Offa, King of Mercia

Offa’s Dyke
Offa’s Dyke, Raymond Perry [CC BY-SA 2.0]

On 29th July 796 AD King Offa of Mercia died. This was the man who caused to be built the eponymous Dyke, who corresponded with Charlemagne, who issued international currency and who was acknowledged as Bretwalda, the High King. His wife Cynethryth was the only Anglo-Saxon Queen known to issue her own coinage.

Offa came to the throne following the death of his cousin Athelbald, who was killed by his own men in 755 AD, and after driving out Beornred who had briefly tried to take the throne which resulted in a civil war in the kingdom.  According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“Athelbald, king of the Mercians, was slain at Segeswalde [Secklington], and his corpse was taken to Repton and there buried. His kingdom was usurped by the tyrant Beornred, who held it for a short time with neither peace nor comfort, and then lost his throne and life  together. Beornred was succeeded in the kingdom by Offa, grandson of a cousin of Athelbald, king of the Mercians.”

A later continuation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History notes

“where he was treacherously murdered at night by his own bodyguards.”

Offa was the son of Thingfrith, who was the son of Eanulf. He was supposedly descended from Eowa, the brother of King Penda of Mercia.

Offa had to rebuild his kingdom from the chaos, including re-establishing control over the Hwicce and Magonsate (West Midlands), Lindsey (East) and the Middle Angles.

He quickly asserted control over London in order to support his commercial interests and issued new coinage from there to emphasise his power. In the 760s he took Kent and followed by Sussex in 771 AD. He fought against a Kentish uprising in 776 AD at Otford but had recovered the south-east of England by 785 AD.

However, he did not have the support of Janberht, Archbishop of Canterbury (see 12th August), which would have caused him difficulties. Nevertheless he patronised a number of monasteries across his kingdom, such as Medeshamstede and Crowland, and founded others or took control of existing houses. His conflict with Janberht resulted in him persuading the Pope to allow special privileges including the creation of a new Archbishopric at Lichfield.

Although his commercial activities would have been welcome to many, the Church saw him as interfering and overstepping the boundaries between Church and state. The Synod at Chelsea in 787 AD, which saw the establishment of the See of Lichfield, was known as the “contentious synod.” Roger of Wendover tells us what happened:

“Pope Adrian sent legates into Britain to renew the faith which Augustine had preached. They were honourably received by the kings with the clergy and people, and reared a fair structure on the firm foundation of the faith, the grace of Christ co-operating with them.

They held a council at Chalchuthe, when Jainbert, archbishop of Canterbury, resigned a portion of his episcopal jurisdiction to the archbishop of Lichfield. In that council also, Offa, the most potent king of the Mercians, caused his eldest son Egfrid to be solemnly crowned king; he was a pious and noble-minded youth, and reigned from that time conjointly with his father unto the end of the latter’s life.”

Furthermore, under his religious programme Offa founded St Albans Abbey, probably in the early 790s. Roger of Wendover goes into great details about how Offa had a vision which led him to disinter Alban, and then go to Rome to arrange the canonisation of Alban and to obtain papal blessing for the foundation of the Abbey. Possibly Offa wished to promote the cult of a saint to rival that of Augustine at Canterbury. Offa is also one of the possible founders (another candidate is Ine of Wessex) of the Schola Saxonum in Rome.

His relationships with other independent kingdoms varied. He married his daughters strategically, to Wessex and Northumbria. Wessex probably submitted to him as a sub-king after the death of Cynewulf, but there is no record that Northumbria did the same.

King Alfred’s biographer, the Welshman Asser, tells us that “a certain vigorous king called Offa … had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea.” The attribution is supported by name evidence, although the length is now thought to be “only” 103 km. It was an impressive project requiring significant resources and control to build. Offa also constructed a number of burhs which were taken up and developed further by Alfred over a century later. It is not thought they were planned as strategically as Alfred’s nor that Offa understood their commercial opportunities.

