Today I’d very much like to welcome fellow Anglo-Saxon nut, Annie Whitehead, (sorry Annie!) to my Writers of Anglo-Saxon Literature series. Here she is talking about her beloved Mercia, and the characters that inhabited that world in the not so Dark Ages.
If you’re here reading Paula’s blog, then you probably don’t need to be told how interesting and exciting Anglo-Saxon history is. Despite the epithet, these times weren’t really the Dark Ages. There’s a wealth of documentary and archaeological evidence and an abundance of tales about characters who are too interesting not to write about.
It wasn’t deliberate, but I seem to write almost exclusively about the inhabitants of a particular Anglo-Saxon kingdom: Mercia.
Why Mercia in particular? Well, I happen to think that some of the most charismatic characters came from there or operated within its borders. More of them anon.
We don’t know precisely where the Mercians came from, or how they ended up where they did, or even what their name means and whether that’s what they called themselves.
Theories abound. Some say they migrated from the eastern settlements, some say there’s no evidence for this. Some think that they were Angles rather than Saxons, and most agree that their name, Myrcne, means the Marcher, or Border, People. So straight away they’re marked out as different; not named for who they were and where they came from – unlike the West Saxons, (Wessex) or the North Folk (Norfolk) – and we’re not even sure which border is being referred to. Was it the border with the Welsh? The Northumbrians? Or even the West Saxons?
It gets even more complicated when we realise that they weren’t even one kingdom, but more like a confederation of states. These smaller kingdoms gradually merged, or got consumed by Mercia proper, but their administrative organisation bore traces of those early kingdoms, and tribal identities remained, even into the eleventh century. (They almost toppled Edward the Confessor, too, but I’ll come back to that.)
At crucial times, their backing of a particular candidate for the throne was pivotal. Athelstan was first declared king in Mercia, and just as well, because he had a little difficulty shoring up his position in Wessex, initially. There was a small amount of trouble from a half-brother who was elected king in Wessex but died just a couple of weeks later, and then another half-brother who was implicated in a rebellion and was put to sea, where he drowned.
Later on in the tenth century, a fairly feckless young king, Eadwig, failed to bribe enough noblemen to support him – not for lacking of trying; in his short reign he issued over sixty charters, attempting to buy support in return for land – and the Mercians elected his brother, Edgar, as their king. There were two courts for a while, until Eadwig, like so many before him, died a convenient death at aged just nineteen. Edgar was keen throughout the rest of his reign always carefully to acknowledge the debt he owed to the Mercians and what by then had effectively become the Danelaw, in fact if not in name.
So, for me, they’re a little bit different. A little bit unconventional. And the people who led them were fascinating.
Any history of Mercia has to start off with Penda, the pagan warlord. Official line: he made war on Northumbria for no reason, burning, pillaging and generally behaving in an unsportsmanlike manner. But a chance remark by his sternest critic, the Venerable Bede, informs us that at one point he went to war because the king of Wessex had repudiated his sister. Vicious pagan he may have been, but I’d want him on my side if I ever got ‘dumped’.
At one point, the kingdom of Mercia stretched from the Thames to the Humber. Mercian kings were at various points overlords of most of the smaller kingdoms of the south and east. Their downfall though came in part because of their make-up. Having started out as a confederacy of separate kingdoms, they retained a tribal element and often their ealdormen weren’t elected by the king, but served in government because they were, effectively, tribal chiefs. This meant that an awful lot of successions to the kingship were contested, by rival claimants from various families. This might not have mattered so much had it not been for two things: the coming of the Vikings, and the fact that Wessex started getting its act together and established a strong dynasty of its own, the most famous member of that family being Alfred the Great.
Still, the Mercians remained quite cheerful, putting their weight behind a lady of whom you might have heard: Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred. She was half-Mercian anyway, but her strategic burh-building meant that, in partnership with her brother, the boundaries of the Danelaw were pushed back and important territories regained. Her daughter succeeded her in Mercia for a short while. They weren’t queens, but they were accepted by the Mercians in a way that the West Saxons never accepted women leaders.
Still, after a brief spell as leader, this daughter was removed by Alfred’s son, Edward, and Mercia was governed from then on by Wessex.
They weren’t for giving up their national identity though, as we’ve seen; twice they were instrumental in electing West Saxon kings. And in the eleventh century, their identity was still discrete from Wessex. It doesn’t cast them in a positive light, but when their ealdorman, Eadric Streona, was accused of fleeing the battlefield, it was said that he took with him the men of the Magonsæte, one of the original kingdoms which had made up the Mercian confederacy.
Later in the eleventh century, when politics was dominated by the machinations and ambitions of the family of Earl Godwin, the Mercians had a part to play. When the northerners rebelled against Tostig Godwinson, Mercian brothers Edwin – Earl of Mercia – and Morcar – newly-elected earl of Northumbria – led the northern earls in a deputation which very nearly ended in outright rebellion, causing Harold Godwinson to ride north with all due haste and negotiate with them. It might even have been at this point that he arranged to marry the sister of Edwin and Morcar. Not bad work for Mercian brothers who were probably still only teenagers at the time.
When you consider that such lively characters as Offa and Lady Godiva were also Mercians, the question for me isn’t Why Mercia, but Why Not?
Annie is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, chronicles the life of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and her second, Alvar the Kingmaker, tells the story of Earl Alvar, who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, Cometh the Hour, charts the life of King Penda. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down. She is the recipient of various awards for her novels and has also won awards for her nonfiction essays. She won the inaugural HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition and her first full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom was published by Amberley Books in Sep 2018.
Thank you so much, Annie, for coming on my blog today. I’ve learned so much about Mercia already! I think the explanation for the name of Mercia being derived from the marches or borders is a good one myself, and quite reasonable. They were bordered on all sides as you say, so perhaps there is some truth in that. Perhaps they were a mixture of Britons, Saxons, and Angles, which could explain why they were never known as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
I agree that the Mercian characters are a fascinating bunch. I wonder how different things might have been had they ended up being the more dominant kingdom instead of Wessex. One of the most interesting things I find was their links with Wales, and how sometimes they were allies and sometimes they were enemies – I noticed you didn’t mention that old rebel, Alfgar, whom i happen to think of as one of the most interesting Mercians of the mid 11th Century apart form Leofric and Godiva, his parents. I’d love to know what it was the recalcitrant son of Godiva blurted out before he could stop himself that got himself exiled on two occasions!
As for Æthelflæd, she is my darling. I love your portrayal of her in your book To Be A Queen . For me she is the kick ass woman of the Dark Ages. If only we knew more about her life, her appearance and her character. Thank goodness that we have authors like yourself who bring these characters to life.
Which leads me to heartily recommend Annie’s books and her recent non-fiction book about MERCIA which currently awaits my hungry little eyes and fingers on my book shelf.