Wulfhere of Mercia

a man of proud mind, and insatiable will’



Mercian Origins

England in AD 600 was ruled almost entirely by the Anglo-Saxon peoples who had come to Britain from northwestern Europe over the previous 200 years. (11) The monk Bede, writing in about AD 731, considered the Mercians to be descended from the Angles, one of the invading groups; the Saxons and Jutes settled in the south of Britain, while the Angles settled in the north. (11) Little is known about the origins of the kingdom of Mercia, in what is now the English Midlands, but according to genealogies preserved in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Anglian collection the early kings were descended from Icel; the dynasty is therefore known as the Iclingas. (11) The earliest Mercian king about whom definite historical information has survived is Penda of Mercia, Wulfhere’s father. (11)



See Penda; According to Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, a history of the English church, there were seven early Anglo-Saxon rulers who held imperium, or overlordship, over the other kingdoms. (11) The fifth of these was Edwin of Northumbria, who was killed at the battle of Hatfield Chase by a combined force including Cadwallon, a British king of Gwynedd and Penda. (11) At the time of this victory, Penda was probably not yet king of Mercia. (11) His children included two future kings of Mercia: Wulfhere and Æthelred. (11) After Edwin’s death, Northumbria briefly fell apart into its two constituent kingdoms. (11) Within a year Oswald killed Cadwallon and reunited the kingdoms, and subsequently re-established Northumbrian hegemony over the south of England. (11) However, on 5th August 642, Penda killed Oswald at the Battle of Maserfield, probably at Oswestry in the northwest midlands. (11) Penda is not recorded as overlord of the other southern Anglo-Saxon kings, but he became the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kings after he defeated Oswald. (11) On Oswald’s death, Northumbria was divided again: Oswald’s son Oswiu succeeded to the throne of Bernicia, and Osric’s son Oswine to Deira, the southern of the two kingdoms. (11) The main source for this period is Bede’s History, completed in about 731. (11) Despite its focus on the history of the church, this work also provides valuable information about the early pagan kingdoms. (11) For other kingdoms than his native Northumbria, such as Wessex and Kent, Bede had an informant within the ecclesiastical establishment who supplied him with additional information. (11) This does not seem to have been the case with Mercia, about which Bede is less informative than about other kingdoms. (11) Further sources for this period include the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, compiled at the end of the 9th century in Wessex. (11) The Chronicle’s anonymous scribe appears to have incorporated much information recorded in earlier periods. (11) Wulfhere was the son of Penda of Mercia. (11) Penda’s queen, Cynewise, is named by Bede, who does not mention her children; no other wives of Penda are known and so it is likely but not certain that she was Wulfhere’s mother. (11) In 655 Penda besieged Oswiu of Northumbria at Iudeu, the location of which is unknown but which may have been Stirling, in Scotland. (11) Penda took Oswiu’s son, Ecgfrith, as hostage, and Oswiu paid tribute, in the form of treasure, to secure Penda’s departure. (11) On the way back to Mercia, Oswiu overtook Penda and on 15 November 655 Oswiu and Penda fought on the banks of the (unidentified) River Winwaed. (11)

Wulfhere origins

Nothing is known of Wulfhere’s childhood. (11) He had two brothers, Peada and Æthelred, and two sisters, Cyneburh and Cyneswith; it is also possible that Merewalh, king of the Magonsæte, was Wulfhere’s brother. (11)


Penda was killed (5,7) and beheaded by Oswiu (11) in 654 (5) OR 655 (7) at the battle of Winwaed. (4) This led to a temporary collapse of Mercian power. (4) Oswiu divided Mercia into northern and southern halves. (11) The northern portion was kept under direct Northumbrian control. (11) Penda’s son Peada (1b,7) had married Oswiu’s daughter Ealhflæd OR Alhflæd (10) c. 653. (11) He had ruled Middle Anglia for his father, and introduced Christianity to it in 653, as a condition of his marriage to Oswiu’s daughter. (10) He now became king (1b,7) of the southern kingdom. (11) Bede reports that Peada:

received four priests, who by reason of their learning and good life were deemed proper to instruct and baptize his nation These priests were Cedd and Adda, and Betti and Diuma; the last of whom was by nation a Scot [i.e. an Irishman], the others English … But when Penda was slain, and the most Christian king, Oswiu, succeeded him in the throne [i.e. annexed Mercia] … Diuma, one of the aforesaid four priests, was made bishop of the Middle Angles, as also of the Mercians, being ordained by Bishop Finan [bishop of Lindisfarne]; for the scarcity of priests made it necessary that one prelate should be set over two nations.” (Bede III, 21)

In the spring of 656 Oswiu king of Northumbria assumed control of the whole of Mercia. (1b,10) Peada did not remain king long. (9,10) six months later (7) at Easter in (11) in 656 (10,11) OR 15th November 655 (10) Peada was murdered (4,7) 656 (11) many believe by his wife (9,10) OR by Oswiu (10) with his wife’s assistance. (10,11) Oswiu then ruled both halves of Mercia himself through deputies. (11)

