Mercia's neighbours included Northumbria, Powys, the kingdoms of southern Wales, Wessex, Sussex, Essex, and East Anglia.
The name Mercia is still in use today by a wide range of organisations, including military units, public, commercial and voluntary bodies.
Early historyAnglo-Saxon invasions is more obscure than that of Northumbria, Kent, or even Wessex. Also, Mercia developed an effective political structure and adopted Christianity later than the other kingdoms. Archaeological surveys show that Angles settled the lands north of the River Thames by the sixth century. The name Mercia is Old English for "boundary folk" (see Welsh Marches), and the traditional interpretation is that the kingdom originated along the frontier between the native Welsh and the Anglo-Saxon invaders. However, 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.
The earliest king of Mercia of whom any details are known is Creoda, said to have been the great-grandson of Icel. Coming to power around 584, he built a fortress at Tamworth which became the seat of Mercia's kings. His son Pybba succeeded him in 593. Cearl, a kinsman of Creoda, followed Pybba in 606; in 615, Cearl gave his daughter Cwenburga in marriage to Edwin, king of Deira whom he had sheltered while he was an exiled prince.
Penda and the Mercian SupremacyThe next Mercian king was Penda, who ruled from about 626 or 633 until 655. Some of what is known about Penda comes through the hostile account of Bede, who disliked him both for being an enemy king to Bede's own Northumbria and for being a pagan. However, Bede admits that it was Penda who freely allowed Christian missionaries from Lindisfarne into Mercia, and did not restrain them from preaching. Edwin, who had become ruler not only of the newly unified Northumbria, but bretwalda, or high king, over the southern kingdoms, was defeated and killed by Penda and his ally Cadwallon of Gwynedd in 633. When a new Northumbrian king, Oswald, arose and again claimed overlordship of the south he also was defeated and killed by Penda and his allies in 642 at the Battle of Maserfield. After a period of confusion in Northumbria, Penda was, in turn, defeated and killed at the Battle of Winwaed by the Northumbrian king Oswiu in 655, to which Penda brought 30 sub-kings.
The battle led to a temporary collapse of Mercian power. Penda was succeeded first by his son Peada (who converted to Christianity at Repton in 653), and who was set up by Oswiu as an under king, but in the spring of 656 he was murdered and Oswiu assumed direct control of the whole of Mercia. A revolt in 658 threw off Northumbrian domination and resulted in the appearance of another son of Penda, Wulfhere, who ruled Mercia as an independent kingdom (though he apparently continued to render tribute to Northumbria for a while) until his death in 675. Wulfhere was initially successful in restoring the power of Mercia, but the end of his reign saw a serious defeat against Northumbria. The next king, Æthelred defeated Northumbria in 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.
At some point before the accession of Æthelbald, the Mercians conquered the region around Wroxeter, known to the Welsh as "The Paradise of Powys." Elegies written in the persona of its dispossessed rulers record [source?] the sorrow at this loss.
The next important king of Mercia was Æthelbald (716–757). For the first few years of his reign he had to face the obstacles of two strong rival kings, Wihtred of Kent and Ine of Wessex. But when Wihtred died in 725, and Ine abdicated his throne the following year to become a monk in Rome, Æthelbald was free to establish Mercia's hegemony over the rest of the Anglo-Saxons south of the Humber. Æthelbald suffered a setback in 752, when he 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 Anglo-Saxon gold was discovered in a field near Lichfield in Staffordshire. Lichfield was the religious centre of Mercia. 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.
Reign of Offa and rise of WessexOffa. Offa was forced to build the hegemony over the southern English of his predecessor anew, which he did so successfully that he became the greatest king Mercia ever knew. Not only did he win battles and dominate southern England, he also took an active hand to administering the affairs of his kingdom by founding market towns and overseeing the first major issues of gold coins in Britain, assumed a role in the administration of the Catholic Church in England (sponsoring the short-lived archbishopric of Lichfield), and even negotiated with Charlemagne as an equal. Offa is credited with the construction of Offa's Dyke, marking the border between Wales and Mercia.
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. The power of the West Saxons under Egbert was rising during this period, however, and in 825 Egbert defeated the Mercian king Beornwulf (who had overthrown Ceolwulf in 823) at Ellendun.
The Battle of Ellendun proved decisive. Beornwulf was slain suppressing a revolt amongst the East Angles, and his successor, a former ealdorman named Ludeca, met the same fate. Another ealdorman, Wiglaf, subsequently ruled for less than two years before being driven out of Mercia by Egbert. In 830, Wiglaf regained independence for Mercia, but by this time Wessex was clearly the dominant power in England. Wiglaf was succeeded by Beorhtwulf.
