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Mercian woodlands in Staffordshire

Mercia was one of the kingdoms of the English in the Anglo-Saxon era; one of the seven main kingdoms known to historians as the Heptarchy. Mercia was centred originally on the valley of the River Trent, but spread in the seventh century to encompass the whole of the Midlands.

Mercia's neighbours included Northumbria, Powys and the southern Welsh kingdoms, Wessex, Sussex, Essex and East Anglia.


The kingdom was known in the time of its power as The Kingdom of the Mercian, or in Old English Miercna rice (and variant spellings), from its people, known as the Mierce or Myrce; a name meaning "border people".

The name used in Modern English, Mercia, is a Latinisation of Mierce. The name Myrcna land ("Land of the Mercians") also appears in Old English (in 918, at the moment the kingdom lost its independence)[1] and Myrcland[2], though most frequently the English sources refer to the people, not the land as such. The kings bore the title (with various spellings) Miercna cyning; "King of the Mercians".

The Mercians have left their name in places such as Markfield in Leicestershire ("Field of the Mercians"), though this folk's main legacy is spreading their name from the borderlands of their origin across the whole of the Midlands. The name Mercia has been revived in latter days for a wide range of organisations, including military units, public, commercial and voluntary bodies.

Early history

The Staffordshire Hoard

Mercia's exact evolution at the start of the Anglo-Saxon era is more obscure than that of Northumbria, Kent, or even Wessex. Bede tells us that Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia were settled by the tribe known as the Angles, while south of them were the Saxons, though such a stark division by the tribes may be oversimplification. The Mercian kings claimed descent from King Icel of the Angles, who was believed to have ruled in Germany, and from Offa, the hero-king of Germanic legend.

The Mercians developed an effective political structure and adopted Christianity later than the other kingdoms.[3] The name Mierce is from the Old English for "border" and the traditional interpretation is that the kingdom originated along the frontier between the native Welsh and the Anglo-Saxon invaders, though P Hunter Blair argued an alternative interpretation: that they emerged along the frontier of Northumbria and the inhabitants of the Trent river valley.

While its earliest boundaries will never be known, there is general agreement that the territory that was called "the first of the Mercians" in the Tribal Hidage covered much of south Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and northern Warwickshire.[4][5][6]

The earliest person named in any records as a King of the Mercians is Creoda, said to have been the great-grandson of King Icel. Creoda came to power around 584. His son Pybba succeeded him in 593. Cearl, a kinsman of Creoda, followed Pybba in 606. In 615, Cearl gave his daughter Cwenburh in marriage to Edwin, King of Deira whom he had sheltered while he was an exiled prince.

Mercian Kings and Earls

Penda and the Mercian Supremacy

Mercia and the main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms

Penda son of Pybba ruled from about 626 or 633 until 655. Some of what is known about Penda comes through the lengthy account given by Bede, who condemned Penda both for being an enemy to Northumbria and for being a pagan, though Bede admits that Penda freely allowed Christian missionaries from Lindisfarne into Mercia, and did not restrain them from preaching. Penda ruled at a time of changes in the balance of power between the kingdoms of Britain and in the influence of Christianity.

Edwin of Northumbria had become ruler not only of the newly unified Northumbria, but bretwalda, or high king, over the English kingdoms, and Penda was determined to overthrown Northumbrian lordship. Allied to Cadwallon ap Cadfan, King of Gwynedd, Penda defeated and slew Edwin in 633 at Hatfield Chase. Cadwallon bore the title "King of Britain" and sought to make the paper title a reality in Northumbria, for according to chroniclers he ravaged that land as if to drive the English out and restore Britain to the Britons. At this point Oswald (later known as St Oswald) came to take up the Northumbrian throne and defeated and slew Cadwallon at Heavensfield; when he marched against Penda though in 642, he also was defeated and killed, at the Battle of Maserfield (by Oswestry). In 655, after a period of confusion in Northumbria, Penda brought 30 sub-kings to fight the new Northumbrian king, Oswiu, at the Battle of Winwæd, but on this field Penda was defeated and slain.[7] Penda was the last pagan king of the Mercians.

