Since Bede observed in about 731 that the provinces of England’s bishops `south of the river Humber and their kings, are subject to Æthelbald, king of the Mercians’, historians have generally looked upon the eighth century as the great period of Mercian domination in Anglo-Saxon England, at least south of the Humber. That Æthelbald was duly followed by the greatest of the Mercian kings, Offa, and that between them their reigns spanned eighty years of the century, merely reaffirms the point.
Over the course of the century the confederation of peoples that Penda and his heirs had forged under their overlordship was to be converted into an enlarged and consolidated kingdom with a strong and increasingly centralised kingship. But how was this achieved, against a backdrop of emerging dynastic rivalries and the scrutiny of churchmen, and what did Mercian supremacy look like?
When Æthelred abdicated his throne in 704 he appointed his nephew Coenred in his place. His reign was short but well-regarded. Mercian authority was maintained in the satellite provinces, Coenred confirming or making grants of land in Middlesex, Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Herefordshire, and contending with attacks by the Welsh; even the demons that Saint Guthlac confronted in the Fens were British-speaking. Coenred’s reputation for piety and `ruling nobly’ would seem to be consistent with his decision after five years to abdicate, and with Offa of the East Saxons, to depart for Rome where he took the tonsure and died not long afterwards. No fewer than six Anglo-Saxon kings, two of them Mercian, decided to abdicate their thrones for the religious life between 685 and 710.
Coenred’s abdication brought his cousin, Ceolred, to the throne, remembered rather less favourably by posterity. His authority and lordship seem to have echoed that of his predecessor although he also campaigned into Wessex in 716, fighting in Wiltshire. However, his reign marked two developments that pointed to the future. Firstly, as the direct line of Penda weakened and became more `distant’ there are indications of growing discontent among other branches of the royal kin, with their own claims on power and subsequent dynastic rivalries. One of these rivals was Æthelbald, forced into exile and `driven hither and thither by King Ceolred and tossed about among divers peoples’ (Felix). He went into the Fens and sought out the `holy man Guthlac’ from whom he took comfort and the prophecy that with God’s help, he would overcome his enemies and gain the Mercian throne. Guthlac had himself been an exile during the reign of Ceolred’s father and may have had little love for Penda’s descendants.
The second pointer to the future is revealed in Ceolred’s reputation. Although not universally adopted, there was a tradition that regarded him as profligate, a visionary at Much Wenlock during the king’s lifetime proclaiming that the angels surrounding him had removed their protective shield and abandoned him to demons because of the many crimes that he had committed; the story prompts a suspicion of dynastic interests at play. At the heart of this uncomplimentary tradition lay the testimony of Saint Boniface, set out thirty years after Ceolred’s death in a letter to King Æthelbald. The theme of the letter was a call for reform, in the course of which the example was raised of Ceolred, who, prompted by the devil, set a wicked example with `an open display of [the] two greatest sins in the provinces of the English’. These sins were described as `debauchery and adultery with nuns and violation of monasteries’. Personal immorality aside, Boniface was concerned with what he saw as the violation of church privileges, and although there is no further explanation as to what these violations were, it seems probable that the secular `abuse’ of minsters and their lands was among these, a recurrent theme later in the eighth century. As a consequence of his sins, while feasting in splendour with his companions, Ceolred was seized by madness and without repentance or confession he died `conversing with devils and cursing the priests of God’, to be buried, according to William of Malmesbury, at Lichfield.
The last of Penda’s direct descendants passed with Ceolred’s death in 716. The suggestion in a Worcester regnal list that he was succeeded by a man named Ceolwald cannot be otherwise verified, and if it was the case it can have been only fleetingly as in 716 Saint Guthlac’s prophecy, given to Æthelbald while in exile, was fulfilled.
