Who was King Burgred of Mercia and what did he do?

Despite reigning over one of the most powerful kingdoms in England for more than twenty years, Burgred remains much of an enigma. Beset by battles with the Welsh and the Vikings, he was perhaps the last true independent ruler of Mercia. Read on to discover the life and times of Burgred of Mercia.

History Rulers
3 May 2023

Shrouded in mystery and reigning over one of England’s most powerful kingdoms, the enigmatic life of Burgred of Mercia captivates the imagination, as history reveals the struggles and triumphs during his 20-year rule.

Between the middle of the seventh century and the later years of the eighth, the kingdom of Mercia was the most powerful in the heptarchy – the seven kingdoms that constituted Anglo-Saxon England. At the zenith of its power, it was the largest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. From the Humber River in the north, the border with Wales in the west, East Anglia on Britain’s east coast and south to Kent and Sussex, Mercian kings such as Penda, Æthelbald and Offa were incredibly powerful and influential.

However Mercian domination started to wane and the kingdom of Wessex became increasingly dominant. The Mercian ruler Burghred – as his name was often recorded – was probably the last independent king of Mercia who wielded any true power. His successor Ceolwulf II is thought to have been little more than a puppet ruler for the Vikings.

Here is the intriguing story of Burgred of Mercia.

King Burgred

Medieval Anglo-Saxon silver (Photo: Hein Nouwens via iStock)

Almost nothing is known of the early life of Burgred, indeed very little is known of his later life despite the fact that he was king of Mercia for, so says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘two and twenty winters.’

His ancestry has been lost to history, though one source suggests he might have been related to his predecessor Beorhtwulf. After Beorhtwulf’s death – possibly while fighting the Vikings – king Burgred was crowned in 852. Indeed from the remaining charters issued by Burgred of Mercia, historians are relatively certain he was on the throne before 25 July 852.

However a story sometimes told is of an otherwise unknown king called Eanred, who may have reigned very briefly between the death of Beorhtwulf and the crowning of Burgred. This is based on a single unearthed coin minted around 850 with the inscription EANRED REX.

Burgred of Mercia - Weddings & The Welsh

Antique Map Of England & Wales (Photo: Nicholas Free via Getty Images)

The next two years of king Burgred’s life were fraught with activity. Around a year after he took to the throne, he married Æthelswith, the daughter of King Æthelwulf of Wessex. The nuptials were celebrated at the royal villa of Chippenham in Wessex.

This union, like many such royal marriages of the time, was in all likelihood politically motivated. In this case, it’s believed that the marriage made Burgred subordinate to the more powerful king of Wessex, from whom Burgred needed help.

During the same year, that help was called upon. For at this time in his reign, Mercian ruler Burghred was beset by troubles with the Welsh. In particular the Kingdom of Powys. He called on his father-in-law to help subjugate the Welsh and together they brought the situation under control.

Burghred & The Vikings

The Great Heathen Army advanced on East Anglia (Photo: Print Collector via Getty Images)

The next dozen or so years of Burgred’s reign either passed without significant incident or no relevant records have survived detailing the period. However in 865 the Vikings invaded. Known as the Great Heathen Army, they arrived in large numbers to take as much land as possible.

The Viking force landed and campaigned at East Anglia. After advancing north, they pillaged their way into Mercia and spent the winter of 867 in Nottingham. By 858 Æthelwulf was dead, so Mercian ruler Burghred called upon his brothers-in-law in Wessex – king Æthelred and the future king Alfred the Great – to help him fight off the Danes.

Luckily, the Mercian king came to a peace agreement with the Vikings by way of financial tribute so there was very little, if any, fighting of note. The Great Heathen Army moved back south to East Anglia, killing the king there and seizing the kingdom.

The Later Years and Death of Burgred

La chiesa di Santo Spirito in Sassia (Photo: Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

Five years later in 874, the Vikings were back. Having marched on Wessex – where it’s believed Alfred also gave them a tribute to leave – and then London, they moved north, campaigning in the northeastern parts of the kingdom of Mercia. After spending the winter of 873 in a small village in Lincolnshire on the eastern bank of the River Trent, they subsequently attacked Mercia in force in 874, defeating Burgred and driving the Mercian king from his country and into exile.

Burgred now fled to Rome, though he is said to have died shortly after. There are conflicting sources as to the specific date of his demise. One says he died soon after arriving in Rome, while another says he died in 888. The later date may well be the death of his wife.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he was buried ‘in the church of Sancta Maria, in the school of the English nation.’

Today, the church is called La Chiesa di Santo Spirito in Sassia, or the Church of the Holy Spirit in the Saxon District, on the site of the Schola Saxonum, the Saxon School bequeathed by King Ine of Wessex in the 720s.


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