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

Penda, king of Mercia, was said to be a brutal warmonger who turned Mercia from a largely irrelevant tract of middle England into the most powerful kingdom in the land. Much of his life is shrouded in mystery yet he remains a central figure in English history. Here is the story of Penda of Mercia.

History Rulers
3 May 2023

In the midst of the murky history of seventh-century England, Penda of Mercia emerged as a formidable and enigmatic leader whose conquests shaped the political landscape of early Anglo-Saxon England.

Two centuries after Penda’s death, a text known as Historia Brittonum, The History of the Britons, described the warrior king as ‘victorious through the arts of the devil.’

Here is the fascinating story of Penda of Mercia.

King Penda - The Early Years

Venerable Bede (Photo: adoc-photos via Getty Images)

It’s believed Penda was one of twelve sons of Pybba who reigned as King of Mercia in the final years of the sixth century. Indeed it’s possible later kings said they were sons of Pybba to add weight to their claims to the throne.

Penda himself was probably born in the early seventh century and, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle written between the ninth and twelfth centuries, Penda, king of Mercia was crowned in 626 – though these dates are very much disputed. Some sources suggest he was born in the late 590s, others say he was crowned as late as 632 or even 642 and was fifty when he became king. However this is highly unlikely. More likely is that he was around fifty when he died.

What we do know is that he was King of Mercia in the early to middle part of the seventh century and built an empire that was to dominate and define the English political landscape.

One of the only reliable written records of life 1,400 years ago is from The Venerable Bede, a Christian monk from the kingdom of Northumbria. This is likely to be one of the reasons why the reign of Penda, Anglo-Saxon king of Mercia and devout pagan has been remembered through the ages with hostility and as a bloody period in the history of Anglo-Saxon England.

Penda of Mercia - The Warrior King

Edwin of Northumbria (Photo: RockingStock via Getty Images)

Like many of the more successful Anglo-Saxon kings, Penda spent much of his reign jostling for power with neighbouring kingdoms to expand his influence and control.

One of his first battles was in 628 against the West Saxons at Cirencester. To muddy the chronological waters even more, he may not have even been king at this point, indeed it is quoted that he was a ‘landless noble of the Mercian royal house fighting for his own hand’. What historians generally agree on is that he annexed part of the kingdom of Wessex, which set him on the road to becoming an empire-builder.

The eyes of Penda, Anglo-Saxon king of Mercia next looked north towards the kingdom of Northumbria. In 633 at the Battle of Hatfield Chase, he defeated and killed King Edwin, at the time the most powerful ruler in Britain. One historian of Anglo-Saxon history said that after his victories, Penda was ‘a Mercian leader whose military exploits far transcended those of his obscure predecessors.’

The next few years of Penda’s reign have been largely lost to history but it’s believed that somewhere between 635 and the early 640s, he defeated the East Anglian army and killed their king Egric and his predecessor Sigebert, further enhancing the reputation of Penda. Mercia was becoming the country’s preeminent kingdom.

The Battle of Maserfield

Stain glass rendering of Oswald of Northumbria (Photo: VW Pics via Getty Images)

The Battle of Maserfield in 641 or 642 was King Penda’s crowning glory. This victory cemented his place as the most formidable king in England, and Mercia as the most powerful kingdom.

It’s said to have taken place somewhere near the market town of Oswestry in Shropshire, close to the Welsh border, but the exact location is subject to debate.

Penda, king of the Mercians, was again drawn into battle with the Northumbrians, who were still smarting at their defeat at Hatfield Chase. The Battle of Maserfield pitted Northumbrian king Oswald against a coalition of Mercians – led by Penda – and forces from the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd. Yet again, Penda of Mercia was victorious, Oswald was killed and Northumbrian territory was seized.

After Oswald’s death, Northumbria divided into two sub-kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira.

The End of Penda

Old map of England, showing the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Photo: mikroman6 via Getty Images)

Over the next decade or so, Penda waged battle with the East Anglians, killing their king Anna, and repeatedly knocked on the door of Northumbria and their king, Oswiu. Bede wrote that after one attack, ‘Penda cruelly ravaged the country of the Northumbrians far and near’. A further incursion suggests he ‘destroyed all he could with fire and sword.’

In either 654 or 655, King Penda, Mercia’s most successful ruler to date, invaded Bernicia. King Oswiu and Penda came together at the Battle of Winwaed. One possible theory amongst many as to why Penda again invaded Northumbria was to prevent the kingdom from reunifying and becoming a force to be reckoned with, but there are many theories.

The battle probably took place somewhere around modern-day Leeds. While the details of the battle itself have been lost to history, after a period of fierce fighting, Penda and many of his men were ultimately defeated and the king himself was slain.

A warrior king to the very end, Penda’s life was the very definition of the phrase ‘live by the sword, die by the sword.’

His tumultuous reign was vital for the emergence of his kingdom but the death of Penda of Mercia signalled the beginning of the end of Mercian dominance.


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