William Sterling

Baltic Cruise Lecture 3

Lectures for Baltic and St Petersburg Cruise on the Ocean Countess July 2011


Lecture 3 The Vikings are Coming

Summary of Lecture 2

In the first lecture we saw how Roman Britain was transformed by the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons and in Lecture 2 we examined how the pagan Anglo-Saxons gradually converted to Christianity. Since the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, different kingdoms were in the ascendancy at different times; first Kent then Sussex, Wessex, Kent again, East Anglia and then Northumbria. The Northumbrian ascendancy started with Ethelfrith the Fierce and continued with Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu who were successive Bretwaldas for a large part of the C7th. Oswiu’s successors may not have been as politically powerful as him but they reigned at a time when Northumbria was the cultural hub of England producing some of the finest manuscripts in the World and a succession of churches, including the first stained glass windows in Britain. The early C8th saw several prominent rulers such as Wihtred of Kent and Ine of Wessex but none of them became the dominant ruler.

[SLIDE: Map of C8th England.]

The Ascendancy of Mercia

Apart from Sussex and the Isle of Wight which were converted in the 680s, Mercia was the last major Anglo-Saxon kingdom to be converted. Penda was the last great pagan ruler, defeating and either killing or deposing two kings of East Anglia, two kings of Northumbria and one of Wessex. The Staffordshire hoard found in 2009 has been tentatively identified with Penda’s reign and may represent a personal treasury. It contains 3,500 objects, three times as much gold as in Sutton Hoo.

Cedd was sent from Northumbria to convert Essex but spent much of his time in Mercia. He was followed by his brother Chad who founded the see at Lichfield and was venerated as a saint. The first royal convert was Penda’s son Peada who married Oswiu’s daughter Alchflaed. Although he converted for their marriage she stayed loyal to her father and conspired in the murder of her husband when he tried to rebel against his Northumbrian overlord. Penda’s other sons, Wulfhere (658-675) and Ethelred (675-704), were more successful but also religious patrons, founding several monasteries including Peterborough. Many of their female relatives became nuns and abbesses. Wulfhere’s daughter, Waerburh, for example, was abbess of Ely and is probably the saint revered at Chester. In 697 Ethelred’s queen Osthryth was murdered by the Mercian nobles. Their grievance is unknown but she was a daughter of Oswiu and therefore sister of Alchflaed who had conspired to murder Ethelred’s brother Peada. 7 years later Ethelred abdicated as king in order to become abbot of Bardney where his murdered wife was buried.

[SLIDES: Staffordshire hoard, Lichfield statues and gospel, various objects including Benty Grange helmet, crosses and churches.]


Penda’s sons restored Mercia’s prestige after his death and led the way for three truly great rulers; Ethelbald, Offa and Coenwulf. Ethelbald was a distant cousin of his predecessors, Cenred and Ceolred who had reigned briefly after Ethelred retired to the monastery at Bardney. There being no immediate heir in 716 Ethelbald seized his chance and took the crown. He reigned for 41 years, the longest reign by and English king for 500 years (up to Henry III 1216-72) and he was the first to style himself King of the English. He deserves to be better known but there is very little evidence about him. Bede died about half way through his reign so there was no one to document the achievements of the latter part of it. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions him a few times but it is largely a West Saxon document and underplays the Mercians. By rights he should have been the eighth Bretwalda but no one called him that.

Charters from his reign survive. These are legal documents recording land grants by kings or bishops to their supporters. Sometimes they record other types of grants such as the right to levy tolls or taxes. One of Ethelbald’s deals with Sandwich in Kent which shows he had authority there. He had a number of victories over other Anglo-Saxon kings and the Welsh chronicles recorded and he may have built Wat’s dyke as part of his northern border with Wales. He took Berkshire and part of Wiltshire from Wessex and expanded Mercia to be the largest kingdom. He seems to have been recognised as overlord by not only Kent but also Sussex and Essex. As a patron of the church he may have promoted Repton as an important centre and it was here that he was buried when he was assassinated by a distant cousin, Beornred, in 757.

[SLIDES: Charter, Wat’s dyke, Repton.]


Ethelbald never married, indeed he was condemned by the Mercian clerics for not taking a wife but merely having concubines, by whom he had a number of illegitimate children. It appears he was worried about a legitimate son becoming a rival or possibly was conscious of the problems his predecessors had had with troublesome wives. Offa was a close cousin and may have been designated as successor. He soon deposed and killed the usurping Beornred.

Where Ethelbald had started, Offa continued. There is more evidence for Offa’s success. There are more charters surviving and more entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Like Ethelbald, Offa had a long reign, 39 years, and extended Mercian power and influence as can be seen in his charters. Unlike Ethelbald, Offa married and had several children and intended to use his family to extend his influence. His wife, Cynethryth, was uniquely honoured with her own coins and became the first Mercian woman to become prominent in the charter record as witness and donor making her first appearance around 770 perhaps when she gave birth to her son Ecgfrith.