A New Dynasty
Æthelbald’s accession marked the triumph of the Mercian royal lineage that traced itself back to Eowa, a brother of Penda, as did his successor, Offa. The two kings were first cousins, twice removed, and so the eighth century saw the replacement of one lineage with another. Barbara Yorke has suggested that there may have been mutual co-operation between these two branches of the family, and certainly signs of rivalry are lacking. Æthelbald, for instance, made a grant to Offa’s grandfather, Eanulf, whom he described as his kinsman and companion.
Æthelbald secured his position by favouring and promoting his kinsmen and friends to positions of power and influence in his service. A `gesith’ or retainer of Æthelbald during his years of exile was a man named Oba (Ofa) who at one point was healed by the touch of the sheepskin rug in which Saint Guthlac was accustomed to pray. Ofa regularly appeared as a witness to Æthelbald’s charters, on one occasion in 742 being described as `Ofa, patricius’, a title of distinction that probably signified his charge of the royal household. Another regular witness was the king’s brother, Heardberht, often described as `dux’ but more prestigiously in 749 as `primatum’, of pre-eminent rank.
In the early years of his reign it is probable that Æthelbald could do little more than ensure his position within Mercia until wider opportunities presented themselves with the death of Wihtred of Kent in 725 and the subsequent partition of his kingdom between three sons; and the abdication of King Ine of Wessex, whose probable ambitions on London and Essex were dissipated by a disputed succession. Even so, historians have recently urged a more considered and `defined’ view of Æthelbald’s overlordship around 731.
Securing the Mercian Heartland
Fundamental was the absorption of Mercia’s former satellite provinces into an enlarged and integrated kingdom, a phenomenon of Æthelbald’s reign that was continued under Offa, in both cases reflected by the way in which previously independent rulers became increasingly subordinated in their status, and their titles, descending from `king’, to `under king’ and then `ealdorman’. This latter vernacular title was used of royal kin, formerly autonomous rulers, and distinguished nobles to denote the king’s most important and prestigious officers. They had delegated powers of governance, military command and administration in the Mercian provinces, the precursors of the later shires.
The last independent ruler of the Magonsæte was a son of Merewalh, Mildfrith, regulus (sub king) but after about 740 this former province was integrated into the Mercian kingdom under a subordinate ruler, by Offa’s time, an ealdorman. Similarly, the Hwiccian royal family was gradually subordinated and their province integrated, reflected by Æthelbald and Offa regularly granting land within their province; indeed one of the earliest of the charters to survive from Æthelbald’s reign concerned an exchange of salthouses and furnaces near Droitwich with the church of Worcester. Among the witnesses when Æthelbald granted land at Stour in Ismere to his companion Cyneberht in 736 was Æthelric, `sub-king and companion of the most glorious prince Æthelbald’.
By Offa’s time there was a further but significant shift in how the Hwiccian rulers were described. For instance, there were several charters where Ealdred (fl. 757-790) was described as an under-king of the Hwicce, but in 778, in a charter of Offa granting land in Sedgeberrow (Worcestershire), he was described more precisely as `subregulus’ and `dux’ of the Hwicce, that is, under-king and ealdorman. The transformation of this province into a Mercian scir or shire was effectively marked by the synod of Brentford in 781 settling a dispute between Offa and the church of Worcester, but after which there were no further Hwiccian charters. The Mercian kings first made the authority of Hwiccian rulers dependent upon their support and confirmation, which Æthelbald and more particularly Offa took further by completely transforming the basis of their subordinate authority, now entirely derived from the Mercian king until they effectively became his officers. Something similar is thought to have occurred among the Middle Angles and in Lindsey.
As in the seventh century Mercian interests were greatly affected by relations with their neighbours, among them the East Anglian and East Saxon kingdoms where international trading networks were focused on the major entrepots of Ipswich and London. Similarly important was the kingdom of Kent, with links to Francia and the seat of the southern archdiocese at Canterbury.
The fact that Saint Guthlac’s Vita was dedicated to King Ælfwald of the East Angles, and the popularity of his cult in East Anglia, suggests crucially important cordial relations between the East Angles and the Mercians. Beyond the supposed implications of Bede’s statement, there is little to suggest direct East Anglian subordination to Æthelbald, other than perhaps his seniority within the community of kings. We might here envisage influence rather than direct control and it was Æthelbald’s good fortune that Ælfwald did not die until 749, after a reign of thirty-six years.
