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Of the three great Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain before the advent of “England’ — Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex — Mercia has long deserved its own history. Northumbria had Bede, Wessex had the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but Mercia has largely to be explored through the eyes of others.
This book attempts to redress this gap. Using the fragmentary chronicles that refer to the kingdom, inferring from lost sources utilized by later medieval chroniclers, extracting information from the charters, letters and other documents of the period that have survived and incorporating the growing amount of information gained from archaeological excavations carried out over many years across the breadth of Mercia, this book provides a study of how the kingdom emerged from the Dark Ages in the late 6th and early 7th centuries and grew into a power to be reckoned with by the popes in Rome and the Carolingian empire from the late 8th century, a position of strength from which it subsequently declined.
At its greatest Mercia stretched from the Humber in the north to south of the Thames. Its remit ran from the Welsh borders to East Anglia. London was its main port, Tamworth its ‘capital’, and many of the towns that subsequently became county towns were developed. Mercia became recognized for its learning and for its industry, arguably the most important commodity of which was salt. It gained much of its central revenue from trade through the port of London and the extensive saltworks at Droitwich. Councils and synods were held at venues throughout the kingdom, often in large timber halls. Monasteries were founded with great enthusiasm, royal saints and their cults blossomed, trade and coinage developed in periods of stability.
Yet warfare never seems to have been far away. Initially this served to carve out the core of Mercia (primarily Staffordshire) under its earliest kings the most notable of whom was Cearl, then to extend the territory south-westwards into Worcestershire and Herefordshire under Penda, and eastwards into the east midlands as far as Cambridgeshire. Alliances were made in the 7th century with the Britons of Wales to counteract the power of Northumbria with whom warfare was waged over many years. East Anglia, the territory from which the original Mercians may have come or, at least, through which they passed, was at different times its ally, its enemy or a client province. Mercia was often in conflict with Wessex throughout its history and in later years with Kent. Friendship with the Welsh deteriorated into warfare on that frontier and led to the building of the famous Offa’s Dyke.
A period of stability and exercise of diplomacy under Offa and Coenred saw Mercia playing a role on the Continental stage, before a royal family, seemingly weakened by purges carried out by Offa, started to lose control of the south-eastern part of the kingdom. Yet, for many years Mercia remained a cohesive entity, until the advent of Scandinavian incursions caused the kingdom to buckle and, with the fall of Burgred, be split into the Danelaw and English Mercia, with client kings in the latter. Gradually Mercia came to recognize that its interests lay in working with Wessex and so emerged the idea of an ‘English’ kingdom, and the demise of that of Mercia.
Richly illustrated with over 180 photographs, plans, drawings and maps, this book explores one of the great Anglo-Saxon forebears of England.
Paperback | 320 pages | 256 x 200 mm | 2001
Over 180 illustrations