (7,13) come (7) OR been brought against his will (13) out of retirement in a monastery (7,13) in the belief that his presence would motivate the soldiers, (13) marched into battle against Penda, armed only with his faith and his staff. (7) He was promptly (7) slaughtered (7,8) on the spot, along with his retinue, and later venerated as a martyr. (7) He set up a vassal king in East Anglia. (8)

War with Northumbria again: Maserfield 641

The storm clouds gathered once more (10) though the events that led to the battle are not recorded. (8,10) If the traditional identification of the battle’s location with Oswestry is correct, then this would indicate that it was Oswald who had taken the offensive against Penda. (13) Mercia (10,11) OR a hostile alliance of Penda and Powys (13) was clearly viewed as a major threat. (10,11) His burgeoning power may have prompted (11) Edwin’s (1,3) eventual (3,10) successor (1,3) Oswald of Northumbria (1,2) to take him out. (11) Oswald marched his warriors deep into the midlands. (10) The armies of Oswald and Penda (8,10) met at Maserfelth (2,8) OR Maserfield, (1,3) now Oswestry (8,10) in Shropshire, (8) in 641, (2,4) OR On 5th August (13) 642. (1,13) It may be that Penda had withdrawn here to the western regions of his kingdom in order to allow himself time to rendezvous with his allies from across the border in Wales. (10) Fortunately, Penda had powerful friends. (10) Kings Cadafael Cadomedd of Gwynedd, Eluan of Powys and (10) perhaps (13) Cynddylan of Pengwern all joined the fray. (10,13) Surviving Welsh poetry suggests that Penda fought in alliance with the men of Powys—apparently he was consistently allied with some of the Welsh—perhaps including Cynddylan ap Cyndrwyn, of whom it was said that “when the son of Pyb desired, how ready he was”, presumably meaning that he was an ally of Penda, the son of Pybba. (13) Penda defeated the Northumbrians at the Battle of Maserfield3, which was fought near the lands of the Welsh, (1,13) and Oswald was killed. (1,2) Penda’s brother, Prince Eowa (10,13) (perhaps a sub-King in Wrocenset) (10) was also killed in the fighting4. (10,13) According to Bede, Penda had Oswald’s body dismembered. (13) in an odd way, (7,11) adding insult to injury. (11) It was cut up (11) and his hands, (7,11) forearms (7) OR arms (11) and head were attached to (7,11) OR impaled on (11) stakes (7,13) OR spears. (11) This may have had a pagan religious significanCE. (13) Oswald thereafter came to be revered as a saint, with his death in battle as a Christian king against pagans leading him to be regarded as a martyr. (13)

Mercian apogee

The Battle of Maserfield in 641 (2,3) was Penda’s most prestigious victory, nine years after his success at Hatfield Chase. (5) It established Penda as the most powerful (2,3) king in England. (8) OR of the (2,3) southern English (2) OR Anglo-Saxon (3) kings. (2,3) with a degree of power unprecedented for a Mercian king—Kirby called him “without question the most powerful Mercian ruler so far to have emerged in the midlands” (13) The prestige and status associated with defeating the powerful Oswald must have been very significant. (13) Mercia thus enjoyed a greatly enhanced position of strength relative to the surrounding kingdoms. (13) Penda was one the central figures of English history of his time. (2,5) It changed Mercia (3,4) from a second-rate kingdom to the most powerful (5) OR one of the most powerful kingdoms in England (3,4) laying the foundations for the Mercian supremacy over the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy, (3) although he never became Bretwalda (Overking). (2,8) OR He was Bretwalda, but Bede unfairly hid this. (7) Penda rose by way of a very sharp and bloody sword and a great deal of statesmanship. (7) During the years that followed, Penda continued fighting. (5,7) Penda’s victory encouraged him, the following year, to seize control of both Elmet and Lindsey while Northumbria was still consolidating under a new monarch. (10) He attacked both Wessex and East Anglia to secure even more lands for Mercia, (5) area corresponding to modern Cheshire, Shropshire, and Hereford and Worcester. (4) His kingdom stretched from the British Midlands, (4,7) down into the counties of Sussex, Surrey, Kent, (7) and even the Isle of Wight. (7,8) He set up client, or puppet, kingdoms as buffers from the south. (7) He waged war against the East Angles and Bernicia (1,3) OR the Bernicians of Northumbria. (3)