King Oswiu governed the Mercians, as also the people of the other southern provinces, for three years after he had slain King Penda … At this time he gave to the above-mentioned Peada, son to King Penda, because he was his kinsman, the kingdom of the Southern Mercians, consisting, as is said, of five thousand families, divided by the river Trent from the Northern Mercians, whose land contains 7 thousand families; but Peada was foully slain in the following spring, by the treachery, as is said, of his wife, during the very time of the Easter festival”. (Bede III, 24) (10)

Bede lists Oswiu as the seventh and last king to hold imperium (or bretwalda in the language of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) over the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. (11) Overlordship was a common relationship between kingdoms at this time, often taking the form of a lesser king under the domination of a stronger one. (11) Oswiu went further than this, however, and installed his own governors in Mercia after the deaths of Penda and Peada. (11) This attempt to establish close control of Mercia failed in 658 when three Mercian leaders, Immin, Eafa and Eadbert, rebelled against the Northumbrians. (11)

Wulfhere King

The Mercian Revolt

The Mercian nobles (7,10) Immin, and Eafa, and Eadberht (10) organized a (7,10) revolt in 657 (1b,5) OR 658 (7) against Northumbrian rule, and drove out Oswiu’s governors (5,7) (‘ealdormen’). (10) They installed Wulfhere (1,3) OR Wulfhere[?] (1a) or Wulfar (1) the brother of Peada, (1b,5) and Penda’s second son. (9) He had been kept in concealment (5,9) in exile (9) for some time after his father’s death. (5,9) It has been suggested that the Mercian revolt succeeded because Oswiu may have been occupied with fighting in Pictland, in northern Britain. (11) His nephew the Pictish king Talorgan, son of Eanfrith, had died in 657. (11) Wulfhere became King of Mercia in 658. (1,5) OR In 657 (5) Stephen of Ripon’s Life of Wilfrid describes Wulfhere as “a man of proud mind, and insatiable will”. (7) As will be seen, Manuscript E returns to this subject later. Bede states that:

Three years after the death of King Penda, the Mercian chiefs, Immin, and Eafa, and Eadberht, rebelled against King Oswiu, setting up for their king, Wulfhere, son to the said Penda, a youth whom they had kept concealed; and expelling the ealdormen of the foreign king, they bravely recovered at once their liberty and their lands; and being thus free, together with their king, they rejoiced to serve Christ the true King, for the sake of an everlasting kingdom in heaven. This king governed the Mercians 17 years” (Bede III, 24). (10)

Adherence to Christianity

Britain had been Christianised under the Romans, but the incoming Anglo-Saxons practiced their indigenous religion (Anglo-Saxon paganism) and the church in Great Britain was limited to the surviving British kingdoms in Scotland and Wales, and the kingdom of Dumnonia in the southwest of England. (11) Missionaries from Rome began converting the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity at the end of the 6th century, and this process was well under way in Penda’s reign, (11) though Penda himself remained pagan throughout his life. (10,11) Records survive of the baptism of other kings at this time—Cynegils of Wessex was baptised in about 640, for example, and Edwin of Northumbria was converted in the mid 620s. (11) However, later kings, such as Cædwalla of Wessex, who ruled in the 680s, are recorded as pagan at their accession. (11) Christianity originally had no place in his plans, (9) in spite of Bede’s contention that, after Wulfhere became king: “Free under their own king, they [the Mercians] gave willing allegiance to Christ their true king, so that they might win his eternal kingdom in heaven”. (11) While Wulfhere’s father had refused to convert to Christianity, and Peada had apparently converted in order to marry Oswiu’s daughter, (11) the date and the circumstances of Wulfhere’s conversion are unknown. (1,11Wulfhere’s path away from paganism to Christianity does not appear to have been an easy one. (9) It has been suggested that he adopted Christianity as part of a settlement with Oswiu. (11) Bede records that two years before Penda’s death, his son Peada converted to Christianity, influenced partly by Oswiu’s son Ealhfrith, who had married Peada’s sister Cyneburh. (11) Peada brought a Christian mission into Mercia, and it is possible that this was when Wulfhere became a Christian. (11) Wulfhere’s marriage to Eormenhild of Kent would have brought Mercia into close contact with the Christian kingdoms of Kent and Merovingian Gaul, which were connected by kinship and trade. (11) Although Wulfhere was baptized before his marriage, it appears he did not shed his pagan beliefs. (9) The political and economic benefits of the marriage may therefore also have been a factor in Wulfhere’s Christianisation of his kingdom. (11) One legend is that he murdered his sons and, filled with regret, he listened to his Christian wife and daughter’s advice to seek forgiveness, and went to St Chad to confess his sins. (9) After that, Wulfhere embraced Christianity. (9,11) Wulfhere was the first Christian (1,3) king of all of Mercia (1,1b) Unlike his pagan father, Wulfhere was an enthusiastic Christian, (8) He took energetic measures to spread Christianity (5) and was greatly helped by his bishop (5,11) of Lichfield (11) Jaruman, (5,11) 663 (11) – 667. (10) Jaruman was not the first bishop; Bede mentions a predecessor, Trumhere, but nothing is known about Trumhere’s activities or who appointed him. (11) (especially in Essex – see below under ‘Minor Southern Kingdoms‘) and afterward by (5,9) a monk named (9) St. Chad, (5,9) who would later become the Bishop of Lichfield. (9)

