Offa of Mercia

Offa of Mercia


a joy to England and a sword against her enemies” – (Pope Adrian I)


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The 8th Century was a remarkable period in European history, with Charlemagne uniting much of France, Germany and Italy under one Imperial crown and the Umayyad Caliphate conquering most of the Iberian peninsula, bringing what is now Spain and Portugal into a realm stretching as far east as Pakistan. (8) Before Offa came to power, England was divided into seven kingdoms: East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia (12,16) or Mierce in Anglo-Saxon, (13) Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex. (12,16) These kingdoms fought for supremacy, (12,16) and various combinations of kingdoms arose as power shifted from king to king and region to region. (16) Each Kingdom fought for supremacy over the other and in the case of Kent and Northumbria they wanted to convert their neighbours to Christianity1. (12) The Mercians descended from the Angles (10,15) of Angeln, (14,15) in Germany. (10) The Angles emigrated from their homelands when population pressure in Central and Eastern Europe coincided with deteriorating climate and rising sea levels leading to a drop in agricultural production. (10) Mercia emerged in the 6th Century (6,10) from the process of Saxon settlement in the Midlands, but Mercian settlers didn’t reach the Welsh borders until the 7th Century. (10) Mercia was a (6,9) warrior tribal (7,11) kingdom (6,9) of Anglo-Saxon England that existed between the years 527 and 918. (6) It was Britain’s superpower in the 8th Century. (10) In the first half of the 8th century, the dominant Anglo-Saxon ruler was King Æthelbald of Mercia, (14,17) who by 731 had become the overlord of all the provinces south of the River Humber. (17) Æthelbald was one of a number of strong Mercian kings who ruled from the mid-7th century to the early 9th. (17) Mercia was restored as the dominant Anglo-Saxon kingdom in England as it had been under King Penda after a period of anarchy. (14) It still had its ups and downs, and had begun to fall to pieces even before (4) Offa’s cousin, (5,14) the old (4,5) King, (2,4) who had reigned from 716 to 757, (5) was assassinated (2,4) by his own rebellious and ill-disciplined thanes (12) for unknown reasons, (14) [OR] after they lost a battle to the West Saxons. (12) Aethelbald had reigned for over forty years, during which he was admonished by the church for allowing his troops to pursue their excessive behaviour, such as raiding nunneries for food and for women, but who was regarded by many of the common folk with respect for having fed the poor and kept them safe from invasion for all those years. (15)


He was descended in the main male line from (15) the ancient Mercian ruling family (1,5) which had colonised the east and the midlands of England, and were very powerful. (12) Offa was born in about 730. (8,16) [OR] 740, (12,15) the son of Thingfrith. (2,9) His grandfather was Eanwulf, (11,12) Æthelbald’s first cousin. (17) Æthelbald granted land to Eanwulf in the territory of the Hwicce, and it is possible that Offa and Æthelbald were from the same branch of the family. (17) In one charter Offa refers to Æthelbald as his kinsman, and Headbert, Æthelbald’s brother, continued to witness charters after Offa rose to power. (17) Offa’s great grandfather was Osmod (11,17) and (11) he claimed that his (14) great-great grandfather (11) was Eowa, (1,9) who was the brother of King Penda of Mercia, (11,15) and had been slain in battle in 643. (12,15)


He married Cynethryth, (2,8) [OR] Cynefryth, but little is known about her parentage or origins. (11,17) [OR] she may have been descended from Anglo-Saxon royalty or of Frankish origin. (14) [OR]By the prefix of her name she was a British (Welsh) princess, undoubtedly of the same line as Cynewise, Queen of King Penda, who had been a Welsh royal. (15) The Welsh kingdoms were still important centres of rich culture, their powerful kings still a force to be reckoned with, and for that reason the Angles of the midlands and the north in particular had found from earliest times it was better to ally with them than go to war with them. (15) Their children were Eadburh (2,9) [OR] Eadburgh (12) who was married to Beorhtric (9,11) [OR] Brihtric (7) of Wessex (9,11) in 786 (12) [OR] In the 780s. (9) Ecgfrith of Mercia (2,11) Ælfflæd (2,11) of Mercia,(2)wife (9,11) (792) (9) of Æthelred I of Northumbria (9,11); and Æthelburh, in later life an abbess. (11,14) [OR] It has been speculated that Æthelburh was the abbess who was a kinswoman of King Ealdred of the Hwicce, but there are other prominent women named Æthelburh during that period. (17) Offa allied with Beorhtric (9) of Wessex (3,9) who married Offa’s daughter. (5,9) Lastly there was a daughter named Aelfthryth or (14) Alfrida (7,12) [OR] Ælfthryth (2)[OR] Æthelswith (11,17) of Crowland (2) who appears in the record but there is no clear evidence she actually existed. (14) She is the one named in the story of the execution of Aethelbert. (14)

Policy as King

How Great

The ‘great’ Offa (3,4) was an outstanding figure in Anglo-Saxon history: (11) the greatest (1) [OR] one of the most powerful (5) rulers (1,5) in early (3,5) Anglo-Saxon England (1,2) before the 10th century. (3) [OR] one of the greatest pre-Norman kings (8) [OR] as the most powerful Anglo-Saxon king before Alfred the Great. (9) [OR] probably the greatest of the Mercian kings. (10) Mercia’s power was restored by (4) Offa, who was named after an earlier Offa, king of Angeln, (14,15)) one of the fabled ancestors of the Mercian royal dynasty. (14)


Æthelbald, who had ruled Mercia since 716, was assassinated in 757. (17) According to a later continuation of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica (written anonymously after Bede’s death) the king was “treacherously murdered at night by his own bodyguards,” though the reason why is unrecorded. (17) The death of Ethelbald left a power vacuum which several of the neighbouring kings were keen to fill. (12) Several people stepped forward to claim the kingdom of Mercia. (12) Offa came to (2,4) [OR] seized (4) the throne (2,4) after a brief period (4,8) of civil war, (2,5) in 757 [OR] 758, (4,17) since a charter of 789 describes Offa as being in the thirty-first year of his reign. (17) This was more than 100 years after the Anglo-Saxon interlopers drove the Celts out in 613. (16) It was a period of ‘treachery and perilously short reigns’, (8) [OR] there was only one short reign, that of Beornred (2) following the assassination of Æthelbald (2,5) in 757. (11,16) In the civil war he defeated the other claimant, Beornred (2,9) [OR] Beornraed, (11) about whom little is known. (17) The continuation of Bede comments that Beornred “ruled for a little while, and unhappily”, and adds that “the same year, Offa, having put Beornred to flight, sought to gain the kingdom of the Mercians by bloodshed.” (17)

Consolidation of Mercia

It is unlikely that Offa had significant influence in the early years of his reign outside the traditional Mercian heartland. (17) The records of Offa’s early reign are spare to non-existent, but we can gather information from other sources and better records from later in his reign. (14) Ethelbald had established Mercian supremacy over the southern kingdoms, but these were lost to Offa while he was fighting the war against Beornred. (15) Offa vowed to regain them, (15) and after winning the throne, he began his road to supremacy with sword, political astuteness and bloodshed. (14) He brought southern England to the highest level of political unification it had yet achieved in the Anglo-Saxon period (5th–11th century CE). (5)The nature of Mercian kingship is not clear from the limited surviving sources. (17) There are two main theories regarding the ancestry of Mercian kings of this period. (17) One is that descendants of different lines of the royal family competed for the throne. (17) In the mid-7th century, for example, Penda had placed royal kinsmen in control of conquered provinces. (17) Alternatively, it may be that a number of kin-groups with local power-bases may have competed for the succession. (17) The sub-kingdoms of the Hwicce, the Tomsæte and the unidentified Gaini are examples of such power-bases. (17) Marriage alliances could also have played a part. (17) Competing magnates, those called in charters “dux” or “princeps” (that is, leaders), may have brought the kings to power. (17) In this model, the Mercian kings are little more than leading noblemen. (17) Offa seems to have attempted to increase the stability of Mercian kingship, both by the elimination of dynastic rivals to his son Ecgfrith, and the reduction in status of his subject kings, sometimes to the rank of ealdorman. (17)

Hereford and Worcester

The conflict over the succession suggests that Offa needed to re-establish control over Mercia’s traditional dependencies, such as the Hwicce and the Magonsæte. (17) He ruthlessly (5) suppressed resistance from several small kingdoms in and around Mercia (3,5) Charters dating from the first two years of Offa’s reign show the Hwiccan kings as reguli, or kinglets, under his authority (17) [OR] He relegated the local rulers of the kingdom of Hwicce to kinglets or sub-kinglets. (14) In the early years of his reign, (9,11) (757-771) (11) it is likely that he consolidated his control of Midland peoples such as the Hwicce and the Magonsæte, (9,11) for whom there is no record of an independent ruler after 740. (17) By 780, there was no evidence of a local dynasty in the area and it was ruled directly by Offa. (14) After setting the affairs of Mercia in order, he proceeded to make himself supreme in England. (4)


The one land Mercia was never at peace with was Kent. (15) The overlordship of the southern English which had been exerted by Æthelbald appears to have collapsed during the civil strife over the succession. (17) Offa appears to have exploited the unstable situation in Kent after 762. (14,17) Kent had a long tradition of joint kingship, with east and west Kent under separate kings, though one king was typically dominant. (17) Prior to 762 Kent was ruled by Æthelberht II and Eadberht I; Eadberht’s son Eardwulf is also recorded as a king. (17) Æthelberht died in 762, (14,17) and Eadberht and Eardwulf are last mentioned in that same year. (17) Charters from the next two years mention other kings of Kent, including Sigered, Eanmund and Heahberht. (17) In 764 evidence emerges of Offa’s influence in Kent, that Mercian power can be seen expanding again. (17) In 764, He granted land at Rochester in his own name, with Heahberht on the witness list as king of Kent. (17) Offa thus appears to have set up his own man (14,17) (Heahberht ) (17) there, but Kent was not going down easily. (14) Another king of Kent, Ecgberht, appears on a charter in 765 along with Heahberht; the charter was subsequently confirmed by Offa. (17) The limited evidence for Offa’s direct involvement in the kingdom between 765 and 776 includes two charters of 774 in which he grants land in Kent; but there are doubts about their authenticity, so Offa’s intervention in Kent prior to 776 may have been limited to the years 764–65. (17) He revoked a charter of Ecgberht’s on the grounds that “it was wrong that his thegn should have presumed to give land allotted to him by his lord into the power of another without his witness”, but the date of Ecgberht’s original grant is unknown, as is the date of Offa’s revocation of it. (17) Kent rebelled in 776. (15,17) We don’t know the exact circumstances leading up to the battle but in 776 the Mercians met the men of Kent at (13,14) Otford (14,17), [OR] Orford (13) near Sevenoaks. (14) The battle is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. (13) Offa commanded superior forces. (14) The Anglo-Saxon chronicle doesn’t tell us exactly who won the showdown. (14) There is less agreement among historians on whether Offa had general overlordship of Kent thereafter. (13,14) It has been interpreted as a Mercian victory, as charters issued by Offa from the years 785-789 makes his authority in Kent clear. (13) [OR] the most likely outcome was a Mercian defeat as Kent retained its independence for a number of years. (14,17) Offa kept up the pressure and the last known charter issued by a local Kentish ruler was in 784. (14) However, this Ealhmund does not appear again in the historical record, and a sequence of charters by Offa from the years 785–89 makes his authority clear. (17) Jaenberht, Archbishop of Canterbury always Offa`s adversary, was further antagonised when Offa raised Lichfield in 787 to be an Archdiocese, ruling seven dioceses from Thames to Humber. (15) The Archbishop of Lichfield Hygeberht consecrated Offa`s son Ecgfrith in 787 as King of the Mercians. (15) When entertaining high-ranking churchmen at a meeting in Mercia, perhaps at Lichfield however, Offa invited Jaenberht to be first to receive them, a diplomatic gesture which smoothed matters over somewhat. (15) Mercian control of Kent continued until Offa’s death in 796. (13,17) He treated Kent “as an ordinary province of the Mercian kingdom”, and his actions have been seen as going beyond the normal relation of overlordship and extending to the annexation of Kent and the elimination of a local royal line. (17) [OR] Offa may never have established complete hegemony over Kent but perhaps Mercia retained some nominal control there until it was itself conquered by Egbert of Wessex in the ninth century. (14) He was “the rival, not the overlord, of Kentish kings”. (17) Mercian control lasted until 796, the year of Offa’s death, when Eadberht Praen was temporarily successful in regaining Kentish independence. (17) Ealhmund was probably the father of Egbert of Wessex, and it is possible that Offa’s interventions in Kent in the mid-780s are connected to the subsequent exile of Egbert to Francia. (17) The Chronicle claims that when Egbert invaded Kent in 825, the men of the southeast turned to him “because earlier they were wrongly forced away from his relatives”. (17) This is likely to be an allusion to Ealhmund, and may imply that Ealhmund had a local overlordship of the southeastern kingdoms. (17) If so, Offa’s intervention was probably intended to gain control of this relationship and take over the dominance of the associated kingdoms. (17)


To the south of Mercia, Cynewulf came to the throne of Wessex in 757 (13,17) and recovered much of the border territory that Æthelbald had conquered from the West Saxons. (17) Offa was forced to fight against him.(14) He met him in battle at Bensington, in Oxfordshire, in 779, gaining a significant victory, (13,14) as a result of which he recognized Offa as sovereign. (12,14) Offa reconquered some of the land along the upper Thames. (14,17) [OR] Cynewulf never submitted to Mercian overlordship. (14) No indisputably authentic charters from before this date show Cynewulf in Offa’s entourage, and there is no evidence that Offa ever became Cynewulf’s overlord. (17) He drove Wessex back south of the line of the Thames and Severn mouth. (4) In the 780s (9) in 789 (13,17) he allied with Beorhtric (9,13) [OR] Brihtric (7) [OR] Beortric (13) of Wessex (3,9) who married Offa’s daughter (5,9) Eadburh (9,13) with no fuss at all. (7) Whether Beorhtric was related to Beornred who contested Offa for the crown of Mercia at the time of his accession is not known, but by the prefixes of their name would appear to suggest that they were. (12) Cynewulf was murdered (13,17) in 796 (13) [OR] 786 (17) and succeeded on the throne by Beorhtric. (13,14) Offa may have helped in Beorhtric’s promotion, as he recognised Offa as his overlord. (13,17) The Chronicle records that the two kings combined to exile Egbert to Francia for “three years”, adding that “Beorhtric helped Offa because he had his daughter as his queen”. (17) Offa’s currency was used across the West Saxon kingdom, and Beorhtric had his own coins minted only after Offa’s death. (17) Asser, in his Life of Alfred, says that (17) Eadburh ruled Wessex in her father’s name, (14) and had “power throughout almost the entire kingdom”. (17) She “began to behave like a tyrant after the manner of her father”. (17) From that point Offa could genuinely claim Wessex was subservient to him, (14) because whatever power she had in Wessex was no doubt connected with her father’s overlordship. (17) When Beorhtric demanded that Offa deliver the rebel Egbert of Wessex to him, instead of handing over Egbert to his enemy and certain death, Offa merely banished him from England. (13) If Offa did not gain the advantage in Wessex until defeating Cynewulf in 779, it may be that his successes south of the river were a necessary prerequisite to his interventions in the southeast. In this view, Egbert of Kent’s death in about 784 and Cynewulf’s death in 786 were the events that allowed Offa to gain control of Kent and bring Beorhtric into his sphere of influence. (17) This version of events also assumes that Offa did not have control of Kent after 764–65, as some historians believe. (17)