Offa was happy to copy good ideas from other kingdoms such as the role of the queen as charter witness which had been prominent in Kent under Wihtred, and especially the use of coins. He also copied manuscripts from Kent. There had been many Roman coins left in circulation but they were used for decorative purposes. Coins as money started in the Christian era especially Thrymsas in Kent based on Frankish Tremisses. A separate coinage started in Northumbria with silver sceats and copper stycas. The Franks under Pepin and Charlemagne introduced the denier based on Arab dinars and kings in Kent and East Anglia copied these as the first English pennies in the 750s. Offa soon took these up and made them his own. It may be why he was keen to control Kentish and East Anglian mints.

Offa was ruthless in his dealings with other kings and expanded Ethelbald’s border with Wales with what is called Offa’s Dyke. He was keen to emulate Charlemagne and had a considerable correspondence with his secretary, the English monk Alcuin. He commissioned a biography of himself as Charlemagne had done by his secretary, Einhard.

[SLIDES: Various depictions of Charlemagne, his coins, manuscripts and buildings.]

One consequence of Charlemagne’s expansion of the Frankish empire up to the borders of Denmark meant the Danes had to start looking elsewhere to expand and started to cross the North Sea again. The first recorded Viking raids in England were in 789 in Dorset, Lindisfarne in 793 and Jarrow in 794. In Dorset the local official went down to the shoreline to greet them and was killed with all his followers. In Northumbria they killed some monks, took others as hostages (who managed to convert some of them to Christianity) and loot such as Gandersheim casket. A number of works found on the Continent show marks of English influence such as the Tassilo Chalice and Rupert Cross.

Offa also decided to promote bishop Hygeberht of Lichfield to Archbishop and persuaded the Pope to sanction this. He created a new archdiocese at the expense of York and Canterbury. In the 780s Offa seemed to have decided to use his son and daughters for dynastic gains. He proposed to marry his eldest daughter Eadburh to a son of Charlemagne and all went well till Offa suggested a reciprocal arrangement with Charlemagne’s daughter and his son. Charlemagne was not happy with this. Instead Eadburh married Beorhtric of Wessex in 787 and Offa had his son Ecgfrith crowned in imitation of the Frankish kings. By then Offa had control over Sussex, Essex, Kent and the minor kingdoms and decided to assimilate the three remaining ones.

In 794 Offa’s daughter Ethelburh married King Ethelred of Northumbria and Aethelswith was due to marry Ethelbert of East Anglia. He was invited to the court at Hereford but something went wrong and Ethelbert ended up dead. Later historians said it was the wicked queen that done him in. Offa took over direct rule of East Anglia. He fully expected that his grandsons would rule Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex.

In 796 Offa died and Ecgfrith succeeded but only lived for 3 months and died without marrying. Shortly afterwards Ethelred of Northumbria was murdered without having had an heir with his wife. In Wessex Eadburh failed to give Beorhtric an heir and was apparently complicit in his poisoning in 802 as she fled to the continent immediately afterwards.

[SLIDES: Images of Offa from Matthew Paris’s C13th life, St Alban’s and Lichfield, coins, manuscripts, churches and crosses, Offa’s dyke, some jewellery, Viking weapons and continental objects showing English influence.]


When Ecgfrith died suddenly in 796 there must have been a power struggle and a distant cousin called Coenwulf was the victor. Coenwulf did not rule as long as Ethelbald or Offa, only 25 years, but by Anglo-Saxon terms this was still a long reign. He was almost as able as his predecessors but at the start of his reign was faced with a major rebellion in Kent. He put this down and installed his brother Cuthred as sub-king. He also confirmed his rule in East Anglia and the minor kingdoms and took over the minting of coins as Offa had done. He issued charters and his queen Aelfthryth acted even more frequently as a witness. Coenwulf had two children, a son Cenelm and daughter Cwenthryth, possibly one each by his two queens. He did not have Offa’s personal connections to the kings of Northumbria and Wessex and they asserted their independence.

The Viking threat did not vanish either. In 809 the Papal legate to Northumbria was attacked and kidnapped by Vikings. In Wessex, when Beorhtric died in 802 he was succeeded by a descendant of Ine called Egbert who bided his time but was going to outshine the Mercian kings as we shall hear in the next lecture. When Coenwulf died his son Cenelm succeeded briefly but died in mysterious circumstances and Coenwulf’s brother Ceolwulf succeeded but only for two years and the Mercian decline started.

[SLIDES: Coins, manuscripts and other objects.]

In the fourth lecture I shall examine how the Viking threat developed over the C9th and C10th and how each of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms fell in turn leaving just Wessex to fight on alone.