Tuesday, 8 January 2019

The Decline of Mercia - Kings No More

It's the time of year for anniversaries - William the Conqueror crowned on Christmas Day, 1066, Edward the Confessor's death on Jan 5 1066. For our collaborative project, 1066 Turned Upside Down, I re-imagined the events leading up to the battle of Fulford, in 1066, I pondered the fate of the northern earls who fought there.  My interest in this episode? Apart from an opportunity to join some wonderful authors on an intriguing project, it was that these earls were led by two brothers from Mercia. My next post will look at their careers in more detail, so first, a little potted history:

A once-powerful realm, Mercia produced such kings as Penda, who was overlord of the English kingdoms until defeated in 655, Offa, who built his famous dyke, as well as providing such memorable characters as Lady Godiva, and Eadric Streona, recently voted the most evil man in English history.

Between around 600 and 900 AD, Mercia enjoyed what historians have called a ‘Golden Age’. This began with the emergence of Penda, a pagan vilified by history, but who, Bede conceded, was tolerant of Christian preachers in Mercia. Penda, in alliance with the Welsh, slew Kings Edwin and Oswald of Northumbria, and held the ascendancy over the main English kingdoms until he was killed by Oswii at the Battle of Winwaed in 655. The Golden Age was perhaps typified by the reign of Æthelbald (716-57) who in a charter of 736 was styled 'King of Mercia and of the Southern English.' His coinage was circulated in Mercia and Kent and was even found in Wessex. Even Bede, who rarely mentioned southern kings as overlords (Bretwaldas) acknowledged his power.

Power, of course, brings enemies, and Æthelbald was killed by his own war band. Civil war followed his murder, but in the ensuing power struggle, Offa (757-96) emerged victorious. Not only did he build his ‘dyke’, but he negotiated trade deals with the Continent,  and corresponded with the emperor Charlemagne. (There was also a teeny tiny bit of murder...)

A dynastic dispute that had begun with the death, childless, of Offa’s son Ecgfrith in 796, ended with the routing of King Burgred by the Vikings in 874/5 and the short-lived reign of his rival Ceolwulf II. History has not remembered Ceolwulf with fondness; he was described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a ‘foolish king’s thegn’. But Burgred was Alfred the Great’s brother-in-law. It is possible that Ceolwulf was the leader of a Mercian movement for independence against a king regarded as a puppet of Wessex. (Mercian independence, and separatist sentiment, was certainly to have significant impact on events in the next century.) Ceolwulf died, possibly at the hands of the Welsh, (he disappears from the records after the Battle of Conwy in 878) and it was left to Burgred’s kinswoman to fight off the Viking invaders.

Yes - a woman was now in charge. In the late 9th century, Wessex was not the ‘last kingdom’, fighting off the Viking hordes. Mercia was fighting back too, under the leadership of one Æthelred, and his redoubtable wife, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great.

But Æthelred wasn’t a member of a royal house; Mercia had run out of kings.

Fast forward forty years, and Mercia had been reduced to an - albeit powerful- ealdordom (earldom.)

Powerful because, however much Æthelflæd and her family fought against them, inevitably some of those invading Danes stayed, settling in the north and east. In the 10th century, King Edgar came to the throne of all England with the help of the Mercians, and those newly-settled Danes, and he was careful to preserve the rights and traditions of this, with the ‘Danelaw’, incorporating the rights and boundaries of once independent Mercia.

Although Edgar’s reign was notable for being free of invasion (his epithet was ‘The Peaceable’,) it was a time of great change. As well as this identification and recognition of the Danelaw, there began a shift in the power and influence of the nobility. As ealdormen (earls) died, their lands were given to neighbouring nobles until the earldoms were as big as the old kingdoms - Mercia, Northumbria, and East Anglia, while the king still essentially oversaw Wessex.

This situation changed again in the 11th century, for when Cnut (Canute) became king, he did not reserve Wessex for his direct rule, but granted it to the ‘upstart’ Godwin.

During the last years of Edward the Confessor’s reign, of the three leading earls, only Leofric came from an old ruling family; but his place in history tends to be overshadowed by the reputation of his wife, Lady Godiva, and the tales told about her. (Did she ride naked? I think not, but that’s a subject for a whole new article!)

Leofric's fortunes, and that of his son, Ælfgar, fluctuated in direct contrast to those of the Godwin family; they gained territory when the Godwins were out of favour/in exile, and lost that land when the Godwins were restored. Little wonder that they resorted to the ‘old’ alliance, looking westward as Penda had once done, and forging a connection by marriage with the Welsh.

Ælfgar married his daughter to the Welsh king, Gruffudd, but Harold Godwinson was responsible not only for the banishment - twice - of Ælfgar, but also for the death of Gruffudd, their brother-in-law. No wonder Ælfgar’s sons, Edwin and Morcar, were slow to acknowledge Harold’s supremacy upon the death of Edward the Confessor.

Early in 1066, Harold felt the need to ride north to persuade the northern earls to support his kingship, even taking Edwin and Morcar’s widowed sister for his bride. He was already at odds with his brother Tostig, who would betray him by standing against him at Stamford Bridge, but what about the Mercians, who blamed the Godwin family for their misfortune?

This, then, was where I began my retelling of this part of the year 1066

I won’t give away any spoilers regarding my story, but for the purposes of my Mercian ‘round-up’, well, an entry in Wikipedia on the English nobility has this to say about Edwin, Earl of Mercia:
“Succeeded by -
Role abolished.”

The Mercians rebelled against the Conqueror, but the uprising was quashed, brutally, in what came to be known as the Harrying (or Harrowing) of the North. And that was the end of Mercia.

Its name lives on, though, in the West Mercia Police, and the West Mercia Primary Healthcare Trust, and although it is now slowly dying out, the dialect of the ‘Black Country’, which is based on the old Mercian language and is widely regarded to be as close to Old English as it is now possible to get. I sense that Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, would be gently amused by that. She might even think it was bostin’ . *

[all images are in the public domain; photograph of Godiva statue copyright of the author]

*Dialect word for fine, good.



  1. Beginning to understand how complex and convoluted the claims to the English crown were in 1066. Clearly, Harold was no shoo-in as candidate, even within the boundaries of England itself.

    1. Thanks Robert - it was indeed a complicated issue. I haven't even mentioned the claims of Edgar the Atheling or indeed William himself. But there was certainly no love lost between the Godwins and the Mercians and my next post will look into that relationship in much more detail. Thanks for much for reading and leaving your comment :-)

  2. Annie, have you never heard of Independent Mercia or the Acting Witan of Mercia? We're on Wikipedia, at www.independentmercia.org and have well over 2,000 registered citizens! Best wishes, Jeff Kent

    1. Hi Jeff, I must confess that I hadn't. Thanks for the link!

  3. Hopefully it will be relevant to you at some point, Annie. Perhaps you'd like to register as a citizen and help us to rebuild Mercia. Best wishes, Jeff