King Offa of Mercia: Biography, family, reign, & accomplishments

Offa of Mercia

Offa of Mercia| Image: Silver penny of Offa, the great Mercian king of the second half of the 8th century

Considered one of the most powerful kings in Anglo-Saxon England, Offa was the king of Mercia – a southern English kingdom that proved itself a real force to reckon with between the 7th and 9th centuries.

Following the civil war that ensued after the assassination of King Aethelbald of Mercia (reign, 716-757), Offa went on to defeat Beornred and seize the throne of Mercia.

During a reign, which lasted from 757 to 796, King Offa’s lust for power turned him into a very powerful overlord of several kinglets in Anglo-Saxon. He also consolidated his supremacy through marrying his daughters to sub-kings in the region.

Who was Offa of Mercia? And what made him such a great monarch? Read more below about the birth story, family, reign, and accomplishments of Offa of Mercia, one of the greatest kings of Mercia.

Offa of Mercia: Fast Facts

Date of Death: 796

Burial place: Bedford

Father: Thingfrith

Spouse: Cynethryth

Children: Ecgfrith, Eadburh, Alfflead, Athelburh

Reign: 757-796

House:  Iclingas

Predecessor: Beornred

Successor: Ecgfrith

Title: King of the Mercians, Rex Anglorum, King of the English

Most famous for: Being a powerful overlord in the history of the Anglo-Saxons

Birth Story and childhood

Offa was fortunate to have grown up in an era when the Mercian Kings were at the height of their power. According to historians, this period was from the mid-7th century to the early 9th century. The decline in Mercian kings’ power came during the reign of Egbert of Wessex in the 9th century.

The little that we know about Offa of Mercia’s biography is that he was a descendant of Pybba -ruler of Mercia in the early 7th century. Pybba in turn was the father of Eowa.

Offa’s grandfather was Eanwulf – first cousin of King Aethelbald of Mercia (reigned 716-757). His wife was called Cynethryth, who bore him several children, including his first son Ecgfrith and three daughters – Alfflaed, Eadburh, and Athelburh.

NB: The Kingdom of Mercia was in the region now known as the English Midlands. Mercia’s neighbors were Sussex, Northhumbria, Essex, Wessex, and East Anglia. In the west, there were Britons in Powys and the various kingdoms of southern Wales. The capital of Mercia was Tamworth (modern-day Staffordshire).

Offa of Mercia’s Reign

Offa of Mercia

Offa of Mercia | The kingdoms of Britain during Offa’s reign

In 757, King Aethelbald of Mercia was murdered by his bodyguards at night. The deceased king had steadily ruled the kingdom for more than four decades. Following Aethelbald’s assassination, a power struggle ensued among the dynastic lines. Mercia was briefly plunged into a civil war.

Beornred emerged victorious and briefly ruled Mercia; however, Offa was able to usurp Beornred and take full control of kingdom. He took control of Midland peoples – Hwicce and the Magonsaete. Offa spent his first few years on the throne trying to stabilize Kent. As overlord, he made sure that all parties that threatened his rule were swiftly eliminated. By 771, he had taken control of Sussex. And a decade later, southern England fell to his control.

To solidify his hold over the kinglets in his region, he married his daughters out to rulers around Mercia. For example, his daughter Alfflaed married Ælthelred I of Northumbria at Catterick in 792.

As overlord of East Anglia, Offa of Mercia ordered the beheading of his rival King Athelbertht II of East Anglia in 794. The beheaded king probably tried to rebel against Offa’s rule.

Accomplishments of King Offa of Mercia

King Offa of Mercia

King Offa of Mercia |Offa is regarded by many to have made great strides in coinage.

Offa raked in quite of lot of money from several small kingdoms in and around Mercia, with the kinglets paying immense homage to him. At the height of his reign, he was regarded as one of the most powerful men in Europe; perhaps only second to Charlemagne the Great, king of the Franks.

Here are few accomplishments chalked by King Offa of Mercia:

  • In a bid to take back some of the some of the territories his predecessor Æthelbald had taken from West Saxons, Offa faced off with Cynewulf, king of Wessex. The Mercian king defeated Cynewulf at the Battle of Bensington in Oxfordshire in 779. Less than a decade later, Cynewulf was murdered in 786, making Offa the undisputed overlord of large parts of Anglo-Saxon.
  • Offa helped Beorhtric claim the throne in West Saxon. Beorhtric in turn recognized Offa as overlord. He even married one of Offa’s daughters named Eadburh in 789.
  • As a Christian king, Offa developed quite an affinity for fellow Christian king Charlemagne the Great of the Franks. He aspired to replicate some of the works Charlemagne was carrying out in his kingdom. And even though the two kings were not the best of allies, they worked out their differences and traded between themselves. Offa signed a commercial treaty with Charlemagne in 796. The relationship between the two monarchs was underpinned by their Christian faith as well as their relationship with Pope Adrian I.
  • Offa is regarded by many to have made great strides in coinage. His depictions on the coins were quite advanced for the era. They were done very elegantly, showing him with most of his facial features. Influenced by the Byzantine emperor Constantine VI’s depiction of his mother, future empress Irene, on coins, Offa depicted his wife Cynethryth on the coins. Much of the gold coins, which were copy of an Abasid dinar, were used to trade with Islamic Spain. Offa also drew on Carolingian coinage system. Offa’s coinage principles were used in the subsequent centuries after the death of Offa.

