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East Anglians, but the Mercians, accustomed to victory under their warlike leader, repelled the assault, and covered the field with the devoted corses of their assailants. A dreadful slaughter left Penda master of East Anglia, both its monarchs being among the slain; but the attention of this turbulent prince was suddenly called to the kingdom of Wessex, a state of the Heptarchy which occupied the whole territory between the Thames and the Channel, and from the borders of Kent and Sussex to Cornwall. Cenowalch, its king, had married the sister of Penda, and during the contests of the Mercian monarch, he had upon some pretence, divorced her. Immediately after his victory over the kings of East Anglia, Penda marched his forces into Wessex, making the wrongs of his sister the occasion of his sanguinary ravages. The resistance he met with was firm, and for some months Cenowalch maintained himself against his invader. During that period the East Anglians had raised Annas, a warlike prince of the blood-royal, to the throne. From Annas, alliance and assistance was sought by the king of Wessex, but before the East Anglians could march an army to his succour, Cenowalch was compelled to leave his kingdom; and Penda, at the head of his victorious Mercians, again invaded East Anglia. This war seems to have been attended with various success, and Penda, during a period of several years, kept possession of Wessex. At length a battle was fought, in which the East Anglians were totally defeated, and their king Annas, together with his eldest son, was slain, leaving the kingdom of East Anglia once more in the power of the Mercian conqueror.
But while Penda had thus been engaged in subjugating and desolating Wessex and East Anglia, his ambitious spirit had never lost sight of the kingdom of Northumbria, two of whose sovereigns had already fallen by his arms. This state, as has been already mentioned, was divided into the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deïra. When Penda withdrew his troops from Northumbria, Oswy, the brother of the fallen Oswald, was elected king by the Bernicians, but the people of Deïra chose Oswin, the son of one of their former princes. The latter was devout and peaceable, and when attacked by Oswy he privately withdrew himself from the army, and was seeking refuge in a monastery, when he was betrayed by one of his thanes into the hands of Oswy, who ordered him instantly to be put to death, and endeavoured to seize the throne of Deïra. His cruel ambition was disappointed. Adelwald, the son of Oswald, and nephew of Oswy, took the command of the Deïrian army, and was made sovereign of Deïra, but sensible that he was inferior both in arms and policy to his uncle, who, notwithstanding his cruelties, contrived by founding monasteries, to retain the favour of the priesthood, he sought an alliance with the king of Mercia. At that time Penda was master of East Anglia; he was seventy-eight years of age, and his long life had been passed in the turbulence of military achievements, which, debased as they were by the barbarous manners of the period, proved that he possessed, in an eminent degree, the qualities of intrepidity and skilful conduct. He listened eagerly to the overtures of Adelwald, and commanded Ethelric, whom he had permitted to succeed his brother Annas, as king of East Anglia, to furnish him with money, and to accompany him in his expedition against Northumbria.
