Sunday, 26 February 2012


Britain circa 600 CE
  The Kingdom of Mercia

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’.

The generally accepted etymology of the word Mierce is by i-mutation from (Old West Saxon) mearc, gemearc meaning "mark, boundary".from Proto-Germanic *markó, from Proto-Indo-European *mereg- (“edge, boundary”).
The ‘Mercians’ own pronunciation of that would certainly have been *mærc (like the`Mark' - Land of the Rohirrim in ‘The Lord of the Rings’), and that was undoubtedly once the everyday term for the Midlands.

 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.


The Tribal Hidage, a probably late 7th Century document, lists the land occupied by each tribe in Mercia. From this it is possible to determine the political sub-structure of the kingdom; the original tribes and subsequent client kingdoms.
  • South Mercians (ærest Mrycna; Súð Mierce). Mercians living south of the River Trent. Folk groups included the Tomsæte around Tomtun (Tamworth) - at the meeting point of the Tame and Anker and the Pencersæte, ‘the folk of the Penk Valley’, around Pencric (Penkridge), (where we live). This area approximates to South Staffordshire and North Warwickshire.
  • North Mercians (ærest Mrycna; Norð Mierce). Mercians living north of the River Trent. This area approximates to North Staffordshire, South Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.
  • Outer Mercia (Útan Mierce). An early phase of Mercian expansion, possibly in the 6th century, approximating to South Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Rutland, Northamptonshire and North Oxfordshire.
  • Lindsey (Lindesíg). Once an independent kingdom, fought over with Northumbria in the 7th century and then finally coming under Mercian control (approximating to North Lincolnshire).
  • Middle Angles (Middel Engle). An important folk-grouping which came under Mercian control even prior to Penda, who put his eldest son, Peada, in charge of the Middle Angles as sub-king. It was centred on modern Leicestershire and East Staffordshire.
  • Hwicce. Once a kingdom in its own right, fought over by Wessex and Mercia in the 7th century before finally coming under Mercian control. Approximates to Gloucestershire, Worcestershire. and South Warwickshire).
  • Westerna (known as Magonsæte by 9th Century). Under Mercian control from the 7th century. Included tribal groups such as the Temersæte near Hereford and the Hahlsæte near Ludlow. Approximates to modern Herefordshire and southern Shropshire.
  • Wreocensæte ("Wrekin-dwellers"*). A Welsh border people under Mercian control from the 7th century. Included the Rhiwsæte near Wroxeter and the Meresæte near Chester. This was in all likelihood a mixed Anglo-Saxon-Celtic area. From the 8th Century, its border with Wales would have been marked by Offa’s Dyke. The territory approximates to modern North Shropshire, Flintshire and Cheshire.  *(The Wrekin is a very prominent local hill with an Iron-Age hill-fort.)
  • Pecsæte. Anglo Saxon folk group who inhabited the central and northern parts of the Peak District. This tribe utilised the rivers Derwent and Dove to expand into this area in the 6th century. Under Mercian control from the 7th century. The area approximates to North Derbyshire.
  • Area Between Ribble & Mersey. Æþelfriþ of Northumbria, laid waste to Chester around 616. When he withdrew, the area west and south of the Mersey became part of Mercia. (South Lancashire).
  • 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
It is generally accepted that the territory that was called "the first of the Mercians" (ærest Mrycna) in the Tribal Hidage included modern Staffordshire, much of south Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and northern Warwickshire.
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".)

Northumbrian dominance was short-lived, however, for in 658 Wulfhere, son of Penda threw off its shackles but it was left to his brother Æðelred to complete the process. In 679, at the Battle of the Trent, he defeated Ecgfrið of Northumbria, effectively annexing the former kingdom of Lindsey and ending Northumbria's capacity to project power south of the Humber.

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.

In 757, Æthelbald was assassinated by one of his own men and after considerable fighting between the various Mercian lords, King Offa came to power. He quickly re-established Mercia’s dominance. He was a very effective and efficient ruler, who took a great interest in economics and foreign affairs as well as defence. As well as ordering the construction of Offa’s Dyke and having diplomatic ties with Charlemagne, Offa was responsible for a major reformation of the coinage. Under his patronage the former small silver coins (now termed sceattas) were replaced with a heavier, larger thinner coin consisting of around 1.5 grams of pure silver. The English silver penny was born and this coin was to remain in use and largely unchanged for almost a thousand years. It was the English silver penny which was the basis for the wealth of the later Anglo-Saxon state.
Offa was the King of Mercia from 757 until his death in July 796. He was the last great Mercian king for, in the south, the power of Wessex was waxing. In 825 Ecgberht defeated the Mercian Beornwulf at the Battle of Ellendun. With Wessex dominant, Mercia declined, then in 868, a Danish army occupied Nottingham. King Burgred was no Penda and fled abroad in 874, leaving Mercia to the Vikings. It never emerged as a truly independent state ever again.

Despite being replaced as the dominant power by Wessex in the 9th Century and partially absorbed by the Danelaw, Mercia's long-held dominant position and gradual expansion under kings such as Penda laid the foundations for what we know as "England" today. In addition, much of modern English bears a greater resemblance to the Mercian dialect than to others such as Old West Saxon, hinting at the indellible influence of this long-lost kingdom on our history.

No comments: