As you probably know, I love researching and writing about the history of Mercia. There’s so much to find when we start digging around; legacies and connections that lead to interesting stories and link to decisive moments of history. Today I want to narrow the focus to one part of what became Greater Mercia.The early history of this midlands kingdom is complicated but it was, in essence, composed of a central core, expanding by absorbing other smaller kingdoms and tribal areas, much in the way that other ‘Anglo-Saxon’ kingdoms developed. A curious document known as the Tribal Hidage - its origins are also obscure - lists some of these tribes, with Mercia ‘proper’ at the top, then going out from the Mercian heartlands to include such names as the Wreoconsæte, the Westerna, the Pecsæte and the Hwynca, or Hwicce. (See image, left) These names are probably unfamiliar, and sound like they have been lost in time. So were the Hwicce just another lost tribe? No, they retained their status and even provided a link to one of the most widely-talked about periods of Mercian, indeed English, history…
Historians have been troubled by the kingdom of the Hwicce and whether it existed before Penda’s reign (c.628-655). It is often supposed that the kingdom was created when, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Penda fought, and beat, the West Saxons at Cirencester in 628. We know where it was - much of what we now know as Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Gloucestershire - but can we discover who they were?
The Hwicce lived in the flat-bottomed valley between the Cotswolds and the Malvern Hills, and some suggest that their name means ark, or chest, and refers to that topographical feature. There are many other theories, but none that can be comprehensively proven. It seems the British (or Romano-British) controlled the area in the sixth century, for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that at the battle of Dyrham in 577 the Saxons fought and slew three British kings and captured the cities which they had ruled (one of them being Cirencester) but it seems like the area remained a mix of British (‘Celtic’) and Anglo-Saxon.
Cirencester had been the tribal capital of the Dobunni in the late Iron Age - perhaps a little of this tribal identity remained. The distribution of Dobunnic coinage is roughly coterminous with the land of the Hwicce, according to landscape historian Della Hooke.
It is not known what happened to the area and who was in control after Dyrham up to the formation of the bishopric of Worcester in the mid-seventh century but it’s almost universally agreed that the diocese represented the territory of the kingdom. (The bishops there described themselves as episopi Hwicciorum.) The Hwicce might, even as a subkingdom of Mercia, have ruled over smaller tribes (a charter of 849 mentions the Pencersætan - southwest of Birmingham - and the people known as the Weogoran gave their name to Worcester itself).
Whilst we might not be able to pin down their exact origins, or the derivation of their name, they are not lost to us as people, and we know of several individuals who played crucial roles.
Bede tells us of seventh-century Queen Eafe who was baptised in her own country, the kingdom of the Hwicce, and we know that she was the daughter of King Eanfrith, who was Christian, as were their people. From her story, we can glean that the Hwicce had by her time lost their independent status, if indeed they ever had it; her marriage to Æthelwalh of the South Saxons probably led to, or was conditional upon, her husband converting to Christianity. The baptism was at the ‘suggestion and in the presence of’ Wulfhere, king of Mercia (son of Penda). The inference is that the South Saxons and, indeed, the Hwicce, were certainly subordinate to Mercia at this point.
It has been suggested, to support the idea that Penda either liberated or created the kingdom, that he did not act alone. Using personal name evidence, one theory has it that Penda was in alliance with a branch of the Northumbrian royal house who had been temporarily exiled, that the area stayed in West Saxon hands after Dyrham and that Penda ‘liberated’ it with the help of these northerners who then ruled it for him. This is based on the number of names beginning with ‘Os’ in both areas and is not universally accepted, although it does lead us to two of those people, both interesting characters. A certain king of the Hwicce, Oshere, was killed, and whilst surviving records don’t tell us how or why, the theory linking the Hwicce to the Northumbrians provides a reason for the murder of Osthryth, the daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria, who married another of Penda’s sons, Æthelred, and was killed by the Mercians; again, we are given no reason. Had she and Oshere been related, and were they somehow plotting to overthrow the Mercian overlordship? It’s not a theory I subscribe to, but it is tantalising!
Another ‘Os’ character for whom we have a little more information is Osric. He attested charters in the 670s, one (for the foundation of Bath Monastery) as rex but, crucially, only with the consent of King Æthelred of Mercia. Osric was also said to have founded the original monastery where Gloucester Cathedral now stands, and in that building there is an effigy of him.
Three brothers, Eanberht, Uhtred and Ealdred appear in charters, each of them as regulus, in charters of 757 and 759, but there is no mention of their having had any children, and by the time of a charter of King Offa in 778, Ealdred is styled subregulus and dux.
After Ealdred, there were no more kings or even subkings of the Hwicce, although an ealdorman, Æthelmund, was killed attacking the people of Wiltshire at Kempsford in 802. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that he ‘rode from the province of the Hwiccians across the border at Kempsford.’ He was met by Ealdorman Weohstan of Wiltshire and a ‘great battle’ ensued. In a charter of 796 Æthelmund was described as a faithful princeps. But I’ll come back to this ‘mere’ ealdorman in a moment…
One of my favourite Mercian characters is Cwoenthryth, daughter of King Cenwulf and abbess of Winchcombe, in the heart of Hwiccian territory. A wealthy and powerful estate manager and heiress, she was the keeper of the royal archive (her father claimed Winchcombe as family land, and it may be that his origins were indeed Hwiccian) and abbess of multiple religious houses. Her ownership of some was questioned by the Church at Canterbury and a legal dispute ensued. A later chronicler accused her of arranging the death of her infant brother and, when his body was discovered, of chanting a psalm backwards as a spell in the hope of avoiding retribution, whereupon her eyeballs fell out. The chronicler claimed to have seen blood on the psalter, but the truth is we have no evidence that this younger brother ever existed. [For more on her story, see my blog post HERE]
Nothing remains of Winchcombe Abbey bar a few stones on display at nearby Sudeley Castle, (see left) but in the Hwicce territory you can, unusually, see not one but two existing buildings from this period. Do, if you can, visit Deerhurst in Gloucestershire. It was here, at St Mary’s Church, that, according to some, Æthelmund the ealdorman was buried after his death at Kempsford. The church retains much of its original Anglo-Saxon features, including the bifora (double window) and stone-carved animal heads.
A short walk down the lane takes you to Odda’s Chapel. In 1675 a tree fell down outside a half-timbered manor house, revealing an inscription stone. In the nineteenth century the chapel itself was discovered, attached to the house. It was commissioned by Earl Odda, owner of the estate of Deerhurst in the eleventh century, in memory of his brother who had died in 1053.
Before we leave Deerhurst, let me return to Ealdorman Æthelmund. Though, in reality, Mercia was perhaps no different in its growth from the other ‘Anglo-Saxon’ kingdoms, it tended to continue to recognise its origins, insofar as its earldormen were often leaders of erstwhile smaller kingdoms/tribes rather than being centrally appointed. This also meant that there was nearly always more than one claimant to the throne, hence its - often bloody - succession struggles. It ran out of kings, eventually, but played a massive part in the history of this period when its leaders, the Lord and Lady of the Mercians (she being Æthelflæd) allied with Wessex to push back the Viking advance. Barbara Yorke, Emeritus Professor of Early Medieval History at the University of Winchester, has postulated that Æthelflæd’s husband, Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, was descended from Æthelmund. It is my view that without the support of the Mercians, Alfred the Great and then his son, Edward the Elder, would not have been able to push back the Vikings. Thus the Hwicce played a major role at a pivotal moment of history.
|Æthelflæd (from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, c. 1220)
[A version of this article first appeared in Historical Times Magazine 2022]
[all photos by and copyright of the author. Tribal Hidage and depiction of Æthelflæd are Public Domain images]