Winwæd led to a temporary collapse of Mercian power. Penda's son Peada converted to Christianity at Repton in 653 and was placed on the Mercian throne by Oswiu as an under-king, but in the spring of 656 he was murdered and so Oswiu assumed direct control. A revolt in 658 threw off Northumbrian rule and another son of Penda, Wulfhere, ruled Mercia independently until his death in 675. Wulfhere was initially successful in restoring the power of Mercia, and it may be he who drove the Mercian border decisively westward beyond the River Severn. A charter by King Frithuwald of Surrey, acknowledging Wulfhere's overlordship, show that his power extended south of the Thames.

King Æthelred succeeded and defeated Northumbria at the Battle of the Trent in 679, settling once and for all the long-disputed control of the former kingdom of Lindsey. Æthelred was succeeded by Cœnred son of Wulfhere, and both these kings are better known for their religious activities than anything else, but the king who succeeded them (in 709), Ceolred, is said in a letter of Saint Boniface to have been a dissolute youth who died insane. So ended the rule of the direct descendants of Penda.[3]

At some point before the accession of Æthelbald, possibly under Wulfhere, the Mercians conquered the region around Wroxeter, known to the Welsh as Pengwern or "The Paradise of Powys", which advance left the Britons with only that mountain fastness we now know as Wales. Elegies written in the persona of its dispossessed rulers record the sorrow at this loss.

A series of maps that illustrate the increasing hegemony of Mercia during the 8th century

King Æthelbald (716–757) faced opposition from two strong rivals; Wihtred of Kent and Ine of Wessex, but when Wihtred died in 725, and Ine abdicated to become a monk, Æthelbald re-established Mercia's hegemony over all the English south of the Humber. In 752 Æthelbald was defeated by the West Saxons under Cuthred, but he seems to have restored his supremacy over Wessex by 757.

In July 2009, the Staffordshire Hoard of gold was discovered in a field near Lichfield in Staffordshire, the religious centre of Mercia. With more gold than was found at Sutton Hoo, the Staffordshire Hoard is one of the most important Anglo-saxon treasures ever found, and though it lacks the great variety and context of Sutton Hoo, it shows something of the artistic genius of the Mercian in the Middle Saxon period. The artefacts have tentatively been dated to around AD 600–800. Whether the hoard was deposited by Anglo-Saxon pagans or Christians is debated, as is the purpose of the deposit.[8]

Offa and rise of Wessex

Æthelbald was murdered by one of his bodyguards in 757, and a civil war broke out which was concluded with the victory of Offa, a king bearing the name of the ancient hero king of the English when they lived in Germany. Offa was forced to build anew the hegemony over the southern English, and he did this so successfully that he became the greatest king Mercia had ever known. Not only did he win battles and dominate the south, also he took an active hand in administering the affairs of his kingdom by founding market towns and overseeing the first major issues of gold coins in Britain; he assumed a role in the administration of the Church in England (sponsoring the short-lived archbishopric of Lichfield), and negotiated with Charlemagne as an equal. Offa indeed took the title "Emperor of Britain", and this may have inspired Charlemagne to take the title of Roman Emperor, perhaps on the urging of his adviser, Alcuin of York, a Northumbrian.

Offa is credited with the construction of Offa's Dyke, marking the border between the Welsh kingdoms and the Mercian kingdom.