Wulfhere and Wilfrid

In 666, Wilfrid, at that time bishop of York designate, returned from Gaul, where he had been consecrated, to find that Chad (brother of Cedd) had been made bishop of York during his, prolonged, absence. (10) Eddius Stephanus, (10) Stephen of Ripon (11) Wilfrid’s biographer, says (Chapter 14) that:

Wilfrid withdrew to his old post as abbot, to a humble life at Ripon for the next few years, remaining there all the time except for the frequent invitations from King Wulfhere to carry out episcopal duties in Mercia.”

During the years 667–69, (11) while Wilfrid was at Ripon, Wulfhere frequently invited him to come to Mercia when there was need of the services of a bishop. (10,11) According to Stephen, Wulfhere rewarded Wilfrid with “many tracts of land”, in which Wilfrid “soon established minsters for servants of God”. (11) For the time being, however, there was no archbishop of Canterbury to consecrate a replacement, so Wilfrid was temporarily acting as bishop of the Mercians. (10) Eddius continues:

Wulfhere had a sincere liking for him [Wilfrid]. God had raised up for Himself this most gracious king – amongst whose good works was the gift, for the good of his soul, of many pieces of land in various places to our bishop. Wilfrid soon used them to found monasteries.”

Theodore,Wulfhere and Chad

In 669, Theodore (a monk from Tarsus who had been selected and consecrated by the pope) at last arrived in Britain to begin his tenure as archbishop of Canterbury. (10) Theodore judged that Chad’s position at York was illegitimate, and he had to relinquish it to Wilfrid. (10) Mercia needed a bishop, so Wulfhere asked Theodore:

that a bishop should be given to him and his people; but Theodore would not ordain a new one for them, but requested of King Oswiu that Chad might be their bishop1. He then lived in retirement at his monastery, which is at Laestingaeu [Lastingham, North Yorkshire], while Wilfrid administered the bishopric of York, and of all the Northumbrians, and likewise of the Picts, as far as King Oswiu was able to extend his dominions…Chad having received the bishopric of the Mercians and of Lindsey, took care to administer it with great perfection of life, according to the example of the ancient fathers. King Wulfhere also gave him land of the extent of 50 families, to build a monastery, at the place called Ad Barvae, or ‘At the Wood’ [Barrow on Humber?], in the province of Lindsey, wherein traces of the monastic life instituted by him continue to this day. (10) He had his episcopal see in the place called Lyccidfelth [Lichfield], in which he also died, and was buried, and where the see of the succeeding bishops of that province [i.e. Mercia] continues to this day.” (Bede IV, 3).

Chad died in 672. (10)

In his place, Theodore ordained Wynfrith, a man of good and sober life, to preside, like his predecessors, over the bishoprics of the Mercians, the Middle Angles, and Lindsey, of all which, Wulfhere, who was still living, was king.” (Bede IV, 3). (10)

Bede notes that, round about 674/5:

Theodore, the archbishop, taking offence at some act of disobedience of Wynfrith, bishop of the Mercians, deposed him from his bishopric when he had held it but a few years, and in his, place ordained Seaxwulf bishop, who was founder and abbot of the monastery which is called Medeshamstede2, in the country of the Gyrwe.” (10) (Bede IV, 6). (10)

The North and South Gyrwe were two of the peoples known collectively as the Middle Angles. (10)


Wulfhere’s influence among the Lindesfara, whose territory, Lindsey, lay in what is now Lincolnshire, is known from information about episcopal authority. (11) The kingdom of Lindsey covered (10) much of modern-day Lincolnshire (10,11) indeed, it is named after the Roman name for Lincoln (Lindum Colonia). (10) Its borders are fairly precisely known: the river Humber to the north; the sea to the east; the Foss Dyke and river Witham to the south; in the west, the river Trent, but including the Isle of Axholme, in the marshes (now drained) to the west of the Trent. (10) The genealogy of a king of Lindsey called Aldfrith appears in the Anglian Collection, but his reign cannot be securely dated. (10) Lindsey has no recorded independent history. (10) From 627 – its earliest appearance in the record: “the province of Lindsey, which is the first on the south side of the river Humber, stretching as far as the sea” (Bede II, 16) – it appears as a satellite of either Northumbria, as was the case in 627, (10) or, as here in Wulfhere’s day, Mercia. (10,11) It may be that the political basis for Mercian episcopal control of the Lindesfara was laid early in Wulfhere’s reign, under Trumhere and Jaruman, the two bishops who preceded Chad. (11)At least one of the Mercian bishops of Lichfield is known to have exercised authority there: Wynfrith, who became bishop on Chad’s death in 672. (11) In addition it is known that Wulfhere gave land at Barrow upon Humber, in Lindsey, to Chad, for a monastery. (11) It is possible that Chad also had authority there as bishop, probably no later than 669. (11)


