The kingdom of Mercia was one of the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxons kingdoms that dominated early medieval England, at its peak covering the area from Lincolnshire in the north-east to London in the south east, the Bristol Channel in the south-west and Chester in the north-west, while its most powerful kings dominated their neighbours. Offa was the greatest of those kings, ruling for almost four decades, and entering into diplomatic relations with Charlemagne.
Mercia’s position meant that it was almost constantly involved in wars, with the rival English powers of Northumberland to the north and Wessex to the south, and the Welsh to the west. At first the country was less affected by the arrival of the Vikings, but eventually they reached into the heart of Mercia, although that came after Offa’s time. There is thus no shortage of wars for Peers to study, and given the often quite limited documentation, no shortage of issues to examine either!
One problem for any historian of Mercia is that the kingdom lacked a great native historian. Bede was based in Northumbria, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle largely produced in Wessex, so the Mercian kings were often portrayed as the enemy (not helped by Penda having been an enemy of Northumbria and a Pagan). Peers does a good job of dealing with the available sources, producing a convincing tale, and at the same time admitting when there are problems.
I must admit to a personal interest in this book, having grown up in a village on the road between Mercia’s political capital of Tamworth and religious capital at Lichfield. As a result the story of Mercia and its most famous leaders (in particular Offa and Aethelflaed, the ‘lady of the Mercians’), are more familiar than they will be to most readers. Aethelflaed was even honoured with a new statue last year (2018) to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of her death, streets are named after them, as are local schools.
The title is a bit misleading – this is actually a wider history of Mercia, and isn’t that focused on Offa’s reign. Penda gets just as much coverage, at the birth of the kingdom, and the story continues on to the end of Mercian independence after the rise of Wessex. For me this is a good thing, as the rise of Mercia from obscurity is just as interesting as its period of greatness under Offa. The result is a fascinating look at a key period of Anglo-Saxon history.
1 - Offa's Country
2 - The People of the Frontier
3 - Kingdoms and Armies
4 - Penda's Wars
5 - Two Treasures
6 - Penda's Successors and the rise of Offa
7 - The Warrior in the Age of the Mercian Kings
8 - 'The Glory of Britain'
9 - Offa's Successors and the Danish Invasions
10 - The 'Liberation' and the Triumph of Wessex
Author: Chris Peers
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2017 reprint