Arrival of the DanesIn 852, Burgred came to the throne and with Ethelwulf of Wessex subjugated North Wales. In 868, Viking invaders (from Denmark) occupied Nottingham. The Vikings drove Burgred from his kingdom in 874 and appointed Ceolwulf II in his place. In 877 the Vikings seized the eastern part of Mercia, which became part of the Danelaw. Ceolwulf, the last king of Mercia, was left with the western half, but he disappeared by 881. From 883 until 911 Earl Æthelred of Mercia ruled Mercia as an ealderman under the king of Wessex, not a king himself. All coins struck in Mercia after the disappearance of Ceolwulf in c879 were in the name of the West Saxon king. Æthelred had married Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great of Wessex. She gradually assumed power as her husband sickened after about 900, possibly as a result of his wounds gained at the decisive battle against the Vikings at Tettenhall where the last large Viking army to ravage England suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the combined Mercian and Wessex army. After Æthelred's death Æthelflæd ruled alone as ‘Lady of the Mercians’ until her death in 918, when her brother, Edward the Elder of Wessex, became king over Mercia as well. In 911, immediately after Æthelred’s death, Æthelflæd freely gave London and Oxford, with the lands belonging thereto, to her brother in Wessex as a token of loyalty. She then concentrated on fortifying Mercia's existing borders – east towards Nottingham, north to Chester, along the Welsh marches, and down to the Severn estuary. In 917 she expelled the Danes from Derby.
Loss of independenceThe Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the end of independent political direction in Mercia following the death of Æthelflæd in 918. Edward of Wessex took over the fortress at Tamworth and accepted the submission of all those settled in Mercia, both Danish and English. In late 918, Ælfwynn, the daughter of Æthelred, was deprived of all authority in Mercia and taken to Wessex.
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 became king of Mercia, and again in 1016, when the kingdom was divided between Cnut and Edmund Ironside, Cnut taking Mercia.
The last 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.
The Arden family claim descent from Leofric, Earl of Mercia and as such are one of the few families in England that claim Anglo-Saxon royalty among their ancestors.
Mercian dialectJ.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 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 (see List of kings of the Angles).
The dialect thrived between the 8th and 13th centuries and was referred to by John Trevisa, writing in 1387:
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...
Mercian religionThe first kings of Mercia were pagans, and they resisted the encroachment of Christianity longer than other kingdoms in the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy.
Mercian rulers remained resolutely pagan until the reign of Peada in 656, although this did not prevent them joining coalitions with Christian Welsh rulers to resist Northumbria. The first appearance of Christianity in Mercia, however, had come at least thirty years earlier, following the Battle of Cirencester of 628, when Penda incorporated the formerly West Saxon territories of Hwicce into his kingdom.
The conversion of Mercia to Christianity occurred in the latter part of the 7th century, and by the time of Penda's defeat and death, Mercia was largely surrounded by Christian states. Diuma, an Irish monk and one of Oswiu's missionaries was subsequently ordained a bishop - the first to operate in Mercia. Christianity finally gained a foothold in Mercia when Oswiu supported Peada as sub-king of the Middle Angles, requiring him to marry Oswiu's daughter, Alchflaed, and to accept her religion.
Decisive steps to Christianise Mercia were taken by Chad (Latinised by Bede as Ceadda), the fifth bishop to operate in Mercia. This controversial figure was given land by King Wulfhere to build a monastery at Lichfield. As in other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the many small monasteries established by the Mercian kings allowed the political/military and ecclesiastical leadership to consolidate their unity through bonds of kinship.
Subdivisions of MerciaFor 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 (see map at the head of this article). The major subdivisions of Mercia were as follows:
- South Mercians
- The Mercians dwelling south of the River Trent. Folk groups within included the Tomsæte around Tamworth and the Pencersæte around Penkridge (approx. S. Staffs. & N. Warks.).
- North Mercians
- Outer Mercia
- An early phase of Mercian expansion, possibly 6th century (approx. S. Lincs., Leics., Rutland, Northants. & N. Oxon.).
- Once a kingdom in its own right, disputed with Northumbria in the 7th century before finally coming under Mercian control (approx. N. Lincs.).
- 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. Cambs., Hunts., Beds., Herts., Bucks. & S. Oxon.).
- Once a kingdom in its own right, 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 near Droitwich (approx. Gloucs., Worcs. & S. Warks.).
- A people of the Welsh border, also 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. Herefs. & S. Shrops.).
- A people of the Welsh border under Mercian control from the 7th century. Smaller folk groups within included the Rhiwsæte near Wroxeter and the Meresæte near Chester (approx. N. Shrops., Flints. & Cheshire).