Wulfhere was a similar ruler to his father, Penda (3) a powerful warlord feared by his neighbours. (9) How much direct control Oswiu exerted over the southern kingdoms during his imperium is unclear. (11) Bede describes Oswiu’s friendship and influence over Sigeberht of the East Saxons, but generally the pattern in the southeast is of more local domination, with Oswiu’s influence unlikely to have been particularly strong. (11) Wulfhere appears to have taken over Oswiu’s position in many instances. (11) He extended his borders in all directions. (5) He seems to have been the effective overlord of Britain south of the Humber from the early 660s, though not overlord of Northumbria as his father had been. (11) Bede does not list him as one of the rulers who exercised imperium, (10,11) and, consequently, he is not named as a Bretwalda by the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ – but it seems very likely that in 673 Wulfhere, whom Eddius Stephanus (Chapter 20) refers to as “a man of proud mind and insatiable will”, (10) was, indeed, in that position. (10,11) Modern historians consider that the rise to primacy of the kingdom of Mercia began in his reign. (5,11) He was likely seeking to establish hegemony in the area, as he did not have the manpower to establish and maintain direct control over an extended period. (3)

The Tribal Hidage

A document called the Tribal Hidage may date from Wulfhere’s reign. (11) Drawn up before many smaller groups of peoples were absorbed into the larger kingdoms, such as Mercia, it records the peoples of Anglo-Saxon England, along with an assessment in hides, a unit of land. (11) The Tribal Hidage is difficult to date precisely; it may have been written down in Wulfhere’s reign, but other suggested origins include the reign of Offa of Mercia, or Edwin or Oswiu of Northumbria. (11)


His accession marked the end of Oswiu of Northumbria’s overlordship of southern England, and (2) he quickly reinstated Mercian power (3,4) over much of that region. (2,3) Another Mercian connection to Kent was through Merewalh, the king of the Magonsæte, and Merewalh, who may have been Wulfhere’s brother, was married to Hlothhere’s sister, Eormenburh. (11)


Wulfhere’s brother (10) OR possibly his brother (11) Merewalh, was married to Domne (‘Lady’) Eafe, daughter of Eorcenberht’s brother. (10) In one of the Mildrith Legend texts, found in the ‘Historia Regum’, Merewalh is called “king of the Mercians”. (10) In two other texts, however, it is made clear that (10) he ruled (10,11) a western part of Mercian territory, i.e. the Westerna, usually called (10) the Magonsæte (10,11) (Herefordshire and southern Shropshire) (10) as a subking under Wulfhere. (11) By 664 a devastating plague struck Britain and Merewalh and Eafe had separated. (10)


The Gewisse, thought to be the original group from which the West Saxons came, appear to have originally settled in the upper Thames valley, and what records survive of the 6th century show them active in that region. (11) He was successful against Wessex: (2,5) according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he “raided as far as Ashdown” (8,11) and the Isle of Wight, which he conquered (2,3) in 661. (10,11) In 661, Wulfere quarrelled with King Kenwulf of the West Saxons and fought them at the battle of Posentcsbyrig (Pontesbury). (13) The Mercian resurgence under Wulfhere placed them under severe pressure (2,11) leading to Mercian control of much of the Thames valley. (2) Also in the early 660s, the West Saxon see of Dorchester, in the same area, was divided, and a new bishopric set up at Winchester. (11) This decision was probably a reaction to the advance of the Mercians into the traditional heartland of the West Saxons, leaving Dorchester dangerously close to the border. (11) Within a few years, the Dorchester see was abandoned; the exact date is not known, but it was probably in the mid 660s. (11) When the bishop of Winchester, Wine, was expelled by the West Saxon king, Cenwalh (10) OR Cenwealh (11) probably in 666, he:

took refuge with Wulfhere, king of the Mercians, of whom he purchased for money the see of the city of London [chief town of the East Saxons], and remained bishop thereof till his death.” (Bede III, 7). (10)

In the early 670s, Cenwealh of Wessex died, and perhaps as a result of the stress caused by Wulfhere’s military activity the West Saxon kingdom fragmented and came to be ruled by underkings, according to Bede. (11) Eventually these underkings were defeated and the kingdom reunited, probably by Cædwalla but possibly by Centwine. (11)

