Chapter 1: Offa

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 of 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 7th and 8th Centuries.

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 compiled in the 12th Century in the court of Alfred the Great. The historical sources describing post-Roman Britain are extremely limited and as a result, most of what is known about British history in the centuries following the withdrawal of the Roman Legions comes from archaeological excavations. Archaeological digs in the British Isles have revealed that the decline and collapse of Roman Britain is not as simple or clear cut as many people would like to think1. These excavations often raise as many questions as they answer due to the extremely limited picture they give of Britain during the time in question. What is known based on these excavations, is that in the 4th Century the British economy was mobile and highly varied. By the beginning of 5th Century, the economy was biased only toward the production of certain articles, which are often very difficult to detect in the archaeological record. These discrepancies suggest that by the late 5th and early 6th Centuries the society of Roman Britain seems to have undergone a massive shift that affected the entire social, economic and religious make-up of England2.

The social, political and economic shift seen in the archaeological record was probably the result of a series of uprisings that occurred during the last 40 years of Roman rule in Britain. The Romans had ruled Britain for over 400 years, since the British tribes had fallen to the Legions of Julius Caesar in the 1st Century BC. As a result, even after the last Legions were withdrawn between 383 and 407 AD, the British still felt a strong connection to Rome. However, in reality, the withdrawal of the Roman Legions from Britain meant that it fell to the natives to defend their island from invasion. Unfortunately, the Britons were relying on the Romans to defend them at a time when the whole of the Empire was under threat from Barbarians in Germany and wracked by internal political divisions. As a result, the Romans’ first inclination was to see to the defence of Rome. Because of their long reliance on the Romans for protection, the Britons were unprepared to defend themselves. They were further weakened during this period when not one, but two Barrack Emperors were declared in Britain. Legions were raised to fight for their claims to rule the Roman Empire and few of these troops ever returned to Britain.

Following the withdrawal of the Legions in 408, Britain suffered through 40 years of war that culminated with the Battle of Mount Baden, at which the legend of King Arthur took root. However, almost nothing is known about the Arthur who commanded the native Britons at Mount Baden. That Arthur has been permanently overwritten by Medieval sentimentality. In any case, the Battle of Mount Baden is regarded as the historical demarcation point between Roman and Medieval Britain3.

The only significant written source from this early period in British history is The Ruin of Britain, which was written sometime in the 540s by an English monk named Gildas Bardonicus, who seemed to be only interested in condemning the evils of his day in the strongest language possible.

Then all the councillors, together with that proud tyrant, Gurthrigern {Vortigern}, the British king, so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them {like wolves into the sheep fold}, the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful to both God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations4.

The only reliable source contemporary to the Anglo-Saxon period is the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People which was completed in 731. At the same time, there also exists a different group of sources from the late Anglo-Saxon period, known as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle gives a year-by-year account of events in Southern England, however, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is regarded as being somewhat unreliable by historians. The reason for this is because it is not considered to be a trustworthy source until after the year 600. For this reason, the account of Offa found in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is considered to be biased because it was written to cast Wessex in a favourable light5.

Despite its inaccuracy in places, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has allowed historians to trace the subjugation the English West Country, along with the South West, by the Anglo-Saxons. By the end of the century, Anglo-Saxon church officials are reported as travelling all over England. In the mean time, the rise of Kings of Mercia in the West Midlands, coupled with their aggressive and expansionist policies resulted in Powys and Dubonni falling under Mercian influence toward the end of the 7th Century. Additionally, it became impossible for Gwynedd to campaign against the Mercians after 630.

By the year 700, the native Britons only controlled the areas immediately south of Hadrian’s Wall, Wales and Cornwall. During the Anglo-Saxon period Cornwall was ruled by a subking, while Wales little more than a collection of geographically defined kingdoms6.

Aethelbald was the ruler of Mercia from 716 until his death in 757. When he came to power, sometime around 716, Aethelbald inherited much of his influence from Wulfhere. During Aethelbald’s reign Royal Charters began to appear with increasing frequency. As a result, Aethelbald is known to have styled himself “King not only of the Mercians, but also of the provinces called Southern English.”7

Aethelbald was the dominant force in the politics of Southern England for almost 30 years, yet surviving primary sources portray him as the “barbarian master of a military household”8 and make his private life out to be an embarrassment to the Anglo-Saxon nobility and the clergy. Sometime between 746 and 747, a group of English Bishops  wrote Aethelbald a letter, in which they praised his generosity with the poor and the peaceful state of the kingdom, but castigated him for his abuses of ecclesiastical privilege and for the effects  his example was having on his subjects. In their letter, the Bishops asserted that the Church privileges that Aethelbald had violated, had been respected by every English King since the time of St. Augustine until the reigns of Osred of Northumbria and Ceolred of Mercia. On the basis of this evidence, it is not surprising that Aethelbald issued a Royal Charter, in which he freed all the churches in Mercia from all Royal duties except bridge maintenance and castle construction.

