Offa

Part 4 of the semi-regular posting of Monarchs has arrived (semi-regular because you know another one is on it’s way, but not when I can be bothered to write one). This time it’s all about everyone’s favourite Mercian: Offa! Well maybe not the West Saxons, but honestly, sod those guys. I’ll get around to them eventually.

Be warned, it’s another lengthy post, but I did put some rather lovely pictures at the end if you managed to make it through. I’ll know if you cheated and skipped right to the end…

Now Offa is a name that most people in this group probably know or recognise in some way. If you don’t, or aren’t sure entirely why you know the name, no worries, I exist to write brief, poorly structured biographies on Facebook (that I am now copying across to WordPress: exciting times hey?)

Offa was king of Mercia from 757 until his death in 796. I’ll start with the obvious and get this out of the way: he is known to most people as the architect behind the earthen dyke that bares his name that runs the length of (near enough) the modern day border between England and Wales, that is to say 150 miles of a serious defensive boundary. Most recent scholarship isn’t really towing the “Offa is the sole man responsible for this” line anymore. Instead the general consensus is that it was probably an ongoing project by a succession of Mercian kings, perhaps even constructed on top of earlier existing ditches.

If you read my last post (and if you didn’t you really should, bloody good stuff if I say so myself) you might remember that in 757 King Æthelbald was murdered, potentially by his successor Beornred. The Peterborough Manuscript (E version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) describes how in 755 [757] “Beornred succeeded to the kingdom, and held it a little while and unhappily; and that same year Offa put Beornred to flight…” The first few years of Offa’s reign most likely saw him restoring Mercian power over his immediate neighbours, the Hwicce for example, in an effort to steadily rebuild the hegemonic position that had been lost in the civil strife following Æthelbald’s murder.

But what did he do aside from possibly (maybe) helping build a glorified ditch to keep the Welsh out, I hear you ask? Well in certain respects his reign closely mirrored that of Æthelbald (the king of my previous post). The geographical concentration was similar, with him appearing most active and his authority most secure in the Mercian heartlands and the corridor to London. International trade and it’s royal oversight retained their importance, notably seen in a letter from Charlemagne that encouraged Offa to control the quality of English exports and also promising protection for English merchants in Francia.

On the other hand, Offa was a very different ruler: he attempted to harness the ideological apparatus offered by Christianity more fully than his predecessors., particularly ideas about Christian kingship and rule being developed in the courts of the Carolingians. Likewise his power and influence over the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were greater and more extensive than Æthelbald’s had ever been, and he sought to exercise them in a more direct manner. By the 780’s he had effectively brought an end to the independent royal dynasties of Kent, the South Saxons and the Hwicce (although in the latter two members of the royal dynasties may have survived as ealdormen operating under Offa’s control). In Kent he appears to have preferred placing Mercian nobles in positions of authority in similarly to the Normans post-conquest.

By the final decades of his reign he had become the ruler of a kingdom that stretched from the Midlands down to the south-east coast, a vast territory by Anglo-Saxon standards. Make no mistake though, this was not the creation of some sort of proto-England: it is clear that Offa and those around him saw this as a uniform kingdom, an enlarged Mercia. In his charters and coins, almost without exception, he appears simply as King of the Mercians. He was not trying to unify the English (did such a concept even exist at the time?) but just to safeguard and expand his own kingdoms authority.

Offa’s relationship with his neighbours is a mixed bag. He and King Cynewulf of Wessex were most likely not on speaking terms a lot of the time due to Mercian authority over the Thames Valley being restored through a West Saxon defeat at Bensington in 779 and the subsequent acquisition of territory on the south bank of the Avon. However, whether Offa exercised any meaningful form of overlordship over Wessex is unclear: Cynewulf’s successor, Beorhtric married Eadburgh, one of Offa’s daughters. The two kings even cooperated in exiling Ecgbehrt, who would later become king of Wessex. North of the Humber Ælfflæd, another of his daughters, married King Æthelred of Northumbria, though the turbulent, shall we say, political situation in the latter decades of the 8th century may have made a consistent Mercian policy a tad difficult.

Whatever Offa’s power was within Britain, on a European scale it was a different story. When Charlemagne sought the hand of one of Offa’s daughters for his son, Charles, Offa demanded a reciprocal marriage. For Charlemagne, this was an insult that reportedly made him ‘somewhat angry’. Angry enough to impose a trade embargo, which Offa returned. The message was clear: a marriage alliance between Francia and Mercia was not one between equals. Relations and trade were soon restored, but there was no mistaking who was more important.

Offa died in July 796 apparently of natural causes.

One of the most interesting items from his reign however is a single gold coin that imitates a dinar struck in 774 by the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur (image 1). The maker of this coin knew no Arabic if the blunders are to be believed but on the reverse, in Roman capitals, is written “Offa Rex”. This coin suggests, according to Sir Frank Stenton, sufficient intercourse between Mercia (and England) and the Caliphate to justify this coins creation.

Hope this wasn’t too much of a slog to get through, but despite the length this is a very heavily summarised post that probably hasn’t done the man any justice.

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