In 792 AD he was supposed to have assassinated Athelberht of East Anglia, his son-in-law, at the instigation of his queen. Roger of Wendover embellishes magnificently in his chronicle:

“At the same time, Athelbert, king of the East-Angles, son of king Ethelred, left his territories, much against his mother’s remonstrances, and came to Offa, the most potent king of the Mercians, beseeching him to give him his daughter in marriage. Now Offa, who was a most noble king, and of a most illustrious family, on learning the cause of his arrival, entertained him in his palace with the greatest honour, and exhibited all possible courtesy, as well to the king himself as to his companions. On consulting his queen Quendritha, and asking her advice on this proposal, she is said to have given her husband this diabolical counsel, “Lo,” said she, ” God has this day delivered into your hands your enemy, whose kingdom you have so long desired; if, therefore, you secretly put him to death, his kingdom will pass to you and your successors for ever.” The king was exceedingly disturbed in mind at this counsel of the queen, and, indignantly rebuking her, he replied, “Thou hast spoken as one of the foolish women ; far from me be such a detestable crime, which would disgrace myself and my successors;” and having so said, he left her in great anger. Meanwhile, having by degrees recovered from his agitation, both the kings sat down to table, and, after a repast of royal dainties, they spent the whole day in music and dancing with great gladness. But in the meantime, the wicked queen, still adhering to her foul purpose, treacherously ordered a chamber to be adorned with sumptuous furniture, fit for a king, in which Athelbert might sleep at night. Near the king’s bed she caused a seat to be prepared, magnificently decked, and surrounded with curtains ; and underneath it the wicked woman caused a deep pit to be dug, wherewith to effect her wicked purpose. When king Athelbert wished to retire to rest after a day spent in joy, he was conducted into the aforesaid chamber, and, sitting down in the seat that has been mentioned, he was suddenly precipitated, together with the seat, into the bottom of the pit, where he was stifled by the executioners placed there by the queen ; for as soon as the king had fallen into the pit, the base traitors threw on him pillows, and garments, and curtains, that his cries might not be heard ; and so this king and martyr, thus innocently murdered, received the crown of life which God hath promised to those that love him. As soon as this detestable act of the wicked queen towards her son-in-law was told to the companions of the murdered king, they fled from the court before it was light, fearing lest they should experience the like fate. The noble king Offa, too, on hearing this certainty of the crime that had been wrought, shut himself up in great grief in a certain loft, and tasted no food for three days. Nevertheless, although he was counted guiltless of the king’s death, he sent out a great expedition, and united the kingdom of the East-Angles to his dominions. St. Athelbert was ignominiously buried in a place unknown to all, until his body, being pointed out by a light from heaven was found by the faithful and conveyed to the city of Hereford, where it now graces the episcopal see with miracles and healing powers.”

Certainly Athelberht’s shrine was very popular, but it is more likely that he rebelled against Offa and was executed for his pains as the story of the assassination cannot be dated earlier than the 11th or 12th centuries. The earliest version has him beheaded by Offa.

Offa seems to have modelled himself on his great contemporary on the Continent, Charlemagne, and for this he gained the warm approval of Alcuin of York who was one of the most influential members of Charlemagne’s court. However, there is no sense of him being an equal to Charlemagne and his suggestion that Ecgfrith might marry Charlemagne’s daughter Bertha was met with outrage and caused a break in diplomatic relations.

He died on 29th July 796 AD and was buried at Bedford, which he had founded, but his story was not yet quite over. According to Roger of Wendover he suffered the ignominy of his tomb being washed away by the river in flood.

“Offa, the magnificent king of the Mercians, having nearly completed his most noble monastery, died, according to the opinion of many, in the town of Offley (in Hertfordshire), and his body is said to have been conveyed to the town of Bedford, and to have been buried in a royal manner in a certain chapel outside the city, situated on the bank of the river Ouse. It is reported by nearly all the people of that neighbourhood, even to the present day, that the aforesaid chapel, from decay and the violence of that river, was precipitated, together with the king’s tomb, into the stream; and that the sepulchre is now seen by bathers in the summer time deep beneath the waters, but though it has been sought with the greatest diligence, yet, as if by a fatality, it cannot be found.”

Offa was succeeded by his son Ecgfrith, whom he had groomed for kingship at great effort, but who reigned only 141 days and died of a sickness.

Offa’s legacy was of personal achievement and power rather than national advancement. King Alfred referred to Offa’s Law Code and Athelstan bequeathed a sword which had belonged to Offa to his brother Edmund in his will. However, Offa did not seem to have a vision of uniting the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms or of doing more than ensure his own success and that of his son.