Alternate Histories: Offa of Mercia and the Peril of Weak Descendants
Even before the unification of England as one kingdom, supremacy over the territories of the British Isles had a pinnacle of majestic power assigned to it, the term “Bretwalda.” To be Bretwalda meant one ruler of England’s seven kingdoms (dubbed The Heptarchy) held sway over the remaining six and sometimes that influence reached beyond England too. A trend that continued after England merged into one, many rulers of separate kingdoms then became “Sub-Kings,” which since the Norman Conquest we call Dukes. Bretwalda is first used in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and was used by the Venerable Bede, meaning “Britain-Ruler” or “Wide-Ruler” — although venerable is a tenuous designation for a man from Wessex that only bestowed kings from his native lands with the privileged moniker.
The first king that could reasonably claim the title Bretwalda was Ethelbert of Kent, the ruler who converted to Christianity under the teaching of St. Augustine. Papal backing gained Ethelbert and his piece of England recognition and thus dominance over the Pagan kingdoms to the north and west, though the mastery over the remaining territories of England’s Heptarchy (East Anglia, Mercia, Sussex, Wessex, Essex and Northumbria) was protracted and bloody. When saintly kings of Northumbria such as Edwin created an Archbishopric in York, he clashed heads with the Bretwalda of the era, Penda of Mercia. However, it was Penda’s ancestor, Offa, who brought Bretwalda and England in turn, into its own.
When Offa was born, his kingdom he was not heir to — Mercia, which he won during a succession crisis as a descendant of the Mercian king, Pybba — was the central power of the English Heptarchy, so one could argue he had an upon ascension. However, Offa’s rule was unique to the nation by about a century; his authority technically made him the first King of England. Under Offa, England’s international influence expanded as he allied himself with the legendary Frankish King and first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne. Moreover, in perhaps an act of unknown prescience on his part regarding English history, he banished Egbert of Wessex to quell uprisings in the Heptarchy’s other major player, Wessex.
After establishing silver coins for trade after gold was scarce due to the expanding Islamic Caliphate closing Mediterranean routes and monopolising London’s prevalence as a port, Offa asserted his control by creating an Archbishop of Lichfield to unseat the eminence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. His reach was such that he more or less guaranteed the succession of his son Egfrith, who became king after Egbert’s sudden death during the construction of the famous dyke between the English and Welsh borders. Egfrith, killed roughly five months on the throne, led to Mercia ruled by a descendant of the Pagan Mercian King Penda, Coenwulf. His death in 821 saw a weaker Ceolwulf rule until 823 when Beornwulf deposed the king. Beornwulf’s supremacy was shortlived, his defeat to Egbert of Wessex in 825 led to his death a year later, and with the increasing threat of Vikings looming, Mercia’s strength failed in the face of Danish invasion and Wessex’s growth.
Offa recognised Egbert as a threat from the start and took measures to curb his influence, he was right. Egbert did not only have enough power to subdue and end Mercian hegemony; he sired offspring that could maintain and even build on his legacy, despite continuous wars against Vikings that made further increments south throughout the ninth century. Wessex remained secure enough for Egbert’s son, Athelwolf, to go on a pilgrimage to Rome in the latter years of his reign. Athelwolf’s sons were sufficiently gifted enough militarily to repel constant Norse advances, and the youngest of Egbert’s grandsons was the legendary Alfred the Great, his defeat of the Viking leader Guthrum so absolute that Alfred adopted Guthrum as a son!
Alfred declared himself “King of the English” and his daughter Athelflaed, assumed control of Mercia after her arranged marriage to the ageing king. Allied with her brother, the future Wessex King Edward the Elder, training Edward’s son Athelstan and even making Viking lords in York claim allegiance to her shortly before her death. So with the luxury of producing strong issue skilled with leadership, Egbert’s great-great-great grandson, Eadred, became the first Wessex king to ride into York as its king, and king of England united firmly under Wessex rule. Arguably, Offa possessed more territory than Egbert and even Alfred the Great, he certainly earned the respect of Charlemagne, one of the greatest European monarchs in history. With the descendants able to push off from that starting point to achieve more significant territories — notwithstanding Offa’s swift and unforeseen sudden death — what king England would exist today? Would the Welsh Principalities and Scottish kingdoms also have gotten annexed by Mercian England? Perhaps even a unified island more than capable of withstanding Viking and later Norman conquests (a Norman Conquest that may not have yet come to pass, with a Mercian England being a longstanding ally of France?) The Scottish kingdom of Dal Ríata originated in Northern Ireland, so a connection to Ireland and a potential English conquest more than 1,000 years ago may have occurred. With Wessex bias throughout chronicles of the time and the bulk of information on Offa destroyed during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, it is entirely speculation regarding how close Offa honestly came to achieving the above, history and mystery!