Offa

Offa was the son of Thingfrith (m) and Eowa (f) and became king in 757 A.D after the assassination of Aethelbald who, according to Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica was murdered in the middle of the night by his own guards.

Offa eventually consolidated his position by marrying his daughters to other English kings, his daughter Eadburh was married to the king of Wessex, and his daughter Aelfflaed was married to the king or Northumbria. This in part resulted in him being the first ruler to be called “King of the English” although not in the sense we understand it today as there were other kings or ‘kingletts’ in England, but Offa was master of everything south of the Humber. He became overlord of East Anglia when he had Aethelberht II beheaded.

Offa is seen as the first king to unite the various tribes of England, he did this not out of some altruistic ambition to create a ‘whole’ country, but out of personal ambition. He was ruthless in putting down a rebellion in the south, and he had Offa’s Dyke built, the dyke runs for 149 miles along the boarders of the kingdoms of Mercia and Wales.

He is known to have communicated with Charlemagne on several matters, the most notable was the suggestion that Charlemagne’s son Charles should marry Offa’s daughter Aelfflaed (before she was sent north) but when Offa suggested that his son Ecgfrith should also marry Charlemagnes daughter Bertha he was outraged and broke all contact with Britain and forbade all English ships permission to land at any of his ports which in effect meant anywhere in modern western Europe. This situation continued for about a year until communications were re-established. It is known that Charlemagne wrote to Offa seeking support for his position regarding the two Spanish bishops Felix and Elipandus, accused of heresy; this letter is still in existence and is the first surviving document in English diplomatic history.

Offa also travelled to Rome in order to strengthen ties with the papacy. Offa had come into conflict with the church, mainly with Jaenberht the Archbishop of Canterbury, possibly over his opposition to Offa’s wish to have his son Ecgfrith crowned while he was still alive in order to ensure the succession. Ecgfrith is the first recorded coronation, (unfortunately it was also a waste of time he only outlived his father by a matter of months and died childless.) As a result Offa persuaded the pope Adrian I to split the Diocese of Canterbury and therefore created the diocese of Litchfield.

Other things worth noting regarding Offa are the comments from the papal delegate Alcuin praised Offa for his piety and for his views on education, it is believed that not only was he literate but his wife Cynethryth and their children were too. Cynethryth is also the only Anglo-Saxon queen to be depicted on a coin.
Offa died in 796 A.D after ruling for more than thirty years. He was buried in Bedford. The Mercian rule came to an end just nine years later when they were defeated at the battle of Ellendun (near Swindon in Wiltshire) in 825 A.D and the crown passed to Wessex.

Edward the Elder (Martyr)

Edward was the second child of Alfred after his sister Aethelflaed who married the ruler of Mercia. However this did not make him the automatic successor to his father, on Alfred’s death Edwards cousins Aethelwold and Aethelhelm claimed the throne, the were the sons of Alfred’s older brother Aethelred.

Although Athelhelm disappears from the records shortly after and it is presumed he died, Aethelwolf rose to claim the throne and began what has become known as Aethelwolds’ revolt.

He seized Wimborne in Dorset, where his father was buried; and Christchurch (then in Hampshire now in Dorset). Edward marched to Bradbury in Dorset and offered battle however Aethelwold refused. Just as Edward was about to take Wimborne by force Aethelwold left in the night and joined the Danes in Northumbria, where he was announced as king. In the meantime Edward was crowned king at Kingston Upon Thames on 8th June 900 A.D.

In 901 A.D Aethelwold came with a fleet to Essex and encouraged the Danes in East Anglia to rise up. The following year he attacked Mercia and northern Wessex. Edward retaliated by ravaging East Anglia, but when he retreated south the men of Kent disobeyed the order and were intercepted by the Danes. They met at the battle of Holme on the 13th December 902 A.D. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles the Danes “ kept the place of slaughter” in other words they slaughtered the men of Kent, but they also suffered heavy losses including Aethelwold and a king by the name of Eoric – possibly of the East Anglian Danes.

Over the next few years Edward extended the control of Wessex over the whole of Mercia, East Anglia and Essex and conquering lands occupied by the Danes. He also brought the residual autonomy of Mercia to an end on the death of his sister Aelthelflaed who had ruled since the death of her husband, and in the process he deposed his niece Aelfwynn who was the names successor to her mother.

