Offa of Mercia

Offa of Mercia
(d. 796)
   One of the greatest and longest ruling kings of Anglo-Saxon England, Offa (r. 757-796) is also the great king about whom the least is known. The only information about Offa and his reigns come from outside the kingdom of Mercia; it includes charters and chronicles written in Northumbria, Wessex, and elsewhere in England. Although possibly as great a ruler as Alfred, who clearly respected Offa, the Mercian king lacks a contemporary Mercian biographer to announce and record his greatness. Despite this lack of information, it is clear that Offa had a profound impact on England during his long reign, and his power and organizational ability are demonstrated by the famed earthwork he built, Offa's Dyke, along the Welsh frontier. Alfred himself praised Offa as a king and adopted laws, now lost, from Offa. And the pope and the greatest king of the early Middle Ages, Charlemagne, treated Offa with respect and recognized his power.
   Offa came to power in 757 by driving his rival Beornred into exile by force of arms. His military success at the beginning characterized the rest of his long reign; it was the key to his success, but it was also the key to the demise of the kingdom in the following generation. Indeed, the great Anglo-Saxon scholar and friend of Charlemagne, Alcuin of York, recognized that it was Offa's ruthlessness that secured not only his success but also his untimely death. It was this ruthlessness that secured his power inside and outside of Mercia, restoring the kingdom of Mercia to a position of preeminence in England. After conquering Mercia by the sword, Offa extended his authority over other kingdoms in England. The first to fall victim to Offa was Kent, in the 760s. The struggle to control the kingdom of Kent was long lasting and brought Offa the bitter enmity of the archbishop of Canterbury. The Kentish kings were able to restore their independence for nearly a decade after 776, but they were finally suppressed in 785.
   In the 770s Offa brought the kingdom of Sussex under his control by defeating, according to a Northumbrian chronicle, the "men of Hastings" in battle. In the 780s he asserted his authority over Wessex, when that kingdom fell into civil war after a prolonged period of peace under one of its kings. Offa was able to exploit the situation when a usurper revolted and both he and the king died in battle. Further claimants to the throne of Wessex rose up, including Beorhtric, who received support from Offa and married one of Offa's daughters. The Mercian king's support was essential for Beorhtric's victory, and this support allowed Offa to extend his influence and authority over Wessex. His influence was also felt in Northumbria, and his political authority extended far to the south, where several lesser kingdoms also succumbed to his advance. He also extended his authority westward at the expense of the Welsh, and an expansion borne witness to by Offa's greatest extant legacy, Offa's Dyke, an engineering and organizational marvel of the eighth century that extends some 150 miles over mountainous terrain. Indeed, this fortification may have been part of a military system of fortified towns of the kind later made famous by Alfred the Great. By the 780s Offa could claim to be king of the English, a title recognized in the charters of contemporaries. Perhaps in recognition of his power and in emulation of the Carolingian dynasty, Offa had his son consecrated as king in 787.
   Offa's political power was recognized and respected on the continent. He corresponded with Pope Hadrian (r. 772-795) and received legates in the mid-780s from the pope. He also convinced Hadrian to establish a new archiepiscopal see in his kingdom at Lichfield in 787. The new archbishop proved a counterbalance to the hostile archbishop of Canterbury, but he did not last long after the death of Offa. Nonetheless, Offa sought to establish the ecclesiastical independence of the church in his kingdom and empowered it by the foundation of monasteries, including St. Albans. His representatives also participated in church councils in England and on the continent, including the Council of Frankfurt in 794.
   It was not only the pope who recognized Offa; the great Frankish king, Charlemagne, also corresponded with Offa and respected his power. Always courteous in correspondence with Offa, Charlemagne wrote seeking advice or mercy from Offa in regard to exiles from Mercia in the Frankish kingdom. Charlemagne's opinion of Offa was most likely influenced by the Mercian king's participation through his clergy at the Council of Frankfurt and by the active trade that existed between the two kingdoms. In 796 a trade agreement was forged between the two kings, in which merchants from both kingdoms were to be protected by both kings. The extent of trade is demonstrated by the improvement in English coinage under Offa, who was likely influenced by the coinage of his Carolingian contemporary. Offa's coin, the penny, remained the basis of English coinage until the thirteenth century and surpassed all other coins in England in his day. The coins also demonstrate further the political shrewdness of the king; they often bore Offa's image or that of his wife, Cynethryth, in imitation of Byzantine or late Roman practice.
   Offa was clearly a king of wide-ranging influence in England and the continent. He was also a brutal king, who managed to rule much of England by suppressing or eliminating the sovereigns of the other English kingdoms. It was this brutality that proved the undoing of his kingdom in the generations following his death on July 26, 795, and that ended the revival of the power of Wessex. Although the political power of his kingdom was short-lived, his influence lasted well beyond his death in the coinage he introduced to England, his military construction, and the laws he implemented that were adopted by Alfred.
   See also
 ♦ Keynes, Simon. "The British Isles: England, 700-900." In The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 2, ed. Rosamond McKitterick. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 18-42.
 ♦ Levison, Wilhelm. England and the Continent in the Eighth Century. Oxford: Clarendon, 1946.
 ♦ Stenton, Frank M. Anglo-Saxon England. 3d ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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