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Mercia, sometimes spelled Mierce, was one of the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, in what is now England, in the region of the Midlands, with its heart in the valley of the River Trent and its tributary streams. Mercia's neighbours included Northumbria, Powys, the kingdoms of southern Wales, Wessex, Sussex, Essex, and East Anglia. The term survives today in the name of the West Mercia Constabulary and also in the new British Army infantry regiment, the Mercian Regiment.
Mercia's exact evolution from the Anglo-Saxon invasions is more obscure than that of Northumbria, Kent, or even Wessex. Archeological surveys show that Angles settled the lands north of the River Thames by the sixth century. The name Mercia is Old English for "boundary folk" (see marches), and the traditional interpretation was that the kingdom originated along the frontier between the Welsh and the Anglo-Saxon invaders, although P. Hunter Blair has argued an alternative interpretation that they emerged along the frontier between the kingdom of Northumbria and the inhabitants of the Trent river valley.
The earliest known king of Mercia was named Creoda, said to have been the great-grandson of Icel. He came to power about 585 and was succeeded by his son Pybba in 593. Cearl, a kinsman of Creoda, followed Pybba in 606; in 615, Cearl gave his daughter Cwenburga in marriage to Edwin, king of Deira whom he had sheltered while he was an exiled prince. The next Mercian king was Penda, who ruled from about 626 or 633 until 655. Some of what is known about Penda comes through the hostile account of Bede, who disliked him both for being an enemy king to Bede's own Northumbria, but also for being a pagan. However, Bede admits that it was Penda who freely allowed Christian missionaries from Lindisfarne into Mercia, and did not restrain them from preaching. After a reign of successful battles against all opponents, Penda was defeated and killed at the Battle of Winwaed by the Northumbrian king Oswiu in 655.
The battle led to a temporary collapse of Mercian power. Penda was succeeded first by his son Peada, but in the spring of 656 Oswiu assumed control of the whole of Mercia after Peada's murder. A revolt in 658 resulted in the appearance of another son of Penda, Wulfhere, who ruled Mercia until his death in 675. Wulfhere was initially successful in restoring the power of Mercia, but the end of his reign saw a serious defeat against Northumbria. The next two kings, Aethelred and Cenred son of Wulfhere, are better known for their religious activities; the king who succeeded them (in 709), Ceolred, is said in a letter of Saint Boniface to have been a dissolute youth who died insane. So ended the rule of the direct descendants of Penda.
At some point before the accession of Æthelbald, the Mercians conquered the region around Wroxeter, known to the Welsh as "The Paradise of Powys." Elegies written in the persona of its dispossessed rulers record the sorrow at this loss.
The next important king of Mercia was Æthelbald (716 - 757). For the first few years of his reign, he had to face the obstacles of two strong rival kings, Wihtred of Kent and Ine of Wessex. But when Wihtred died in 725, and Ine abdicated his throne the following year to become a monk in Rome, Æthelbald was free to establish Mercia's hegemony over the rest of the Anglo-Saxons south of the Humber. Because of his prowess as a military leader, he acquired the title of Bretwalda. Æthelbald suffered a setback in 752, when he was defeated by the West Saxons under Cuthred, but he seems to have restored his supremacy over Wessex by 757.
Following the murder of Æthelbald by one of his bodyguards in 757, a civil war followed, which was concluded with the victory of Offa. Offa was forced to build the hegemony over the southern English of his predecessor anew, but he not only did so successfully, he became the greatest king Mercia ever knew. Not only did he win battles and dominate southern England, he also took an active hand to administering the affairs of his kingdom by founding market towns and overseeing the first major issues of gold coins in Britain, assumed a role in the administration of the Catholic church in England, and even negotiated with Charlemagne as an equal. Offa is credited with the construction of Offa's Dyke, marking the border between Wales and Mercia.
Offa exerted himself to ensure that his son Ecgfrith of Mercia would succeed him, but after his death in July 796, Ecgfrith survived for only five more months, and the kingdom passed to a distant relative named Coenwulf in December 796. In 821, Coenwulf himself was succeeded by his brother Ceolwulf, who demonstrated his military prowess by his attack on and destruction of the fortress of Deganwy in Powys. The power of the West Saxons under Egbert was rising during this period, however, and in 825 Egbert defeated the Mercian king Beornwulf (who had overthrown Ceolwulf in 823) at Ellendun.
The Battle of Ellendun proved decisive. Beornwulf was slain suppressing a revolt amongst the East Angles, and his successor, a former ealdorman named Ludeca, met the same fate. Another ealdorman, Wiglaf, subsequently ruled for less than two years before being driven out of Mercia by Egbert. In 830, Wiglaf regained independence for Mercia, but by this time Wessex was clearly the dominant power in England. Wiglaf was succeeded by Beorhtwulf.
In 852, Burgred came to the throne and with Ethelwulf of Wessex subjugated north Wales. In 868, Danish armies occupied Nottingham. The Danes drove Burgred, the last king of Mercia from his kingdom in 874 and in 886, the eastern part of the kingdom became part of the Danelaw, while the western portion was occupied by Wessex. The Danes appointed a Mercian thegn, Ceolwulf II, as king in 873 while the remaining independent section of Mercia was ruled by Aethelred, called an ealderman, not a king. He ruled from 883 until 911. Aethelred had married Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great of Wessex. She gradually assumed power as her husband sickened after about 900. After his death she ruled alone until her death in 918 when her brother, Edward the Elder of Wessex became king, combining the two kingdoms.
For knowledge of the internal composition of the kingdom of Mercia, we must rely on a document of uncertain age (late 7th century?), The Tribal Hidage, an assessment of the extent (but not the location) of land (reckoned in "hides") owned, and therefore the military obligations and perhaps taxes due, by each of the Mercian tribes and subject kingdoms by name. This hidage exists in several manuscript versions, some as late as the 14th century; it lists a number of peoples who have vanished, except for reminders in various placenames.
See also: Kings of Mercia
- Ian W. Walker. Mercia and the Making of England (2001). (In the UK, differently titled: Mercia and the Origins of England)
- Sarah Zaluckyj & Marge Feryok. Mercia: The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Central England (2001).
- Michelle Brown & Carol Farr. Mercia (Continuum Studies in Medieval History Series) (forthcoming - March 2005)
- Margaret Gelling. 'The Early History of Western Mercia'. (p. 184-201; In: The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. S. Bassett. 1989) (Western Mercia and the upper Trent being the probable cradle of early Mercia).
- Mercian History: History Project
- Simon Keynes' bibliography (and brief notes) on the Mercian kingdom
- Recensions of manuscripts of the "Hidage"
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