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Kingdom of Mercia

Miercna rīċe  (Old English)
Merciorum regnum  (Latin)
The Kingdom of Mercia (thick line) and the kingdom's extent during the Mercian Supremacy (green shading)
The Kingdom of Mercia (thick line) and the kingdom's extent
during the Mercian Supremacy (green shading)
Status Independent kingdom (527–879)
Client state of Wessex (c. 879–918)
Capital Tamworth
Common languages Old English, Latin
Paganism, Christianity
Government Absolute monarchy
• 527–?
Icel (first)
• c. 626–655
• 658-675
• 716–757
• 757–796
• 796–821
• 821–823
• 823–826
• c. 881–911
• 911–918
• 918
Ælfwynn (last)
Legislature Witenagemot
Historical era Heptarchy
• Established
• Disestablished
Currency Sceat
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Labarum.svg Sub-Roman Britain
Kingdom of Lindsey
Kingdom of Northumbria
Kingdom of Wessex
Today part of

Mercia was one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the Heptarchy. It was in the region now known as the English Midlands. Mercia was centered on the valley of the River Trent and its tributaries. Settled by Angles, their name is the root of the name 'England'. Their neighbors included other Angles, Saxons and Jutes all from Germany. Mercia bordered on Northumbria, Wessex, Sussex, Essex and East Anglia. To the west were Britons in Powys and the kingdoms of southern Wales.

Early history

Archaeological discoveries show the first Anglian settlements were in the Trent river valley. The original kingdom of Mercia had a variety of different kinds of land. Most of it would not have been the first choice of anyone wishing to settle there. Not if better land was available elsewhere. The name 'Mercia' comes from the tribal name Mierce, which means 'boundary folk.' It was probably a name already known in the English midlands and was adopted by the Angles who settled there. The Angles, according to Bede, came from Angulus in northern Germany. They were of the same stock as the East Anglians and the Northumbrians. The invasion of England by the Germanic tribes was relatively quick. By c. 650 England was a large collection of small kingdoms each having a warlord or petty king. Within 200 years of their arrival in England, the late seventh century, emerged the Heptarchy: the seven kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England. Mercia was the dominant power among the Anglo-Saxons from the middle of the seventh century to the early ninth century. Several Mercian noblewomen played an important role in Mercian affairs. This is in contrast to Wessex where women rarely had an active role in the government. During the seventh and eighth centuries Mercia struggled mainly with Northumbria. By the ninth century Wessex was the dominant power in the region. King Egbert of Wessex (802–839) was the overlord and for the first time passed this position down to his heirs. From this time on until they ceased to exist as a kingdom, Mercia was a vassal kingdom to Wessex. In the last quarter of the ninth century Mercia lost much of its territory in the midlands to Danish settlers.

Christianity was introduced into Mercia in the 650s. The first monks were Irish followed by Northumbrians. By 653 a single bishopric was established and a series of Irish trained bishops followed. In 674 a second diocese was established for eastern Mercia.

Notable kings

Chad Peada Wulfhere at Lichfield
St. Chad, Kings Peada and Wulfhere of Mercia

Penda (c. 626–655) was a pagan king of Mercia. He was able to put together a confederacy of a number of smaller kingdoms and from that he created Mercia. But in the 630s he was not able to compete with the larger Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that were around his. Northumberland was threatening to expand into the territory of Mercia. Penda found it convenient to ally with Gwynedd, the dominant British kingdom to the west. It was an unusual cooperation between Christians and pagans, but it worked. Together they defeated the Northumbrian king, Edwin, who died at the battle of Hatfield Chase.

Athelred I (675–716) was the third of Penda's sons to be king of Mercia. He ravaged Kent to prevent them from breaking away from his rule. In 679 he was at war with Northumbria. According to Bede, Theodore Archbishop of Canterbury mediated between the two kings to restore peace. He married Ostryth, daughter of the king of Bernicia. He was a Christian king who founded several churches and monasteries. He stepped down as king in 704 and passed the crown to his nephew Cenred. He was abbot of the monastery of Bardsey and appears to have died about 716.

Offa (757–796), was the first of the Anglo-Saxon kings who might rightly be called "king of the English". He was the son of Thingfrith, the brother of Penda. He struggled to gain control of Mercia having come to power just after a civil war. But he proved to be ruthless, bold and creative in bringing Kent, Sussex and Essex under his control. Offa had diplomatic relations with Charlemagne. He was one of the few Anglo-Saxon monarchs to have dealings with continental rulers. Letters and presents were exchanged. But when Offa sought a marriage of his son to one of Charlemagne's daughters, relations were quickly cut off. Frankish ports were closed to British ships. Offa, very involved in church affairs, presided over church councils personally in 786-7. In 787 he convinced the pope to create the position of archbishop of Lichfield in Mercia. He wanted his own archbishop who was closer at hand than the Archbishop of Canterbury. He reorganized the defenses of his kingdom. One of these defenses, Offa's Dyke was a massive earthworks between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms to the west. Offa died in 796. His son, Ecgfrith, lasted only 141 days as king. Mercia was never again as powerful as it was during Offa's reign.