He had already annexed London and Oxford and the surrounding lands of Oxfordshire and Middlesex by 911 A.D. By 918 A.D all the Danes south of the Humber had submitted to him, and by the end of his reign the Danes the Welsh and the Scots had acknowledges him as “ father and Lord”.

Edward also reorganised the church in Wessex creating the bishoprics at Ramsey, Sonning, Wells and Crediton. Although he is not thought to have been a particularly religious man, even being reprimanded by the Pope to pay more attention to his religious duties.

He died leading an army against a Welsh Mercian rebellion on 17th July 924 A.D at Fardon-on-Dee and was buried at the Minster he had established
In Winchester. After the Norman Conquest the Minster was replaced by Hyde Abbey which in turn was destroyed during the reformation. His last resting place is marked with a stone slab marked with a cross that lies within the outline of the old Abbey in a public park.

Edward had in the region of thirteen children from three wives, although the exact number of children is disputed. Several of his sons succeeded him, while most of his daughters were married off around Europe and two became nuns.

One last thing, the tern Edward the ‘Elder’ was first used in Wulfstans ‘Life of Aethelwold’ written sometime in the latter 10th century to distinguish him from the later Edward ‘The Martyr’.

Ecgberht (Egbert)

Ecgberht (Egbert) was the son of a Kentish noble Ealhmund who claimed descent form Cerdic (519 – 34) the founder of Wessex. He became King in 802
on the death of Beorhtric of whom very little is known.

Ecgberth was married to Redburh of Francia and together they had four sons, all of whom would take their turn in succession of their father.

During Offa’s reign Ecgberht had lived in exile at the court of Charlemagne but once he returned he made his presence felt. In his time he conquered Kent, Cornwall and Mercia gaining the title of Bretwalda the Saxon term for the ruler with overall superiority over all other rulers and was the first ‘King of all England’.

He led expeditions against the Welsh and the Vikings, the latter had begun their forays onto this island during the reign of the much weaker Beorhtric. A year before his death in 839 he also defeated a combined force of Danes and Cornish at Hingston Down in Cornwall.

Ecgberht had a sister Alburga who was married to Wulfstan Ealdorman of Wiltshire. She founded Wilton; a Benedictine Abbey and on the death of her husband she became a nun and later the Abbess of Wilton. On her death she was declared a saint, in all likelihood for the founding of the Abbey.

Also during Ecgberhts’ reign, though something for which he cannot claim any credit; The glorious Book of Kells (800 A.D) was being written in Ireland.

Ecgberht died in 839 A.D and was buried in Winchester.

Alfred the Great

Alfred was born in Wantage in 849 A.D. The fifth son of Aethelwulf and Osburh. As had happened with his father and uncles all the male siblings had taken their turn in ruling, this was done in order to keep the line strong and eliminate the need for child rulers.

In 870 A.D the Danes attacked the only remaining independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom – Wessex; commanded by King Aethelred and his younger brother Alfred. The following year in the battle of Ashdown Alfred routed the Viking army in a difficult uphill assault, however following other defeats for Wessex Aethelred died.

In 878 A.D the Danish king Guthrum seized Chippenham in Wilthshire and used it as a base from which to harass and devastate Wessex. Many either surrendered or left, people from Hampshire moved to the Isle of Wight. Alfred with only a small retinue of thanes and Aethelnoth the earldorman of Somerset as his ally, withdrew to the Somerset tidal marshes to reassess his strategy.

Alfred adopted the Viking tactics by building a fortified base at Athelney in Somerset and summoning a mobile army of men, he used guerrilla tactics against the Danes. In May 878 he defeated them at the Battle of Edington.

Realising that he couldn’t route them completely from England he concluded a treaty of peace at Wedmore. As part of the treaty King Guthrum converted to Christianity with Alfred as his godfather, and the Danes returned to East Anglia where they settled as farmers.

Alfred also negotiated a partition treaty with the Danes, the frontier of which ran along the Roman road of Watling Street to the east of this line people were under the rule of Danelaw.