Penda and Wessex under Cenwalh, 643-5

In 641, Maserfield must have weakened Northumbrian influence over the West Saxons. (13) In 643 (8) the new West Saxon king, Cenwealh (13) OR Cenwalh (8,10) succeeded Cynegils as (8) king of Wessex. (3,4) He married Penda’s sister. (8,10) It may be surmised that this meant he was to some extent within what Kirby called a “Mercian orbit”. (13) In 645 (8) Cenwalh (8,10) was still pagan at this time (13) repudiated her (set her aside) in favour of another wife, so Penda invaded Wessex (8,10) in AD 645. (10) Penda drove Cenwalh into exile (3,4) to the sanctuary of East Anglia (10,13) under the protection of its King Anna (8,10) for three years, (3,4) (645–648). (4,8) Who governed the West Saxons during the years of Cenwealh’s exile is unknown. (13) OR Wulfhere, the son of Penda, took a great deal of territory away from Wessex while Cenwalh was in exile, and gave the Isle of Wight to Aethelwalh, King of Sussex. (8) Kirby considered it reasonable to conclude that whoever ruled was subject to Penda. (13)

Penda and Anna 648-55

Cenwalh returned to Wessex in 648 (8) OR may not have been able to return to his kingdom until after Penda’s death. (13) In AD 650 (10) Penda took revenge on Anna of East Anglia for (8,10) interfering in his expansionist policies by (10) helping Cenwalh. (8,10), His armies marched eastward. (10) Anna fled to outer Powys, but Penda followed him, ousted the British from Caer-Magna (Kenchester) and settled the area as Magonset, with his son Merewalh installed as its first king. (10) Penda must have been intimate with many Britons and may have been bilingual himself. (13) In c.653 (8) OR 654 (13) he invaded East Anglia (10) and killed its King, Anna, (8,10) who had harboured the exiled Cenwealh. (13) Anna was succeeded by a brother, Æthelhere (10,13) who found it prudent to submit to Mercian overlordship, (10) indeed may be that Penda installed Æthelhere in power, since Æthelhere was subsequently a participant in Penda’s doomed invasion of Bernicia in 655. (13) It has been suggested that Penda’s wars against the East Angles “should be seen in the light of interfactional struggles within East Anglia. (13) It may also be that Penda (13) felt so secure that (10) he made war against the East Angles with the intention of securing Mercian dominance over the area of Middle Anglia. (13) He established another of his sons, Peada, as King of Middle Anglia. (4,10)

Invasion of Northumbria 652

The Northumbrians had lost Oswald, (13) and Northumbria was greatly weakened as a consequence of the battle of Maserfield. (13) The kingdom became fractured to some degree between Deira in its southern part and Bernicia in the north, (11,13) with the Deirans acquiring a king of their own, Oswine, (13) while in Bernicia, Oswald was succeeded by his brother (11,13) Oswy (9,10) OR Oswiu. (11) But although the, their powerful king, they were not out of the picture by any means. (11) Oswy had to start the work of trying to gain the thegns and aethelings trust and respect in order for him to reach the same heights of power his brother had achieved. (11) He had a hard time establishing his authority throughout Northumbria and, with an aggressive Mercia on his southern border, he tried to placate Penda by establishing (10) a marriage alliance between his eldest son, (9,10) Alcfrith OR Alfrith (9) of Deira and the King of Mercia’s daughter, Cuneburga. (10) The prize of overlordship of all of Mercia and Northumbria was an irresistible one for Penda and Oswy/Oswiu both, and, (11) in spite of the marriage, (10) these two kings tangled frequently over the next decade. (11,13) Before the death of Bishop Aidan (31st August 651) (13) Penda invaded Northumbria (10,13) and destructively waged war against Oswy of Bernicia on his own territory. (10,13) In AD 652 (10) Penda besieged Oswy in the far north of his kingdom (10,11) in the royal Bernician stronghold of (13) Bamburgh. (10,11) When the Mercians were unable to capture it—”not being able to enter it by force, or by a long siege”—Bede reports that they attempted to set the city ablaze, but that it was saved by a sacred wind supposedly sent in response to a plea from the saintly Aidan: “Behold, Lord, how great mischief Penda does!” (13) The wind is said to have blown the fire back towards the Mercians, deterring them from further attempts to capture the city. (13) At another point, some years after Aidan’s death, Bede records another attack. (13) He says that Penda led an army in devastating the area where Aidan died—he “destroyed all he could with fire and sword”—but that when the Mercians burned down the church where Aidan died, the post against which he was leaning at the time of his death was undamaged; this was taken to be a miracle. (13) No open battles are recorded as being fought between the two sides before the Winwaed in 655, however, and this may mean that Oswy deliberately avoided battle due to a feeling of weakness relative to Penda. (13) This feeling may have been in religious as well as military terms: N.J.Higham wrote of Penda acquiring “a pre-eminent reputation as a god-protected, warrior–king”, whose victories may have led to a belief that his pagan gods were more effective for protection in war than the Christian God. (13) Despite these apparent instances of warfare, relations between Penda and Oswy were probably not entirely hostile during this period, since Penda’s daughter Cyneburh married Ahlfrith, Oswy’s son, and Penda’s son Peada married Alhflaed, Oswy’s daughter. (13)


