|Kingdom of Mercia
The Kingdom of Mercia.
|Languages||Old English, Latin|
Mercia (pron.: / /, / /) 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 or Myrce, meaning "border people".
The name Mercia is still in use today by a wide range of organisations, including military units, public, commercial and voluntary bodies; and occurs as a female given name.
Mercia's exact evolution at the start of the Anglo-Saxon era is more obscure than that of Northumbria, Kent, or even Wessex. Also, Mercia developed an effective political structure and adopted Christianity later than the other kingdoms. Archaeological surveys show that Angles settled the lands north of the River Thames by the 6th century. The name Mercia is Old English for "boundary folk" (see Welsh Marches), and the traditional interpretation is that the kingdom originated along the frontier between the native Welsh and the Anglo-Saxon invaders. However, P. Hunter Blair argued an alternative interpretation: that they emerged along the frontier of Northumbria and the inhabitants of the Trent river valley.
While its earliest boundaries will never be known, there is general agreement that the territory that was called "the first of the Mercians" in the Tribal Hidage covered much of south Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and northern Warwickshire.
The earliest person named in any records as a king of Mercia is Creoda, said to have been the great-grandson of Icel. Coming to power around 584, he built a fortress at Tamworth which became the seat of Mercia's kings. His son Pybba succeeded him 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.
Penda and the Mercian Supremacy
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 and 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. Edwin, who had become ruler not only of the newly unified Northumbria, but bretwalda, or high king, over the southern kingdoms, was defeated and killed by Penda and his ally Cadwallon of Gwynedd in 633. When another Northumbrian king, Oswald, arose and again claimed overlordship of the south, he also was defeated and killed by Penda and his allies in 642 at the Battle of Maserfield. In 655, after a period of confusion in Northumbria, Penda brought 30 sub-kings to fight the new Northumbrian king Oswiu at the Battle of Winwaed, in which Penda in turn lost the battle and his life.
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), and who was set up by Oswiu as an under king, but in the spring of 656 he was murdered and Oswiu assumed direct control of the whole of Mercia. A revolt in 658 threw off Northumbrian domination and resulted in the appearance of another son of Penda, Wulfhere, who ruled Mercia as an independent kingdom (though he apparently continued to render tribute to Northumbria for a while) 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 by Northumbria. The next king, Æthelred defeated Northumbria in the Battle of the Trent in 679, settling once and for all the long disputed control of the former kingdom of Lindsey. Æthelred was succeeded by Cœnred son of Wulfhere, and both these kings are better known for their religious activities than anything else, but 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 Pengwern or "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. 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.
In July 2009, the Staffordshire Hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold was discovered in a field near Lichfield in Staffordshire. Lichfield was the religious centre of Mercia. The artefacts have tentatively been dated to around AD 600–800. 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
After the murder of Æthelbald by one of his bodyguards in 757, a civil war broke out which was concluded with the victory of Offa. Offa was forced to build anew the hegemony over the southern English of his predecessor, and he did this so successfully that he became the greatest king Mercia had ever known. Not only did he win battles and dominate Southern England but also he took an active hand in administering the affairs of his kingdom by founding market towns and overseeing the first major issues of gold coins in Britain; he 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
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 from his kingdom in 874 and Ceolwulf II took his place. In 877 the Vikings seized the eastern part of Mercia, which became part of the Danelaw. Ceolwulf, the last king of Mercia, was left with the western half, and he reigned until 879. From about 883 until 911 Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians ruled Mercia under the overlordship of Wessex. All coins struck in Mercia after the disappearance of Ceolwulf in c.879 were in the name of the West Saxon king. Æthelred had married Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great of Wessex, and she assumed power when her husband became ill at some time in the last ten years of his life.
After Æthelred's death 911 Æthelflæd ruled as ‘Lady of the Mercians’ but Edward took control of London and Oxford, which Alfred had placed under Æthelred's control. She and her brother continued Alfred's policy of building fortified burhs, and in 917-18 they were able to conquer the southern Danelaw in East Anglia and Danish Mercia.