Sussex and Isle of Wight

In addition to the attack on Ashdown, Wulfhere raided the Isle of Wight in 6613. (11) Strangely, once he had successfully captured large portions of south Britain he subsequently handed control over to smaller, local kingdoms such as Sussex. (2,3) Bede says (Bede IV, 13) (10) Wulfhere gave to (2,8) his godson King (11) Æðelwealh (8) OR Æthelwealh (2,11) OR Æthelwald or Æthelwalh (10) of Sussex (2,8) OR of the South Saxons. (11) “the province of the Meonware, in the country of the West Saxons” (10,11) (i.e. the Meon valley, in what is now Hampshire, opposite the Isle of Wight) as well as the Isle of Wight (which still had its own king at this time). (2,10) It seems likely that the ruling dynasty on the island found these arrangements acceptable to some degree, since the West Saxons, under Cædwalla, exterminated the whole family when they launched their own attack on the island in 686. (11) After the conquest of the Isle of Wight, Wulfhere ordered the priest Eoppa to provide baptism to the inhabitants. (11) According to the Chronicle, this was the first time Christian baptism had reached the island. (11)


In addition to being Wulfhere’s godson, King Æthelwealh (11) OR Æthelwalh (10) of the South Saxons had a connection to the Mercians via marriage. (11) At some stage, prior to his baptism, (10) Æthelwalh had married Eafe, who apparently was from the royal family of the Hwicce (10,11) being the daughter (11) OR brother (11) of Eanfrith of the Hwicce, (10,11) a tribe whose territory lay to the southwest of Mercia. (11) Their land roughly corresponded to Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and western Warwickshire. (10) The kingdom of the Hwicce is sometimes regarded as a creation of Penda’s, but it is equally likely that the kingdom existed independently of Mercia, and that Penda and Wulfhere’s increasing influence in the area represented an extension of Mercian power rather than the creation of a separate entity. (11) They had their own royal family, but it appears that at this date they were already subordinate to Wulfhere. (10,11) The marriage between Æthelwealh and Eafe may well have taken place at Wulfhere’s court, since it is known Æthelwealh was converted there. (11) According to Bede, Eafe:

had been baptized in her own country, the province of the Hwicce. She was the daughter of Eanfrith, the brother of Eanhere, who were both Christians, as were their people” (Bede IV, 13). (10)

Minor Southern Kingdoms

He also had influence in Surrey, Essex (2,4) the West Saxon lands, or Wessex, north of the Thames. (5) Outside Mercia he induced the East and the South Saxons to accept Christianity and is said to have founded one or two monasteries. (5)


He gained control of London and its sea link in the 660s. (5,11) At some time between 665 and 668 Wulfhere sold the see of London to Wine, who had been expelled from his West Saxon bishopric by Cenwealh. (11) London fell within the East Saxons’ territory in that period. (11) From the archaeological evidence, it appears to be about this time that the Middle Saxon settlement in London began to expand significantly; the centre of Anglo-Saxon London was not at the old Roman centre, but about a mile west of that, near what is now the location of the Strand. (11) Wulfhere may have been in control of the city when this expansion began. (11)


Wulfhere had influence in Kent. (2) The Mildrith Legend texts provide some details of relations between Mercia and Kent. (10) Eorcenberht was the king of Kent at Wulfhere’s accession, and the two families became connected (11) when Wulfhere married Eorcenberht’s daughter Eormenhild. (10,11) Wulfhere’s brother, Merewalh, was married to Domne (‘Lady’) Eafe, daughter of Eorcenberht’s brother. (10) Eorcenberht died in 664, and was succeeded by his son, Egbert. (10) Egbert was involved in the murder of his two cousins, Æthelberht and Æthelred, the brothers of Lady Eafe, which is the central event of the Mildrith Legend. (10) Merewalh and Lady Eafe had separated by this time, and, in recompense for the murders, Egbert gave Lady Eafe land on the Isle of Thanet, where she founded a monastery (Minster Abbey), and became its first abbess. (10) (Her daughter, Mildrith, succeeded her.) (10) Egbert died, in 673. (10,11) The situation in Kent at that time is not clearly recorded. (11) It appears that a year passed before (11) Hlothhere, Egbert’s brother, became king (10,11) OR the date is somewhat uncertain. (10) It has been speculated that Wulfhere acted as the effective ruler of Kent in the interregnum between Egbert’s death and Hlothhere’s accession. (11) The dynastic rivalries apparent from the Mildrith Legend may have resulted in a dispute over the kingship. (10) Possibly Wulfhere opposed Hlothere’s succession, and it may be that Kent was without a king of its own for a year, leaving Wulfhere in control. (10) Wulfhere may have had an interest in the succession, as through his marriage to Eormenhild he was the uncle of Egbert’s two sons, Eadric and Wihtred. (11)