Penda was the last great pagan warrior-king among the Anglo-Saxons. (11,13) He was (1,3) the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings to reject Christianity (5) for Paganism, (1,3) at a time when Christianity was taking hold in many of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. (3) It has been asserted that Penda’s court would have been cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and tolerant. (13) Though a pagan himself, there is evidence that the contemporary Mercian elite contained significant Christian and British elements. (13) We know that Penda was a devotee of Wod. (7) Celt-Germanic tribes of Britain believed in a pantheon of gods, goddesses and tutelary spirits. (7) Wod was chief among the gods and Nerthus, was a revered earth goddess. (7) The Matronae, or The Mothers, were also vitally important. (7) Sacrifice, offerings, and feasts were part of early Celtic-Germanic religions. (7) Penda famously executed his regal victims in ways that could be viewed as sacrificial. (7) One such case is Oswald of Northumbria. (7) He was killed in battle by Penda. (7) The mostly likely reason for the mutilation described above5 was the insulting message (7,11) of “look what I did to your so called king. Bow down to me unless you want to suffer the same fate.” (7) But there’s some research that suggests this might have had a religious significance too, (7,11) as a sacrificial offering to the pagan Saxon gods. (11) The pagan Penda might have been re-establishing the world tree, or axis mundi, as a signal to the converted Christian kings and local rulers, that the pagans were back and their gods were a bit more active than Jesus and Jehovah. (7) Eventually one of Oswald’s arms and his head managed to get back to Bernicia, where they became powerful relics of the Church, but that is another story! (11) It is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration to say that when he died, the pagan Saxon religion died with him, but certainly by the time of his death Christianity was well-established in the island and the writing was certainly on the wall. (11) Higham wrote that “his destruction sounded the death-knell of English paganism as a political ideology and public religion”. (13) After Penda’s death, the Mercians were converted to Christianity, and all three of Penda’s reigning sons ruled as Christians. (13) His daughters Cyneburh and Cyneswith became Christian and were saintly figures who according to some accounts retained their virginity through their marriages. (13) There was purportedly even an infant grandson of Penda named Rumwold who lived a saintly three-day life of fervent preaching. (13)

Middle Anglia and Penda’s ‘tolerance’

Bede wrote that Penda tolerated the preaching of Christianity in Mercia itself, despite his own beliefs: “Nor did King Penda obstruct the preaching of the word among his people, the Mercians, if any were willing to hear it; but, on the contrary, he hated and despised those whom he perceived not to perform the works of faith, when they had once received the faith, saying, ‘They were contemptible and wretched who did not obey their God, in whom they believed.’” (13) This was begun two years before the death of King Penda. (13) Peada’s conversion and the introduction of priests into Middle Anglia could be seen as evidence of Penda’s tolerance of Christianity, given the absence of evidence that he sought to interfere. (13) On the other hand, an interpretation is also possible whereby the marriage and conversion could be seen as corresponding to a successful attempt on Oswy’s part to expand Bernician influence at Penda’s expense; Higham saw Peada’s conversion more in terms of political manoeuvring on both sides than religious zeal. (13) Middle Anglia as a political entity may have been created by Penda as an expression of Mercian power in the area following his victories over the East Angles. (13) Previously there seem to have been a number of small peoples inhabiting the region, and Penda’s establishment of Peada as a subking there may have marked their initial union under one ruler. (13)


