My last post ended briefly mentioning Penda of Mercia taking over the Severn Valley and the minor kingdom of Hwicce in 628. But I thought it was time to give Penda himself some time in the spotlight.
A quick warning, this is a slightly longer one!
So who actually was Penda, and why is he so important? Well, he was king of Mercia from c.626-655 and was one of last pagan Anglo-Saxon kings at a time when Christianity was firmly taking hold across the British Isles. As for why he is so important in the story of early medieval Britain: he laid the foundations of the hegemony known as the Mercian Supremacy over the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy and was also very adept at beating up his neighbours, especially the East Anglians and Northumbrians.
In 628 he defeated Cynegils and Cwichelm of the Gewisse (predecessors of the West Saxons) in the Battle of Cirencester, taking control as already mentioned of the Severn Valley and the petty kingdom of Hwicce (I’ve put a map to show what this kingdom contained below).
In the late 620’s/early 630’s, war broke out between the Welsh of Gwynedd and the most powerful of the English kingdoms at the time, Northumbria. Gwynedd and Mercia formed an alliance after King Cadwallon’s earlier attempts in the conflict proved unsuccessful, with Penda (who possibly was not actually king at this point) being the junior member of this partnership. Regardless of Penda’s actual position, in 633 the Battle of Hatfield Chase took place near Doncaster with the result a crushing defeat for the Northumbrians. The E Version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle wrote that “Here king Edwin was killed by Cadwallon and Penda at Hatfield on 14 October … And his son Osfrith also was killed with him. And then afterwards Cadwallon and Penda went and did for the whole land of Northumbria.”
The significance of Hatfield Chase was not that King Edwin of Northumbria and his sons were killed, but that Northumbria was broken up into its two constituent parts (perhaps what “went and did for” means) of Bernicia and Deira, ruled by Eanfrith, son of former king Æthelfrith, and Edwin’s cousin Osric respectively.
This split proved relatively short lived, as the following year Oswald of Bernicia became king of a united Northumbria after defeating Cadwallon at Heavenfield and stopping his bloodthirsty campaign. For the following 8 years Penda contented himself with fighting his other neighbours, namely the East Angles, resulting in the death of both King Ecgric and former king Sigeberht who had the misfortune of being dragged out of his retirement in a monastery in the belief that he would inspire the troops against the Pagan Mercians. The result speaks for itself.
In 642 Penda fought the most significant battle of his life: the Battle of Maserfield. Our best source for this is Bede in his ‘Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum’ where he wrote how “Oswald was killed in a great battle by the same heathen people and the same heathen Mercian king as his predecessor Edwin in a place called in the English tongue Maserfelth”. Bede took great lengths to show St. Oswald as a holy king, a saintly monarch who was struck down by the vile heathen Penda who attacked him. But this is most likely not the case. The traditional site of Maserfield is thought to be modern day Oswestry (Oswald’s Tree, Welsh: “Croes Oswallt” or Oswald’s Cross, suggesting he was crucified) in Shropshire. If this is the case, then this was still a part of Powys, suggesting Oswald was the aggressor. Either way the result was the same as before: Northumbria split, with Deira choosing it’s own king, Oswine, and Bernicia choosing Oswald’s brother Oswiu.
Victory at Maserfield laid the foundations of the Mercian Supremacy and left Penda as the most powerful and formidable king in England, a position he maintained until his death in 655.
So how did he die? Well it might not surprise many of you but it was in battle. We know that for some reason he invaded Bernicia in 655. He was joined by Cadafael ap Cynfeddw of gwynedd and Æthelhere of East Anglia. We also know that, on the banks of a river nobody has ever identified with 100% precision called Winwæd, he was defeated and killed in battle along with Æthelhere. The result was the shattering of Mercian hegemony, with Mercia being divided and the northern part taken by Oswiu. However this reversal in the fate of Mercia was short lived: Northumbrian authority was overthrown in a matter of years and would never recover to its pre-633 status. Arguably the most important result is that the battle marked the end for Anglo-Saxon paganism. Several christian kings had been defeated and subsequently killed by Penda, but following his own defeat and death Mercia was Christian and all the kings that followed Penda were Christian. Some would say what goes around comes around.