King Offa 757 – 796
King Offa is perhaps one of the earliest Kings that we remember by name thanks to the construction under his reign of the amazing structure that is ‘Offa’s Dyke’, winding it’s way between England and Wales.
So who was this man who came to power just over one hundred years after the Anglo Saxon occupiers had driven the Celts out of the country in 613?
- The country by that time had been divided into seven kingdoms, Wessex, Northumbria, Kent, Sussex, Essex, East Anglia and Mercia.
- Each Kingdom fought for supremacy over the other and in the case of Kent and Northumbria they wanted to convert their neighbours to Christianity.
- Offa was born around 740, probably the son of Thingfrith and in this respect, was descended from Eowa, the brother of King Penda of Mercia, who had been slain in battle in 643.
- These Anglo Saxon kings, who had colonised the east and the midlands of England, were a very powerful family.
- It is thought that Offa succeeded his grandfather Eanulf`s cousin Ethelbald, in 757, as King of Mercia.
Ethelbald, was murdered by his own rebellious and ill disciplined thanes after they lost a battle to the West Saxons. After a long (forty years) reign, during which time he kept his people safe from incursions into their territory and during which time, he had secured many of the southern territories under the rule of Mercia
- The death of Ethelbald left a power vacuum which several of the neighbouring kings were keen to fill.
- Several people stepped forward to claim the kingdom of Mercia.
- Offa pushed home his claim but lost many of the southern lands as his claim was challenged by others.
- Offa vowed to regain them however, and during his reign which was nearly as long as that of his predecessor, he did so.
- Not only that but he strove hard to unite the various kingdoms of England, joining forces with them in some instances, as they fought a common enemy only to have their pact fall apart as they fought each other again.
- It appears however that Offa had enough and made Tamworth the capital of Mercia and of a nearly-united England.
King Offa attempted to hold together a united England but met with some obstacles.
Mercians fought alongside other kingdoms, such as that of Kent, only to fight against them in some further struggle. Despite the atmosphere of inner strife that prevailed all over the land at that time, Offa for all his own often oppressive tactics, became known as a much-respected ruler and England rose to a position of power and influence in Europe.
- It is known that Offa had other kings slain, including his own son-in-law, Ethelbert King of East Anglia, whom it is maintained, was murdered in the royal residence of Tamworth in 794, possibly because he was minting coins with his own image on them.
- Offa`s Queen Cynethryth appears to have been someone who sought to use the power of her ‘Queenship’ for evil rather than good. In fact, she was so bad, that it was agreed by church and state that no more Mercian wives of kings used the title.
- Offa`s daughter Eadburgh wed Beorhtric, King of Wessex, in 786, who recognised Offa as overlord. Whether Beorhtric was related to Beornred who contested for the crown of Mercia is not known, but by the prefixes of their name would appear to have been. Another daughter Aelfflaed married King Aethelred of Northumbria.
So what exactly did King Offa do?
- In the 770s when Offa`s power was greatest he was acknowledged as Bretwalda.Rex Anglorum, Overall King of all the lords of England. This title appears in some charters and on some coins from the period.
- He negotiated with Charlesmagne, King of the Franks
- In 796 one of the first trade agreement between the two countries was signed
- Goods were imported and exported through London. Offa was made Master of London and he was able to benefit financially from this trade.
- He was influenced by the connection he had with Charlemagne and Rome and he chose to import goods for his palace at Tamworth which was considered to be truly beautiful and wonderous.
- He married his two of his four daughters to the Kings of Wessex and Northumbria and had his son Egfrith crowned during his own reign in 787 to avoid a power vacuum after his death.
What was Offa’s Dyke, built between Wales and England, covering a distance of 80 miles?
- During the earlier period of civil war Mercia lost control of some kingdoms, and it’s western border was also pushed back eastwards by the inhabitants of Powys, Wales, who took advantage of the unrest to regain some of the territory they had lost earlier to the Mercians.
- Once Offa was firmly in control of Mercia it is likely that he had the dyke built to be a permanent demarcation of the boundary between the Welsh and his kingdom. It is believed that the events that led to Offa building the dyke are recorded on the Pillar of Eliseg near Llangollen.
The first mention of Offa’s Dyke occurs in Asser’s ‘Life of King Alfred’, written in 893, nearly 100 years after the dyke’s construction is thought to have been begun:
“There was in Mercia in fairly recent times a certain vigorous king called Offa, who terrified all the neighbouring kings and provinces around him, and who had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea”.
There is no doubt that the reign of King Offa brought about great change in how England would be ruled and introduced new ideas from his dealings with Charlemagne. The lack of contemporary writings leave us with just the shadow of the man, one of his most beguiling legacies being the dyke, the other a small gold coin which has long been conjectured over, raising all sorts of questions about his faith and his life.