King Offa

By kind courtesy of Christine Smith

The Tamworth Heritage Trust would like to thank Christine Smith, for her superb input to this website.  Christine’s knowledge of the history of early Tamworth is astonishing.  One of the aims of this website is that it should be a reliable source of information.  If you look at any of the sites on King Offa currently on the world wide web, we can safely say that none will be as informative and comprehensive as this page which Christine so kindly donated to us.

 

Offa was born around 740, the son of Thingfrith, descended in the main male line from Eowa, brother of King Penda of Mercia, who had been slain in battle in 643. Their`s was the powerful line of the Angle kings, who had colonised the east and the midlands of England.   Offa actually succeeded his grandfather Eanulf`s cousin Ethelbald, in 757, as King of Mercia. Ethelbald had been murdered by his unruly thanes at Seckington, after they had lost a battle to the West Saxons.  He was old, having reigned for over forty years, during which he was admonished by the church for allowing his troops to pursue their excessive behaviour, such as raiding nunneries for food and for women, but who was regarded by many of the common folk with respect for having fed the poor and kept them safe from invasion for all those years.   Ethelbald, who had built Wat`s Dyke, had established Mercian supremacy over the southern kingdoms, but these were lost to Offa when a rival claimant for the Mercian throne, Beornred, fought him, and in the strife that followed, these territories were taken back.  Offa vowed to regain them however, and  during his reign which was nearly as long as that of his predecessor, he did so, and made Tamworth the capital of Mercia and of a nearly-united England.

His attempts to hold together a united England however met with some obstacles.  Mercians fought alongside other kingdoms, such as that of Kent, only to fight against them in some further struggle.  Despite the atmosphere of inner strife that prevailed all over the land at that time, Offa for all his own often oppressive tactics, became known as a much-respected ruler and England rose to a position of power and influence in Europe.

It is known that Offa had other kings slain, including his own son-in-law, Ethelbert King of East Anglia, whom it is maintained, was murdered in the royal residence of Tamworth in 794.   Offa`s Queen Cynethryth appears as the evil-doer and for that it was agreed by church and state that no more Mercian wives of kings used the title. However, the latest research shows that Ethelbert, who had minted coins under Offa`s overlordship, started minting them with his own image upon them.  Its possible because of this provocative act, he was executed as a traitor. He was however regarded as a saint by many, and Hereford Cathedral became dedicated to him.

There must have been some reason why Cynethryth caused the title of Queen to be withheld from future kings` wives.  She perhaps grew too powerful for some of the southern thanes.   Unlike in other kingdoms, the Mercian wives were Queens in their own right, able to rule alone and to issue charters in their own names during their husbands` absences. By the prefix of her name she was a British (Welsh) princess, undoubtedly of the same line  as Cynewise, Queen of King Penda, who had been a Welsh royal.  The Welsh kingdoms were still important centres of rich culture, their powerful kings still a force to be reckoned with, and for that reason the Angles of the midlands and the north in particular had found from earliest times it was better to ally with them than go to war with them.

Offa`s daughter Eadburgh wed Beorhtric, King of Wessex, in 786, who recognised Offa as overlord. Whether Beorhtric was related to Beornred who contested for the crown of Mercia is not known, but by the prefixes of their name would appear to have been. Another daughter Aelfflaed married King Aethelred of Northumbria.

In the 770s when Offa`s power was greatest he was acknowledged as Bretwalda.Rex Anglorum, Overlord of all the Kings of England. He negotiated with Charlesmagne, King of the Franks, (later from 800-14) Holy Roman Emperor.  In 796 one of the first trade agreement between the two countries was signed, and goods were imported and explorted in and out of the Port of London, Offa having been made Master of London.    Marriage alliance were arranged between their children, though there was an argument over this and the parties concerned married elsewhere. Offa imported “black coals” or as some think, black basalt or marble, perhaps for his palaces, including the one he had built at Tamworth which was the “admiration and wonder of the age”.  He was, after all, in admiration of everything Roman architecturally, and many of the Welsh kings still ruled from palaces that had been built under Roman influence.

Offa`s Dyke   Many of the Welsh kings were his allies, though he warred with others. Bands of lawless raiders had swept in from Ireland, through Wales, to harry unprotected villages, and more came  from Scandinavia and the continent, and Offa set about securing his kingdom with defensive boundaries.   He built the huge dyke, a bank and ditch, from Dee to Severn, the full scale of which archaeology is only just beginning to realise.  This is still described as a wall to keep out the Welsh, which it was not!   Missionaries and traders from either side crossed the boundaries by the various gates.  Mercia was full of Welsh people, and others of mixed culture, for it had not long ceased to be part of the kingdom of Powys.  Also with the building of the boundary, some England land went into Wales and some Welsh into England.   Offa did later plunder Dyfed, which caused much hatred, but then many of the Welsh kings fought each other just as the Anglo-Saxons did.  The land was still a long way from being united and at peace.

In Tamworth, the king also built a  ditch that encircled the town on three sides.  Looking on a more modern map this can be seen starting on the river bank beside the old Wyburne Lane, crossing Lichfield Street, going around the Castle orchard and across the junction of Aldergate and Gungate to return to the river bank at Bolebridge. It in fact tcan be seen that the castle walls and town gates of medieval times followed its course, and that the modern town falls within these early defences.

