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King Offa of Mercia in procession.

King Offa of Mercia: A Ruthless Anglo-Saxon Hellbent on Power and Prestige

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One of the most prominent Anglo-Saxon kings, Offa of Mercia in southern England, came to power upon the murder of his cousin, King Aethelbald. He went on to rule for 39 years and consolidated much of England and Wales.

Offa came to rule more than 100 years after the Anglo-Saxon interlopers drove the Celts out in 613. He was somewhat of a despot, known for murdering rival kings, including his son-in-law.

When was Offa Born?

Offa was born around 730 AD and came to power in 757. Before he came to power, England was divided into seven kingdoms: East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex. These kingdoms fought for supremacy, and various combinations of kingdoms arose as power shifted from king to king and region to region.

What Did King Offa Do for the Church?

The kings of Kent and Northumbria wanted to convert their neighbors to Christianity. Offa too was Christian, and he created an archbishopric in Lichfield, freeing the Mercians from the authority of the archbishop of Canterbury, who was among Offa’s enemies in Kent.

King Offa of Mercia created an archbishopric in Lichfield. (Anónimo / Public Domain)

King Offa of Mercia created an archbishopric in Lichfield. (Anónimo / Public Domain )

A Ruthless King Obsessed with Control

Offa was often ruthless in suppression of smaller kingdoms around Mercia. He created one nation that covered most of England to the south of what is now Yorkshire. He married his daughters to the kings of Northumbria and Wessex. Kings in the region paid him homage.

Offa had designs on being accepted as an equal by the kings of the European continent. He quarreled with Charlemagne of the Franks, who ruled a large area. But at the end of Offa’s reign, in 796, the two monarchs achieved a trade agreement.

Offa was also friendly with Pope Adrian I, hence the establishment of the bishopric of Lichfield. In return, Adrian increased his control over the church in England.

Mercia and southern England during Offa’s reign; he consolidated the areas in green into one kingdom. (Rushton2010 /  CC SA-BY 3.0)

Mercia and southern England during Offa’s reign; he consolidated the areas in green into one kingdom. (Rushton2010 /  CC SA-BY 3.0 )

Achievements of King Offa of Mercia

The achievements of Offa of Mercia include building Offa’s dyke, an earthwork that stretched for 270 km (169 miles), from the River Severn to the Dee estuary between England and Wales. The dyke, parts of which still stand, roughly follows the border between Mercia and Welsh settlements to the west. It stood 18 meters high (60 feet) in places and included a ditch 3.66 m (12 feet) deep. It was more of a demarcation line than a fortification. Today, it is a long-distance walking path and runs through beautiful country.

The 1200 year old earthwork, Offa’s Dyke, runs along the once border between Powys (Wales) and Mercia (now united England) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The 1200 year old earthwork, Offa’s Dyke, runs along the once border between Powys (Wales) and Mercia (now united England) ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Some say the most enduring achievement of Offa’s rule was the minting of new coins that bore his name and title and the name of the moneyer who minted the coins. The English used the methods and principles of making money in this way for centuries.

Offa King of Mercia 757-793 gold dinar. (PHGCOM / Public Domain)

Offa King of Mercia 757-793 gold dinar. (PHGCOM / Public Domain )

King Offa’s cousin, King Ethelbald of Mercia, Murdered

Offa’s cousin, Ethelbald, was murdered by his own thanes, who were rebellious. They lost patience after they lost a battle to the West Saxons. Offa came to power upon Ethelbald’s death and kept his people safe from invasions. In the wrangling for power, Mercians fought both alongside and against other kingdoms. The Mercians fought with and against Kent, for example.

Though Offa was considered oppressive, he became respected as England became a powerful and influential region in Europe.

King Offa’s Thirst for Power Knew No Bounds

Offa was jealous of power in other kings. And he had other kings slain, including his son-in-law, King Ethelbert of East Anglia . The story says Ethelbert was murdered in 794 in the royal residence at Tamworth for minting coins bearing his own image.

At the height of Offa’s power in the 770s, he was given the title of Bretwalda, Rex Anglorum, overall king of all the lords of England. The title is on some coins and charters from that time. Offa had his son Egfrith crowned in 787, during his own reign, to forestall a power struggle after his death.

The family of Offa of Mercia was descended from Pybba, a king of Mercia, who was great-great-grandfather of Offa’s father, Thingfrith.

Top image: King Offa of Mercia in procession.  Source: (Matthew Paris / Public Domain )

By Mark Miller

References

Britroyals Web page, King Offa (757-796) , [Online] Available at: https://www.britroyals.com/kings.asp?id=offa
Intriguing History Web Site, King Offa 757-796, [Online] Available at: http://www.intriguing-history.com/king-offa/
Encyclopedia Britannia article, Offa: Anglo-Saxon King, [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Offa-Anglo-Saxon-king

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