The king of Deïra had requested such succours only as might enable him to withstand the designs of his uncle Oswy; and when he saw an immense army, headed by two princes, one of whom was a veteran conqueror of insatiable ambition, he began to regret that he had been instrumental to this invasion of his country. He, however, increased his forces, and made a show of advancing to welcome his allies. Oswy, in the meantime, prepared for a contest which threatened his destruction, and while he called upon the people to arm themselves, he secured the influence of the priests by a vow, that if he obtained the victory, he would build and endow twelve monasteries, and consecrate his daughter to the service of the church. He then marched with hallowed banners to meet the allied forces, which were posted upon some hilly ground upon the banks of the river Aire, near the place where the town of Leeds now stands. The Mercians under their veteran monarch commenced the battle, and were seconded by the East Anglians; but as soon as Adelwald saw that the combatants on both sides were completely engaged, he drew off his Deïrians from the field, determined to reserve his troops for the defence of his own dominions, against whichsoever party might be the victor. The Mercians perceiving this defection on the part of the prince, for whose protection they had entered the country of their enemies, lost
their usual energy and began to give way, particularly as some doubts of the fidelity of the East Anglians had arisen among the soldiery. In vain their aged commander reminded them of their former victories and endeavoured to recall them to their duty. The king of the East Anglians was slain, and his troops were dispersed. Penda rallied a portion of his Mercians, but it was only to perish at their head; and thus fell in battle this veteran warrior, who, during his victorious career, had seen three sovereigns of East Anglia and two of Northumbria end their lives and yield him victory, as he now did himself before the king of Bernicia. He was undoubtedly a prince of great talents, but as he resolutely remained a pagan, he was no favourite with the monkish historians, to whom we are indebted for the history of that age. His barbarities are not to be defended, but they were equalled by christian princes, his contemporaries, whom these writers have extolled for their many virtues, and some of whose names are to be found in the calendar of saints. Penda aimed at the subjugation of his neighbours, and this seems to have been the leading principle of the policy of that period. The three great kingdoms of the Heptarchy were Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex, and we have found Penda, with the forces of Mercia, master at different times both of the first and the last.-Penda left behind him five sons: Peada, Wulfer, Ethelred, Merowald and Mercelm; and two daughters, Ciniburga and Ciniswintha.
The victory obtained by Oswy was complete, and he resolved to avail himself of all the advantages it offered him, by marching immediately into Mercia. He found it defenceless; and, seizing upon the whole realm, he placed it under a sort of military jurisdiction, giving up the principal towns and districts to the discretion of his thanes. After this conquest, the paramount sovereignty of the Heptarchy was conferred upon him, and for a few years he enjoyed this coveted supremacy and extent of dominion. In the meantime all the sons of Penda, except the eldest, sought refuge in the other principalities of the Heptarchy. Peada had, during the life-time of his father, espoused one of the daughters of Oswy, and Penda had erected the small district of Leicester into a sovereignty, which he conferred upon his son, with the title of king. During the temporary residence of Peada at the court of Bernicia, he had embraced the christian doctrines, and on his return he was accompanied by missionary monks, who preached with considerable success the christian religion in various parts of the Mercian dominions; and, although the aged monarch did not embrace their faith, he seems to have taken no measures to prevent the promulgation of that religion among his subjects. The small kingdom of Leicester, in particular, had, in a short space of time, become full of proselytes, and, on that account, Peada, for two years after his father's death, enjoyed the countenance of the conqueror. But the people of Mercia, aroused by their sufferings, looked for a leader by whose valour and talents they might be enabled to throw off the Northumbrian yoke. Peada then became an object of jealousy to his father-in-law, and he is said to have died by poison administered to him by his christian wife. His death rather enraged the Mercians, than deprived them of all hopes of recovering their independence, and Wulfer was invited by the thanes of Mercia to assume the crown. Wulfer had distinguished himself in many battles under the command of his father, whom he resembled in person, ambition and the spirit of enterprise. He secretly headed the conspiracy, and so well were the measures of the insurgents concerted, that the officers of Oswy were taken by surprise, and the Northumbrians were, almost in one day, driven out of every part of Mercia. The names of the chief Mercian conspirators were Immin, Eada and Eadbert. The foundation of the cathedral of Lichfield was laid while Oswy was in possession of the government of Mercia.