The districts corresponding to Shropshire and Herefordshire, along Mercia’s western frontier near Wales, probably also fell under Mercian domination at this time. (13) Here a king called Merewalh ruled over the Magonsaete; in later centuries it was said that Merewalh was a son of Penda, but this is considered uncertain. (13) Stenton, for example, considered it likely that Merewalh was a representative of a local dynasty that continued to rule under Mercian domination. (13) Mixed Anglian and Saxon tribes that would become known as the Hwicce and the Maegonsaeton. (14)

Children Christian

After the Battle of Cirencester, Penda had married Cynewise, (6,8) OR Cynwise (13) probably a sister of Cynegils. (8) Penda and Cynewise had children called (4,6) Peada, (4,6) King of Middle Anglia & Mercia; (4,10) Peada married Alhflaed, Oswy’s daughter, in 653, conditional upon the baptism and conversion to Christianity of Peada; Peada accepted this, and the preaching of Christianity began among the Middle Angles, whom he ruled. (13) Wulfhere, (6,8) eventual King of Mercia (10) Æthelred, (6,9) eventual King of Mercia (10) Merewalh, (6,10) King of Magonset, (10) Cyneburh (6,9) OR St. Cuneburga (10) who married Alfrith (9) OR Alcfrith (10) OR Alhfrith (13) of Deira (10) son of Oswy of Northumbria, (9,13) Cyneswith, (6) OR St. Cuneswith, (10) St. Cunethrith of Castor, (10) Wilburh (9) OR Wilburga (10) who married Fruithwold (9) OR Frithuwold (10) King of Surrey, (9,10) Saint Eadgyth of Aylesbury (9) OR St. Edith of Aylesbury (10) and Saint Eadburh of Adderbury. (9) OR St. Edburga of Bicester; wife of the King of Surrey. (10) Later in life, Penda eased up a bit on his paganism. (7) His children (7,9) were married to Christian rulers and/(7,9) or converted themselves (7) OR became Christian. (9); He, however, never did. (7,8) He allowed Peada to introduce Christianity into Middle Anglia. (4), including rulers such as Cadafael ap Cynfeddw of Gwynedd and Æthelhere of East Anglia. (13) Penda also enjoyed the support of Aethelwald, the king of Deira and the successor of Oswine, who had been murdered on Oswy’s orders in 651; Bede says Aethelwald acted as Penda’s guide during his invasion. (13)

Invasion of Northumbria 655


Figure 2 Christians still celebrating Penda’s Death (Window in Worcester Cathedral)

As you might expect, the old saying of “Live by the sword, die by the sword” applies to Penda. (7) Penda treated every Northumbrian king as his enemy, especially if that king had any influence in southern England. (8) He had temporarily delayed the rise of Northumbria by his victory at Maserfield. (4) After King Oswald’s death, Northumbria had divided back into the two previous kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira. (8) Each had their own king. (8)

Casus Belli


The cause of this war is uncertain. (13) Oswy, (2,8) of Northumbria (8) had become king of Bernicia. (1,8) He was Oswald’s brother (2,8) and successor (6) and Penda had a particular contempt for him. (2,8) Although, according to Bede, Penda tolerated some Christian preaching in Mercia, it has been suggested that he perceived Bernician sponsorship of Christianity in Mercia and Middle Anglia as a form of “religious colonialism” that undermined his power, and that this may have provoked the war. (13) Elsewhere the possibility has been suggested that Penda sought to prevent Oswy from reunifying Northumbria, not wanting Oswy to restore the kingdom to the power it had enjoyed under Edwin and Oswald. (13)

Æthelhere of East Anglia

There is a passage in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History that suggests Æthelhere of East Anglia was the cause of the war. (13) On the other hand, it has been argued that an issue of punctuation in later manuscripts confused Bede’s meaning on this point, and that he in fact meant to refer to Penda as being responsible for the war. (13)