Offa was probably able to exert control over the kingdom of Lindsey at an early date, as it appears that the independent dynasty of Lindsey had disappeared by this time. (17)


While earlier kings were content to rule without venturing into internal affairs of subsidiary kingdoms, Offa’s method was to demote or even remove local kings and absorb them into his Mercian empire. (14) The first kingdom to feel his wrath was Sussex. (14) The evidence for Offa’s involvement in the kingdom of Sussex comes from charters, and as with Kent there is no clear consensus among historians on the course of events. (17) What little evidence survives that bears on Sussex’s kings indicates that several kings ruled at once, and it may never have formed a single kingdom. (17) Offa conquered the people in the Hastings area in 771 and the local rulers were reduced to dukes or ealdorman, becoming appointees who ruled in Offa’s name. (14) By 771, he controlled (9) Sussex (3,9) (though his authority did not remain unchallenged in either territory). (9) Eastern Sussex, on the other hand, (the area around Hastings) submitted to him less readily. (17) Simeon of Durham, a twelfth-century chronicler, records that in 771 Offa defeated “the people of Hastings”, which may record the extension of Offa’s dominion over the entire kingdom. (17) However, doubts have been expressed about the authenticity of the charters which support this version of events, and it is possible that Offa’s direct involvement in Sussex was limited to a short period around 770–71. (17) After 772, there is no further evidence of Mercian involvement in Sussex until c. 790, and it may be that Offa gained control of Sussex in the late 780s, as he did in Kent. (17)


In the mid-750s London and the Thames came under the control of Mercia. (14) Offa was on good terms with the kings of Essex and he may have relied on them to administer the major port of London. (14) This was important for his reign because Offa took an interest in foreign trade and a connection was formed with the overseas trade route out of London along the Thames and also with Canterbury. (14)


Little is known about the history of the East Saxons during the 8th Century, but what evidence there is indicates that both London and Middlesex, which had been part of the kingdom of Essex, were finally brought under Mercian control during the reign of Æthelbald. (17) Both Æthelbald and Offa granted land in Middlesex and London as they wished; in 767 a charter of Offa’s disposed of land in Harrow without a local ruler as witness. (17) It is likely that both London and Middlesex were quickly under Offa’s control at the start of his reign. (17) The East Saxon royal house survived the 8th century, so it is probable that the kingdom of Essex retained its native rulers, but under strong Mercian influence, for most or all of the 8th century. (17)


It doesn’t appear that Offa ever held any hegemony over Northumbria. (14) He did not care to trouble himself with the subjection of Northumbria (4,9) which, throughout his reign, was in a state of miserable chaos, a term which also applies generally to the Pictish and Scottish dominions and to Strathclyde with its diverse population of Gaels and Britons. (4) However, he gave his daughter (5,9) Ælfflæd (9,17) in marriage to the Northumbrian king Æthelred I (5,9) at Catterick (17) in 792. (5,9) However, there is no evidence that Northumbria was ever under Mercian control during Offa’s reign. (17)

East Anglia

In East Anglia, Beonna probably became king in about 758. (17) Beonna’s first coinage predates Offa’s own, and implies independence from Mercia. (17) The lesser kings of this region paid him homage. (5) Subsequent East Anglian history is quite obscure, but in 779 Æthelberht II became king, and was independent long enough to issue coins of his own. (17) (For the projected marriage alliance with East Anglia, see Murder of Ethelbert, below (7)) In 794, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “King Offa ordered King Æthelberht’s head to be struck off”. (17) Having murdered its king in 798, Offa gained control of East Anglia, (3,14) Offa minted pennies in East Anglia in the early 790s, so it is likely that Æthelberht rebelled against Offa and was beheaded as a result (17) and that Offa thereby achieved complete control of the southeast. (9)

Rex Anglorum

He eventually created a single state covering most of England south of (3,5) modern Yorkshire (5) [OR] the Humber. (3) Offa was the first king elevated, retrospectively, to the title of Rex Anglorum or King of the English. (8) [OR] He styled himself Rex Anglorum2 (3,10)in his charters. (3) He was Bretwalda in the 770s (12) [OR] by the 770/780s. (10) [OR] from the 780s onward. (14) [OR] Southern sources still say today his title King of the English was never really achieved, rex totius Anglorum patriae. (15) Kings north of the Thames are never easily recognised by those south of it, even today! The kingdom lay in central England (6,7) [OR] in the Midlands and Welsh Marches. (6,8) covering the breadth of England and a bit of what we now know as Wales and stretching from an area near modern day Birmingham (6) [OR] the border of Kent (10) right up to modern day Liverpool (6) [OR] to the Derbyshire Peak District. (10) The Welsh border formed the western flanks and the Cambridgeshire Fens the eastern fringes, with Tamworth at its heart. (10) Yet Offa was known as the King of all England, and tribute paid to him by Welsh Kings and by the Emperor Charlemagne. (15)


The Palace at Tamworth

He was in admiration of everything Roman architecturally, and many of the Welsh kings still ruled from palaces that had been built under Roman influence. (15) Offa made Tamworth the capital of Mercia and of a nearly-united England. (12) He built a ditch that encircled the town on three sides. (15) Looking on a more modern map this can be seen starting on the river bank beside the old Wyburne Lane, crossing Lichfield Street, going around the Castle orchard and across the junction of Aldergate and Gungate to return to the river bank at Bolebridge. (15) It can in fact be seen that the castle walls and town gates of medieval times followed its course, and that the modern town falls within these early defences. (15) He chose to import goods for (12,15) his palace at Tamworth. (11,12) possibly “black coals” or as some think, black basalt or marble, (15) which was considered to be truly beautiful and wondrous. (11,12) It was declared to be ‘the admiration and (15) wonder of the age’. (11,55) See Appendix 2: Tamworth


King Alfred the Great, in the 9th century mentions that he based his codified laws on those of Offa. (14,17) Offa issued laws in his name (14,17) but his codes no longer exist. (14) All were subject to the Three Necessities: the right to demand military service, the right to claim service for the upkeep of buildings and bridges and the right to claim service for the construction and repair of fortifications. (10), Alfred says that he has included in his code those laws of Offa, Ine of Wessex and Æthelberht of Kent which he found “most just”. (17) The laws may have been an independent lawcode, but it is also possible that Alfred is referring to the report of the legatine mission in 786, which issued statutes that the Mercians undertook to obey. (17)