Offa exerted himself to ensure that his son Ecgfrith of Mercia would succeed him, but after his death in July 796, Ecgfrith survived for only five more months, and the kingdom passed to a distant relative named Coenwulf in December 796. In 821, Coenwulf was succeeded by his brother Ceolwulf, who demonstrated his military prowess by his attack on and destruction of the fortress of Deganwy in Powys. This was the last of Mercian power though: in 823 at Ellandun, Egbert of Wessex defeated the Mercian king Beornwulf (who had overthrown Ceolwulf in 823). The East Angles rebelled and Beornwulf was slain in battle, as was his successor, a former ealdorman named Ludeca. Another ealdorman, Wiglaf, ruled for less than two years before Egbert drove him out.Though Wiglaf regained independence for Mercia in 830, Wessex had become the dominant power over all the English.

In 852, Burgred came to the throne and with Ethelwulf of Wessex subjugated North Wales.

Arrival of the Danes

In 868, Danish Vikings occupied Nottingham. They and drove Burgred from his kingdom in 874 and Ceolwulf II took his place. In 877 the Danes occupied the whole of the east of the kingdom[9] and Ceolwulf clung on in the west until 879. Coelwulf II was the last king of the Mercians.[10]

From about 883 until 911 Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians ruled Mercia under the overlordship of Wessex. All coins struck in Mercia after the disappearance of Ceolwulf in c.879 were in the name of the West Saxon king.[11] Æthelred had married Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great of Wessex, and she assumed power when her husband became ill at some time in the last ten years of his life.[12]

After Æthelred's death 911 Æthelflæd ruled as 'Lady of the Mercians' but Edward took control of London and Oxford, which had been under Æthelred's control. She and her brother continued Alfred's policy of building fortified burhs, and in 917-18 they were able to conquer the southern Danelaw in East Anglia and Danish Mercia.[12]

Loss of independence

When Æthelflæd died in 918, Ælfwynn, her daughter by Æthelred, succeeded to power but within six months Edward had deprived her of all authority in Mercia and taken her into Wessex.[12]

References to Mercia and the Mercians continue through the annals recording the reigns of Æthelstan and his successors. In 975 King Edgar is described as "friend of the West Saxons and protector of the Mercians".

A separate political existence from Wessex was briefly restored in 955–959, when Edgar in rebellion against his brother became king of the Mercians, and again in 1016, when the Kingdom of the English was divided between Cnut and Edmund Ironside, Cnut taking Mercia and Northumbria.

The last Chronicle reference to Mercia by name is in the annal for 1017, when Eadric Streona was awarded the government of Mercia by Cnut. The later earls, Leofric, Ælfgar and Edwin, ruled over a territory broadly corresponding to historic Mercia, but the Chronicle does not identify it by name. The Mercians as a people are last mentioned in the annal for 1049. However in the Laws of Henry I it was recognised that England was divided into three parts and the common law of England likewise, namely of the West Saxons, the Mercians and the Danes.[13]

Mercian dialect

The dialect thrived between the 8th and 13th centuries and was referred to by John Trevisa, writing in 1387:[14]

For men of the est with men of the west, as it were undir the same partie of hevene, acordeth more in sownynge of speche than men of the north with men of the south, therfore it is that Mercii, that beeth men of myddel Engelond, as it were parteners of the endes, understondeth better the side langages, northerne and southerne, than northerne and southerne understondeth either other...

J R R Tolkien is one of many scholars who have studied and promoted the Mercian dialect of Old English, and introduced various Mercian terms into his legendarium – especially in relation to the Kingdom of Rohan, otherwise known as the Mark (a name cognate with Mercia). Not only is the language of Rohan actually represented as[15] the Mercian dialect of Old English, but a number of its kings are given the same names as monarchs who appear in the Mercian royal genealogy, e.g. Fréawine, Fréaláf and Éomer.[16]

Divisions of Mercia

For knowledge of the internal composition of the Kingdom of Mercia, we must rely on a document of uncertain age (possibly late 7th century), known as the Tribal Hidage – an assessment of the extent (but not the location) of land owned (reckoned in hides), and therefore the military obligations and perhaps taxes due, by each of the Mercian tribes and subject kingdoms by name. This hidage exists in several manuscript versions, some as late as the 14th century. It lists a number of peoples, such as the Hwicce, who have now vanished, except for reminders in various placenames such as "@ under Wychwood". The major divisions of Mercia listed in the Tribal Hidage were as follows:[17]