The Viking threat had by no means gone away and so to consolidate alliences against the Danes Alfred married his daughter Aethelflaed to the earldorman of Mercia and his daughter Aelthryth to the Count of Flanders, which was a strong navel power at the time. He himself married Eahlswith a Mercian noblewoman.

Further to this he completely reorganised defences. Firstly he organised the thanes and the existing militia known as the fyrd, on a rota basis so that he could raise a ‘rapid reaction force’ if needed; but allowed them to tend their farms at other times. Second he built defended settlements across the south of England, these were fortified market places known as burhs, where we today get our term ‘borough’. Settlers received plots of land and in return they manned the defences in time of war. This system can still be seen in the street plan of Cheapside to the Thames in London.

He also realised that all this would need to be accurately recorded and so the ‘Burghal Hildage’ was created.

Other than his military duties Alfred worried about the deterioration of learning and religion due to the influence of the Pagan Vikings. He had been educated as a child and had even learned Latin when about thirty years old. To improve literacy he arranged and took part in himself the translation (from Latin to Anglo-Saxon) of books he thought “needful for a man to know”. These books covered history, philosophy including Gregory the Greats ‘Pastoral Care’ (a handbook for bishops) He was also the patron for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which was added to for the next three hundred years.

He also saw the need for administrative and legislative regulation and so with the help and guidance of his advisors he had assembled the best of all that had gone before, keeping what was considered good and fair and eliminating the rest, these became known as the ‘Laws of Alfred 885 – 899.

By the time of his death in 899 A.D he was appearing on the Charters and coinage as ‘Alfred King of the English’. He was buried in Winchester at a site long lost, but at the time of writing there are moves a foot to find his burial site. It is also worth noting that to date he is the only British monarch of either gender to be know as ‘The Great’.

Aethelstan

Aethelstan was the son of Edward the elder and of Ecgwynn who may or may not have been married to Edward and may or may not be related to St Dunstan, the little written about her is very unclear.

What is clear is that he was crowned king at Kingston-Upon-Thames by the Archbishop of Canterbury who had written a new order of service (ordo) for the event. Aethelstan was also the first king to be crowned using a crown and not a helmet as had always been used in the past.

This did not mean however that he was in anyway weak or didn’t enjoy a good battle, just the opposite. During his reign he pushed the boundaries of the kingdom; in 927 – 928 he took York from the Danes, forced the submission of Constantine of Scotland and all five Welsh kings agreed to pay a huge annual tribute, it is written that this included 25,000 oxen a huge amount at the time. He also fixed the boarder between Mercia and Wales as the river Wye,
and he eliminated any opposition from Cornwall.

After 7 years of relative peace Aethelstan invaded Scotland, although the reasons for this are not clear, they are most likely connected to the death of Guthfrith who had ruled Northumbria briefly, his death caused some confusion in the north and it may be that Aethelstan took the opportunity to finally bring the north and Scotland to heel as they had always seen him as an outsider.

He set out in May 934 accompanied by 4 Welsh princes; Hywel Dda of Deheubarth, Idwal Foel of Gwynedd, Morgan ap Owain of Gwent and Tewdwr ap Griffiri of Brycheiniog. He also had 18 bishops, 13 Earls, six of whom were Danes from Eastern England.

By late June or early July he had reached Chester-le-Street where he made a generous gift at the tomb of St Cuthbert.

According to the chronicler Simeon of Durham he used land and navel forces. The land forces ravaged as far as Dunnottar in the north east of Scotland, while the navel forces raided Caithness and then possibly part of the Norse Kingdom of Orkney. However Simeon didn’t see fit to tell us the outcome. All we know is that by September Aethelstan was back in the south of England at Buckingham. The following year a charter was witnessed by all 4 of the Welsh princes.

When he wasn’t at war Aethelstan also had extensive cultural and religious contacts and he was an enthusiastic collector of art and religious relics. He gave much of his large collection to his followers and to the churches and bishops to retain their support.

He died at the height of his power in Malmesbury and was laid to rest in the Abbey at Malmesbury; In the words of the Annals of Ulster he was “ pillar of dignity of the western world” that dignity did not extend beyond death however as his tomb was raided during the reformation and his bones were stolen. His empty tomb still stand in the Abbey.