A document called the Tribal Hidage (10,17) may provide further evidence of Offa’s scope as a ruler, though its attribution to his reign is disputed. (17) It suggests that Mercia was made up of 29 areas, and the population at Mercia’s peak is estimated at around 12,000 households. (10) There would have been three classes of men at that time ‐ praying men, fighting men and working men. (10) There was a hierarchy; King, ealdormen, thegns, ceorl, and gneats. (10) The status of thegn was gained by securing five hides of land (600 acres). (10) Settlements were made up of wooden buildings, of which little evidence remains, with stone being reserved for churches. (10) Open field agriculture seems to have been developed in the late Saxon period, with farming being the mainstay of the economy. (10) Commonly grown crops were wheat, barley, oats, rye and hemp. (10) He instituted laws on trade and the keeping of land records, and improved ship building. (16) Offa concluded a commercial treaty with Charlemagne in 796, (5,12) and he is believed to have established trading connections as far as Arabia. (11) Goods were imported and exported through London. (12) Important commodities at the time were cattle, wool, lead, stone and salt. (10) These were traded with neighbours using silver pennies and gold coins. (10) Offa was made Master of London and he was able to benefit financially from this trade. (12)


Offa is perhaps best known for the coins that circulated during his reign. (6)[OR] for his Dyke. (6) As he was intent on England becoming a great trading nation, he reformed the coinage. (15) At the start of the 8th century, sceattas were the primary circulating coinage. (17) These were small silver pennies, which often did not bear the name of either the moneyer or the king for whom they were produced. (17) To contemporaries these were probably known as pennies, and are the coins referred to in the laws of Ine of Wessex. (17) This light coinage (in contrast to the heavier coins minted later in Offa’s reign) can probably be dated to the late 760s and early 770s. (17) Offa made the first silver pennies named after Penda. (15) He adopted the idea of a silver penny from a former Kentish king or possibly Frankish models and made the penny the basic coin of his realm. (14) He established a mint in London. (14) A second, medium-weight coinage can be identified before the early 790s. (17) These new medium-weight coins were heavier, broader and thinner than the pennies they replaced, and were prompted by the contemporary Carolingian currency reforms. (17) The new pennies almost invariably carried both Offa’s name and the name of the moneyer from whose mint the coins came. (17) The dominions of Offa began minting (8,17) large, (8) beautifully detailed coins bearing his name or image. (8,9) The kings of East Anglia, Kent and Wessex all produced coins of the new heavier weight in this period. (17) This followed Charlemagne’s monetary reforms on the continent, [OR] was a new form of coinage bearing the king’s name and title and the name of the moneyer responsible for the quality of the coins. (5,16) His coins appear to be loosely modelled on those of Roman design. (8) The artistic quality of these images exceeds that of the contemporary Frankish coinage. (9) Offa and his moneyers were seemingly keen to adapt designs from other realms, as shown by a silver penny bearing the name (8) and portrait of his wife Cynethryth, (8,9) the only Anglo-Saxon queen ever depicted on a coin. (9,11) These were a remarkable series of pennies struck by the moneyer Eoba. (17) This was a most unusual move, he was one of the first medieval kings in the west to put the face of his wife on a coin. (14) The idea was possibly inspired by a similar series commissioned by Basileos Konstantinos VI (Eastern Roman Emperor) to commemorate his mother. (8) Unlike in other kingdoms, the Mercian wives were Queens in their own right, able to rule alone and to issue charters in their own names during their husbands` absences. (15) Some coins from Offa’s reign bear the names of the archbishops of Canterbury, Jaenberht and, after 792, Æthelheard. (17) Jaenberht’s coins all belong to the light coinage, rather than the later medium coinage. (17) There is also evidence that coins were issued by Eadberht, who was Bishop of London in the 780s and possibly before. (17) Offa’s dispute with Jaenberht may have led him to allow Eadberht coining rights, which may then have been revoked when the see of Lichfield was elevated to an archbishopric. (17) The principles governing his coinage were employed in England for centuries afterward. (5,16) It remained standard coinage until the 13th cent. (15) However, one of the most remarkable and enigmatic coins from Offa’s reign is Arabic in appearance. (8) These bore Islamic inscriptions, which is particularly odd given Offa was a Christian King. (6,8) Only three gold coins of Offa’s have survived. (9) One of the rarest and most valuable types of coin in Early Medieval Europe was the gold mancus or (8) dinar such as that minted under Offa. (6,8) This is a copy of an Abbasid dinar of (6,9) 774 (9) [OR]circa 773 (6) which has the Shahadah3, engraved in Arabic, (6,8)) on one side, with (6,9) the extremely not-Arabic (6) “Offa Rex” on the other. (6,9) The gold coins are of uncertain use. (6,9) Had Offa, having spent much of his reign squabbling with meddlesome Archbishops, finally turned to Islam? Certainly not, (8) but theories abound. (6) They may have been struck to be used as alms or for gifts to Rome. (9) [OR] as a PR stunt and a cunning trade incentive (8) [OR] fraud. (6) By 750 CE, the Abbasid Caliphs had ousted the Umayyads, making them the pre-eminent power in the Mediterranean and were entering a period of remarkable cultural, political and intellectual achievement that would later be known as the Islamic Golden Age. (8) Across the continent, the gold dinar was the de facto currency. (8) The Abbasid Dinar was ripped off by Offa to make it easier for Mercia to trade with Islamic Spain. (6,8) own, home-struck dinar were convincing imitations, protecting Anglo-Saxon merchants from being refused entry to Europe’s most lucrative market. (6,8) An added benefit, for Offa, was that these coins would spread the ambitious King’s name to far-off lands. (6,8) The British Museum says:

Islamic gold dinars were the most important coinage in the Mediterranean at the time. Offa’s coin looked enough like the original that it would be readily accepted in southern Europe, while at the same time his own name was clearly visible. (6)

The theory seems to hold water, as many legitimate Islamic coins – without sketchy, nonsensical engravings – have been found on British shores, suggesting currency moved relatively freely between Mercia and the Mediterranean back in the 700s. (6) Whatever the case, the coins only serve to highlight the age-old connections between Britain, Europe, and the Islamic world. (6)


Offa was frequently in conflict with the various Welsh kingdoms. (17) OR Many of the Welsh kings were his allies, though he warred with others. (15) Bands of lawless raiders had swept in from Ireland, through Wales, to harry unprotected villages, and more came from Scandinavia and the continent, and Offa set about securing his kingdom with defensive boundaries. (15) Missionaries and traders from either side crossed the boundaries by the various gates. (15) Mercia was full of Welsh people, and others of mixed culture, for it had not long ceased to be part of the kingdom of Powys. (15) Also with the building of the boundary, some England land went into Wales and some Welsh into England. (15) Offa did later plunder Dyfed, which caused much hatred, but then many of the Welsh kings fought each other just as the Anglo-Saxons did. (15) The land was still a long way from being united and at peace. (15)