  • South Mercians
Those Mercians dwelling south of the River Trent. Folk groups within included the Tomsæte around Tamworth and the Pencersæte around Penkridge (approx. S. Staffordshire & N. [Warwickshire]]).
  • North Mercians
Those dwelling north of the River Trent (approx. N. Staffordshire, S. Derbyshire & Nottinghamshire).
  • Outer Mercia
Approx. S. Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Rutland, Northamptonshire. & N. Oxon.).
Once a kingdom in its own right, disputed with Northumbria in the 7th century.
  • Middle Angles
A collection of many smaller folk groups under Mercian control from the 7th century, including the Spaldingas around Spalding, the Bilmingas and Wideringas near Stamford, the North Gyrwe and South Gyrwe near Peterborough, the West Wixna, East Wixna, West Wille and East Wille near Ely, the Sweordora, Hurstingas and Gifle near Bedford, the Hicce around Hitchin, the Cilternsæte in the Chilterns and the Feppingas near Thame (approx. Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire & S. Oxfordshire).
Once a kingdom in its own right, apparently of Welsh or mixed Welsh-English stock and Christian before St Augustine's day. This petty kingdom was disputed with Wessex in the 7th century before finally coming under Mercian control. Smaller folk groups within included the Stoppingas around Warwick and the Arosæte possibly near Droitwich (approx. Gloucestershire, Worcestershire & S. Warwickshire).
  • Magonsæte
A people of the western border, perhaps the same as or adjacent to those known as the Westerna, under Mercian control from the 7th century. Smaller folk groups within included the Temersæte near Hereford and the Hahlsæte near Ludlow (approx. Herefordshire & S. Shropshire).
  • Wreocansæte
A people of the Welsh border under Mercian control from the 7th century, their name from Old Welsh, from the Wrekin or the older Viroconium. Smaller folk groups within included the Rhiwsæte near Wroxeter and the Meresæte near Chester (approx. N. Shropshire, Flintshire & Cheshire).
  • Pecsæte
An isolated folk group of the Peak District, under Mercian control from the 7th century (approx. N. Derbyshire).
Taken over from Essex in the 8th century.

After Mercia was annexed by Wessex in the early 10th century, the West Saxon rulers divided it into shires modelled after their own system. It is not known how these reated to the older tribal boundaries, if those survived, but the Mægesæte are mentioned as late as 1016, perhaps as a byname for Herefordshire.[18]

Modern uses of the term 'Mercia'

The term 'Midlands' is first recorded (as 'mydlande') in 1555.[19]

John Bateman, writing in 1876 or 1883, referred to contemporary Cheshire and Staffordshire landholdings as being in Mercia.[20] The most credible source for the conceit of a contemporary Mercia is Thomas Hardy's Wessex novels. The first of these appeared in 1874 and Hardy himself considered it the origin of the conceit of a contemporary Wessex. Bram Stoker set his 1911 novel, The Lair of the White Worm, in a contemporary Mercia that may have been influenced by Hardy, whose secretary was a friend of Stoker's brother. Although 'Edwardian Mercia' never had the success of 'Victorian Wessex', it was an idea that appealed to the higher echelons of society. In 1908 Sir Oliver Lodge, Principal of Birmingham University, wrote to his counterpart at Bristol, welcoming a new university worthy of:

the great Province of Wessex whose higher educational needs it will supply. It will be no rival, but colleague and co-worker with this university, whose province is Mercia….[21]

The British Army has made use of regional identities in naming larger formations. After the Second World War, the infantry regiments of Cheshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire were organised in the Mercian Brigade (1948–1968). Today "Mercia" appears in the titles of two regiments, the new Mercian Regiment (which recruits in Cheshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Worcestershire) and the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry.