Loss of independence
When Æthelflæd died in 918, Ælfwynn, her daughter by Æthelred, succeeded as 'Second Lady of the Mercians', but within six months Edward had deprived her of all authority in Mercia and taken her into 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.
The dialect thrived between the 8th and 13th centuries and was referred to by John Trevisa, writing in 1387:
For men of the est with men of the west, as it were undir the same partie of hevene, acordeth more in sownynge of speche than men of the north with men of the south, therfore it is that Mercii, that beeth men of myddel Engelond, as it were parteners of the endes, understondeth better the side langages, northerne and southerne, than northerne and southerne understondeth either other...
J. R. R. Tolkien is one of many scholars who have studied and promoted the Mercian dialect of Old English, and introduced various Mercian terms into his legendarium – especially in relation to the Kingdom of Rohan, otherwise known as the Mark (a name cognate with Mercia). Not only is the language of Rohan actually represented as the Mercian dialect of Old English, but a number of its kings are given the same names as monarchs who appear in the Mercian royal genealogy, e.g. Fréawine, Fréaláf and Éomer (see List of kings of the Angles).
The first kings of Mercia were pagans, and they resisted the encroachment of Christianity longer than other kingdoms in the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy.
Mercian rulers remained resolutely pagan until the reign of Peada in 656, although this did not prevent them joining coalitions with Christian Welsh rulers to resist Northumbria. The first appearance of Christianity in Mercia, however, had come at least thirty years earlier, following the Battle of Cirencester of 628, when Penda incorporated the formerly West Saxon territories of Hwicce into his kingdom.
The conversion of Mercia to Christianity occurred in the latter part of the 7th century, and by the time of Penda's defeat and death, Mercia was largely surrounded by Christian states. Diuma, an Irish monk and one of Oswiu's missionaries was subsequently ordained a bishop – the first to operate in Mercia. Christianity finally gained a foothold in Mercia when Oswiu supported Peada as sub-king of the Middle Angles, requiring him to marry Oswiu's daughter, Alchflaed, and to accept her religion.
Decisive steps to Christianise Mercia were taken by Chad (Latinised by Bede as Ceadda), the fifth bishop to operate in Mercia. This controversial figure was given land by King Wulfhere to build a monastery at Lichfield. As in other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the many small monasteries established by the Mercian kings allowed the political/military and ecclesiastical leadership to consolidate their unity through bonds of kinship.
Subdivisions of Mercia
For knowledge of the internal composition of the Kingdom of Mercia, we must rely on a document of uncertain age (possibly late 7th century), known as the Tribal Hidage – an assessment of the extent (but not the location) of land owned (reckoned in hides), and therefore the military obligations and perhaps taxes due, by each of the Mercian tribes and subject kingdoms by name. This hidage exists in several manuscript versions, some as late as the 14th century. It lists a number of peoples, such as the Hwicce, who have now vanished, except for reminders in various placenames (see map at the head of this article). The major subdivisions of Mercia were as follows:
- South Mercians
- The Mercians dwelling south of the River Trent. Folk groups within included the Tomsæte around Tamworth and the Pencersæte around Penkridge (approx. S. Staffs. & N. Warks.).
- North Mercians
- The Mercians dwelling north of the River Trent (approx. N. Staffs., S. Derbys. & Notts.).
- Outer Mercia
- An early phase of Mercian expansion, possibly 6th century (approx. S. Lincs., Leics., Rutland, Northants. & N. Oxon.).
- Once a kingdom in its own right, disputed with Northumbria in the 7th century before finally coming under Mercian control (approx. N. Lincs.).
- Middle Angles
- A collection of many smaller folk groups under Mercian control from the 7th century, including the Spaldingas around Spalding, the Bilmingas and Wideringas near Stamford, the North Gyrwe and South Gyrwe near Peterborough, the West Wixna, East Wixna, West Wille and East Wille near Ely, the Sweordora, Hurstingas and Gifle near Bedford, the Hicce around Hitchin, the Cilternsæte in the Chilterns and the Feppingas near Thame (approx. Cambs., Hunts., Beds., Herts., Bucks. & S. Oxon.).