Æthelwald of Deira

In 653 Deira came under Mercian control. (8) A perception of the conflict in terms of the political situation between Bernicia and Deira could help to explain the role of Aethelwald of Deira in the war, since Aethelwald was the son of Oswald and might not ordinarily be expected to ally with those who had killed his father. (13) Perhaps, as the son of Oswald, he sought to obtain the Bernician kingship for himself. (13)


With his expanded kingdom, Penda decided to deal with Northumbria. (10) In 654, (2,8) OR 655 (4,13) hoping to put an end to Oswy, Penda (2,8) invaded Northumbria (3,4) OR Bernicia (3,8) with a large army (2,7) of thirty (8,13) legions’, (8) OR warbands (13) including many allies (2,4) with 30 royal or noble commanders (duces regii, as Bede called them) (13) drawn from British (2) kingdoms. (2,4) With this vast Welsh and Middle Saxon army (10) they marched north and ravaged Bernicia. (10,11) According to Nennius in his Historia Brittonum, (13) Oswy fled to his most northern city of Stirling (10,13) where Penda besieged him. (13) Oswy tried to bribe Penda into withdrawal: (10,12) Bede and Nennius agree that Oswy offered treasure (12,13)an incalculable quantity of regalia and presents’ (12) which Penda distributed among his British allies, (10,13) who considered it restitution of their own property since it had been taken from the British of Gododdin in the first plaCE. (10) OR as Bede says, simply rejected it. (13) Penda “resolved to extirpate all of [Oswy’s] nation, from the highest to the lowest”. (13) Additionally, according to Bede, Oswy’s son Ecgfrith was being held hostage “at the court of Queen Cynwise, in the province of the Mercians”—perhaps surrendered by Oswy as part of some negotiations or arrangement. (13) OR Snubbed by Penda, Oswy/Oswiu made a deal with God, vowing to ‘offer his daughter to God as a consecrated virgin and give twelve estates to build monasteries’ if he achieved victory. (12)

The Battle of the Winwaed 655

It would seem that Penda’s army then moved back south, perhaps returning home, but (13) a great battle was fought near the river Winwaed (10,13) in the region of Loidis, thought to be somewhere (13) near Leeds, (2,4) OR Leads (8) (in present-day Yorkshire) (4,6) on a date given by Bede as (13) Sunday (8) 15th November 655. (3,4) OR in 654 (2) The identification of the Winwaed with a modern river is uncertain, but possibly it was a tributary of the Humber. (13) There is good reason to believe it may well have been the river now known as Cock Beck in the ancient kingdom of Elmet. (13) The Cock Beck meanders its way through Pendas Fields, close to an ancient well known as Pen Well on the outskirts of Leeds, before eventually joining the River Wharfe. (13) Another possibility is the River Went (a tributary of the River Don, situated to the north of modern-day Doncaster). (13) Penda really should have won the battle with his superior forces and the numbers on his side. (7,8) Torrential rains caused the River Winwaed (7) to rise and flood the battle field. (7,13) His huge army was bogged down and couldn’t react as quickly as Oswy/Oswiu’s smaller and more nimble forces. (7) This same Cock Beck whilst in flood also played a significant role in the much later Battle of Towton in 1461. (13) It may be that Penda’s army was attacked by Oswy at a point of strategic vulnerability, which would help explain Oswy’s victory over forces that were, according to Bede, much larger than his own. (13) The Mercian force was also weakened by desertions. (13) According to the Historia Brittonum, Cadafael of Gwynedd, “rising up in the night, escaped together with his army” (thus earning him the name Cadomedd, or “battle-shirker”), and Bede says that at the time of the battle, Aethelwald of Deira withdrew and “awaited the outcome from a place of safety”. (13) According to Kirby, if Penda’s army was marching home, it may have been for this reason that some of his allies were unwilling to fight. (13) It may also be that the allies had different purposes in the war, and Kirby suggested that Penda’s deserting allies may have been dissatisfied “with what had been achieved at Stirling”. (13) For these reasons, though apparently close to victory, (2) he was (1,2) crushingly (3) defeated at the battle of (1,2) the (2,3) Winwaed, (1,2) By (1,2) the resurgent Northumbrian army (5) led by Oswy (1,2) OR Oswin (4) OR Oswy/Oswiu (7) and killed (2,10) along with the East Anglian king Æthelhere (13) and several of his Royal allies: (10,13) Bede says that “thirty commanders, and those who had come to his assistance were put to flight, and almost all of them slain,” and that more drowned while fleeing than were killed in the actual battle. (13) Penda himself fell, still fighting at eighty years of age. (12) OR the idea that he was 80 has been widely considered implausible. (13) Henry of Huntingdon asserts that ‘the earth was watered with his blood, and the ground sprinkled with his brains’. (12) For a pagan warrior, it was an appropriate and honourable end, with overtones detectable in Henry’s account. (12) Bede also says that Penda’s head was cut off; a connection between this and the treatment of Oswald’s body at Maserfield is possible. (13) Writing in the 12th century, (13) Henry of Huntingdon emphasised the sacrificial idea that Penda was suffering the same fate as he had inflicted on others. (13)