Viking invasions

A Mercian king who had just taken the throne, Raedwulf, was killed by Viking raiders in 844. In 855 Viking bands were recorded as being in Mercia in the vicinity of Wrekin. But the year 865 saw a major change in activity by the Scandinavian invaders. This was a much larger military force than had been seen before. The arrival of the Great Heathen Army in East Anglia. For a time the Danes (Vikings) were more interested in Northumbria. They gained control of York and moved south into Mercia then made their winter camp in Nottingham. In the spring of 868 a combined Mercian and West Saxon army came against the Vikings, but there was no battle. The Mercian king Burghred concluded a peace treaty with the invaders, who then moved north to York. In 873 Burghred was forced out of Mercia by the Vikings who then set their own choice of King, Ceowulf. In 874 the heathen army split with Halfdan, on of the leaders taking his band north. In 878 the Vikings in Mercia were attacked and defeated by King Alfred of Wessex. They converted to Christianity and settled on the land in East Anglia.

Decline as a kingdom

The ninth century saw the decline of Mercia as a kingdom. In 873-74 Mercia was conquered by the heathen army. In the 880s Wessex formed a marriage alliance with Mercia. Alfred's daughter, Ethelflaeda, married Ethelstan (II), of Mercia. When Ethelstan died, in 912, Edward the Elder appointed Ethelflaeda (his sister) 'Lady of the Mercians.' When Ethelflaeda died in 918, the Mercian nobles now thought themselves free of Wessex rule. Edward stepped in and appointed Ethelflaeda's daughter, Aelfwynn, to rule Mercia as his representative. But in 919 Edward brought her back to Wessex. After that Mercia was considered just another shire under his rule. A series of ealdormen (similar to a count in Europe) followed. Under Canute in 1017, Mercia became one of the four divisions of England.

Mercian dialect

The dialect thrived between the 8th and 13th centuries and was referred to by John Trevisa, writing in 1387:

For men of the est with men of the west, as it were undir the same partie of hevene, acordeth more in sownynge of speche than men of the north with men of the south, therfore it is that Mercii, that beeth men of myddel Engelond, as it were parteners of the endes, understondeth better the side langages, northerne and southerne, than northerne and southerne understondeth either other...

J. R. R. Tolkien is one of many scholars who have studied and promoted the Mercian dialect of Old English, and introduced various Mercian terms into his legendarium – especially in relation to the Kingdom of Rohan, otherwise known as the Mark (a name cognate with Mercia). Not only is the language of Rohan actually represented as the Mercian dialect of Old English, but a number of its kings are given the same names as monarchs who appear in the Mercian royal genealogy, e.g., Fréawine, Fréaláf and Éomer.

Mercian religion

The Lichfield Angel
The Lichfield Angel carving

The first kings of Mercia were pagans, and they resisted the encroachment of Christianity longer than other kingdoms in the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy.

Mercian rulers remained resolutely pagan until the reign of Peada in 656, although this did not prevent them joining coalitions with Christian Welsh rulers to resist Northumbria. The first appearance of Christianity in Mercia, however, had come at least thirty years earlier, following the Battle of Cirencester of 628, when Penda incorporated the formerly West Saxon territories of Hwicce into his kingdom.

The conversion of Mercia to Christianity occurred in the latter part of the 7th century, and by the time of Penda's defeat and death, Mercia was largely surrounded by Christian states. Diuma, an Irish monk and one of Oswiu's missionaries, was subsequently ordained a bishop – the first to operate in Mercia. Christianity finally gained a foothold in Mercia when Oswiu supported Peada as sub-king of the Middle Angles, requiring him to marry Oswiu's daughter, Alchflaed, and to accept her religion.

Decisive steps to Christianise Mercia were taken by Chad (Latinised by Bede as Ceadda), the fifth bishop to operate in Mercia. This controversial figure was given land by King Wulfhere to build a monastery at Lichfield. Evidence suggests that the Lichfield Gospels were made in Lichfield around 730. As in other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the many small monasteries established by the Mercian kings allowed the political/military and ecclesiastical leadership to consolidate their unity through bonds of kinship.