Wulfer or Wulferus, the second son of Penda, was an heroic prince, but the monkish historians differ from each other considerably in narrating his exploits. It is probable that his success was various. Soon after his accession to the throne, he appears to have been at war with Cenowalch the king of Wessex, who sought an opportunity of avenging himself for the defeats he had sustained by the Mercians under Penda. Much of Mercia was laid waste by the troops of Cenowalch, and Wulfer was made prisoner. A change of fortune, however, speedily occurred. Wulfer, escaping from captivity, became the invader, and defeated Cenowalch at Aston near Wallingford. Pursuing his success he conquered the kingdom of Sussex, and sent Adelwalch, the sovereign of
that state, prisoner to Mercia. Wulfer was an idolater when he came to the crown, but was shortly after converted; and having become urgent for the dissemination of the christian doctrines, he bestowed upon his prisoner Adelwalch the Isle of Wight, which he had taken from the king of Wessex, as a baptismal gift, to induce that prince to become a convert. Wulfer for some time held possession of the kingdom of Essex, a state jointly ruled by two princes, one of whom was a pagan and the other a christian; and, as paramount sovereign of that division of the Heptarchy, he bestowed the bishopric of London upon a priest named Wina. It was in the reign of this monarch that the noble monastery at Repton was founded, and placed under the direction of an Abbess. The monastery was, according to the ancient custom of the Saxons, a receptacle for devotees of both sexes, and there is reason to believe that the first Abbess was Vereburga, the daughter of Wulfer. Ermenilda, daughter of Ercombert, king of Kent, was the wife of the Mercian monarch, and through her persuasions he was converted to christianity. He died in the year 675, but although he left a son, named Cenrid, he was succeeded by his brother Ethelred, who was probably at first at the head of the pagan party, notwithstanding his subsequent devotion. Ethelred was also a warlike prince. He invaded Kent, and was victorious against Egfrid of Northumbria, from whom he recovered some towns on the confines of Mercia, having defeated that monarch and slain his brother in a battle fought on the banks of the Trent. Ostritha, the wife of Ethelred, was assassinated in a journey through Mercia, and the king himself was suspected to have been the instigator of this murder. Shortly after its perpetration he became melancholy and recluse, and as an act of mortification, he divested himself of the ensigns of roy alty, resigning his crown to his nephew Cenrid, whom he had supplanted.
Kenred or Cenredus, the son of Wulfer, is celebrated for his piety. In his reign Offa of Essex visited Mercia, with the intention of espousing Ceniswintha, the daughter of Penda, and consequently the aunt of the reigning sovereign. This princess was nearly fifty years of age, and by her persuasions both her lover and her nephew were persuaded to become monks, and to make a journey to Rome, there to receive the tonsure from the hands of the Pope. Ceolred, the son of Ethelred, succeeded his cousin Kenred.
Ceolred was a brave and warlike prince. He sustained a long and dreadful conflict with Ina, one of the most illustrious monarchs of the West Saxons, but the monkish historians have not narrated the particulars of this war. It appears, however, that the Mercian king had invaded Wessex, for a sanguinary battle was fought in the year 715, with equal loss on both sides, at Wodensburg* in Wiltshire. In his own dominions, Ceolred opposed with firmness the encroachments of the ecclesiastics, and by so doing he incurred the hatred of the monks, who have represented him as a reprobate and a blasphemer. He died in 716, and was succeeded by Ethelbald, the grandson of Eoppa or Koppa, a brother of the heroic Penda.
Ethelbald was a brave and distinguished sovereign. He is described by Ingulphus, as being elegant in form, strong in body, and warlike in mind, but proud of heart and immoderately rash in his conduct. He fled from the persecutions of Ceolred, and with a few followers concealed himself in the fens of Lincolnshire, and there sought consolation and advice from the anchorite Guthlac, who had previously been the object of his veneration. The holy man (says Ingulphus) listened to his griefs, revived his hopes, and as an interpreter of the divine oracle, opened to him the course of futurity, and promised to him the submission of his family, the destruction of his enemies, and the sovereignty of his people: that these things would come to pass without battle or bloodshed, and that he might confidently await them as instances of the divine power. At the same time he admonished him, in these words-" Acknowledge the Lord your God, and fear him above all things: studiously venerate the holy church: frequently lament the evil consequences of your sins, and constantly maintain the purpose of a good life: so may you expect the certain aid of the Lord, if you bring into his presence, as an offering, the merit of a good work.” Ethelbald felt his spirits so renovated by these words, that instantly, in the presence of Guthlac and of his own followers, he declared with his lips what he had conceived in his heart, that when he
Now called Wanborough.
