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.

Winchester Cathedral

In 635 A.D Cynegils King of the West Saxons was baptised, his son Cenwalh built the first Christian church ten years later in Winchester, centre of Anglo Saxon Wessex.

This small cross shaped church known as Old Minster, the footprint of which can still be seen today north of the present building.

Old Minster became a cathedral housing a throne (cathedra) of a bishop whose huge diocese stretched from the English Channel to the river Thames. This was the most important royal church in Anglos Saxon England and was the burial place for some of the kings of Wessex including Alfred the Great, also King Canute is here with his wife Queen Emma.

By the 10th century Old Minster was the priory church to a community on Benedictine monks.

The church was made bigger and grander by it’s 10th century bishop Aethelwold, the bones of St Swithan a former bishop were dug up from the forecourt and re-housed in a new shrine within the church. St Swithans fame spread far and wide, all around his tomb were hung the crutches of the people he’d healed.

By the year 1000 A.D. Old Minster was a multi purpose building, a cathedral, a priory church, a place of pilgrimage and the final resting place of Saxon kings.

Things changed with the arrival of the Normans. William once crowned at Westminster replaced the last Saxon bishop with his own chaplain Walkelin.
The French bishop then began a huge building project replacing the Old Minster with a new church in the Norman Romanesque style.

After 450 years Old Minster was demolished and it’s stones were used in the new cathedral which was consecrated in 1093 A.D.

The Norman cathedral flourished and William Rufus the Conquerers son was buried here in 1100 A.D.

Sumptuous new art works were commissioned, a font celebrating St Nicholas and the famous Winchester Bible both of which can still be seen at the cathedral.

Over the next three centuries wealthy and powerful bishops added to or remodelled various bits of the building. They also commissioned their own chapels were priests would say daily masses over their tombs to speed their souls to heaven. Again these lovely chantry chapels can still be seen at the cathedral.

During the dissolution of the monasteries even the great cathedral of Winchester did not escape unscathed, the Benedictine monastery St Swithans Priory came to an end and the shrine to it’s patron saint was ransacked under the cover of darkness of course and it’s cloister was demolished.

It saw a brief revival under Mary Tudor who married her Spanish husband here, but from then on it came under the auspices of the Church of England.

The 20th century saw much needed restoration work including new stone statues for the huge 15th century Great Screen behind the alter. The cathedral bought a huge organ displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and had it cut down to fit. By the early 1900’s there were fears that the east end of the building would collapse after centuries of subsidence. A deep sea diver named William Walker worked under water in a trench cut under the cathedral but also below the water table for six years in total darkness placing bags of concrete to stabilise the building, he is commemorated by a small statue in the cathedral.