Among the East Saxons Æthelbald’s authority was more tangible. Mercian control of London was reasserted and Middlesex was effectively annexed into the Mercian kingdom, all at the expense of the East Saxon kings. Æthelbald may be found remitting tolls at London for the benefit of the churches of Rochester and Minster-in-Thanet (Kent) without any need to associate an East Saxon king, at least not in the surviving versions of the grant, although a clause admonishing any future attempts by kings or their deputies to invalidate the gift might prompt speculation. Of course, with London came the particular demands of a major trading centre, among these the need for large quantities of coin. From as early as around 720 Æthelbald was striking a silver Mercian coinage with his most important mint in London, but there is nothing to suggest that he sought to enforce or control the minting of coin by other kings.
Mercian control of London and interest in cross Channel trade must have affected the kingdom of Kent and influenced relations, but the evidence is equivocal and it is difficult to demonstrate that the Kentish kings were subordinate. Mercian influence, however, might be reasonably supposed, as when in 731 the priest Tatwine, from the monastery of Breedon-on-the-Hill (Leicestershire), was elected archbishop of Canterbury. This was not an isolated instance; in 734-5 Nothelm, a priest of London, and again in 740, Cuthbert, a probable former bishop of Hereford, were elected to Canterbury.
Relations with Wessex seem to have been largely framed by border disputes in which Æthelbald was successful in gaining territory, perhaps previously contested land. He appears disposing of lands in West Saxon areas and this, alongside the fact that Æthelbald and the West Saxon king Cuthred fought together in 743 against the Britons, leads some to suggest a Mercian overlordship of Wessex at this point; but that need not be so, and in any case, by 752, Cuthred put the Mercians to flight at Beorhford. However, Æthelbald still appears witnessing land granted in Wiltshire as `king not only of the Mercians but also of the surrounding peoples’.
Perceptions of Æthelbald’s Kingship
There can be no doubt that royal authority in Mercia itself was strengthened and the kingdom enlarged as former satellite provinces were incorporated with the Mercian heartlands, but what of the rest of southern England?
It has recently been suggested that Æthelbald’s ambitions were relatively limited, represented essentially by a `corridor’ of territory that ran south eastwards along the line of Watling Street towards London. Beyond this, there is little to suggest direct control in Kent, among the South and East Saxons, or in the East Anglian kingdom. Still more limited were Mercian ambitions north of the Humber, with only two raids into Northumbria, in 737 and 740; nor is there much evidence regarding Wales, although the border areas had become more volatile by the early eighth century.
Can we reconcile this more circumspect evaluation with the testimony of Bede, as a direct and well-connected witness, well able to appreciate the contemporary scene; and one subsequently borne out by such as Æthelbald’s confirmation of privileges to the churches of Kent in 742, the kind of act that we might associate with a king thought to wield real authority? Direct authority over the lands between the Mercian heartlands and London was essential, but elsewhere negotiation and fluctuation were possible based on influence, friendship and strength. Æthelbald pursued kingdom building in central England and secured its frontiers while elsewhere, to borrow a nineteenth-century phrase, he maintained `spheres of interest’.
Æthelbald’s aspirations and `profile’ may, to some extent, be reflected in the titles that he adopted, but such material must be treated with caution. The practices of individual scriptoria, particularly Worcester, played a part here and the styles they used need not have always represented the reality. The title of `rex Britanniae’, king of Britain, used in 736 is hardly credible, whereas in the text of the charter is found, `king not only of the Mercians but also of all the provinces which are called by the general name south English’, a description that comes closer to what Bede described a few years earlier. More commonly, as for Offa later, he was styled `rex Merciorum’, `king of the Mercians’, a more accurate reflection of Æthelbald’s authority, status and ambition.