should obtain the peaceable government of the Mercian kingdom, he would undertake the foundation of a monastery in that very place, to the praise of God, and the honour of his reverend father Guthlac. This he subsequently, effectually and devoutly performed. A short time after this occurrence, Ethelbald, still a banished man, wandering and concealing himself in remote regions, having been informed of the death of the venerable anchorite, hastened to the spot sorrowing and lamenting. To him there appeared, while still sleepless in a neighbouring hovel, where he had passed many hours in tears and prayers, the sainted hermit; who, comforting him, said, "Have faith, my son, and be not sorrowful; for the Lord God, at my intercession hath heard your prayers, and before the present year shall have completed its circle, you shall in happiness possess the sceptre of this realm, and shall enjoy dominion during a lengthened period of your days." And Ethelbald replied, "Father, what sign dost give unto me, that these things shall come to pass?" and the saint answered, "In the morning, before the third hour, food unexpectedly will be given to those now inhabiting this island of Croyland."-Henceforward, treasuring up these things in his mind, he firmly believed that the events would happen according to his wishes: nor did his confidence deceive him, for every thing was fulfilled to him in conformity with the prophecy of the man of God.*
Whatever credibility may be due to the prophetic spirit of the anchorite Guthlac, it is certain that no sooner had Ethelbald ascended the throne than he founded the monastery of Croyland,† the charter of which bears date, 716, which was the first year of his reign. On this charter, as Ingulphus remarks, the first signature after those of the bishops is that of Ethelred, Abbot of Bardeney, who twelve years before had exchanged his crown for the cowl. He died the same year, at a very advanced period of life.
It seems probable that Ethelbald was advanced to the throne by the ecclesiastics, whose privileges and possessions had been greatly violated by his predecessor. He is, nevertheless, accused of exorbitant pride by many of the old annalists, and he does not appear to have been a monarch of a very submissive character. Early in his reign he obtained the paramount dignity of sovereign of the Heptarchy, which Ina, the powerful king of Wessex, had resigned on devoting himself to a monastic life. For many years he carried on a war against the two succeeding kings of Wessex, but in 744, he made peace with the West Saxon monarch Cudred, and in confederacy with him successfully invaded the province of Cornwall, which was still possessed by the Britons. Ethelbald had previously defeated the Welsh, and according to Beda, all the provinces of England, together with their princes, were subjected to his power. The jealousy of the monarchs of Wessex and Northumberland was then excited, and they formed a league for his overthrow. They invaded his territories, the latter from the north, and the former from the south, at the time that the internal peace of the realm was disturbed by the faction inimical to the priesthood, by whose influence he had hitherto held the crown, and whom he had greatly provoked by his proud demeanour; so that he was compelled to divide his forces. Cudred of Wessex had recently repressed a rebellion headed by Atheldun, one of his thanes, who was strongly adverse to the ecclesiastical faction, and had again taken that intrepid leader into his favour. Cudred placed Atheldun at the head of that portion of his army who were to engage the king of Mercia, and as the battle was fought at Burford, in Oxfordshire, there is little doubt of Ethelbald's having been at first successful. The king of Mercia was aided by a body of Kentish warriors, and the priests of Canterbury were in his army, together with auxiliaries from East Anglia, where the ecclesiastical power was in its greatest strength. Ethelbald was nevertheless defeated: his forces were put completely to the rout, and he fled, almost unattended, to Repton, in Derbyshire. We have little account of the war on the side of Northumbria, but we may glean from the very
Ingulphi Hist. page 2.
This abbey was founded at great expense. "And because Croyland, as its name indicates, was marshy ground (says Ingulphus) and would not support a stone building, the aforesaid King Ethelbald caused innumerable piles of oak and alder to be driven into the swampy land, and quantities of strong gravelly earth to be brought from Upland, seven miles by water, in barges." Ingulp.