The Battle of the Winwaed established Oswy as king of all Northumbria and as overlord of all the English south of the River Humber, (5,8) Mercian power was temporarily eclipsed, (2,13) as Oswy came to briefly dominate Mercia. (13) He broke the Mercian kingdom into two, (5) and allowed (13) Penda’s son Peada to succeed him, (8,9) in the southern portion of Mercia. (13) After the overthrow of Northumbrian control in the late 650s, (12,13) and the expulsion of Oswy/Oswiu (12) Penda’s other sons Wulfhere and Æthelred also became Kings of Mercia, (9,13) Penda’s death marked the demise of Anglo-Saxon paganism, never to be restored. (5) Bede claims at this stage that Oswy/Oswiu converted the Mercians to Christianity, but contradicts himself later by saying that the Mercians chose the new faith three years later. (12) The period of rule by Penda’s descendants came to an end with his grandson Ceolred’s death in 716, after which power passed to descendants of Eowa for most of the remainder of the 8th century. (13)


Penda was a quintessential Saxon warrior-king, who managed to carve out a stable kingdom in the chaos of 7th century Britain. (11) Penda’s reputation in this field would almost certainly have been viewed with some approval (11,12) He must have had some charisma and some leadership skills, plus his skill as a warrior, in order for him to stay on the throne that long. (11) No doubt, had he been a Christian, and his foes pagan, he would have been held up as a paragon of regal virtue, and his reign recorded as a glorious and pivotal period in English history; instead of being hated and despised as a murderer of good, Christian kings. (12) As it is, even his obvious valour and military prowess have been denied. (12) As Penda was a pagan, and his alleged victims all Christian, it comes as no surprise to find that medieval chroniclers, mostly monks or Christian nobles, viewed his reign and deeds with horror and denigrated him at every opportunity. (12) The 8th century Northumbrian monk, Bede, wrote extensively about him, painting him to be a murderous villain and refusing to acknowledge him as the bretwalda, or high king. (7) It has been claimed that the hostility of Bede has obscured Penda’s importance as ruler who wielded an imperium similar to that of other prominent 7th century ‘overkings’. (13) Bede disapproved of Penda because he was a pagan, in part because he was Mercian, the arch enemies of the Northumbrians, and in part because he was, admittedly, pretty murderous, (7) and a noted regicide. (12) Regicide was a common occurrence in the early Middle Ages. (12) It was a fairly routine way for a victorious usurper or conqueror to rid himself of a potential source of trouble. (12) In the 9th-century Historia Brittonum, Nennius describes Penda as ‘victorious through the arts of the Devil, for he was not baptised, and never believed in God’. (12) Penda’s reign is significant in that it marks an emergence from the obscurity of Mercia during the time of his predecessors, both in terms of the power of the Mercians relative to the surrounding peoples and in terms of our historical awareness of them. (13) Furthermore, Penda was certainly of great importance to the development of the Mercian kingdom; it has been said that his reign was “crucial to the consolidation and expansion of Mercia”. (13) Penda’s hegemony included lesser rulers of both Anglo-Saxon and British origins, non-Christian and Christian alike. (13) The relationships between Penda, as hegemon, and his subordinate rulers would have been based on personal as well as political ties, and they would often have been reinforced by dynastic marriages. (13) What is known about Penda is primarily derived from the history written by the Northumbrian Bede, a priest not inclined to objectively portray a pagan Mercian who engaged in fierce conflict with Christian kings, and in particular with Northumbrian rulers. (13) Indeed, Penda has been described as “the villain of Bede’s third book” (of the Historia Ecclesiastica). (13) From the perspective of the Christians who later wrote about Penda, the important theme that dominates their descriptions is the religious context of his wars—for instance, the Historia Brittonum says that Penda prevailed at Maserfield through “diabolical agency”—but Penda’s greatest importance was perhaps in his opposition to the supremacy of the Northumbrians. (13) According to Stenton, had it not been for Penda’s resistance, “a loosely compacted kingdom of England under Northumbrian rule would probably have been established by the middle of the seventh century.” (13) In summarising Penda, he wrote the following: He was himself a great fighting king of the kind most honoured in Germanic saga; the lord of many princes, and the leader of a vast retinue attracted to his service by his success and generosity. (13) Many stories must have been told about his dealings with other kings, but none of them have survived; his wars can only be described from the standpoint of his enemies …” (13)