Did you know: Offa’s wife Cynethryth became the first woman to be depicted on a coin?

  • He constructed a massive earthwork that laid out the boundary between Mercia and Wales to the west. Called Offa’s Dyke, this construction covered about two-thirds of the border. For Offa to pull of such an amazing feat of construction means that he most likely had access to resources. Also he was able to organize thousands workers from different districts to see to a successful completion of the dyke. Upon completion it became one of the greatest construction works in preliterate Britain.
  • On the defensive side of things, Offa established several defensive burhs (fortified towns) at Bedford, Northampton, Oxford and Stamford. His military strategy had immense influence on Alfred the Great a century later, as the Wessex king had to dealing with unrelenting invasions from the Danes and the Great Heathen Army.
  • Another significant achievement chalked by Offa came in the form of the laws he issued. It has been stated that Alfred the Great took a page from the legal system set up during the reign of Offa of Mercia.

    Offa's Dyke

    Offa’s Dyke was perhaps the greatest feat attained by King Offa of Mercia | Image: Offa’s Dyke near Knill, Herefordshire

Offa of Mercia’s relationship with Charlemagne the Great

Charlemagne the Great and King Offa

King Offa drew an enormous amount of inspiration from the powerful king of the Franks, Charlemagne the Great | Image: Charlemagne in a copper engraving of the 16th century by Giovanni Battista Cavalieri

In letters dated to around 780s and 790s, one of the advisors to the Charlemagne, Alcuin, praised Offa for his piety and his efforts in guiding Kingdom of Mercia under God’s commands.

In a bid to make their relationship stronger, Charlemagne proposed that one of his sons marry Offa’s daughter, most likely Alfflaed. However, Offa gave a counter proposal; the Mercian king proposed that his son Ecgfrith marry one of Charlemagne’s daughters – most likely Bertha. It has been stated that Charlemagne was furious about Offa’s counter proposal. The king of the Franks briefly cut off trade and political ties with Offa.

The relations between the English and the Franks were only restored following the intervention of Gervold, the abbot of St Wandrille.

It must be noted that in one of the letters sent by Charlemagne to Offa, the Frankish king called Offa his “brother”.  The two kingdoms continued to trade between each other. Although, Offa and Charlemagne sometimes disagreed on some core issues, it was quite obvious that the latter was the more powerful. By 796, Charlemagne was the undisputed king of large parts of Europe, ruling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Hungarian Plain.

Read More: Charlemagne – Biography, Reign, & Accomplishments

Death and succession

After spending close to four decades on the throne of Mercia, King Offa died on July 29, 796. It is likely that the king was buried in Bedford. Offa was succeeded to the throne by his oldest son Ecgfrith of Mercia.

Before his death, King Offa ruthlessly eliminated every snippet of rivalry that could pose a threat to his successor’s rule. He even went as far as reducing the statuses of his subject kings and ealdormen. Ecgfrith’s reign lasted for just a few months (141 days actually) and was succeeded by his distant relative Coenwulf.

After Mercia was overran by the Great Heathen Army in 873/874, it formed a marriage alliance with Wessex. Ethelstan II of Mercia married Alfred’s daughter Ethelflaeda (later ‘Lady of the Mercians’). Mercia would never reach the heights it reached under King Offa; the kingdom became just one of the many shires under the rule of Wessex.

Other interesting facts about Offa of Mercia

  • He is believed to have made annual payment to the tune of 365 mancuses (a mancus is equal to thirty silver pennies) to Rome. His friendly relationship with the Pope Adrian allowed Rome to have greater control over the English church.
  • Offa came into conflict with Jaenberht, archbishop of Canterbury. The conflict is believed to have stemmed from Jaenberht’s refusal to consecrate Offa’s son Ecgfrith as king of Mercia. Offa convinced Pope Adrian I to divide the archdiocese of Canterbury into two. The new archdiocese – the archdiocese of Lichfield – was intended to free the Mercian church from the authority of Jaenberht. Established in 787, the rival archdiocese at Lichfield rubber stamped Offa’s wishes to have his son consecrated.
  • Offa of Mercia and Alfred the Great are generally considered the two greatest Anglo-Saxon kings. However, what separates those two great rulers is the legacies they left behind. Alfred the Great had an overall vision of a unified England. King Offa was indeed powerful, but his unrelenting thirst for power took precedence over any plans to unite England.
  • Offa of Mercia has been described as quite a generous patron of the church. He set up a number of churches and monasteries, dedicating many of them to St Peter. As it was common back then, the control of those religious houses rested in the hands of Offa and his immediate family members.
  • Much of what we know about Offa of Mercia comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The chronicle, which was written in Old English, is a collection of annals about the history of the Anglo-Saxons. Many scholars have described the chronicle, which was produced in West Saxon, as quite biased towards Wessex. This probably explains why Wessex rulers like Alfred the Great were revered so much.
  • Offa visited Rome in 792 to increase his standing across Europe.
  • The English penny was introduced during his reign.
  • The first recorded coronation in England came in 787 when his son Ecgfrith was consecrated by Hygeberht, bishop of Lichfield.
  • Additional sources of the history of Offa came from the charters that were issued during his reign. Those charters documented the king’s grant of land to the church, noblemen and ealdormen. Other sources include the ones from the History of the English church (Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum) by the monk Bede.

    Alfred the Great

    In terms of achievements, King Offa is second only to fellow Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred the Great | Image: Statue of Alfred the Great at Wantage, Oxfordshire

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