The British Monarchy-Offa of Mercia

The First King of England

Offa was the King of Mercia from 757 until his death in July, 796. Offa came to the throne during a period of civil war following the assassination King Aethelbald.

During the first half of the Eighth Century, Aethalbald was one of Britain’s most dominant kings, controlling much of the territory south of the Humber River. Aethelbald was one of a number of strong Mercian kings who ruled during the Seventh and Eighth Centuries.

Background on Offa of Mercia

The power attained by Offa made him one of the most important rulers in Britain’s early medieval history. No contemporary accounts of Offa survive, except for an account of Offa that appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was written in the 12th Century. However, the account of Offa found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is considered to be biased because it was written to cast Britain’s Wessex region in a favourable light. As a result it may not be totally accurate.

Offa’s Rise to Power

Aethelbald was the ruler of Mercia from 716 until his death in 757. According to primary sources he was “treacherously murdered at night by his own bodyguards.” Following the death of Aethelbald, Offa found himself in conflict with Beornred, who also tried to claim the throne. Given the somewhat tribal nature of Britain’s many kingdoms before the Norman Invasion, it is believed that Offa took time to solidify control over the kingdom before claiming the throne. Based on royal charters written later in his reign, it is believed that Offa ascended to the throne in 758.

Offa and Kent

Little is known about Mercia during the Eighth Century. However, it is believed that Offa used the unstable situation in Kent to solidify his rule in Mercia. At that time Kent had a history of joint kingship, with one king usually being dominant over the other. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records a battle between Offa and the Kentish kings that occurred at Otford in 776. The outcome of the battle was not recorded, but based on several royal charters written later in Offa’s reign, it is believed that Offa put down a Kentish rebellion against his rule. There are references in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to Kent as “an ordinary province” which suggests that Kent was directly annexed by Offa following the Battle of Otford. Additionally, there are also references to the destruction of the Kentish royal bloodlines as a direct result of Mercian control.

Offa and Sussex

Evidence of interference in Sussex also comes in the form of royal charters. As with Kent, the exact course of events is unclear. What little evidence there is indicates that Sussex was composed of a group of small interdependent kingdoms. It is believed that the kingdoms of western Sussex submitted to Offa’s rule early in his reign. The kings of east Sussex did not, however.

According to 12th Century chronicler Simeon of Durham, Offa, “defeated the people of Hastings” in the year 771. More recently, doubts have been expressed regarding the accuracy of this date and it has been suggested that Offa did not consolidate his control over Sussex until 780 as with Kent.

Offa’s Legacy

The title most often used by Offa, and the one that most commonly appears on royal charters attributed to his reign is “Rex Merciorium” or King of the Mercians. However, some of his charters as well as Mercian coins also refer to Offa as “Rex Anglorum” or King of the English. As a result Offa is believed to have been the first ruler in British history to be referred to as the King of England.

Offa died either on July 26 or 29 in the year 796. He is buried in Bedford and was succeeded by his son Ecgfrith, who only ruled for 141 days before being assassinated by his father’s enemies.

Works CitedBede, HE, V, 23, p. 324

Simon Keynes, “Mercia”, in Lapidge, Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, p. 307

Kirby, Earliest English Kings, p. 165

Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms, p. 32.

Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, p. 207–208; Kirby, Earliest English Kings, p. 165.

Blackburn & Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, p. 279.

Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, p. 224.

About this entry