Offa’s Dyke

Wisdith wrote a poem about Offa who was said to be descended from Offa of Angeln (Denmark) who built a boundary against the Myrings at Fifeldor which stood between Angelns and Swaefe. (15) Ethelbald, Offa’s predecessor, had built (15) Wat`s Dyke, (15,17) one of the largest of the other earthworks along the Welsh border. (17) [OR] it is not possible to date them relative to each other and so it cannot be determined whether Offa’s Dyke was a copy of or the inspiration for Wat’s Dyke. (17) King Offa is perhaps one of the earliest Kings that we remember by name thanks to the construction under his reign of the amazing (12) great earthen barrier (17) that is ‘Offa’s Dyke’, (12) the best known relic associated with Offa’s. (17) It runs approximately along the border between England and Wales. (17) During the earlier period of civil war Mercia lost control of some kingdoms, and its western border was also pushed back eastwards by the inhabitants of Powys, Wales, who took advantage of the unrest to regain some of the territory they had lost earlier to the Mercians. (12) Offa set his sights on Wales (14,17) where he made many raids. (14,76 SL) In the 10th century Annales Cambriae (17) Offa is said to have attacked Powys in 760 at Hereford (17, 76 SL) in 778, 784, (14,76 SL) and again in 796. (76 SL, 17) He pressed the Welsh back far west of the Severn. (4)Once Offa was firmly in control of Mercia (3,7) at the end of the eighth century (7,11) during the 780s (11,13) he built the great (3,4) earthwork (3,4) 12 ft wide, with a bank up to 20ft high and a 6ft deep (10) ditch (7,10) on the Welsh side (7) known as Offa’s Dyke, (3,4) the full scale of which archaeology is only just beginning to realise. (15) It is believed that the events that led to Offa building the dyke are recorded on the Pillar of Eliseg near Llangollen. (12) The dyke itself is mentioned by the monk Asser in his biography of King Alfred the Great: “a certain vigorous king called Offa … had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea” (11) The dyke has not been dated by archaeological methods, but most historians find no reason to doubt Asser’s attribution. (17) The construction of the dyke suggests that it was built to create an effective barrier and to command views into Wales. (17) This implies that the Mercians who built it were free to choose the best location for the dyke. (17) There are settlements to the west of the dyke that have names that imply they were English by the 8th century, so it may be that in choosing the location of the barrier the Mercians were consciously surrendering some territory to the native Britons. (17) Alternatively it may be that these settlements had already been retaken by the Welsh, implying a defensive role for the barrier. (17) The effort and expense that must have gone into building the dyke are impressive, and suggest that the king who had it built (whether Offa or someone else) had considerable resources at his disposal. (17) Other substantial construction projects of a similar date do exist, however, such as Wat’s Dyke and Danevirke, in what is now Germany as well as such sites as Stonehenge from millennia earlier. (17) The dyke can be regarded in the light of these counterparts as the largest and most recent great construction of the preliterate inhabitants of Britain. (17) It ran along the Welsh border (3,11) between Mercia and the Welsh settlements (5) to the west (3,4) after constant wars with the Welsh,(3) built in the hope of keeping peace. (14) [OR] The exact nature of the earthwork is unknown. (14) Its purpose was defensive (3,7) [OR] not defensive, (14,15) It is likely that he had the dyke built (3,7) to protect his frontiers against the Welsh (3,7) [OR] It was not a wall to keep out the Welsh. (15,16) It was to mark the new boundary (4,10) between the Welsh and his kingdom, (12) In places, Offa’s Dyke is up to 65 feet (19.8 metres) wide (including its flanking ditch) (11) and 60 (16) [OR] 8 feet (2.4 (11) [OR] 18 (16) m) high. (11) It included a ditch 3.66 m (12 feet) deep. (16) It ran (7,11) although not continuously (11) from near Llanfynydd (17) [OR]Chester at (3) the mouth of the River Dee (7,11) [OR] Prestatyn (13) in the north to that of the Wye (7,11) [OR] Tidenham (14) on the River Severn (14,15) [OR] the Bristol Channel4 (4) [OR] Rushock Hill, near Kington in Herefordshire, less than fifty miles (80 km) from the Bristol Channel (17) in the south. (14,15) It was built in several sections to a single plan and included strong natural features and controlled routes into Wales. (13) It was about 64 miles (103 km) (17) [OR] 70 (3) [OR] 80 (10) [OR] 140 miles (7) [OR] 60 or 150 (14) [OR] 169 miles long (3,9) Offa’s Dyke was an engineering feat, taking many years and men to build. (14) Thousands of men were required to complete the earthwork and each section appears to have been built by people from a different district. (11) The men of Powys and Glywysing were probably forced into labour. (14) The fact that this mammoth undertaking was achieved illustrates the cohesion of the Mercian kingdom under Offa. (11) It is a testimony to the extensive resources Offa had at his command and his ability to organise them. (17) The dyke was never garrisoned (11,14) but would have been manned by relatively small local forces. (11) The engineer who designed the dyke used natural features to make it harder to cross and it effectively ended “hit and run” raids by the Welsh. (14) Parts of Offa’s Dyke can still be seen in many places. (7,16) The town of Knighton in Radnorshire has stretches of the Dyke on both sides of the town, and at Kington in Herefordshire, there is a well-preserved section of this earthwork. (7) It is an impressive memorial to Offa’s power. (5,10) Despite the dyke, Offa was still involved in a bitter conflict in Dyfed, and returned to seek healing of his wounds at Bedford Priory, where he died in 796. (15) Today, the Dyke is a long-distance walking path and runs through beautiful country. (16)




His conquest of London made it easier for Offa to establish relations with the Frankish court of King Charlemagne. (14) He formed ties with rulers on the European continent, (4,5) who recognised him as the lord of England. (4) He appears to have aspired to be accepted as (5) [OR] was treated as (1) [OR] considered himself in diplomatic correspondence as (3) an equal (1,4) with (4) [OR] by Charlemagne.(1) Offa quarrelled with (5,14) ‘Charlemagne5‘ (1,5) [OR] Charles the Great (4) King of the Franks. (4,5) In about (17) 789, (14,17) or shortly before, (17) Charlemagne (14,15) proposed (17) [OR] made an agreement with Offa to marry his son (14,15) Charles to one of Offa’s daughters, (14) most likely Ælfflæd. (17) Possibly at the suggestion of Cynethryth, (14) Offa made it a condition that his son Ecgfrith should marry one of Charlemagne’s daughters (14,17) Bertha. (17) There was an argument over this: (15,17) Charlemagne was so offended that he (14,17) broke off contact (17) [OR] suspended trade relations with England, (14) forbidding English ships from landing in his ports. (17) It was only after negotiations with clergy (14,15) [OR] in the person of Alcuin, a monk of Lindisfarne who was a great friend and mentor to both and became tutor to Charlemagne’s family (15) that trade contacts were resumed (14) and neither marriage was ever completed. (14,15) Alcuin’s letters make it clear that by the end of 790 the dispute was still not resolved, and that Alcuin was hoping to be sent to help make peace. (17) In the end diplomatic relations were restored (11,17) and afterwards they exchanged letters and gifts. (11) This was achieved least partly by the agency of Gervold, the abbot of St Wandrille. (17) Charlemagne sought support from the English church at the council of Frankfurt in 794, where the canons passed in 787 at the Second Council of Nicaea were repudiated, and the heresies of two Spanish bishops, Felix and Elipandus, were condemned. (17)

Correspondence with Charlemagne

In 796 Charlemagne wrote to Offa; the letter survives and refers to a previous letter of Offa’s to Charlemagne. (17) This correspondence between the two kings produced the first surviving documents in English diplomatic history. (17) The letter is primarily concerned with the status of English pilgrims on the continent and with diplomatic gifts, but it reveals much about the relations between the English and the Franks. (17) Charlemagne refers to Offa as his “brother”, and mentions trade in black stones, sent from the continent to England, and cloaks (or possibly cloths), traded from England to the Franks. (17) Charlemagne’s letter also refers to exiles from England, naming Odberht, who was almost certainly the same person as Eadberht Praen, among them. (17) Egbert of Wessex was another refugee from Offa who took shelter at the Frankish court. (17) It is clear that Charlemagne’s policy included support for elements opposed to Offa; in addition to sheltering Egbert and Eadberht he also sent gifts to Æthelred I of Northumbria. (17) Events in southern Britain to 796 have sometimes been portrayed as a struggle between Offa and Charlemagne, but the disparity in their power was enormous. (17) By 796 Charlemagne had become master of an empire which stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Hungarian Plain, and Offa and then Coenwulf were clearly minor figures by comparison. (17)


