Mercia, from the Old English word ‘merce’ meaning ‘border or boundary folk’, was the largest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. At the height of its powers, the kingdom of Mercia stretched as far north as the River Humber, west to the Welsh border, east to the East Anglian border and south to the borders of Kent and East Sussex.
Offa, the most famous of the Mercian kings, wielded incredible power, so much so that legendary French king Charlemagne treated him with great respect. After his death in the final years of the eighth century, Mercia’s status as the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms waned, overtaken by the kingdom of Wessex, the rise of Alfred the Great and the eventual unification of England.
The Kings of Mercia
Because we’re going back 1,500 years, there isn’t a consistent list of Mercian kings that historians unanimously agree on. Some start with Icel in the early years of the sixth century, though it seems he wasn’t one of the kings of Mercia, rather he was probably king of the Angles, a Germanic people who waged war against the native Romano-Britons. The same goes for his son Cnebba and grandson Cynewald, about which almost nothing is known. We start with Creoda, generally accepted as the first of the rulers of Mercia.
Reign: Approx. 585 – 593
Possibly born around 540, the existence of Creoda – sometimes spelled Cryda or Crida – is disputed by a number of historians. He is often referred to as the first king of Mercia and was noted in Historia Anglorum, a history of the English written in the twelfth century by Henry of Huntingdon.
Reign: Approx. 593 – 606
Again, very little is known about the early kings of Anglo-Saxon Mercia and Pybba is no exception. It’s said he had twelve sons and a daughter, and that he expanded the Mercian kingdom west encompassing modern-day Birmingham and Wolverhampton.
Reign: Approx. 606 – 626
Cearl, or Ceorl, wasn’t the son of Pybba, rather a kinsman. He was the first Mercian king mentioned by The Venerable Bede in his ecclesiastical history of the English a century after the king died, but much of his life is subject to conjecture.
Reign: Approx. 626 – 655
Penda was perhaps the first of the kings of Mercia about which much is known. He was a warmonger who is believed to have scored significant victories at the Battle of Cirencester, the Battle of Hatfield Chase and the Battle of Maserfield against the Northumbrians. This confirmed Mercia as the most powerful kingdom in England at the time.
Reign: Approx. 635 – 642
Believed to be the son of Pybba, Eowa ruled jointly for a time with Penda and was probably killed fighting the Northumbrians during the Battle of Maserfield.
Reign: Approx. 653 – 655
A son of Penda, he was described by Bede as ‘an excellent youth and most worthy of the title and person of a king.’ He ruled the southern part of the Mercian kingdom and is believed to have founded the monastery at Peterborough. According to chroniclers of the time, he was ‘very wickedly killed’ by his wife.
Oswiu of Northumbria
Reign: Approx. 655 – 658
For a short time after the death of Peada, Mercia fell under the control of the kingdom of Northumbria and Oswiu was installed as ruler. He lasted three years before a band of Mercian noblemen raised an army big enough to drive him out.
Reign: 658 – 675
The kings of Mercia were restored when Wulfhere, or Wulfar, a son of Penda, acceded to the throne after the brief reign of Oswiu. Decisive battles against the West Saxons extended the reach of Mercia into the Thames Valley. For a time he was said to be the most powerful king in the south of England.
Reign: 675 – 704
Another of Penda’s sons, Æthelred’s lasting legacy was that he secured the border with Northumbria to prevent any further incursions from the north. After his wife was murdered, he abdicated and became a monk in Lincolnshire.
Reign: 704 – 709
The son of Wulfhere and one of the lesser known rulers of Mercia. Little is known about him except it’s likely his reign was blighted by incursions from the Welsh. He also abdicated and went on a pilgrimage to Rome where he too became a monk.
Reign: 709 – 716
A son of Æthelred, the historical accounts of his life portray him in a very negative light, accusing him of immorality and other crimes. He was one of the more unpopular Mercian kings and was probably poisoned at a banquet. Saint Boniface wrote that he died ‘gibbering with demons and cursing the priests of God.’
The list of Mercian kings includes Ceowald on a few occasions. There is uncertainty as to whether he existed at all. He may have been Ceolred’s brother given the similarity of their names.