Surrey is not recorded as ever having been an independent kingdom, but was at least a province, which may have extended north into modern Buckinghamshire, that was under the control of different neighbours at different times. (11) It was ruled by Egbert until the early 670s. (10,11) At about the time of Egbert’s death, Surrey, was taken-over by Wulfhere. (10) It was probably Egbert’s death that triggered Wulfhere’s intervention. (11) A charter (10,11) sealed between 673 and 675 (11) records a land-grant (10,11) to the monastery of Chertsey made (10) OR confirming a grant made to Bishop Eorcenwald (11) by one Frithuwald, who was acting for Wulfhere as sub-king (subregulus) of Surrey, (10,11) Frithuwold himself was probably married to Wilburh, Wulfhere’s sister. (11) Wulfhere confirmed the grant at his residence at Thame (10,11) Oxfordshire. (10)

East Anglia

In 664, Æthelwald of East Anglia died, and was succeeded by Ealdwulf, who reigned for fifty years. (11) Almost nothing is known of Mercian relations with East Anglia during this time; East Anglia had previously been dominated by Northumbria, but there is no evidence that this continued after Wulfhere’s accession. (11) Swithhelm of the East Saxons also died in 664; (11) he was succeeded by his two sons, Sigehere and Sæbbi, (10,11) They were, however: “subject to Wulfhere, king of the Mercians” (Bede III, 30). (10,11) In 664 a devastating plague struck Britain. (10) Cedd, bishop of the East Saxons, died of the plague. (10) In the hope of fending off the sickness, Sigehere led a pagan revival in his territory. (10,11) Wulfhere sent Jaruman, bishop of (10,11) Lichfield (11) OR the Mercians (10) to reconvert the East Saxons. (11)

to correct their error, and recall the province to the true faith. Jaruman acted with much discretion, as I was informed by a priest who bore him company in that journey …and travelling through all the country, far and near, brought back both the people and the aforesaid king to the way of righteousness … Having thus accomplished their works, the priests and teachers returned home with joy.” (Bede III, 30). (10)

It is apparent from these events that Oswiu’s influence in the south had waned by this time, if not before, and that Wulfhere now dominated the area. (11)


By 670, when Oswiu died, Wulfhere was the most powerful king in southern Britain. (7) Unlike his father however, Wulfhere never managed to retake any parts of Northumbria (3) OR He gained Lindsey from Northumbria in 657. (5)


He married Eormenhild (2,10) of Kent (11) OR saint Ermenilda (8,9) the daughter of King Eorcenberht of Kent. (2,8) No date is recorded for the marriage. (11) Ermenilda was described as “saintly and beautiful”. (9) Her father King Eorcenberht was very pious himself, as was his wife, Seaxburgh. (9) Highborn marriage in 7th Century Anglo-Saxon England was one of political alliances and peace-making. (9) War was a way of life, and kingdoms rose and fell with frightening swiftness. (9) Unsurprisingly, love did not come into noble unions. (9) The marriage between Wulfhere of Mercia and Ermenilda of Kent was no exception. (9) He was a ruthless king, she a pious princess. (9) Ermenilda, gentle and virtuous, seemed an unlikely choice of bride. (9) He and Ermenilda had four children: Werburgh (9) OR Werburga (8) OR St. Werburh, (5) (the only girl) (8,9), who became abbess of Ely. (5,8) Ulfald, Rufifin, and Kenred. (9) Theirs was a union that would strengthen the bonds between kingdoms. (9) There is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that Wulfhere and Ermenilda’s marriage was one of opposites—the wolf and the lamb. (9) One such version of events4 paints Wulfhere in a very poor light. (9) Apparently, Wulfhere had inherited not just his father’s courage and military prowess but also his “violent and cruel temper”. (9) There is no record of any children5 in the earliest sources, though Coenred, who was king of Mercia from 704 to 709, is recorded in John of Worcester’s 12th Century chronicle as Wulfhere’s son. (11) Another possible child is Berhtwald, a subking who is recorded as a nephew of Æthelred, and a third child, Werburh, is recorded in an 11th-century manuscript as a daughter of Wulfhere. (11) He’s alleged to have murdered two sons. (9) Wulfhere did not allow his sons to follow Christianity, yet he allowed his daughter to do so. (9) It did not matter what religion his daughter worshipped—but he wished his sons to grow up to be warlords like him, and his father before him. (9) After Wulfhere’s death, Ermenilda was said to have taken the veil and become abbess of Ely, like her mother before her. (9) Later, she was sainted. (9)