Offa was a Christian king. (6,8) The church in Mercia was powerful and rich, and there were bishops at Lichfield, Worcester, Hereford, Leicester, Lincoln and London. (10)


Both Offa (14,17) and Cynethryth were (14) patrons and builders of monasteries, (14,17) often dedicated to St Peter, (17) most notably Winchcombe, Bedford (14) and St. Albans. (14,17) Control of religious houses was one way in which a ruler of the day could provide for his family, and to this end Offa ensured (by acquiring papal privileges) that many of them would remain the property of his wife or children after his death. (17) This policy of treating religious houses as worldly possessions represents a change from the early 8th century, when many charters showed the foundation and endowment of small minsters, rather than the assignment of those lands to laypeople. (17) In the 770s, an abbess named Æthelburh (who may have been the same person as Offa’s daughter of that name) held multiple leases on religious houses in the territory of the Hwicce; her acquisitions have been described as looking “like a speculator assembling a portfolio”. (17) Æthelburh’s possession of these lands foreshadows Cynethryth’s control of religious lands, and the pattern was continued in the early 9th century by Cwoenthryth, the daughter of King Coenwulf. (17) In 749, Æthelbald of Mercia had issued a charter that freed ecclesiastical lands from all obligations except the requirement to build forts and bridges – obligations which lay upon everyone, as part of the trinoda necessitas. (17) Offa’s Kentish charters show him laying these same burdens on the recipients of his grants there, and this may be a sign that the obligations were being spread outside Mercia. (17) Drunkenness and singing was, however, reported in English monasteries (Timeline)


Either Offa or Ine of Wessex is traditionally supposed to have founded the Schola Saxonum in Rome, in what is today the Roman rione, or district, of Borgo. (17) The Schola Saxonum took its name from the militias of Saxons who served in Rome, but it eventually developed into a hostelry for English visitors to the city. (17) Offa started the library at York that was to become one of the greatest in the country. (15) In letters dating from the late 780s or early 790s, Alcuin congratulates Offa for encouraging education. (17)

Dispute with Jaenberht

The province of Canterbury, unique in the western world, became a centre for pilgrims from all over Europe, (15) but despite being praised by Charlemagne’s advisor, Alcuin, for his piety and efforts to “instruct [his people] in the precepts of God”, (17) he came into conflict the Church (5,9) particularly with Jaenberht, the Archbishop of Canterbury (9,17) who was seated among Offa’s enemies in the kingdom of Kent. (5) He had been a supporter of Ecgberht II of Kent, which may have led to conflict in the 760s when Offa is known to have intervened in Kent. (17) Offa rescinded grants made to Canterbury by Egbert, and it is also known that Jaenberht claimed the monastery of Cookham, which was in Offa’s possession. (17) He also had a dispute with the Bishop of Worcester, which was settled at the Council of Brentford in 781. (9)

Relations with the Papacy

By contrast, Offa maintained a friendly relationship with Pope Adrian I. (3,5) with whom he dealt directly. (10) Offa saw that the (17) English church gave a yearly tribute to Rome for maintenance of lights and relief of the poor.(15,17) It was called “Peter`s Pence”. (15) 365 mancuses were sent to Rome; a mancus was a term of account equivalent to thirty silver pennies, derived from Abbasid gold coins that were circulating in Francia at the time. (17) Pope Adrian I wrote to Offa, “You are a joy to England and a sword against her enemies”. (15) In 786 Adrian sent papal legates to England (15,17) to assess the state of the church and provide canons (ecclesiastical decrees) for the guidance of the English kings, nobles and clergy. (17)

Papal Mission

This was the first papal mission to England since Augustine had been sent by Pope Gregory the Great in 597 to convert the Anglo-Saxons. (17) The legates were George, the Bishop of Ostia, and Theophylact, the Bishop of Todi. (15,17) They visited Canterbury first, and then were received by Offa at his court. (17) Offa organised a legatine (15) council (15,17) held in Mercia. (15) Both he and Cynewulf, king of the West Saxons, attended it, and the goals of the mission were discussed. (17) George then went to Northumbria, while Theophylact visited Mercia and “parts of Britain”. (17) A report on the mission, sent by the legates to Pope Adrian, gives details of a council held by George in Northumbria, and the canons issued there, but little detail survives of Theophylact’s mission. (17) After the northern council George returned to the south and another council was held, attended by both Offa and Jaenberht, at which further canons were issued. (17) The pope also wrote to the Bishop of Lindsey and the Archbishop of Canterbury to explain that the reason he was entertaining exiles at his ecclesiastical court, was in order to reconcile them to their lord. (15) That was King Offa. (15)

The Archdiocese of Lichfield

In 787 (17) [OR] 788 (3) Offa succeeded in persuading Pope Adrian (3,5) to divide the archdiocese of Canterbury in two, (9,17) thus founding a new archbishopric (3,5) [OR] bishopric (16) of Lichfield (3,5) The reduction in the power of Canterbury (5,9) freed the Mercian church from the authority of the archbishop of Canterbury (5) and so enabled Offa to appoint his own archbishop. (14) The new archdiocese included the sees of Worcester, Hereford, Leicester, Lindsey, Dommoc and Elmham; these were essentially the midland Anglian territories. (17) Canterbury retained the sees in the south and southeast. (17) It was a remarkable, if temporary, change in church organization. (5) The issue must have been discussed with the papal legates in 786, although it is not mentioned in the accounts that have survived. (17) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports a “contentious synod” in 787 at Chelsea, which approved the creation of the new archbishopric. (17) It has been suggested that this synod was the same gathering as the second council held by the legates, but historians are divided on this issue. (17) Hygeberht (14,17) already Bishop of Lichfield (17) was named as the first and only archbishop of Lichfield (14,17) and by the end of 788 he received the pallium, a symbol of his authority, from Rome. (17)) The few accounts of the creation of the new archbishopric date from after the end of Offa’s reign. (17) Two versions of the events appear in the form of an exchange of letters between Coenwulf, who became king of Mercia shortly after Offa’s death, and Pope Leo III, in 798. (17) Coenwulf asserts in his letter that Offa wanted the new archdiocese created out of enmity for Jaenberht; but Leo responds that the only reason the papacy agreed to the creation was because of the size of the kingdom of Mercia. (17) Both Coenwulf and Leo had their own reasons for representing the situation as they did: Coenwulf was entreating Leo to make London the sole southern archdiocese, while Leo was concerned to avoid the appearance of complicity with the unworthy motives Coenwulf imputed to Offa. (17) These are therefore partisan comments. (17) However, both the size of Offa’s territory and his relationship with Jaenberht and Kent are indeed likely to have been factors in Offa’s request for the creation of the new archdiocese. (17) Coenwulf’s version has independent support, with a letter from Alcuin to Archbishop Æthelheard giving his opinion that Canterbury’s archdiocese had been divided “not, as it seems, by reasonable consideration, but by a certain desire for power”. (17) Æthelheard himself later said that the award of a pallium to Lichfield depended on “deception and misleading suggestion”. (17) Another possible reason for the creation of an archbishopric at Lichfield relates to Offa’s son, Ecgfrith of Mercia. (9,17) To secure the royal succession for his own line he wanted his son (3,9) Ecgfryth (3) [OR] Ecgfrith (9,10) to be anointed as King of Mercia in 787. (3,9) Offa wanted to have an archbishop do this, and it is possible Jaenberht refused to perform the ceremony. (9,17) Within a year after Hygeberht became archbishop, (17) in 787, he crowned Offa’s son (9,14) Ecgfrith his successor as king of the Mercians. (14,17) This ceremony was unprecedented and indicates Offa considered himself as king of the English. (14) The ceremony itself is noteworthy for two reasons: it is the first recorded consecration of any English king, and it is unusual in that it asserted Ecgfrith’s royal status while his father was still alive. (17) Ecgfrith was the first anointed English king and, unusually, this was carried out in his father`s lifetime. (15) This was also the first involvement of the church in a coronation and laid the foundation for such ceremonies thereafter. (15) In doing this, Offa was imitating Charlemagne who, he knew, had his two sons (14,17) Pippin and Louis (17) anointed in 781 (14) by the pope (14,17) Adrian (17) in person, (14,17) and probably wished to emulate the impressive dignity of the Frankish court. (17) Other precedents did exist: Æthelred of Mercia is said to have nominated his son Coenred as king during his lifetime, and Offa may have known of Byzantine examples of royal consecration. (17) In return the Pope was allowed to increase his control over the English church. (5,16) Despite the creation of the new archdiocese, Jaenberht retained his position as the senior cleric in the land, with Hygeberht conceding his precedence. (17) When Jaenberht died in 792, he was replaced by Æthelheard, who was consecrated by Hygeberht, now senior in his turn. (17) Subsequently, Æthelheard appears as a witness on charters and presides at synods without Hygeberht, so it appears that Offa continued to respect Canterbury’s authority. (17)