Reign: 716 – 757
Æthelbald was one of the most powerful kings of Mercia and within twenty years of acceding to the throne, ruled all of England south of the River Humber. He elevated Mercia to the nation’s dominant kingdom. He was murdered by his bodyguards for reasons unknown and is buried in a crypt in the Derbyshire village of Repton.
Nothing is known about Beornred. He may have been a usurper. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘Beornred succeeded to the kingdom, and held it a little while and unhappily; and that same year Offa put Beornred to flight and succeeded to the kingdom’.
Reign: 757 – 796
Offa was unquestionably the most powerful of the kings of Anglo-Saxon Mercia. He is perhaps most famous for building Offa’s Dyke, a 285 kilometre earthwork separating Mercia from the Welsh kingdom of Powys. He is said to have proclaimed himself ‘Rex Anglorum’ or King of the English.
The son of Offa, Ecgfrith’s reign lasted around five months. He was either struck down by disease or murdered. Alcuin of York wrote ‘That most noble young man has not died for his sins, but the vengeance for the blood shed by the father has reached the son’. The death of Ecgfrith was the beginning of the end of Mercian power in England.
Reign: 796 – 821
Coenwulf, or Cenwulf, was believed to be descended from an obscure younger brother of Penda. During his reign as one of the later kings of Mercia, he took control of the kingdom of Kent, lost control of East Anglia and fought the Welsh. He was the last of the Mercian kings to have exerted power over other kingdoms, and this period saw the rise of Wessex under King Egbert. He died in Wales and was buried in St Mary’s Abbey in Gloucestershire.
Reign: 821 – 823
Coenwulf’s brother, he took vast swathes of Powys and brought them under the control of the Mercians but generally his power did not match the rulers of Mercia who came before him. In fact, twelfth century historian William of Malmesbury wrote of him ‘the kingdom of the Mercians declining, and if I may use the expression, nearly lifeless, produced nothing worthy of historical commemoration‘.
Reign: 823 – 826
It’s safe to say that in this list of Mercian kings, Beornwulf was the least successful of all. In fact he single-handedly drove Mercia into terminal decline. He was defeated at the Battle of Ellandun against Wessex, during which the Mercian sub-kingdoms of Essex and Sussex switched sides. To compound the misery, Wessex invaded Kent and killed the pro-Mercian ruler. Knowing which way the tide was turning, East Anglia then switched allegiance to Wessex. Beornwulf decided to invade East Anglia in retaliation for their betrayal but was killed in the ensuing fight.
Reign: 826 – 827
One of the lesser-known kings of Mercia, Ludeca was killed a year after Beornwulf in a second failed attempt to win over the East Anglians.
Reign: 827 – 829, 830 – 839
Wiglaf’s reign was punctuated for a year when Wessex king Ecgberht assumed the Mercian throne. For a short time during the second reign, Mercia seemed to be strengthening but it’s likely Wiglaf may have been nothing more than Ecgberht’s puppet. The second rise of Mercia didn’t last. His date of death is unknown but his tomb in Repton remains there to this day.
Reign: 839 – 840
Probably the son of Wiglaf, nothing is known of his life and short reign.
Very little is known about the Mercian kings from the middle of the ninth century. It’s possible he refused the kingship or that he co-ruled with his mother Ælfflæd. He supposedly died by being struck on the head with a dagger and run through with a sword.
Reign: 840 – 852
Beorhtwulf was the first of the kings of Anglo-Saxon Mercia to be subjected to Viking raids. They sacked London which was under Mercian rule and it pushed the Vikings south into Wessex. For a time the incursion brought Mercia and Wessex closer together but the natural order was soon restored. His place and date of death are lost to history.
Reign: 852 – 874
It is said that Burgred, possibly related to his predecessor, was the last king of Mercia. At least perhaps its last true independent ruler. His reign was punctuated with frequent Viking raids from the east and Welsh raids from the west. The famous March of the Danes in 874 proved to be one fight too many and he was expelled from Mercia. He died in Rome.
Reign: 874 – 879 or 883
Ceolwulf was nothing more than a puppet of the Vikings and was replaced by Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, supported by King Alfred the Great of Wessex. And there endeth the three hundred years of Mercian kings.