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IT is not surprising that the Venerable Bede, being a Northumbrian, in his Ecclesiastical History completed about 731, just one hundred years after the conversion of Northumbria to Christianity, should regard Edwin of Deira, the king who had brought about the change, as almost the greatest English prince of the seventh century. In his pages Edwin appears as the fifth English king who had won renown by establishing an effective imperium over his neighbours, both English and British, and the same view of him is repeated in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle written two hundred years later, which shows that ninth century tradition reckoned him as the fifth “Bretwalda”, a title which seems to mean “the wide-ruler” or over-king. The actual achievements of Edwin’s reign, which began in 617 after the defeat of Acthelfrith of Bernicia by Raedwald of East Anglia at the battle of the Idle, show that the title was not unmerited; for he is credited with subjecting the Isle of Man to his rule, conquering Anglesey from the king of Gwynedd or North Wales, annexing the Southumbrian district of Lindsey and the yet British district of Elmet in South Yorkshire, and even asserting himself along the Thames and waging successful war with the West Saxons. The only English kingdom, according to Bede, which did not bow to him, was Kent, the home of his queen who had induced him to adopt Christianity. His power, however, if striking was really precarious, and his baptism in 627 soon brought about political difficulties. Other kings had recognised his suzerainty so long as he appeared as the champion of the English against their foes, but his desertion of Wodan made the more conservative of them restive.

Penda of Mercia. Battle of Heathfield [633

The leader of the discontented was Penda, the chief of the Mercians in the Trent valley, and of the “Wreocensaete” or dwellers by the Wrekin, who had settled along the upper Severn and were fast spreading south into Herefordshire. Penda first made his name in 628 by a successful attack on the folk called Hwicce, the branch of the West Saxons who had fixed their seats on the upper tributaries of the Thames, on the Worcestershire Avon and along the lower Severn. A victory at Cirencester made these districts tributary to Mercia and doubled Penda's power, whereupon he came forward as the champion of the old national religion and quickly found himself supported by all those warriors, who hated the new-fangled restrictions which the Christian missionaries threatened to impose in the matters of marriage and private vengeance. The attitude of the heathen chieftains, who probably acted as priests for their several districts and themselves sacrificed and collected temple tolls from their liegemen, like the Icelandic Godis of a later time, is not depicted at all clearly by Bede, who had little interest in heathen institutions, but we can gain a fair idea of the shape which their antagonism must have taken if we read the “Christne Saga”, which describes a similar struggle between Christ and Wodan in the northern island three hundred and fifty years later.

The first folk actually to rise against Edwin's influence were the East Angles, who slew their king Eorpwald for accepting baptism; but the real crisis came in 633, when Penda joined forces with Cadwallon, king of Gwynedd, Edwin's chief British enemy. The rival armies met on the borders of Mercia and Deira somewhere near Doncaster in the woodlands called Heathfield, with the result that Edwin's army was disastrously routed and the "Bretwalda" himself slain.

This fight in Heathfield made the fortune of Mercia. The Deiran supremacy not only disappeared but Bernicia and Deira again fell apart and their leading men apostatized. Cadwallon, eager to regain the North for the British, occupied York, and this forced Paulinus with Edwin's queen to flee to Kent. Penda meantime stepped into Edwin’s place as leading king, a fact not emphasized by Bede because of this prince's hostility to Christianity, and created an enlarged Mercia, stretching right across England from the Humber and the Wash on the east to Chester and Hereford on the west.

The provinces of this enlarged state seem to be set out for us in the first section of the so-called “Tribal Hidage”, a Mercian document compiled apparently some fifty years later for Penda’s successors for revenue purposes. This hidage, or schedule of assessments, indicates that “that which was first called Mercia” comprised in addition to the two Mercian districts, north and south of the Trent, six dependent “maegths” or chieftaincies, namely (1) the land of the Wreocensaete, now Shropshire with parts of Herefordshire, (2) Westerna, a somewhat vague expression which apparently refers to the plain of Cheshire and South Lancashire, (3) the land of the Pecsaete, the dwellers round the Peak and Sheffield, (4) the land of Elmet, which had its centre at Loides (Ledstone near Pontefract) where the road from London to York crossed the river Aire and which reached north to the Wharfe, (5) Lindsey with the land of Heathfield, and (6) the settlements of the North and South Gyrwe, comprising the fenlands of Holland and the Isle of Ely, perhaps detached from East Anglia. Over these “maegths” as well as in the Mercian homelands the victorious Penda ruled as king; but his influence was also paramount over the sub-kingdom of the Hwicce in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire and over the territories occupied by the Middle Angles (Bede’s Angli Mediterranei) in Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, and Huntingdonshire. These latter he formed into a second sub-kingdom and entrusted to his son Peada.

The centre of the realm thus constituted was at Tamworth on the Watling Street, and it is clear that, if its parts could only hold together, the new state from its central situation was in a far better position for gaining supremacy over all England than Northumbria had been. The struggle, however, was by no means over; for it was not long before the Northumbrian dynasty recovered from its eclipse and made a determined effort to undo Penda’s work.

The new Northumbrian leader was Oswald, one of the sons of Aethelfrith of Bernicia who had been exiled when Edwin of Deira won his kingdom. This prince seized the opportunity afforded by Edwin's death to return to Bernicia, and in 635 signally defeated Cadwallon at Heavenfield near Hexham on the Roman Wall. Upon this he was able not only to reunite Deira to Bernicia, but being a zealous Christian to begin the reconversion of both districts. To effect this he called to his aid, not the exiled Paulinus, but a band of Irish-Scot missionaries from the renowned monastery of Iona on the west coast of Scotland where he had himself learnt Christianity, when in exile. The struggle between the adherents of Christ and Wodan was thus again renewed, but this time not under the auspices of Rome; for the Scots were quite independent of the Papacy and had their own traditions and a peculiar organisation.