The West Mercia Constabulary was created in 1967, combining the police forces of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire.

In 2012 a new football league was formed called the Mercian Regional Football League.


Cross of St Alban

The Kingdom of Mercia predated the emergence of heraldry, so there is no authentic Mercian heraldic device. However, later generations have ascribed a variety of devices to the rulers of Mercia or to the land itself.

As a flag, the Cross of St Alban is flown from Tamworth Castle, the ancient seat of the Mercian Kings, to this day. It was also flown outside Birmingham Council House during 2009 while the Staffordshire Hoard was on display in the city before being taken to the British Museum in London. The cross has been incorporated into a number of coats of arms of Mercian towns, such as Tamworth, Leek and Blaby.

The saltire had become the attributed arms of the Kingdom of Mercia by the 13th century.[22] The arms are blazoned Azure, a saltire Or, meaning a gold (or yellow) saltire on a blue field. The arms were subsequently used by the Abbey of St Albans, founded by King Offa of Mercia. With the dissolution of the Abbey and the incorporation of the borough of St Albans the device was used on the town's corporate seal and was officially recorded as the arms of the town at an heraldic visitation in 1634.[23]

A silver double-headed eagle surmounted by a golden three-pronged Saxon crown has been used by several units of the Army as a heraldic device for Mercia since 1958, derived from the attributed arms of Leofric, Earl of Mercia in the 11th century.[24]

A wyvern

The wyvern, a dragon with two heads, has since its adoption as an emblem by the Midland Railway in the mid-19th century,[25] having been first adopted by its predecessor the Leicester and Swannington Railway, which opened in 1832. The latter adopted the wyvern as it forms the crest of the Borough of Leicester recorded at the heraldic visitation of Leicestershire in 1619: a wyvern sans legs argent strewed with wounds gules, wings expanded ermine.[26][27][28] The Midland Railway company asserted that the "wyvern was the standard of the Kingdom of Mercia", and that it was a "a quartering in the town arms of Leicester".[29][30][31][32]

However, in 1897 the Railway Magazine noted that there appeared "to be no foundation that the wyvern was associated with the Kingdom of Mercia".[30] The wyvern in Leicester's crest was derived from that of Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, who was executed in 1327.[33]

A similar theme was later taken up by Bram Stoker in his 1911 novel, The Lair of the White Worm, which was explicitly set in Mercia. The word "worm", derived from Old English wyrm, originally referred to a dragon or serpent. "Wyvern" is derived from Old Saxon wivere, also meaning serpent.

The cap badge of the 2nd Mercian Battalion of the Territorial Army in the 1980s was a wyvern.

