Mercia was one of the most powerful kingdoms in England during the Dark Ages, a time of legendary warriors, cunning rulers, and epic battles. This mighty kingdom rose from the ashes of the Roman Empire and dominated the English Midlands for centuries, leaving behind a rich legacy of monuments, artifacts, and legends.
Strange, then, that the very word is so unfamiliar to modern eyes. What became of this great kingdom, that she should be forgotten and consigned to history?
The Rise of Mercia
Writing a comprehensive history of Mercia can be a little difficult. While the kingdom is a prominent part of English history, various Viking raids and brutal wars with the neighboring kingdom of Wessex have left gaps in our knowledge.
We do not know that the first Mercian king was called Icel and he founded Mercia’s first capital at Tamworth, in the UK county of Staffordshire. He seems to have been king from 515 AD onwards although the Flores Historiarum (a 13th-century chronicle) puts Mercia’s founding as happening in 527 AD. Already our knowledge is paper-thin.
Icel was followed by his son Cnebba, (535-545 AD) who was followed by his son, Cynewald (545-580 AD). Very little is known about these kings so we can assume they followed the status quo set by their ancestors and did little to rock the Mercian boat.
After Cynewald came Creoda (580-959). His major contribution to history was handing over Mercia’s eastern holdings, which then became their own state, the Kingdom of East Anglia.
Pybba, his successor, was a little more successful. He consolidated his kingdom and decided to push Mercia’s boundaries West. It seems this probably resulted in the battle of Chester in 616 AD.
Records are incomplete, but it’s believed this involved Pybba’s successor, Cereal (great name, but that’s all we really know). Little is known about this battle except that Mercia may have been involved, that if they were they lost it, and that it may have come about as a result of Mercian expansionism westwards.
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Mercia didn’t stay down for long though. Its next king was Penda, the last of Mercia’s pagan kings. It was under Penda that Mercia grew to be the most powerful kingdom in the region.
He beat the West Saxons at the battle of Cirencester in 628 AD, taking the Severn Valley and Kingdom of Hwicce from Wessex. Heading north, he then defeated Edwin of Northumbria at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 366 AD, killing both King Edwin and his son, which led to their kingdom collapsing.
Under Penda, Mercia expanded both to the North and West, and by 650 AD he controlled huge chunks of Wessex and Northumbria as well as having strong allegiances with East Anglia and most of the Welsh Kingdoms. His kingdom stretched almost the entire length of modern-day England.
His bloody history came back to bite him however when in 655 AD Oswiu of Northumbria came marching for revenge. Penda was killed at the Battle of Winwaed, In the following years Mercia was converted to Christianity and split in two. Half was ruled by Oswiu and half by Penda’s son, Peada.
Few records remain of Mercia’s next few kings. During this period there seems to have been a slight expansion to the South and East led by Aethelbald of Mercia (716-757 AD) but this was short-lived. All in all, it was a period of decline until Offa overthrew Beornred in around 757 AD.
King Offa is remembered as the greatest King of Mercia, and it was under him that Mercia peaked. His reign lasted for 39 years and during this time he took for his own the Kingdom of Kent, claimed Sussex, and made strong diplomatic ties with rulers on the European continent like Charlemagne the Great (of the Franks).
His successes led to a huge boon in Mercia’s economy and trade. This success is symbolized by Offa’s Dyke, a triumph of medieval engineering (and a shameless land grab for Offa). This dyke, which survives to some form to this day, runs the length of the border between England and Wales. Offa was attacked by the Welsh at least four times during his reign and it is believed the dyke was built as a barrier.
By 794 AD Offa’s power was such that he could win battles before they even started. In 794 AD he took control of East Anglia by simply ordering its king’s death; he never even had to raise an army. Offa’s reign was known as Mercia’s Golden Age.
The Fall of Mercia
What comes after a golden age? A decline. For as great as Offa was, the kings that followed him were unimpressive. After Offa’s death, his son Ecgfrith came to power. He only ruled for 150 days before being assassinated (likely as retribution for all the nobles Offa had killed in securing his power base).
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The kings who followed, Coenwulf (796-821) and Coelwulf (821-823), were complete failures and lost much of Mercia’s land to the south. Smelling blood in the water the Kingdom of Wessex attacked Mercia in 825 AD, defeating its then-ruler King Egbert, and his son, Aethelwulf.
Mercian supremacy was over. King Egbert of Wessex took the Mercian territories of Essex, Kent, Sussex, and Surrey, gutting the kingdom completely. The next few Mercian kings knew nothing but strife as what was left of their kingdom rebelled, trying to join with Wessex.
Eventually, the Mercian King Aethelred II was forced to ally himself with Alfred the Great (King of the West Saxons) against the Danes. In repayment, Alfred demanded Aethelred accept that Alfred was his overlord. From this point on the two families were tied by marriage.
In 918 AD Alfred’s son, Edward the Successor, finished the process by officially annexing Mercia and bringing it under his rule. His successor, Aethelstan, ruled as the first King of England from 929-939 AD.
These days not much of Mercia physically remains and the majority of the structures and buildings from the period have been lost to time. This being said, a handful of physical structures remain, such as the magnificent Lichfield Cathedral and Offa’s Dyke.
As mentioned above, records of the time are also spotty and incomplete. The expansion of Wessex and the Viking raids resulted in many records being lost. As the old saying goes, history is always written by the victors. However, the legacy of Mercia lives on in the cultural and historical heritage of England. It remains a proud part of England’s long and winding history.
Top Image: Mercia dominated England for 500 years, but much of the coure of her history has bneen lost to time. Source: Deivison / Adobe Stock.