- Once a kingdom in its own right, disputed with Wessex in the 7th century before finally coming under Mercian control. Smaller folk groups within included the Stoppingas around Warwick and the Arosæte near Droitwich (approx. Gloucs., Worcs. & S. Warks.).
- A people of the Welsh border, also known as the Westerna, under Mercian control from the 7th century. Smaller folk groups within included the Temersæte near Hereford and the Hahlsæte near Ludlow (approx. Herefs. & S. Shrops.).
- A people of the Welsh border under Mercian control from the 7th century. Smaller folk groups within included the Rhiwsæte near Wroxeter and the Meresæte near Chester (approx. N. Shrops., Flints. & Cheshire).
- An isolated folk group of the Peak District, under Mercian control from the 7th century (approx. N. Derbys.).
- Land Between Ribble & Mersey
- A disorganised region under Mercian control from the 7th century (approx. S. Lancs.).
- Middle Saxons
- Taken over from Essex in the 8th century, including London (approx. Middlesex).
After Mercia was annexed by Wessex in the early 10th century, the West Saxon rulers divided it into shires modelled after their own system, cutting across traditional Mercian divisions. These shires survived mostly intact until 1974, and even today still largely follow their original boundaries.
Modern uses of the term 'Mercia'
The term ‘midlands’ is first recorded (as ‘mydlande’) in 1555. It is possible therefore that until then Mercia had remained the preferred term, as the quote from Trevisa above would indicate.
John Bateman, writing in 1876 or 1883, referred to contemporary Cheshire and Staffordshire landholdings as being in Mercia. The most credible source for the conceit of a contemporary Mercia is Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels. The first of these appeared in 1874 and Hardy himself considered it the origin of the conceit of a contemporary Wessex. Bram Stoker set his 1911 novel, The Lair of the White Worm, in a contemporary Mercia that may have been influenced by Hardy, whose secretary was a friend of Stoker’s brother. Although ‘Edwardian Mercia’ never had the success of ‘Victorian Wessex’, it was an idea that appealed to the higher echelons of society. In 1908 Sir Oliver Lodge, Principal of Birmingham University, wrote to his counterpart at Bristol, welcoming a new university worthy of:
the great Province of Wessex whose higher educational needs it will supply. It will be no rival, but colleague and co-worker with this university, whose province is Mercia…. At this period, prior to World War I, regional identities within England were being debated with the prospect of separate Home Rule parliaments being established.
The British Army has made use of regional identities in naming larger formations. After the Second World War, the infantry regiments of Cheshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire were organised in the Mercian Brigade (1948–1968). Today "Mercia" appears in the titles of two regiments, the new Mercian Regiment (which recruits in Cheshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Worcestershire and parts of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands) and the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry.
The West Mercia Constabulary was created in 1967, combining the police forces of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire.
Telephone directories across the Midlands reveal a large number of commercial and voluntary organisations using ‘Mercia’ in their names. In the early 1980s, Mercia Television was an unsuccessful contender for the Midlands franchise, then owned by ATV. It was won by Central Independent Television. Mercia (formerly Mercia FM) is a commercial radio station broadcasting from Coventry founded in 1980 as Mercia Sound.
In 2012 a new football league was formed called the Mercian Regional Football League.
There are currently two main organisations campaigning for Mercian self-determination. Sovereign Mercia seeks independence for Mercia as a modern technological state, whereas the Acting Witan of Mercia advocates a return to an agrarian subsistence economy.
The Kingdom of Mercia predated the emergence of heraldry, so there is no authentic Mercian heraldic device. However, later generations have ascribed a variety of devices to the rulers of Mercia or to the land itself.