Dismissing the Pope?

A letter from Pope Adrian to Charlemagne survives which makes reference to Offa, but the date is uncertain; it may be as early as 784 or as late as 791. (17) In it Adrian recounts a rumour that had reached him: Offa had reportedly proposed to Charlemagne that Adrian should be deposed, and replaced by a Frankish pope. (17) Adrian disclaims all belief in the rumour, but it is clear it had been a concern to him. (17) The enemies of Offa and Charlemagne, described by Adrian as the source of the rumour, are not named. (17) It is unclear whether this letter is related to the legatine mission of 786; if it predates it, then the mission might have been partly one of reconciliation, but the letter might well have been written after the mission. (17)

Last Years

The Danes

The burdens Offa imposed on the church were part of his response to the threat of “the pagan seaman”. (17) During the last years of Offa, (4,10) 793 (10) saw the first attack upon the English shores by a new enemy, the Danes or Northmen from over the sea, (4,10) whose appearance marks the arrival of the third stage of our6 history after the Roman evacuation. (4) To meet this threat (10) there is evidence that Offa (10,17) copied the continental practice of (10) constructed a series of defensive burhs, or fortified towns. (10,17) Thegns formed the core of the army and could be called upon for garrison duty in the new burhs. (10) They were constructed on rivers, blocking access upstream to Vikings in their warships. (10) In addition to their defensive uses, (10,17) as safe refuges for local people, with food and stores, (10) these burhs are thought to have been administrative centres, serving as regional markets and indicating a transformation of the Mercian economy away from its origins as a grouping of midland peoples. (17) The burhs are forerunners of the defensive network successfully implemented by Alfred the Great a century later to deal with the Danish invasions. (17), In total, 22 burhs were built in Mercia: (10) the locations are not generally agreed on but may include Bedford, Hereford, Northampton, Oxford and Stamford. (17) Another was established at Chirbury in 915 to defend the upper Severn valley. (10) Another was established in Shrewsbury. (10) They formed an effective defensive network covering Mercian land that survived many an onslaught from Viking raiders (10) but Offa did not necessarily understand the economic changes that came with the burhs, so it is not safe to assume he envisioned all their benefits. (17) Like the kingdom itself, Mercian churches suffered from the passage of the Viking ‘great armies’ in the 860s and 870s. (10)


He did his utmost to groom his son for kingship and pave the way for him to succeed him and possibly rule over all of England. (14) Offa was involved in a bitter conflict in Dyfed, and returned to seek healing of his wounds at Bedford Priory, where he died in 796. (15) Offa died on (1,2) 29th (2,9) July (2,5) 796, (1,2) most likely in his sixties. (14)

Offa, the magnificent king of the Mercians, having nearly completed his most noble monastery, died, according to the opinion of many, in the town of Offley (in Hertfordshire), and his body is said to have been conveyed to the town of Bedford, and to have been buried in a royal manner in a certain chapel outside the city, situated on the bank of the river Ouse. It is reported by nearly all the people of that neighbourhood, even to the present day, that the aforesaid chapel, from decay and the violence of that river, was precipitated, together with the king’s tomb, into the stream; and that the sepulchre is now seen by bathers in the summer time deep beneath the waters, but though it has been sought with the greatest diligence, yet, as if by a fatality, it cannot be found.” (11)


He was buried at Bedford. (2,11) His son Ecgfrith succeeded him (3,9) but only survived him by a few (3,9) less than five (9) months (3,9) only 141 days (11) in 796, (3,9) leaving no heir. (14) He was probably killed by Offa’s opponents. (11) 9th century Mercia continued to draw its kings from multiple dynastic lines. (17) Coenwulf, Ecgfrith’s successor, was only distantly related to Offa’s line. (17)


Pope Adrian I wrote to Offa, “you are a joy to England and a sword against her enemies”. (15) At a time when the average life expectancy was around 33 years, a 39 (10) [OR] 40 (12) year reign was the sign of a strong man who was seen as a strong ruler. (10) During that time he kept his people safe from incursions into their territory and secured many of the southern territories under the rule of Mercia. (12) Historians once saw Offa’s reign as part of a process leading to a unified England, but this is no longer the majority view. (9) Frank Stenton argued that Offa was perhaps the greatest king of the English kingdoms, commenting that “no other Anglo-Saxon king ever regarded the world at large with so … acute a political sense”. (17) Many historians regard Offa’s achievements as second only to Alfred the Great among the Anglo-Saxon kings. (17) Offa’s reign has sometimes been regarded as a key stage in the transition to a unified England, but this is no longer the general view among historians in the field. (17) In the words of Simon Keynes, “Offa was driven by a lust for power, not a vision of English unity; and what he left was a reputation, not a legacy”. (17) He was a ‘Ruthless Anglo-Saxon Hellbent on Power and Prestige’. (16) Offa may be considered the most powerful Saxon monarch to rule England up to that point in history, (14) and one of the most significant rulers in Early Medieval Britain. (17) [OR] of the Anglo-Saxon rulers, (14) He did attempt to be wise and practical but he was vindictive, ruthless, vain and ambitious. (14) He preserved his position by bloodshed and exploitation, (14,16) and was known for murdering rival kings, including his son-in-law. (16) “His true ambition was power and power alone, not necessarily the unification of England”. (14) Offa’s ability to look beyond England may have been one of his greatest strengths. (8) He wasn’t regarded as an equal of those on the continent, (7,14) but just as a tribal big-man with delusions of grandeur7; [OR] He rose to a position of power and influence in Europe. (15) The building of the Dyke was the single biggest man-made legacy from the Anglo-Saxon period of history and Offa’s greatest monument. (14) This was the start of England becoming known as a nation of shop-keepers and as a great naval power. (15) Coenwulf (9) [OR] Cenwulf (10) of Mercia succeeded him as king. (9,10) He was one of several distant cousins who never achieved the authority of Offa, (14) and the Mercian supremacy collapsed soon after his death. (1) [OR] Cenwulf continued to maintain and expand Mercian power into the next century, (10) and it was not until the reign of Egbert of Wessex in the 9th century that Mercian power began to wane. (17) However, Mercia eventually submitted to the Vikings, and the ‘Danelaw’ was established across much former Mercian territory in 874, marking the end of independent Mercian power. (10) Nevertheless, the kingdom retained its identity even within the united Anglo‐Saxon England subsequently created by Alfred of Wessex and his successors. (10) In an interesting side note to Offa’s story, in the early eleventh century, Aethelstan, the eldest son of Aethelred the Unready bequeathed to his younger brother Edmund Ironside the sword which had belonged to King Offa. (14) Wouldn’t it be fabulous to know where that sword is now? (14)