Appendix 1 What were the circumstances of Penda’s rise to power?

At his father’s death in c.606 Penda was still an infant. (8) Another Mercian king is mentioned by Bede in the early part of the 7th century. (13) This was King Ceorl (8,10) OR Cearl, (11,13) another murky figure. (11) He ruled Mercia (8,10) at the same time as the Northumbrian king Æthelfrith, (13) following Penda’s father. (8,10) Whether Penda immediately succeeded Cearl is unknown, (13) OR Penda seized the throne (2,6) from Ceorl. (10) It is unclear whether they were related, and if so how closely. (13) OR Penda was Cearl’s cousin (8,10) Henry of Huntingdon, writing in the 12th century, claimed that (13) Cearl was a kinsman of Pybba. (8,13) It is also possible that Cearl and Penda were dynastic rivals. (11,13) There are indications Penda was an underking, probably in charge of Western Mercia. (8) This would have included the territory of the HwicCE. (8) Cearl seems to be off the scene by 626 A.D. (11) And as for what happened between 626 and 633 in Mercia in terms of who was the ruler, well, it’s unknown. (11) There is a suggestion that he could have been a co-ruler with his brother Eowa for the early part of his reign, who may or may not have been a puppet of Oswald of Northumbria (the mind boggles at all the scheming and plotting that must have occupied their days). (11) According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Penda (13) became king in 626, (8,10) OR c. 626 (6) OR c. 632 (4) OR 632 (2) OR 633, (1,13) OR The time at which Penda became king is uncertain, as are the circumstances. (13) OR Penda could have been one of multiple rulers of Mercia, each being overlord of a small portion of it. (11) OR merely a landless noble of the royal Mercian house, a mercenary of sorts, who, with his loyal war band, managed to fight his way onto the throne. (11) OR he was in about 635 joint king in Mercia along with his brother Eowa. (8) Bede says he wasn’t king till after the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 633, and that, following Edwin of Northumbria’s defeat in 633 (see below), he ruled the Mercians for 22 years with varying fortune. (13) The noted 20th-century historian Frank Stenton was of the opinion that the language used by Bede “leaves no doubt that … Penda, though descended from the royal family of the Mercians, only became their king after Edwin’s defeat”. (13)

Appendix 2 What were the dates of Penda’s Life:

When was Penda born?

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says “Penda succeeded to the kingdom [of Mercia] in 626 A.D. (11) and reigned thirty winters”. (8,11) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that was fifty at the time he became king. (11) However these dates need to be taken with a grain of salt, because that would make him in his eighties when some of his children were still quite young, so that’s not really likely. (11) We don’t know when Penda was born. (11) OR He was born in about 606. (6) It seems to me more likely that he was a younger man in 633 A.D. rather than an older one. (11) Some suggest that perhaps the Chronicle meant that he was actually fifty when he died in 655 A.D., not when he gained the throne. (11) According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Penda became king in 626, ruled for 30 years, and was 50 years old at the time of his accession. (13) That he ruled for 30 years should not be taken as an exact figure, since the same source says he died in 655, which would not correspond to the year given for the beginning of his reign unless he died in the thirtieth year of his reign. (13) Furthermore, that Penda was truly 50 years old at the beginning of his reign is generally doubted by historians, mainly because of the ages of his children. (13) The idea that Penda, at about 80 years of age, would have left behind children who were still young (his son Wulfhere was still just a youth three years after Penda’s death, according to Bede) has been widely considered implausible. (13) The possibility has been suggested that the Chronicle actually meant to say that Penda was 50 years old at the time of his death, and therefore about 20 in 626. (13)