 

Some, usually outside, archaeologists have always maintained however, that Tamworth just wasn`t here in early Anglo-Saxon times, despite the fact there is evidence of Romano-British settlement all around.  If people were farming and running industrial outlets in that area in the Iron-Age as has been proved, then Tamworth in its strategic position at the confluence of two rivers and near a Roman road would undoubtedly have been recognised as a suitably defensive site.

Archaeology, 1960. A Dr. F.T. Wainwright, head of Anglo-Saxon studies at the University of St. Andrew`s carried out an archaeological excavation in Tamworth in 1960 during the 400th anniversary of the granting of the borough charter, and came to the conclusion that the fortifications had been constructed by Ethelfleda, Countess of Mercia, whose fortress was, as he maintained, in the grounds below the existing mound of the castle.  That in fact the “burh” that Ethelfleda was known to have built in 913 to defend the town against the encroaching Danes, was not, as Dr. Wainwright maintained, the mound as many had thought, but the ditches.  That the “King`s Ditch” could refer to these having been built by King Edward the Elder, brother of Ethelfleda.   When writing to the University of St. Andrew`s to ask if they had any of (the late) Dr. Wainwright`s printed work on the subject, I received a courteous letter back to inform me they had no information at all appertaining to his archaeological work in Tamworth.

Many disagreed with this archaeologist`s findings however, and recent archaeology on the General Hospital site has proved that Offa built the larger defences around the town, in the wars between the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons. If he had the manpower and skills to build the huge dyke on the Welsh borders, the defences at Tamworth would have posed no problems at all.

Pope Adrian I wrote to Offa, “you are a joy to England and a sword against her enemies”.   Papal legates George of Ostia and Theophylact of Todi, in 786 visited the king, and he organised s legatine council held in Mercia.  The pope also wrote to the Bishop of Lindsey and the Archbishop of Canterbury to explain that the reason  he was entertaining exiles at his ecclesiastical court, was in order to reconcile them to their lord.  That was King Offa.

Offa made the first silver pennies named after Penda which remained standard coinage until the 13th cent. As he was intent on England  becoming a great trading nation, he reformed the coinage, instituted laws on trade, and the keeping of land records and improved ship building.  This was the start of England becoming known as a nation of shop-keepers and as a great naval power.

The one land Mercia was never at peace with was Kent, whose unsuccessful revolt in 776 caused more unease.     Jaenberht, Archbishop of Canterbury always Offa`s adversary, was further antagonised when Offa raised Lichfield in 787 to be an Archdiocese, ruling seven dioceses from Thames to Humber.  When entertaining high-ranking churchmen at a meeting in Mercia, perhaps at Lichfield however, Offa invited Jaenberht to be first to receive them, a diplomatic gesture which smoothed matters over somewhat.

The Archbishop of Lichfield Hygeberht consecrated Offa`s son Ecgfrith in 787 as King of the Mercians.  He was the first annointed English king and, unusually,  this was carried out in his father`s lifetime. This was also the first  involvement of the church in a coronation and laid the foundation for such ceremonies thereafter.

Southern sources still say today his title King of the English was never really achieved,  rex totius Anglorum patriae.   Kings north of the Thames are never easily recognised by those south of it, even today! Yet Offa was known as the King of all England, and tribute paid to him by Welsh Kings and by the Emporer Charlemagne,  their disagreement being resolved by one who became a great friend and mentor to both, Alcuin, a monk of Lindisfarne who became tutor to Charlmagne`s family.  He started the library at York that was to become one of the greatest in the country. The province of Canterbury, unique in the western world, became a centre for pilgrims from all over Europe.  The church gave a yearly tribute to Rome for maintenance of lights and relief of the poor, “Peter`s Pence”.

Offa was involved in a bitter conflict in Dyfed, and returned to seek healing of his wounds at Bedford Priory, where he died in 796.    The medieval source that tells of his last resting-place being at the priory may be incorrect.  Its more likely that the king was returned to his capital for burial with great pomp and ceremony, perhaps as many locals have always said, in a tumulous called Offlow Hill at Weeford, between Tamworth where he was known to have had a chapel royal or church,  and Lichfield whose See he raised to an Archbishopric.  Or he could be buried at Oldbury, near Atherstone, a site that some modern historians have found was described (before the Anglo-Saxons` arrival) as a burial-place of local kings. Right up until the Reformation it was still a place of pilgrimage, with a monastic cell.

The authorities don’t want to know about this for the Birmingham Northern Relief Road, planned by the few against the opinions of the many, will cut through the Weeford countryside, near this hallowed place.  This could become a tourist site to a famous and powerful English king, who set the precedent for many of our currency, trade and commercial rules, thirteen hundred years ago, and this tourist site could become much more important (and more prosperous) than many if they would only spare it.

Wisdith wrote a poem about Offa who was said to be descended from Offa of Angeln (Denmark) who built a boundary against the Myrings at Fifeldor which stood between Angelns and Swaefe.  An inspiration for Offa`s Dyke?

Christine Smith

LINK TO MERCIAN HISTORY

If you are studying the history of Mercia and would like an in depth account of this period, please link to the above website.  We found this to be invaluable.

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