The silver double-headed eagle surmounted by a golden three-pronged Saxon crown has been used by several units of the British Army as a heraldic device for Mercia since 1958. It is derived from the attributed arms of Leofric, Earl of Mercia in the 11th century. It is worth noting, however, that Leofric is sometimes attributed a black, single-headed eagle instead. The examples on the left are the official devices of the Mercian Regiment and the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry respectively. The latter, being a merged unit, also sports the Lancastrian red rose and crown.
By the 13th century, the saltire had become the attributed arms of the Kingdom of Mercia. The arms are blazoned Azure, a saltire Or, meaning a gold (or yellow) saltire on a blue field. The arms were subsequently used by the Abbey of St Albans, founded by King Offa of Mercia. With the dissolution of the Abbey and the incorporation of the borough of St Albans the device was used on the town's corporate seal and was officially recorded as the arms of the town at an heraldic visitation in 1634.
As a flag, the Cross of St Alban is flown from Tamworth Castle, the ancient seat of the Mercian Kings, to this day. It was also flown outside Birmingham Council House during 2009 while the Staffordshire Hoard was on display in the city before being taken to the British Museum in London. The cross has been incorporated into a number of coats of arms of Mercian towns, such as Tamworth, Leek and Blaby.
The wyvern, a dragon with two legs, has since its adoption as an emblem by the Midland Railway in the mid-19th century, been associated with Mercia.
The Leicester and Swannington Railway, which opened in 1832, adopted as a badge the silver (white) wyvern that forms the crest of the Borough of Leicester as recorded at the heraldic visitation of Leicestershire in 1619: a wyvern sans legs argent strewed with wounds gules, wings expanded ermine (the term sans legs does not imply that the wyvern was legless; rather, that its legs are not depicted, being hidden or folded under). This was inherited by the Midland Railway in 1845, where it became the crest of its unofficial coat of arms. The company asserted that the "wyvern was the standard of the Kingdom of Mercia", and that it was a "a quartering in the town arms of Leicester". However, in 1897 the Railway Magazine noted that there appeared "to be no foundation that the wyvern was associated with the Kingdom of Mercia".
The wyvern in Leicester's crest was derived from that of Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster. The seal of Thomas, who was executed in 1327, included a wyvern.
A similar theme was later taken up by Bram Stoker in his 1911 novel, The Lair of the White Worm, which was explicitly set in Mercia (see above). The word "worm", derived from Old English wyrm, originally referred to a dragon or serpent. "Wyvern" is derived from Old Saxon wivere, also meaning serpent (and etymologically related to viper).
The ultimate source for the symbolism of white dragons in England would appear to be Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fictional History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136), where an incident occurs in the life of Merlin in which a red dragon is seen fighting a white dragon which it overcomes. The red dragon was taken to represent the Welsh and their eventual victory over the Anglo-Saxon invaders, symbolised by the white dragon. However, there is no archaeological or artefactual evidence that the early Anglo-Saxons used a white dragon to represent themselves.
The cap badge of the 2nd Mercian Battalion of the Territorial Army in the 1980s was a wyvern.
With more restricted boundaries than the Kingdom of Mercia at its greatest extent and the traditional area known as the Midlands, two former Government Office Regions together cover the latter: West Midlands and East Midlands. These are also constituencies of the European Parliament.
The West Midlands comprises the shire counties of (1) Staffordshire, (2) Warwickshire and (3) Worcestershire (with their respective districts), the unitary counties of (4) Herefordshire and (5) Shropshire, the metropolitan boroughs of (6) Birmingham, (7) Coventry, (8) Dudley, (9) Sandwell, (10) Solihull, (11) Walsall and (12) Wolverhampton, and the unitary boroughs of (13) Stoke-on-Trent and (14) Telford and Wrekin. The East Midlands comprises the shire counties of (15) Derbyshire, (16) Leicestershire, (17) Lincolnshire, (18) Northamptonshire and (19) Nottinghamshire (with their respective districts), the unitary county of (20) Rutland, and the unitary boroughs of (21) Derby, (22) Leicester and (23) Nottingham. The two regions have a combined population of 9,439,516 (2001 census), and an area of 11,053 sq mi (28,630 km2).