In 757, after 40 years on the Mercian throne, Aethelbald was, “treacherously murdered at night by his own bodyguards,” at Seckington, not far from what is now Tamworth.

And the same year Aethelbald, king of Mercia, was murdered at Seckington, and his body lies in Repton. And Beornred succeeded to the Kingdom and ruled for a short time and unhappily9.

The exact motive for Aethelbald’s assassination is unclear, but a significant clue lies in the fact that a number of primary sources refer to him as a tyrant. Therefore, Aethelbald’s murder is not surprising, given his penchant for violence and his flagrant abuses of royal power. Regardless of why he was killed, his death triggered a power struggle for the Mercian throne10. Following the death of Aethelbald, Offa found himself in conflict with Beornred, who tried to claim the throne, and about whom very little is known. 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 came to power as Aethelbald’s successor sometime in 758. However, it would be several years before he was able to secure his hold on the Mercian throne. Despite this early instability, Offa is regarded as the most influential English King until the ascension of Alfred the Great. Earlier rulers had reigned as remote overlords. In contrast, Offa ruled his kingdom directly. Earlier kings had subjugated weaker royal dynasties. Offa subjugated strong ones11.

What little has survived from Offa’s reign is found mostly in the form of Royal Charters, royal decrees through which the King granted land to nobles, set county boundaries and ordered the collection of taxes.Among the land grants mentioned in Offa’s Charters are the transfer of land from the Abbot of Bury St. Edmund to an unnamed freedman from Parkenham, on the condition that the land was to be returned upon his death. He also approved the transfer of land from the Abbot of Ely to a freedman named Beorn in Little Bealings, with similar conditions12. One of the heaviest taxes was the feorm or food rent. In its most primitive form, the food rent stipulated that all of Offa’s subjects were to set a side a certain percentage of their crops and game to feed and entertain the king and the royal entourage for 24 hours in a certain village once a year. In some parts of Southwest England, this system survived the Norman Invasion. It is thought that commuted food rents lie behind the occasional references to one hundred pennies that persisted into the 12th and 13th Centuries13.

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.

In this year the Northumbrians expelled their king Alhred from York at Eastertide and took Aethelred, son of Moll, as their lord and he reigned four years. And a red cross was seen in the sky after sunset. In the same year the Mercians and the Kentishmen fought at Otford; and strange adders were seen in Sussex.14

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. The re-establishment of Mercian authority, during the reign of Offa, was one of the most important events in the political history of Southern England, during the 8th Century. It is unclear as to how Offa accomplished this, as very few Royal Charters from this period in Offa’s reign have survived to the present day, but the existing evidence suggests that Kent was the first kingdom to fall under Mercian control. Kent was jointly ruled by three kings; Aethelberht, Eadberht and Eardulf. All three men are thought to have died sometime around 762 and with their deaths, the Kentish dynasty came to an end. Approximately concurrent to these events, a noble, know only to historians as Sigered granted estates to the Bishop of Rochester, with the Royal Assent of King Eadberht. Not long afterward, Sigered granted another estate to the same Bishop, this time, in Frindsbury. In 764, Offa re-granted these estates, while in Canterbury. He is not mentioned by name, the Charter in question is known to have been submitted to Offa for his Royal Assent at Medeshamstede, where he added a post script granting the Bishop the right to alienate the land. On the basis of this evidence, Offa’s lordship is believed to have been recognized in Kent. The Kentish kings seem to have been allowed to retain their throne, but were required to bend the knee to Offa.

As such, it is not surprising that Kent and Mercia went to war. When they overran the native Britons in the 5th Century, the arms and armour of the Anglo-Saxons differed little from those of the Franks. In the 6th Century the Anglo-Saxon were almost totally composed of infantry. Only kings and war chiefs wore any kind of armour. The rank and file soldier was equipped only with a light shield that was made of wood and covered in leather and reinforced with iron bands and a large iron boss in the middle to protect the user’s hand15.

The Anglo-Saxon’s most common offensive weapon was the spear. The typical Anglo-Saxon spear had a broad leaf-shaped, or oval, head and was riveted to a six foot long shaft made of ash. Swords were not unknown in Anglo-Saxon England, but were not common either. Anglo-Saxon sword blades were between two and three feet long, with very short cross pieces that only just projected beyond the edge of the blade. The hilt was capped with a small pommel. More common than the sword in Anglo-Saxon England was an 18 inch double-edge dagger that became known as the seax as a result of its resemblance to the Frankish scramasax. War axes were rare in Anglo-Saxon England and the few examples that have been uncovered were derived from the Frankish throwing axe16.