- An isolated folk group of the Peak District, under Mercian control from the 7th century (approx. N. Derbys.).
- A disorganised region under Mercian control from the 7th century (approx. S. Lancs.).
Mercian regional consciousnessThe term ‘midlands’ is first recorded (as ‘mydlande’) in 1555. It is possible therefore that until then Mercia had remained the preferred term, as the quote from Trevisa above would indicate.
John Bateman, writing in 1876 or 1883, referred to contemporary Cheshire and Staffordshire landholdings as being in Mercia. 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…. At this period, prior to World War I, regional identities within England were being debated with the prospect of separate Home Rule parliaments being established.
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, Worcestershire and parts of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands) and the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry.
The West Mercia Constabulary was created in 1967, combining the police forces of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire.
Telephone directories across the Midlands reveal a large number of commercial and voluntary organisations using ‘Mercia’ in their names. In the early 1980s, Mercia Television was an unsuccessful contender for the Midlands franchise, then owned by ATV. It was won by Central Independent Television. Mercia (formerly Mercia FM) is a commercial radio station broadcasting from Coventry founded in 1980 as Mercia Sound.
There are currently two main organisations campaigning for Mercian self-determination. Sovereign Mercia seeks independence for Mercia as a modern technological state, whereas the Acting Witan of Mercia advocates a return to an agrarian subsistence economy.
The eagleThe silver, double-headed eagle surmounted by a gold, three-pronged Saxon crown has been used by various units of the British Army as a heraldic device for Mercia since 1958. It is derived from the attributed arms of Leofric, Earl of Mercia in the 11th century. (It is worth noting, however, that Leofric is sometimes attributed a black, single-headed eagle instead.) The examples on the left are the official devices of the Mercian Regiment and the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry respectively (the latter, being a merged unit, also sports the Lancastrian red rose and crown).
 The saltireSt Albans City Council, and below them the flag known as the Cross of St Alban. By the thirteenth century, this latter device had become the attributed arms of the Kingdom of Mercia. The arms are blazoned as Azure, a saltire Or, or a gold (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 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 heraldic visitation in 1634.
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 whilst 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 wyvernA wyvern is a dragon with two legs, and since its adoption as an emblem by the Midland Railway in the mid-19th century it has been associated with Mercia.
The Leicester and Swannington Railway, which opened in 1832, adopted as a badge the silver (white) wyvern that forms the crest of the Borough of Leicester as recorded at the heraldic visitation of Leicestershire in 1619: a wyvern sans legs argent strewed with wounds gules, wings expanded ermine (the term sans legs does not imply that the wyvern was legless; rather, that its legs are not depicted, being hidden or folded under). This was inherited by the Midland Railway in 1845, where it became the crest of its unofficial coat of arms. The 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". However, in 1897 the Railway Magazine noted that there appeared "to be no foundation that the wyvern was associated with the Kingdom of Mercia".
The wyvern in Leicester's crest was derived from that of Thomas of Lancaster, second Lancastrian Earl of Leicester. The seal of Thomas, who was executed in 1327, included a wyvern.
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 (see above). 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 (and etymologically related to viper).
The ultimate source for the symbolism of white dragons in England would appear to be Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fictional History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136), where an incident occurs in the life of Merlin in which a red dragon is seen fighting a white dragon which it overcomes. The red dragon was taken to represent the Welsh and their eventual victory over the Anglo-Saxon invaders, symbolised by the white dragon. However, there is no archaeological or artefactual evidence that the early Anglo-Saxons used a white dragon to represent themselves.
The cap badge of the 2nd Mercian Battalion of the Territorial Army in the 1980s was a wyvern.
Regional governmentMidlands, two former Government Office Regions together cover the latter: West Midlands and East Midlands. These are also constituencies of the European Parliament.
The West Midlands comprises the shire counties of (1) Staffordshire, (2) Warwickshire and (3) Worcestershire (with their respective districts), the unitary counties of (4) Herefordshire and (5) Shropshire, the metropolitan boroughs of (6) Birmingham, (7) Coventry, (8) Dudley, (9) Sandwell, (10) Solihull, (11) Walsall and (12) Wolverhampton, and the unitary boroughs of (13) Stoke-on-Trent and (14) Telford and Wrekin. The East Midlands comprises the shire counties of (15) Derbyshire, (16) Leicestershire, (17) Lincolnshire, (18) Northamptonshire and (19) Nottinghamshire (with their respective districts), the unitary county of (20) Rutland, and the unitary boroughs of (21) Derby, (22) Leicester and (23) Nottingham. The two regions have a combined population of 9,439,516 (2001 census), and an area of 11,053 sq mi (28,631 km²).