Chronica de Mailros.
meagre relations of the monkish historians, that Ethelbald, after his return from Wessex, carried on a boundary war, and in frequent incursions obtained considerable booty. The adverse party was, in the meantime, gaining strength, and they were headed by a valiant and ambitious thane, named Beornred. The revolt of the Mercians became extensive, and a battle was fought at a place called Secandune, now Seckington, in Warwickshire, in which Ethelbald was slain and his army completely defeated. "Beornred," says Ingulphus, "truly a tyrant, did not long enjoy the exercise of his tyranny, but perished in the same year. Ethelbald, the respected monarch, was buried at Ripadium or Repton, at that time a celebrated monastery, and was succeeded by Offa, the lineal descendant from Wibba, with the unanimous consent of the thanes of Mercia."* Beornred for a short time was supported by the insurgents, but his nomination to the throne was displeasing to the majority of the Mercians, and he was slain in an engagement with Offa. Offa was young when he was called to the sovereignty of Mercia, but he proved himself both warlike and politic, and during his reign the kingdom of Mercia attained its greatest extent of dominion. The first fifteen years from his accession were employed by Offa in quelling the factions and quieting the animosities which, during the preceding hundred years, had greatly distracted the kingdom. He conciliated the ecclesiastics by founding the monastery of Black Monks at St. Albans, and by confirming the charter of Croyland Abbey,+ while he overawed the turbulent by his circumspection and firmness. We find no mention of his military exploits until the year 771, when he is said to have subjugated the Hestingi,‡ a people concerning whom there has been much conjecture among the learned. In 774 he invaded Kent, and in a battle which was fought at Otford on the Darent, near Shoreham, and which was dreadfully sanguinary on both sides, he obtained a complete victory, and reduced Aldric, the sovereign of that kingdom, to the severest straits. The jealousy of the other princes of the Heptarchy prevented Offa from pursuing his advantages, and his attention was called to other wars. In the year 777 he defeated Cenulph, king of Wessex, at Bensington in Oxfordshire, and soon after made an alliance with the vanquished monarch, and gave his daughter Eadburga in marriage to Brithric, the son of Cenulph. Offa also obtained many decisive advantages over the Northumbrians, but while he was engaged in thus endeavouring to acquire a supremacy over the other Saxon monarchies, the Welsh made an inroad into Mercia and carried off a large quantity of cattle, having laid waste the country to a vast extent. At the approach of Offa the Welsh retired, and he compelled them to relinquish to him that part of their own territory which lies between the Severne and the Wye. This track of land he peopled with Saxon soldiers and their families, whom he ordered to throw up a rampart, defended by a large ditch, by means of which he separated his conquests from the rest of Wales. This rampart, which is in length about four and twenty miles, extends from the mouth of the Dee to the junction of the Wye with the Severne, and was called Clawdh Offa, or Offa's dyke.§-In the year 785, Offa associated his son Egfrid with him in the government; and about the same time, considering it to be inconvenient and derogatory to his dignity, that the bishops of Mercia should be subjected to the Archiepiscopal See of Canterbury, he resolved to elevate Lichfield to the rank of an archbishopric; and, with some difficulty, he obtained the concurrence of the Pope in his purpose.
The second daughter of Offa, named Elfleda, was married to Ethelred, king of Northumbria. Adelfrida,|| his third daughter, was rendered the unconscious means of a crime which has cast a horrible blemish upon the conduct of this mighty sovereign. Ethelbert, the young king of the Fast Angles, a prince of great bodily and mental endowments, sought an alliance with his powerful neighbour. He solicited the hand of Adelfrida, and came, as an acknowledged suitor to her father's court, which was then held at Mordon or Morchampton in the neighbourhood of Hereford. Preparations were made for the nuptials, when, on the evening preceding the day appointed for the marriage, the expectant bridegroom was suddenly conveyed into one of the cells of the palace, and there assassinated. It is said that Offa was instigated to this treacherous deed
* Ingulphi Hist. page 5.
+ In 781, Offa granted lands to the church of St. Mary at Worcester, and in the grant he styles himself Dei dono Rex Meciorum. Chronica de Mailros. § Rapin. || Sometimes called Edeldritha and Elfrida.