When did he become King

Nicholas Brooks noted that, since these three accounts of the length of Penda’s reign come from three different sources, and none of them are Mercian (they are West Saxon, Northumbrian, and Welsh), they may merely reflect the times at which their respective peoples first had military involvement with Penda. (13) The Historia Brittonum accords Penda a reign of only ten years, perhaps dating it from the time of the Battle of Maserfield (see below) around 642, although according to the generally accepted chronology this would still be more than ten years. (13) Given the apparent problems with the dates given by the Chronicle and the Historia, Bede’s account of the length of Penda’s reign is generally considered the most plausible by historians. (13) The question of whether or not Penda was already king during the late 620s assumes greater significance in light of the Chronicle’s record of a battle between Penda and the West Saxons under their kings Cynegils and Cwichelm taking place at Cirencester in 628. (13) If he was not yet king, then his involvement in this conflict might indicate that he was fighting as an independent warlord during this period—as Stenton put it, “a landless noble of the Mercian royal house fighting for his own hand.” (13) On the other hand, he might have been one of multiple rulers among the Mercians at the time, ruling only a part of their territory. (13) The Chronicle says that after the battle, Penda and the West Saxons “came to an agreement.” (13) It has been speculated that this agreement marked a victory for Penda, ceding to him Cirencester and the areas along the lower River Severn. (13) These lands to the southwest of Mercia had apparently been taken by the West Saxons from the Britons in 577, and the territory eventually became part of the subkingdom of the HwicCE. (13) Given Penda’s role in the area at this time and his apparent success there, it has been argued that the subkingdom of the Hwicce was established by him; evidence to support this is lacking, although the subkingdom is known to have existed later in the century. (13) In the late 620s or early 630s, Cadwallon ap Cadfan, the British (Welsh) king of Gwynedd, became involved in a war with Edwin of Northumbria, the most powerful king in Britain at the time. (13) Cadwallon apparently was initially unsuccessful, but he joined with Penda, who is thought to have been the lesser partner in their alliance, to defeat the Northumbrians in October 633 at the Battle of Hatfield Chase. (13) Penda was probably not yet king of the Mercians, but he is thought to have become king soon afterwards, based on Bede’s characterisation of his position. (13)

Appendix 3 Eowa – A Humbrian Confederacy?

Eowa of Mercia was killed at Maserfield, although on which side he fought is unknown. (13) It may well be that he fought as a dependent ally of Oswald against Penda. (13) If Eowa was in fact dominant among the Mercians during the period leading up to the battle, then his death could have marked what the author of the Historia Brittonum regarded as the beginning of Penda’s ten-year reign. (13) Thus it may be that Penda prevailed not only over the Northumbrians but also over his rivals among the Mercians, leaving Penda in full control of the whole of it. (13) The Historia Brittonum may also be referring to this battle when it says that Penda first freed (separavit) the Mercians from the Northumbrians. (13) This may be an important clue to the relationship between the Mercians and the Northumbrians before and during Penda’s time. (13) There may have existed a “Humbrian confederacy” that included the Mercians until Penda broke free of it. (13) On the other hand, it has been considered unlikely that this was truly the first instance of their separation: it is significant that Cearl had married his daughter to Edwin during Edwin’s exile, when Edwin was an enemy of the Northumbrian king Æthelfrith. (13) It would seem that if Cearl was able to do this, he was not subject to Æthelfrith; thus it may be that any subject relationship only developed after the time of this marriage. (13)

Appendix 4: References to Stoke Lacy

Peada’s conversion; Magonsaetan;

1 He was Anglian

2 One manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that, following the victory at Hatfield Chase, Cadwallon and Penda went on to ravage “the whole land” of the Northumbrians. (13)

3 According to Reginald of Durham’s 12th century ‘Life of Saint Oswald’, Penda fled into Wales before the battle, at which point Oswald felt secure and sent his army away. (13) This explanation of events has been regarded as “plausible” but is not found in any other source, and may, therefore, have been Reginald’s invention. (13)

4 See Appendix 3: Eowa

5 Under Maserfield


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