Failed invasion of Northumbria, 674

He extended his borders in all directions, but at the end of his reign he suffered a series of setbacks. (8) In 674, he decided to extend his overlordship to Northumbria also. (10) Accordingly, he “stirred up all the southern nations” and invaded Northumbria (10,11) from a position of strength. (11) He conducted an unsuccessful expedition against (3,5) Oswiu’s son Ecgfrith of (7,8) Northumbria in c. 674. (3,5) OR 674. (1b,4) Bede does not report the fighting, nor is it mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. (11) but Wulfhere’s plan went woefully awry: (10) he was defeated. (1b,4) Ecgfrith “marched forth against the enemy host” with a smaller force, and “laid them low”, (10) forcing Wulfhere to surrender Lindsey, (10,11) and to pay tribute. (10,11) “Countless numbers were slaughtered, and their king routed.” (10)

Wessex again

Wulfhere survived the defeat but (11) his grip on power in southern England was loosened, and in 675 he would appear to have faced a West Saxon challenge: (8,10) In 675, there was a battle (8,10) at Biedanheafde (10,11) between the Mercians and the West Saxons (10) under Aescwine. (8) OR Æscwine (10,11) It is not known where this battle was, or who was the victor. (11) Henry of Huntingdon, a 12th Century historian who had access to versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle now lost, believed that Mercians had been the victors in a “terrible battle” and remarks upon Wulfhere having inherited “the valour of his father and grandfather”. (11) Kirby, however, presumes Æscwine was sufficiently successful to break Wulfhere’s hold over Wessex. (11)

Death of Wulfhere

Wulfhere died in the same year, although the cause is unknown. (8,10) Bede records Wulfhere’s death in the chronological summary with which he brings his ‘Ecclesiastical History’ to a close (Bede V, 24): “In the year 675, Wulfhere, king of the Mercians, when he had reigned 17 years, died and left the government to his brother Æthelred” (10) He was either killed (1b) on the invasion of Northumbria (1b,4) OR He died (3,7) probably of (7) disease (3,7) in 675 (2,3) OR 676. (9) Eddius Stephanus comments: “I do not know the exact cause.” (10) He would have been in his mid-thirties. (11) His widow, Eormenhild, is thought to have later become the abbess of Ely. (11)


The next king was (1b,5) Wulfhere’s brother (7,8) Æthelred, (1b,5) who reigned from 674. (1b,4) Æthelred recovered Lindsey from the Northumbrians a few years after his accession, but he was generally unable to maintain the domination of the south achieved by Wulfhere. (11) A decade after Wulfhere’s death, in about 685, the West Saxons under Cædwalla began an aggressive expansion to the east, reversing much of the Mercian advance. (11) In 704, (5,8) Æthelred was succeeded by Cenred, (1b,5) or Coenred (5,8) Wulfhere’s son. (1b,5) Æthelred and Cenred are better known for their religious activities. (1b) The king who succeeded them, Ceolred, is said in a letter of Saint Boniface to have been a dissolute youth who died insane. (1b) So ended the rule of the direct descendants of Penda. (1b)


Appendix I The Stone of Stone

The most famous Staffordshire legend of Anglo-Saxon times is that the foundation of the mid-Staffordshire town of Stone. (6) It is told that the great Mercian king, Wulfhere, who had a palace at nearby Tittensor, was horrified when his two sons, Wulfad and Ruffin (also Rufin), converted to Christianity. (6) The legend says the two boys followed a white stag into the forest – where they met St Chad, who persuaded them to become Christians. (6) But when he found out, the angry Wulfhere killed his sons; and on that same spot their sorrowing mother buried them under a cairn of stones. (6) A church was built over these stones in 670, just one of the buildings that was predecessor to the present church of St Michael & St Wulfad. (6) And that is how the town around it, ‘Stone’, got its name. (6) Is it all true? Well, Wulfhere did have problems with Christianity, being the last Mercian king to be a pagan, though he did later endow a number of religious houses and was father to the holy St Werburgh. (6) However – there’s no record at all of Wulfad and Ruffin, even though both have churches in the county dedicated to them. (6) So, is it true? Sadly… it is all very doubtful. (6) But don’t tell the people of Stone. (6)

Appendix 2: The Medehamstede Forgery

The early-12th century Manuscript E (the ‘Peterborough Manuscript’) of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ has a lengthy interpolation added to annal 656. (10) It returns to the subject, begun in an interpolation s.a.654 (above), of a monastery at a place called Medeshamstede:

In his [Peada’s] time he and Oswiu, the brother of King Oswald, came together, and said, that they would rear a monastery to the glory of Christ and the honour of St Peter. And they did so, and gave it the name of Medeshamstede; because there is a well there, called Medeswæl. And they then began the foundation, and thereon wrought, and then committed it to a monk, who was called Seaxwulf.” “In his [Wulfhere’s] time the abbacy of Medeshamstede, which his brother had begun, waxed very rich. Now the king loved it much, for the love of his brother Peada, and for the love of his pledge-brother Oswiu, and for the love of Seaxwulf the abbot. He then said that he would dignify and honour it, by the counsel of his brothers, Æthelred and Merewalh; …Then said the king to the abbot: “Lo! beloved Seaxwulf, I have sent after thee for my soul’s need, and I will plainly tell thee why. My brother Peada and my dear friend Oswiu began a monastery to the glory of Christ and St Peter. But my brother, as Christ has willed it, is departed from this life, and I will pray to thee, O dear friend! that they work diligently on the work, and I will find thee thereto gold and silver, lands and possessions, and all that thereto behoveth. Then went the abbot home, and began to work. He so sped as Christ granted him, so that in a few years the monastery was ready.”