Appendix I: The Murder of Ethelbert

Accounts of the event have survived in which Aethelberht is killed through the machinations of Offa’s wife Cynethryth, but the earliest manuscripts in which these possibly legendary accounts are found date from the 11th and 12th centuries, and recent historians do not regard them with confidence. (17) Offa is not only remembered for his great Dyke, but also as the ‘father-in-law from Hell’! (7) In A. D. 794, Offa had promised his daughter Alfrida in marriage to Ethelbert, who was the king of East Anglia. (7,12) The historian simply says He also became the overlord of East Anglia and (9,14) had King Æthelberht II of East Anglia beheaded (7,9) in 794, (9,14) perhaps for rebelling against him” (9) [OR] However, the latest research shows that Ethelbert, who had minted coins under Offa`s overlordship, started minting them with his own image upon them. (15) [OR] for unknown reasons, perhaps for betrayal or treachery, or simply for trying to break free of Offa’s rule. (14). (14) Far more interesting is the legend (7) contained in an account of Æthelberht’s demise written by Richard of Cirencester, Offa’s queen Cynethryth poisoned her husband’s mind until he agreed to have his guest killed. (13) Ethelbert and Elfrida had met and fallen in love, (7) and become engaged to be married (7,12) and maybe form some kind of coalition. (14) Offa`s Queen Cynethryth (7,12) appears to have been someone who sought to use the power of her ‘Queenship’ for evil rather than good. (12) She became so jealous of her daughter’s happiness that (7) she persuaded Offa to murder Ethelbert (7,13) before the wedding could take place. (7) When Ethelbert started his journey to Offa’s palace (7) at Sutton Walls (7,13) in Hereford (14) [OR] near Marden, (7) [OR] at the royal residence of Tamworth (12) it is said that the sun became dark and the earth shook, and before arriving at the palace, Ethelbert had a dream in which he saw his bridal bed destroyed, while his mother watched, weeping tears of blood. (7) The omens were proved to be well founded! (7) Ethelbert arrived at Offa’s palace on the eve of his wedding, and was shown into the hall where the king was waiting. (7) He stepped into the hall and the doors were immediately locked behind him, and one of Offa’s nobles, Winebert, stepped forward (7) at Offa’s command, (7,12) and struck-off Ethelbert’s head with his sword. (7) This was not the welcome poor Ethelbert had expected! (7) The disposal of Ethelbert’s body proved troublesome, for wherever it was buried, miraculous lights appeared over the grave. (7) His body was finally taken to Hereford for re-burial, and where his body had rested momentarily, a spring gushed up at the spot. (7) This spring became known as St. Ethelbert’s Well and the site is marked near the entrance to Castle Green. (7) It was highly unusual for one king to kill another, (14) and Ethelbert later became a saint, (7,14) also for unknown reasons. (14) The legend also claims that Æthelberht was killed at Sutton St. Michael and buried four miles (6 km) to the south at Hereford, where his cult flourished, becoming at one time second only to Canterbury as a pilgrimage destination. (17) He is the patron saint of Hereford Cathedral, (7,15) which stands on the site of a shrine, ‘erected to his memory’ by Offa in 795! (7) How hypocritical can you get! (7) Offa is not everyone’s idea of a decent father-in-law, but (7) his daughter Eadburh (2,9) [OR] Eadburgh (12) was married to Beorhtric (9,11) [OR] Brihtric (7) of Wessex (9,11) In the 780s, (9) in 786 (12) with no fuss at all. (7) Offa’s wife must have been told to keep her opinions to herself on that occasion. (7) In fact, Cynethryth (7,12) was so bad, that it was agreed by church and state that no more Mercian wives of kings used the title of queen. (12) There must have been some reason why Cynethryth caused the title of Queen to be withheld from future kings` wives. (15) She perhaps grew too powerful for some of the southern thanes. (15) There is no clear evidence that Offa ever had a daughter named Alfrida! (14)

Appendix 2: Tamworth Archaeology

Some, usually outside, archaeologists have always maintained however, that Tamworth just wasn`t here in early Anglo-Saxon times, despite the fact there is evidence of Romano-British settlement all around. (15) If people were farming and running industrial outlets in that area in the Iron-Age as has been proved, then Tamworth in its strategic position at the confluence of two rivers and near a Roman road would undoubtedly have been recognised as a suitably defensive site. (15) Dr. F.T. Wainwright, head of Anglo-Saxon studies at the University of St. Andrew`s carried out an archaeological excavation in Tamworth in 1960 during the 400th anniversary of the granting of the borough charter, and came to the conclusion that the fortifications had been constructed by Ethelfleda, Countess of Mercia, whose fortress was, as he maintained, in the grounds below the existing mound of the castle. (15) That in fact the “burh” that Ethelfleda was known to have built in 913 to defend the town against the encroaching Danes, was not, as Dr. Wainwright maintained, the mound as many had thought, but the ditches. (15) That the “King`s Ditch” could refer to these having been built by King Edward the Elder, brother of Ethelfleda. (15) When writing to the University of St. Andrew`s to ask if they had any of (the late) Dr. (15) Wainwright`s printed work on the subject, I received a courteous letter back to inform me they had no information at all appertaining to his archaeological work in Tamworth. (15) Many disagreed with this archaeologist`s findings however, and recent archaeology on the General Hospital site has proved that Offa built the larger defences around the town, in the wars between the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons. (15) If he had the manpower and skills to build the huge dyke on the Welsh borders, the defences at Tamworth would have posed no problems at all. (15) The medieval source that tells of his last resting-place being at the priory may be incorrect. (15) Its more likely that the king was returned to his capital for burial with great pomp and ceremony, perhaps as many locals have always said, in a tumulous called Offlow Hill at Weeford, between Tamworth where he was known to have had a chapel royal or church, and Lichfield whose See he raised to an Archbishopric. (15) Or he could be buried at Oldbury, near Atherstone, a site that some modern historians have found was described (before the Anglo-Saxons` arrival) as a burial-place of local kings. (15) Right up until the Reformation it was still a place of pilgrimage, with a monastic cell. (15) The authorities don’t want to know about this for the Birmingham Northern Relief Road, planned by the few against the opinions of the many, will cut through the Weeford countryside, near this hallowed place. (15) This could become a tourist site to a famous and powerful English king, who set the precedent for many of our currency, trade and commercial rules, thirteen hundred years ago, and this tourist site could become much more important (and more prosperous) than many if they would only spare it. (15)

Bibliography (12 seems a copy of 15)

  1. Penguin Encyclopaedia
  2. Wikipedia Summary
  3. Chambers Biographical
  8. Medium Length Wikipedia
  15. Christine Smith
  17. Big Wikipedia

1 Odd since all had been Christian since just after Penda’s death

2 King of the Angles, as (10) says, rather than King of the English?

3 ‘There is no God but Allah’

4 Which is much longer than 70 miles.

5 who had not yet revived the Western Empire or assumed the Imperial crown.

6 sic

7 May be unfair. England post-Offa did better than France post-Charlemagne?


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