Who was Ceolwulf of Mercia and what did he do?

Ceolwulf II of Mercia is barely mentioned in the historical record. When he is referenced, it’s in dispatches and rather unflattering, but who was he? Did he play an important role alongside Alfred the Great in defending England or was he nothing more than a Viking puppet? Here is the story of Ceolwulf, the last king of Mercia.

History Rulers
3 May 2023

Who was Ceolwulf II of Mercia? A forgotten king lost to history or a key player in the defence of England against the Vikings? Join us on a journey to uncover the story of the last king of Mercia.

For a hundred and fifty years from the middle of the seventh century, Mercia was the most powerful kingdom in the heptarchy, the seven kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England.

After the death of Offa in 796, Mercian power began to wane and Wessex became the dominant kingdom. By the time of the reign of Ceolwulf of Mercia in the late ninth century, Mercian power had all but gone. The Vikings controlled much of the eastern half of Mercia in an area known as Danelaw, which stretched from York down to Middlesex on the northern outskirts of London.

After the Vikings ousted Mercian king Burgred by 874, Ceolwulf, the last king of Mercia was on the throne. According to many sources, he wasn’t in charge and was a puppet of the Viking leaders. Others, however, suggest he was in fact a king in reality as well as in name.

Anglo-Saxon King Ceolwulf

Silver coin collection (Anglo-saxon period) (Photo: Hein Nouwens via Getty Images)

Ceolwulf’s year of birth has been lost to history, so there’s no way to age him, though it’s believed he is descended from Pybba, a king of Mercia in the late sixth century.

The reign of Ceolwulf is generally agreed to have started in 874 when Burgred – said to be the last true independent king of Mercia – was deposed by the Vikings, though historians are split as to when his kingship ended. Most accounts say he died in 879 but one source suggests he could have reigned into the early 880s.

Like many of the kings who reigned in the heptarchy between the sixth and tenth centuries, the only available source material that documented their lives is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It was commissioned by Alfred the Great of Wessex (also the brother-in-law of Burgred) and the accounts are said to be politically skewed against Ceolwulf II of Mercia, and indeed the other kingdoms.

The Last King of Mercia

Alfred The Great (Photo: Tony Baggett via Getty Images)

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that in 874, Viking forces, known as the Great Heathen Army, moved from Lindsey, now the modern-day city of Lincoln, to Repton in South Derbyshire. They stayed there for the winter and drove Burgred ‘over sea, when he had reigned for two and twenty winters.’

With Burgred gone – he went to Rome where he retired and died – the Vikings installed King Ceolwulf who became the last king of Mercia.

In an example of the political and possibly personal bias against Mercian king Ceolwulf in the Wessex-skewed Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it says, ‘And the same year they gave Ceolwulf, an unwise king’s thane [a man who held land granted by a king or military leader], the Mercian kingdom to hold; and he swore oaths to them, and gave hostages, that it should be ready for them on whatever day they would have it; and he would be ready with himself, and with all those that would remain with him, at the service of the army.’

This effectively says that Ceolwulf was a puppet for the Vikings. However, other sources suggest he wasn’t dancing willingly and entirely to the Danish tune. For example, charters issued in his name around 875 calling him rex Merciorum, king of Mercia, were witnessed by Mercian bishops, which suggests he wielded power of his own. He may have retained the western part of the kingdom for himself for at least two years while the Vikings ruled the land to the east. Anglo-Saxon king Ceolwulf may just have been a shrewder political operative than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle would have us believe.

Indeed cross-and-lozenge style coins minted in his name are very similar to those minted by Alfred around the same time, and are believed to have been created by the same moneyer. This may suggest that the two were close and may have worked together to repel the Viking occupation.

The last king of Mercia probably died in 879 although like much of his reign, debate remains as to whether he may have ruled for slightly longer.

After Ceolwulf II of Mercia, Aethelred, Lord of the Mercians, and Alfred the Great formed a political and familial union that fought the Vikings and led to the eventual unification of England under one king.


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