The earliest mentions of Anglo-Saxon armour are found in court records at the start of the 8th Century. In the Middle Ages, armour was almost literally worth its weight in gold. Court records indicate that when a man was required to pay a very heavy fine, he had the option of doing so by surrendering his sword and armour.

The most common form of armour on the Anglo-Saxon battlefield was chain mail. Chain mail was composed of thousands of tiny interlocking rings, which were both light and strong. A well made suit of chain mail was capable of stopping the edge of a blade and protecting the wearer from arrows fired by enemy archers17.

Historians are uncertain as to exactly when chain mail arrived in England, but it has been speculated that chain mail may have been brought to England by the Saxons from Jutland. However, the production of chain mail was extremely time consuming, and therefore very expensive. As such, chain mail was only worn by kings and war chiefs. If the Saxons did bring chain mail with them from Jutland to England, they only did so in very small quantities. It has also been suggested that the Anglo-Saxons adopted chain mail from the Romans. One 6th Century poem describes Arthur’s “lorricated Legions,” and suggests that the Arthurian army at the Battle of Mount Baden was equipped with chain mail armour.

However, it is more likely that the Anglo-Saxons acquired chain mail from the Franks. Aside from a few Celtic words that entered everyday usage, the Anglo-Saxons seem to have borrowed very little from the Romans or their Celtic subjects. The Anglo-Saxons are thought to have acquired chain mail from the Franks because their other arms and armour are very similar to their Frankish counterparts. Additionally, the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons began using chain mail at approximately the same time18.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claims that Offa won the Battle of Otford in 776, but historians view it as highly significant that Offa wielded no authority outside his own borders for the next decade. This in conjunction with the fact that in 784, the King of Kent granted land to the Abbot of Reculver, without Offa’s Royal Assent is telling. As a result historians are divided, regarding the outcome of the Battle of Otford. Some historians reject the picture painted by The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and believe that the Battle of Otford resulted in a Mercian rout. However, historical records indicate that Offa once again began to issue Royal Charters for Kent in 785, which suggests that he was able to re-establish his authority in Kent. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle indicates that from this point, Kent was ruled as “an ordinary province” in the Mercian kingdom19.

Evidence of interference in Sussex also comes in the form of royal charters. The Mercian success in Kent was due primarily to the collapse of the kingdom after the Kentish dynasty died out. Sussex also fell under Mercian control during this same period. In contrast, however, Sussex had never been ruled by a single king its recorded history to that point, even though it shared a similar social structure and linguistic make-up with Kent. As with Kent, the exact course of events is unclear, but the earliest South Saxon charters indicate that Sussex was ruled by a number of kings at that same time and what little evidence there is indicates that Sussex was composed of a group of small interdependent kingdoms. Offa is known to have given his Royal Assent to land grants in Sussex at least twice between 757 and 770. Yet, Offa was not able to extend his influence in Sussex east of Pevensey until 771, when the 12th Century chronicler Simeon of Durham, wrote that Offa, “defeated the people of Hastings.”However, historians are sceptical as to the accuracy of this claim. For the rest of his reign, Offa retained lordship over Hampshire and Kent. In 772, he issued a Royal Charter, in which he granted land at Bexhill to the Bishop of Selsey. At the same time, Offa also granted the title “dux” to four South Saxon Magnates. At least one of these “duces” is known to have previously been a king. This new royal style is seen by historians as being an indication of a movement away from the belief that royal descent was sufficient for a person to become king20.

Even though Christianity was not the dominant religion in Roman Britain, by the 5th Century had begun to gain widespread acceptance in the Roman Empire. As a result, the Christian community in the British Isles began to produce its own elite even though it seems to have been less well off than its Frankish or Gallic counterparts.  The names of some Anglo-Saxon Bishops are known from written sources starting early in the 4th Century. What is not known, however, is exactly where the Episcopal Sees were located. Late Antiquity chronicles only provide evidence for bishoprics at London, York, Circensester and Lincoln, which results in the perception that the English Church was not as large as its continental counterpart21.

The 8th Century was an unsettled time for the English Church. The practice of lay foundations and patronage had brought about a number of problems. Lay patronage was not necessarily a bad thing. A monastery managed by a responsible family could be highly prosperous, however, the writings of the Venerable Bede indicate that some noble families used their religious foundations as a tax dodge. Bede was not the only person in Anglo-Saxon England to complain about these disreputable activities. Both Aethbald and Offa undertook a series of much needed reforms. It was forbidden for monks to live as lay nobles. Drunkeness and secular songs were banned in monasteries. In 786, Offa held the only Anglo-Saxon synod to be attended by a Papal delegation22.