This preamble leads into an Old English version of a charter itemizing lands and privileges granted to the abbey by Wulfhere. (10) According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Wulfhere endowed a major monastery at Medeshamstede, in modern Peterborough. (11) The monastery had initially been endowed by Peada; for the dedication of Wulfhere’s gift both Archbishop Deusdedit (died 664), and Bishop Jaruman (held office from 663), were present. (11) The endowment was signed by Wulfhere and Oswiu, and by Sigehere and Sæbbi, the Kings of Essex. (10,11) It is dated 664. (10) Unfortunately, however, it is a post-Conquest forgery – Robin Fleming calls it: “one of the most elaborate post-Conquest forgeries produced in England”. (10)

Appendix 3: Wulfhere Murders his sons:

Chad was living as a hermit in the forest near Tamworth. (9) Ermenilda, flouting her husband’s authority, started sending her two eldest sons (Ufald and Rufifin) to Chad in secret, to be instructed in the ways of God. (9) The youngest, Kenred, was too little to accompany them (which in retrospect was a good thing). (9) The boys readily accepted Chad’s teachings and begged him to baptise them, which he gladly did. (9) Meanwhile, Wulfhere’s daughter, Werburgh, had reached marriageable age. (9) She was described as “sweet and gentle,” like her mother. (9) However, she repulsed all suitors as she wished to dedicate her life to god. (9) Her piety did not please a nobleman named Werbode. (9) Chief advisor to the king, and described as a “headstrong and haughty” man, Werbode managed to convince Wulfhere to give him his daughter. (9) However, Werburgh rebuffed all his advances. (9) Rejected, and blaming her religion for Werburgh’s lack of interest in him, Werbode took his revenge. (9) He had noticed the princes’ secret trips into the forest to visit Chad and informed the king about it. (9) Then, he took Wulfhere to Chad’s hut, where they found the two boys praying. (9) Wulfhere lost his temper and demanded his sons renounce their beliefs and return home but they ignored him. (9) In a fit of rage, he murdered them both. (9) Ermenilda was understandably devastated by the loss of her sons and by her husband’s terrible act. (9) His dead sons, Ulfald and Rufifin, were later sainted. (9) We will never really know. (9) Most of what we have learnt about 7th Century Britannia came from Bede, and his accounts do not mention Ermenilda or her daughter. (9) Also, the early historical accounts were mostly written by monks, so stories like this one were often told as cautionary tales against pagan ways. (9) However, it appears that Wulfhere and Ermenilda did actually exist, and they would have been an odd match – the Wolf and Lamb, indeed. (9)

Appendix 4: Wulfhere and the Isle of Wight

661, the date provided by the ‘Chronicle’ is a little problematic. (10) Events from several years have apparently been combined in the one annal. (10) Bede describes the baptism of Æthelwalh and Wulfhere’s gift to him of the two territories as being “not long before” the arrival in Sussex of Wilfrid, the exiled bishop of York, in 681, which might suggest that this particular aspect of the ‘Chronicle’ entry should be dated considerably later than 661 (though it would obviously have to have been at some point before Wulfhere’s death, which was in 675). (10)



  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wulfhere_of_Mercia summary

  2. http://encyclopedia.kids.net.au/page/me/Mercia

  3. https://alchetron.com/Wulfhere-of-Mercia

  4. https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Kings-Queens-of-Mercia/

  5. https://www.cs.mcgill.ca/~rwest/wikispeedia/wpcd/wp/m/Mercia.htm

  6. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Wulfhere

  7. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/uk-england-stoke-staffordshire-13105212

  8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wulfhere_of_Mercia Wikipedia mid-length summary

  9. http://www.1066.co.nz/Mosaic%20DVD/whoswho/text/Wulfhere_of_Mercia[1].htm

  10. https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2016/08/the-wolf-and-lamb-wulfhere-of-mercia.html

  11. http://www. dot-domesday. me. uk/mercia. htm

  12. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wulfhere_of_Mercia Full article

  13. http://shropshirehistory.com/medieval/saxon.htm

1 See Appendix 3 for legend of Wulfhere murdering his sons

2 Peterborough

3 See Appendix 4

4 Virgin Saints of the Benedictine Order, pp. 59–64, Forgotten Books)

5 An 11th-century history of St. Peter’s Monastery in Gloucester names two other women, Eadburh and Eafe, as queens of Wulfhere, but neither claim is plausible. (11)

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