Mercia was one of the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. It was centred on the valley of the River Trent and its tributaries in the region now known as the English Midlands. The name is a Latinisation of the Old English Mierce, meaning "border people".
The name of Mercia is still in use today by a wide range of organisations, including military units, public, commercial and voluntary bodies.
Early history Edit
Mercia's exact evolution from the Anglo-Saxon invasions is more obscure than that of Northumbria, Kent, or even Wessex. Archaeological surveys show that Angles settled the lands north of the River Thames by the sixth century. The name Mercia is Old English for "boundary folk", and the traditional interpretation was that the kingdom originated along the frontier between the Welsh and the Anglo-Saxon invaders, although P. Hunter Blair has argued an alternative interpretation that they emerged along the frontier between the kingdom of Northumbria and the inhabitants of the River Trent river valley.
The earliest king of Mercia of whom any details are known is Creoda, said to have been the great-grandson of Icel. He came to power about 584 and built a fortress at Tamworth, which became the seat of the Mercian kings. He was succeeded by his son Pybba in 593. Cearl, a kinsman of Creoda, followed Pybba in 606; in 615, Cearl gave his daughter Cwenburga in marriage to Edwin, king of Deira whom he had sheltered while he was an exiled prince. The next Mercian king was Penda, who ruled from about 626 or 633 until 655. Some of what is known about Penda comes through the hostile account of Bede, who disliked him both for being an enemy king to Bede's own Northumbria, but also for being a pagan. However, Bede admits that it was Penda who freely allowed Christian missionaries from Lindisfarne into Mercia, and did not restrain them from preaching. After a reign of successful battles against all opponents, Penda was defeated and killed at the Battle of Winwaed by the Northumbrian king Oswiu in 655.
The battle led to a temporary collapse of Mercian power. Penda was succeeded first by his son Peada (who converted to Christianity at Repton in 653), but in the spring of 656 he was murdered and Oswiu assumed control of the whole of Mercia. A revolt in 658 resulted in the appearance of another son of Penda, Wulfhere, who ruled Mercia until his death in 675. Wulfhere was initially successful in restoring the power of Mercia, but the end of his reign saw a serious defeat against Northumbria. The next two kings, Æthelred and Cœnred son of Wulfhere, are better known for their religious activities; the king who succeeded them (in 709), Ceolred, is said in a letter of Saint Boniface to have been a dissolute youth who died insane. So ended the rule of the direct descendants of Penda.
At some point before the accession of Æthelbald, the Mercians conquered the region around Wroxeter, known to the Welsh as "The Paradise of Powys." Elegies written in the persona of its dispossessed rulers record the sorrow at this loss.
The next important king of Mercia was Æthelbald (716–757). For the first few years of his reign he had to face the obstacles of two strong rival kings, Wihtred of Kent and Ine of Wessex. But when Wihtred died in 725, and Ine abdicated his throne the following year to become a monk in Rome, Æthelbald was free to establish Mercia's hegemony over the rest of the Anglo-Saxons south of the Humber. Because of his prowess as a military leader, he acquired the title of Bretwalda. Æthelbald suffered a setback in 752, when he was defeated by the West Saxons under Cuthred, but he seems to have restored his supremacy over Wessex by 757.
The Staffordshire hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold was discovered in a field in Staffordshire in July 2009, within the area of Mercia. The artefacts have tentatively been dated to around 600–800 AD. Whether the hoard was deposited by Anglo-Saxon pagans or Christians is debated, as is the purpose of the deposit.
Reign of Offa and rise of Wessex Edit
Following the murder of Æthelbald by one of his bodyguards in 757, a civil war followed, which was concluded with the victory of Offa. Offa was forced to build the hegemony over the southern English of his predecessor anew, which he did so successfully that he became the greatest king Mercia ever knew. Not only did he win battles and dominate southern England, he also took an active hand to administering the affairs of his kingdom by founding market towns and overseeing the first major issues of gold coins in Britain, assumed a role in the administration of the Catholic church in England (sponsoring the short-lived archbishopric of Lichfield), and even negotiated with Charlemagne as an equal. Offa is credited with the construction of Offa's Dyke, marking the border between Wales and Mercia.
Offa exerted himself to ensure that his son Ecgfrith of Mercia would succeed him, but after his death in July 796, Ecgfrith survived for only five more months, and the kingdom passed to a distant relative named Coenwulf in December 796. In 821, Coenwulf was succeeded by his brother Ceolwulf, who demonstrated his military prowess by his attack on and destruction of the fortress of Deganwy in Powys. The power of the West Saxons under Egbert was rising during this period, however, and in 825 Egbert defeated the Mercian king Beornwulf (who had overthrown Ceolwulf in 823) at Ellendun.
The Battle of Ellendun proved decisive. Beornwulf was slain suppressing a revolt amongst the East Angles, and his successor, a former ealdorman named Ludeca, met the same fate. Another ealdorman, Wiglaf, subsequently ruled for less than two years before being driven out of Mercia by Egbert. In 830, Wiglaf regained independence for Mercia, but by this time Wessex was clearly the dominant power in England. Wiglaf was succeeded by Beorhtwulf.
Arrival of the Danes Edit
In 852, Burgred came to the throne and with Ethelwulf of Wessex subjugated North Wales. In 868, Viking invaders (from Denmark) occupied Nottingham. The Vikings drove Burgred, the last king of Mercia, from his kingdom in 874. In 886, the eastern part of the kingdom became part of the Danelaw, while Mercia was reduced to its western portion only. The Danes appointed a Mercian thegn, Ceolwulf II, as king in 873 while the remaining independent section of Mercia was ruled by Earl Æthelred of Mercia, called an ealderman, not a king. He ruled from 883 until 911, in a close and trusting alliance with Wessex. Æthelred had married Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great of Wessex. She gradually assumed power as her husband sickened after about 900, possibly as a result of his wounds gained at the decisive battle against the Vikings at Tettenhall where the last large Viking army to ravage England suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the combined Mercian and Wessex army. After Æthelred's death Æthelflæd ruled alone as ‘Lady of the Mercians’ until her death in 918, when her brother, Edward the Elder of Wessex, became king over Mercia as well. In 911, immediately after Æthelred’s death, Æthelflæd freely gave London and Oxford, with the lands belonging thereto, to her brother in Wessex as a token of loyalty. She then concentrated on fortifying Mercia's existing borders – east towards Nottingham, north to Chester, along the Welsh marches, and down to the River Severn estuary. In 917 she expelled the Danes from Derby.
Loss of independenceEdit
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the end of independent political direction in Mercia following the death of Æthelflæd. Edward of Wessex took over the fortress at Tamworth and accepted the submission of all those settled in Mercia, both Danish and English. In late 918, Ælfwynn, the daughter of Æthelred, was deprived of all authority in Mercia and taken to Wessex.
References to Mercia and the Mercians continue through the annals recording the reigns of Æthelstan and his successors. In 975 King Edgar is described as “friend of the West Saxons and protector of the Mercians”.
A separate political existence from Wessex was briefly restored in 955–959, when Edgar became king of Mercia, and again in 1016, when the kingdom was divided between Cnut and Edmund Ironside, Cnut taking Mercia.
The last reference to Mercia by name is in the annal for 1017, when Eadric Streona was awarded the government of Mercia by Cnut. The later earls, Leofric, Ælfgar and Edwin, ruled over a territory broadly corresponding to historic Mercia, but the Chronicle does not identify it by name. The Mercians as a people are last mentioned in the annal for 1049.