In 786, while Offa was in the process of asserting his lordship over Kent and Sussex, Pope Hadrian selected George, the Bishop of Ostia, along with the Bishop of Todi to serve as his representatives at a synod that had been called by Offa. The fact that the Bishop of Ostia had been selected, in spite of his age, speaks to the importance with which the synod was regarded by the Pope. Over the course the previous 30 or 40 years, the English people had increasingly looked to Boniface for guidance. Additionally, no Papal delegation had visited England since its conversion by St. Augustine. Finally, the relationship between the Crown and the Church was complicated by strong anti-Mercian sentiments that originated in Kent. As a result, Offa was eager to re-establish Papal supremacy over the English Church23.

However, the delegates themselves, and the English people, regarded the Papal mission as being primarily religious in nature. An unknown Northumbrian writer recorded that the Bishops’ true purpose was to restore the bonds of friendship between London and Rome and to strengthen the Catholic faith in England. At the same time, additional evidence suggests that the purpose of the Papal mission was to draft a body of canons to be presented to the Anglo-Saxon nobility. Before setting out on the return journey to Rome, the Bishop of Ostia sent a letter to Pope Hadrian, in which he described the synod. The Papal delegates were entertained at Canterbury by Archbishop Jaenberht, before proceeding to Offa’s hall. Here, a council was held that was attended by Offa and the King of Wessex. In the course of the council, the Bishops presented the gathered nobles with a list of matters that the Pope believed needed to be addressed. They then separated for a closer examination of the state of the English Church. The Bishop of Todi investigated the Church in Wales and Mercia, while the Bishop of Ostia investigated conditions in Northumbria. A second council was held in Northumbria, at which the Bishops presented their findings and a list of 20 canons based on the results of their investigation. Of the 20 canons put forward, ten were concerned with questions of faith, including visitations and the behaviour of the clergy. The other ten were directed to the laity. They urged the nobility to follow the example set by their bishops, to care for the poor and to refrain from violence. They also called on the nobles to collect only the taxes that the law allowed. These regulations were adopted by the Northumbrian council, then presented to a third council in Mercia, where they were read out loud in English and Latin, before they were accepted by all present24.

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, at the height of his power. In 792, he married off his daughter to Aethelred of Northumbria. In spite of his unprecedented rule and his importance in the history of Southern England, very few sources from his rule have survived to the present day. Even though Alfred the Great would later compare Offa’s legislative abilities to those of King Aethelbert of Kent and King Ine of Wessex, no copies of his laws survive. At the same time, he united the kingdoms of Southern England, which ran counter to English tradition at that time and resulted in several decades of simmering anti-Mercian resentment. In spite of this, an examination of the fragmentary evidence of his life and rule portrays Offa as the first great English statesman. He grasped the concept of a negotiated border and was the first English king to play an independent role in the politics of Continental Europre. He also used the authority of the Papacy to serve his own political ends. No other Anglo-Saxon king, before or after, displayed the same shrewd political mind as Offa25. Today, Offa 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.

Sources

Dark, KR. Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity 300 to 800. New York: Leicester University Press. 1994

Frere, Sheppard. Britannia: A History of Roman Britain. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1987.

Garmonsway, GS, trans. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. London. JM Dent and Sons. 1953.

Hamerow, Helena, Ed e al. The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2011.

Internet Medieval Source Book. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/gildas.asp-Concerning the Ruin of Britain by Brother Gildas Bardonicus-Chapter 23.

Morgan, Kenneth O. ED. The Oxford History of Britain: Updated Editition. London: Oxford University Press. 2010.

Oman, Charles. A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ageas: Volume 1. New York: Burt Franklin,. 1924.

Stetton, FM. Anglo-Saxon England: Second Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1962.

Citations

  1. The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology, Pg 13

  2. Britannia: A History of Roman Britain, Pg.353

  3. Britannia: A History of Roman Britain, Pg.374

  4. The Internet Medieval Source Book, “Concerning the Ruin of Britain” Chapter 23

  5. Stetton, 204.

  6. Civitas to Kingdom, Pg. 218

  7. Stetton, 204.

  8. Morgan, 85

  9. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Pg 48

  10. Stetton, 205.

  11. Stetton, 207.

  12. The Early Charters of Eastern England, Pg 68.

  13. Stetton, 285.

  14. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Pg. 50

  15. A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages: Vol. 1. Pg. 63

  16. A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages: Vol. 1. Pg. 64

  17. A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages: Vol. 1. Pg. 67

  18. A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages: Vol. 1. Pg. 69

  19. Stetton, 214

  20. Morgan, 89

  21. Civitas to Kingdom, Pg. 64

  22. Stetton, 222

  23. Stetton, 215

  24. Stetton 216

  25. Stetton 222

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