Pagan Warrior, Guest Post by M.J. Porter

From bestselling author, MJ Porter comes the tale of the mighty pagan king, Penda of Mercia.

Britain. AD632.

Penda, a warrior of immense renown, has much to prove if he is to rule the Mercian kingdom of his dead father and prevent the neighbouring king of Northumbria from claiming it.

Unexpectedly allying with the British kings, Penda races to battle the alliance of the Northumbrian king, unsure if his brother stands with him or against him as they seek battle glory for themselves, and the right to rule gained through bloody conquest.

There will be a victor and a bloody loser, and a king will rise from the ashes of the great and terrible battle of Hædfeld.

The Saxon kingdom of Mercia at its height

Throughout the 700s, the ancient Saxon kingdom of Mercia was the powerhouse in Saxon England. The key to its success, as in the Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria and Wessex both before and after it, was the longevity of its kings. First, King Æthelbald, and then his successor, although not his descendant, King Offa, (who also claimed descent from the seventh-century pagan king Penda as Æthelbald did, or rather, from his brother, Eowa. Both Eowa and Penda feature in Pagan Warrior, which is set in the 630s, so earlier than the Mercian Supremacy of the eight century).

Between them, Æthelbald and Offa ruled Mercia from 716-757 and 757-796, after the brief reign of Beonred in 757 only. This was a substantial period during which King Offa entered into negotiations with Charlemagne for a union between his daughter and Charlemagne’s son (which ultimately didn’t come to fruition), he attempted to create an archbishopric in Lichfield to rival that of Canterbury and York, and his daughters were married to the kings of Wessex and Northumbria. Dr J Story has noted that, ‘A long reign was thought noteworthy by contemporary chroniclers and does, at the very least, suggest that a ruler was doing something right…A long reign was a direct reflection of a king’s abilities on the battlefield as well as in the chamber of politics.’ By contrast, the kingdom of Northumbria suffered throughout this period, as did Wessex, from kings who did not rule for long periods, and certainly not for as long as the two Mercian kings. That said, Æthelbald is said to have been assassinated and was briefly succeeded by Beonred before Offa became king.

Map from Hel-hama, CC BY-SA 3.0Wikimedia

While there’s no native source for Mercia’s triumph throughout the eighth century, which makes it difficult to unpick all the details, its dominance isn’t doubted. During the eighth century, Mercia had expanded far outside the boundaries traditionally assigned to it in the English Midlands. Not only was the southern kingdom of Kent a part of Mercia, but so too was the kingdom of the East Angles. And it is also stated that King Ecgberht of Wessex was forced to seek sanctuary amongst the Carolingians when Mercian aggression threatened to overwhelm him as well, at the very end of this period of supremacy. Mercia was aggressive, its kings long-lived, and even its queen, the wife of Offa, was powerful enough to have her own coinage issued showing her image. She’s the only Saxon queen to have achieved this.

This, then, is a fascinating period, and what adds to the intrigue is the distinct lack of information, and more, what information we do have is either tinged with a Northumbrian or a Wessex bias. Mercia is written about by a Northumbria, notably in decline, and a Wessex, notably on the rise. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (our Northumbrian source) was completed in the 730s, while the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a predominately Wessex project) began no later than 890 and no earlier than the start of King Alfred’s reign in 871. Bede did accept that King Æthelbald was the overlord of Southumbria, which shows that his domination was accepted at the time (Southumbria is a name given to the area South of the Humber, just as Northumbria applied to that North of the Humber).

But other than that, the entire period of Mercian dominance falls outside the scope of either of these accounts of Saxon England, and Mercia has no native source of its own. There are some tantalising glimpses in the letters written by Alcuin in the 790s, but again, this is nearing the end of the period of domination. If we only knew more, then it might be possible to disentangle the events and make some sense of them rather than just being able to state the facts, which are still much debated. To date, there is no detailed analysis of Mercia during the period of its dominance, and for this reason, to date, I’ve skirted the enticement of writing about either Æthelbald and Offa, in the eighth century, writing about the period before, and the period after, but I hope to soon.

Quotes taken from Joanne Story, Carolingian Connections, published 2003

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Meet M.J. Porter

MJ Porter is the author of many historical novels set predominantly in Seventh to 
Eleventh-Century England, as well as three twentieth-century mysteries. Being raised in the shadow of a building that was believed to house the bones of long-dead Kings of Mercia, meant that the author’s writing destiny was set.

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