Outside links


  1. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  Parker Chronicle (918) 7 him cierde to eall se þeodscype on Myrcna lande þe Æþelflæde ær underþeoded wæs
  2. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  Peterborough / Worcester Chronicle (911) Her bræc se here þone frið on Norðhymbrum, 7 forsawon ælc riht þe Eadweard cyning 7 his witan him budon, 7 hergodon ofer Myrcland.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Fouracre, Paul ed. The New Cambridge Mediæval History v.I, Cambridge (2005) pg. 466
  4. Brooks, Nicholas Anglo-Saxon myths: state and church, 400–1066
  5. Hill, D. Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford (1981), map 136
  6. Hooke, Della Anglo-Saxon Territorial Organisation: The Western Margins of Mercia, University of Birmingham, Dept. of Geography, Occasional Paper 22 (1986) pp.1–45
  7. Fouracre, Paul ed. The New Cambridge Mediæval History v.I, Cambridge (2005) p. 465
  8. "Huge Anglo-Saxon gold hoard found". BBC News. 24 September 2009. Retrieved 24 September 2009. 
  9. Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford University Press, 1971, p. 254
  10. {{#invoke:citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=encyclopaedia }} (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  11. Stewart Lyon, The coinage of Edward the Elder, in N. J. Higham & D.H. Hill, Edward the Elder 899–924, London 2001, p. 67.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 {{#invoke:citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=encyclopaedia }} (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  13. Regnum Anglie triphariam diuiditur, in Westsexiam et Mircenos et Danorum prouinciam. ... Legis etiam Anglice trina est partition ad superiorem modum, alia enim Westsexie, alia Mircena, alia Denelaga est.
  14. Elmes (2005)
  15. Tolkien, J. R. R. (2005). The Lord of the Rings. Houghton-Mifflin. pp. 1133–1138. ISBN 978-0-618-64561-9.  For more on Tolkien's "translation" of the language of Rohan into Old English, see especially page 1136.
  16. Shippey, Prof. Tom (2005 (1982)). The Road to Middle Earth. HarperCollins. pp. 139–140. ISBN 0-261-10275-3.  Shippey notes that Tolkien uses 'Mercian' forms of Anglo-Saxon, e.g. "Saruman, Hasufel, Herugrim for 'standard' [Anglo-Saxon] Searuman, Heasufel and Heorugrim" Footnote page 140
  17. Sarah Zaluckyj & Marge Feryok. Mercia: The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Central England (2001) ISBN 1-873827-62-8
  18. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  Laud Chronicle (1016) Ða dyde Eadric ealdormann swa he oftor ær dyde. astealde þone fleam ærest mid Magesæton. 7 swa aswac his cynehlaforde (The Edric the governor, as oft he had done before, caused the flight, first with the Magesæte.
  19. McWhirter (1976)
  20. Bateman (1971)
  21. Cottle & Sherborne (1951)
  22. College of Arms Ms. L.14, dating from the reign of Henry III
  23. Civic Heraldry of England and Wales – Hertfordshire, accessed 15 January 2008
  24. A.L. Kipling and H.L. King, Head-dress Badges of the British Army, Vol. 2, reprinted, Uckfield, 2006
  25. Cuthbert Hamilton Ellis, The Midland Railway, 1953
  26. Geoffrey Briggs, Civic & Corporate Heraldry, London 1971
  27. C. W. Scot-Giles, Civic Heraldry of England and Wales, 2nd edition, London, 1953
  28. A. C. Fox-Davies, The Book of Public Arms, London 1915
  29. Frederick Smeeton Williams, The Midland Railway: Its rise and progress: A narrative of modern enterprise, 1876
  30. 30.0 30.1 The Railway Magazine, Vol. 102, 1897
  31. Dow (1973)
  32. Clement Edwin Stretton, History of The Midland Railway, 1901
  33. John Hewitt, Ancient Arms in Modern Europe, Vol II: The Fourteenth Century, 1860


  • Ian W. Walker. Mercia and the Making of England (2000) ISBN 0-7509-2131-5 (also published as Mercia and the Origins of England (2000) ISBN 0-7509-2131-5)
  • Sarah Zaluckyj & Marge Feryok. Mercia: The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Central England (2001) ISBN 1-873827-62-8
  • Michelle Brown & Carol Farr (eds). Mercia: An Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in Europe (2005) ISBN 0-8264-7765-8
  • Margaret Gelling. 'The Early History of Western Mercia'. (p. 184–201; In: The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. S. Bassett. 1989)
  • Simon Schama. A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World? – 3000 BC–AD 1603 Vol 1 BBC Books 2003
  • Elmes, Simon: Talking for Britain: A Journey Through the Nation's Dialects (Penguin, 2005, ISBN 0-14-051562-3
  • Baxter, Stephen: The Earls of Mercia: lordship and power in late Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford University Press, 2007), ISBN 0-19-923098-6
  • Bateman, John: The Great Landowners of Great Britain and Ireland (Leicester University Press, 1971), ISBN 391 00157 4