|Britain circa 600 CE|
Mercia was one of the seven original kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy (Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex).
It was centred on the valley of the River Trent and its tributaries.
The name, which survives to the present day, is a Latinisation of the Old English Mierce or Myrce - meaning border-folk or ‘Men of the Marches’.
|Rohirrim's helm ( LOTR 2002 film)|
An attractive alternative derivation is from the Proto-Celtic *marko- (“horse”) (compare Old Irish marc, Old English mearh, Old Norse marr.), from Proto-Indo-European *marko- (“horse”). This would render Mercia is the ‘Horse Folk’ -a not inapplicable name. I have little doubt that consummate Anglo-Saxon scholar, J.R.R. Tolkien, was only too aware of this.
The pseudo-etymology from the Old English mirce - murky, dark, uncanny, evil, is false.
If we accept the ‘borderers’ etymology, the question arises as to whom did they border? This question has been complicated by the Norman concept of the ‘Marches’, notably the ‘Welsh Marches’.The Frankish term marka has the same derivation as the O.E. mearc. Post Conquest, the border areas between England and Wales were collectively known as the Welsh Marches. The Norman lords in the Welsh Marches became known as the Marcher Lords. It has always been assumed that Mercia was named so because it bordered the Welsh kingdoms and because later Mercian rulers, notably Offa, made such an effort to define the Welsh Border by building his great mær-díc : Offa’s Dike.
However, P. Hunter Blair has argued an alternative interpretation: that the Miercan emerged along the frontier of Northumbria instead.
- Middelseaxan (Middle Saxons). Both London and Middlesex, which had been part of the kingdom of Essex, were brought under Mercian control during the reign of Æðelbald.
|Penda of Mercia|
According to tradition, Icel, son of Eomer, last king of Angeln, led the Angles over the North Sea in 527 CE.
Creoda, the great-grandson of Icel came to power around 584 CE. It was Creoda who established a fortified manor at Tamtun (Tamworth) which went on to become the seat of Mercia's kings.
The next important Mercian king was Penda (626-655 CE.) who was known for his adherence to the Old Gods.
Edwin, king of Northumbria, was defeated and killed by the indefatigably warlike Penda and his ally Cadwallon of Gwynedd in 633 at the Battle of Hatfield Chase (O.E. Hæðfelð). Penda went on to slay Oswald, the next Northumbrian king who had claimed overlordship and marched south. Again, Penda gathered a coalition together to dispute this and, in 642 CE, the two armies clashed just inside the territory of Powys. At the Battle of Maserfield, Penda was victorious; the battle ending in Oswald's death. The site of the battle is traditionally identified with Oswestry*, the site of a large Iron-Age Hill-Fort. Bede records that the Penda hung Oswald’s dismembered body on a tree, probably as an offering to Woden.
In 655, the now quite elderly Penda assembled thirty subordinate kings to fight the new Northumbrian king Oswiu. At the Battle of Winwaed, however, Woden deserted the old warrior, who lost both the battle and his life.
* (from Old English Oswaldestreow, "Oswald's Tree", is not disputed etymologically (Gelling 1990, 229-31). This is supported by the Welsh name for Oswestry, Croesoswald, "Oswald's Cross".)
|Coin bearing the image of Offa|
The next important king of Mercia was Æðelbald (716–757). Some time before the accession of Æthelbald, the Mercians conquered the region around Wroxeter from Powys. Æthelbald then spent his reign establishing Mercia's hegemony over the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms south of the Humber.