King Offa of Mercia - Sarah Woodbury

King Offa of Mercia

Offa of Mercia ruled much of England from 757 AD to 29 July 796.  He was known primarily to history as the man who built–or organized the building of–‘Offa’s Dyke’ the earthenwork wall that stretches the length of the border between England and Wales. Unfortunately, though we know the dates of his rule, some of what happened before and after, and the wars we fought, we know little of Offa as a man.

The date that he ruled is very exact for that time period because of the wall and the history surrounding it. He was buried in Bedford and succeeded by his son, Ecgfrith, whom Offa had consecrated as his heir before his death. “According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ecgfrith died after a reign of only 141 days. A letter written by Alcuin in 797 to a Mercian ealdorman named Osbert makes it apparent that Offa had gone to great lengths to ensure that his son Ecgfrith would succeed him. Alcuin’s opinion is that Ecgfrith “has not died for his own sins; but the vengeance for the blood his father shed to secure the kingdom has reached the son. For you know very well how much blood his father shed to secure the kingdom on his son.”

It is apparent that in addition to Ecgfrith’s consecration in 787, Offa had systematically gone about eliminating his dynastic rivals. This seems to have backfired, in that with Ecgfrith’s death, no close male relatives of Offa or Ecgfrith are recorded, and Coenwulf, Ecgfrith’s successor, was only distantly related to Offa’s line.

Offa’s rule began as a result of violence:  “Æthelbald, who had ruled Mercia since 716, was assassinated in 757. According to a later continuation of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica (written anonymously after Bede’s death) the king was “treacherously murdered at night by his own bodyguards”, though the reason why is unrecorded. Æthelbald was initially succeeded by Beornred, about whom little is known. The continuation of Bede comments that Beornred “ruled for a little while, and unhappily”, and adds that “the same year, Offa, having put Beornred to flight, sought to gain the kingdom of the Mercians by bloodshed.” It is possible that Offa did not gain the throne until 758, however, since a charter of 789 describes Offa as being in the thirty-first year of his reign.”

“After he gained power, he consolidated bordering the kingdoms Hwicce and Magonsæte into Mercia. Offa was opportunistic, as when the neighboring kingdom of Kent began to experience some political instability, he enforced himself as overlord of Kent and soon ruled the kingdom of Sussex as well. Offa’s kingdom began to threaten the Welsh kingdoms nearby and Offa soon went to war.

Offa built a series of earthen barriers, or dykes, as fortifications for his units in their war against Wales. It was built in such a way that the Welsh kingdoms would have to charge through a ditch, and then up a hill to gain access to the Mercian soldiers. This put the Welsh soldiers at a severe disadvantage and the Mercians at a tactical advantage. Today, Offa’s Wall makes up some of the border between Wales and England.”

We have no contemporary Mercian source that chronicles his reign.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has been accused of being biased towards the West Saxons, who wrote it, and in light of the future reign of Alfred the Great.   Nennius, although he died during the reign of Offa’s son, only mentions him in the geneologies.  This could be because of Offa’s conflicts with the Church, either over the split in Archbishoprics between Canterbury and Lichfield (at Offa’s request) or the new date of Easter.

6 Replies to “King Offa of Mercia”

  1. The dyke still has resonance today. Whereas it may not be a universal saying, it’s not uncommon for people to say in welsh that they’re going “dros y clawdd” (over the dyke) or “dros Clawdd Offa” when speaking of going to England. Its presence is used in both languages to indicate travel to England and is used in other contexts too as another way of indicating “England” without actually using the word “England”. Although, except in certain areas, it no longer forms the border, it is in the mind of some still the demarcation line between two culturally diverse peoples.

    1. I would agree. I remember watching an episode of Torchwood where Gwen screeches a little as she leaves Wales for England. I admit, when we did it most recently, I did too!

  2. Why didn’t the Welsh simply start dismantling it during the Anarchy if it was a bother? I mean both sides were so focused on each other that it didn’t matter if a out of date wall had been reached by “uncouth barbarians who were so focused on fighting each other”…or would it? Oh well, 900 years too late for that plan.

    1. It was made of turf, so not easy to dismantle, but by 1150, it wasn’t doing much, other than serving as a psychological barrier. Nobody was defending it anymore.

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