Subdivisions of Mercia

Kingdom of Mercia
Subdivisions of Mercia
Mercia map
Mercian monasteries

For knowledge of the internal composition of the Kingdom of Mercia, we must rely on a document of uncertain age (possibly late 7th century), known as the Tribal Hidage – an assessment of the extent (but not the location) of land owned (reckoned in hides), and therefore the military obligations and perhaps taxes due, by each of the Mercian tribes and subject kingdoms by name. This hidage exists in several manuscript versions, some as late as the 14th century. It lists a number of peoples, such as the Hwicce, who have now vanished, except for reminders in various placenames. The major subdivisions of Mercia were as follows:

  • South Mercians
The Mercians dwelling south of the River Trent. Folk groups within included the Tomsæte around Tamworth and the Pencersæte around Penkridge (approx. S. Staffs. & N. Warks.).
  • North Mercians
The Mercians dwelling north of the River Trent (approx. E. Staffs., Derbys. & Notts.).
  • Outer Mercia
An early phase of Mercian expansion, possibly 6th century (approx. S. Lincs., Leics., Rutland, Northants. & N. Oxon.).
  • Lindsey
Once a kingdom in its own right, disputed with Northumbria in the 7th century before finally coming under Mercian control (approx. N. Lincs.).
A collection of many smaller folk groups under Mercian control from the 7th century, including the Spaldingas around Spalding, the Bilmingas and Wideringas near Stamford, the North Gyrwe and South Gyrwe near Peterborough, the West Wixna, East Wixna, West Wille and East Wille near Ely, the Sweordora, Hurstingas and Gifle near Bedford, the Hicce around Hitchin, the Cilternsæte in the Chilterns and the Feppingas near Thame (approx. Cambs., Beds., Herts., Bucks. & S. Oxon.).
  • Hwicce
Once a kingdom in its own right, disputed with Wessex in the 7th century before finally coming under Mercian control. Smaller folk groups within included the Stoppingas around Warwick and the Arosæte near Droitwich (approx. Gloucs., Worcs. & S. Warks.).
  • Magonsæte
A people of the Welsh border, also known as the Westerna, under Mercian control from the 7th century. Smaller folk groups within included the Temersæte near Hereford and the Hahlsæte near Ludlow (approx. Herefs. & S. Shrops.).
  • Wreocansæte
A people of the Welsh border under Mercian control from the 7th century. Smaller folk groups within included the Rhiwsæte near Wroxeter and the Meresæte near Chester (approx. N. Shrops., Flints. & Cheshire).
  • Pecsæte
An isolated folk group of the Peak District, under Mercian control from the 7th century (approx. N. Derbys.).
A disorganised region under Mercian control from the 7th century (approx. Merseyside, Greater Manchester).
Taken over from Essex in the 8th century, including London (approx. Greater London, Hertfordshire, Surrey).

After Mercia was annexed by Wessex in the early 10th century, the West Saxon rulers divided it into shires modelled after their own system, cutting across traditional Mercian divisions. These shires survived mostly intact until 1974, and even today still largely follow their original boundaries.


Modern uses of the name Mercia

The term "midlands" is first recorded (as mydlande) in 1555. It is possible, therefore, that until then Mercia had remained the preferred term, as the quote from Trevisa above would indicate.

John Bateman, writing in 1876 or 1883, referred to contemporary Cheshire and Staffordshire landholdings as being in Mercia. The most credible source for the idea of a contemporary Mercia is Thomas Hardy's Wessex novels. The first of these appeared in 1874 and Hardy himself considered it the origin of the conceit of a contemporary Wessex. Bram Stoker set his 1911 novel The Lair of the White Worm in a contemporary Mercia that may have been influenced by Hardy, whose secretary was a friend of Stoker's brother. Although 'Edwardian Mercia' never had the success of 'Victorian Wessex', it was an idea that appealed to the higher echelons of society. In 1908 Sir Oliver Lodge, Principal of Birmingham University, wrote to his counterpart at Bristol, welcoming a new university worthy of "...the great Province of Wessex whose higher educational needs it will supply. It will be no rival, but colleague and co-worker with this university, whose province is Mercia...".

The British Army has made use of several regional identities in naming larger, amalgamated formations. After the Second World War, the infantry regiments of Cheshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire were organised in the Mercian Brigade (1948–1968). Today, "Mercia" appears in the titles of two regiments, the Mercian Regiment, founded in 2007, which recruits in Cheshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Worcestershire, and parts of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, and the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry, founded in 1992 as part of the Territorial Army. The police forces of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire were combined into the West Mercia Constabulary in 1967.

Telephone directories across the Midlands include a large number of commercial and voluntary organisations using "Mercia" in their names, and in 2012 a new football league was formed called the Mercian Regional Football League.

The Acting Witan of Mercia, previously known as the Mercian Constitutional Convention, is a radical political organisation that claims to be the legal government of Mercia, having declared independence from the United Kingdom on 29 May 2003 in Victoria Square, Birmingham.

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