The leader of the new mission to Bernicia was Aidan (correctly Aedan), whom Oswald established, not at York amid Roman surroundings, but on the island of Lindisfarne in the North Sea, hard by Bamborough, the Bernician capital. The detailed story of this second attempt to Christianize Northumbria will be found elsewhere; its effect on the newly formed Mercian kingdom is what now concerns us; for Oswald, as a champion of Christ, was bound to attack Penda, even if he had not also felt it his duty to regain for Northumbria its lost political supremacy.

In this enterprise Oswald was not long without allies. The numerous petty chiefs, whom Penda had subdued, were naturally not very heartily on his side. Any overlord, even one who adhered to the old religion was distasteful to them, and this made it easy to stir up rebels. Besides, notwithstanding Penda's opposition, Christianity was making headway all round him, in. East Anglia under Anna who was crowned king in spite of a victorious Mercian invasion, and in Wessex under Cynegil who was converted about this time by an Italian missionary, named Birinus.

Battle of Maserfield. Oswald slain by Penda [640-651

These two folk-kings were necessarily Oswald’s allies, and if we are to believe Bede, even accepted him as their overlord. At any rate Oswald encouraged Cyneglis to set up Birinus as bishop of the West Saxons with his see at Dorchester a few miles below Oxford on the upper Thames, and was himself present as sponsor when Cynegils was baptised. By 640 the allied princes were clearly pressing Penda hard; for Oswald was able to regain Elmet and Lindsey and collect his forces for an attack on the district of “Westerna” round Chester. But here, as it proved, the Christian champion over-reached himself. In this quarter Penda could rely on British help and probably was joined by Cadwalader of Gwynedd. At any rate in 642 he faced Oswald in the north-east corner of Shropshire at the foot of the Welsh hills in the woodlands called Maserfield, and here Oswald was slain and his army destroyed. Penda had his body mutilated, but tradition says that his head was subsequently buried at Lindisfarne, while his arms and his hands were preserved at Bamborough as precious relics of the fight with heathendom. Later he was canonized as St Oswald. The Welsh too preserved his memory, calling the site of the battle Croes Oswallt, while the English called it Oswestry.

The same results followed from the disaster in Maserfield as from Edwin’s disaster in Heathfield. Bernicia and Deira again parted company, this time for thirteen years, while Penda retained his position as leading king. Northumbria however did not go back to heathendom, though Penda ravaged it as far as Bamborough. The Irish missionaries had obtained too great a hold on the people to be repudiated, and Aidan did not think of abandoning his flock. In Wessex heathenism had greater success. Cynegils died in 643, and his son Coenwalch, who had married Penda’s daughter, succeeded and practised heathen rites. But even here Birinus seems to have maintained a foothold. At any rate Coenwalch soon quarrelled with Penda, and fleeing for refuge to Anna of East Anglia was shortly afterwards baptized by Felix, the missionary bishop of Dunwich. Penda, indeed, as the years went by, must gradually have realized that in spite of his victories he was fighting against the inevitable. In 648 Coenwalch, aided by his kinsman Cuthred, returned to Wessex and openly proclaimed himself a Christian. Peada, too, who had been set over the Midland Angles, was also found among the converts, while missionaries from Lindisfarne headed by Cedd, an Englishman, were invited into Essex by the local chiefs, who had remained heathens ever since the expulsion of Bishop Mellitus in 617.

654-655] Battle of the Winwaed. Penda slain by Oswy

The prime mover in all this was Oswy, Oswald’s younger brother who after Maserfield had become king of Bernicia and who in 651 tried to regain Deira as well, by putting to death Oswin, a chieftain who was ruling that district with the support of Penda. In this he did not succeed, but it heralded a new struggle in which heathendom had once more to fight for its existence. Penda as usual met the danger with vigour. In 654 he made a savage attack on East Anglia and slew Anna, and the year following collected all his strength to march against Oswy. At first Oswy offered tribute, but Penda refused all terms. His levies, we are told, were organized under thirty different chiefs and included contingents from Wales, East Anglia, and Deira. Oswy’s forces in comparison were far inferior, but they had the better spirit, some of Penda’s allies being half-hearted and some actually treacherous. The collision took place at the ford of the Winwaed, apparently a stream half-way between Doncaster and Ledstone. Here in the district of the Elmetsaete Penda’s life-long good fortune deserted him. The Deirans would not fight for him, one of the Welsh contingents took to flight, and in the end Penda himself fell together with the king whom he had recently set up in East Anglia and many of his other vassals.

Oswy’s somewhat unexpected victory not only gave him great prestige, but was decisive for the religious destiny of the English. Sussex and much of Wessex and Mercia were still heathen, and Cedd’s mission to the men of Essex and Middle Anglia had still much work to do; but from this time onwards active heathen resistance was at an end, for Peada the heir to Mercia already stood for Christianity, and had married Oswy’s daughter. It must not be thought that Penda's career, had been in vain. He had failed, it is true, to maintain the old religion; but the Mercian State which he had evolved out of a congeries of tiny tribes, was destined to prove permanent, and in spite of Oswy’s momentary triumph soon chewed itself able to resist all efforts to bring about its dismemberment. It remained in fact the leading factor in English politics for the next hundred and fifty years.

The immediate result of Penda’s death was the temporary collapse of Mercia. Oswy found no one to oppose him and quickly annexed all Mercia north of the Trent as well as Deira and Lindsey. How far he overran Cheshire or penetrated into the valley of the Severn we do not know; but Bede says that the Mercians submitted to the partition of their province and that Oswy took up the task of converting the country round Penda's capital, appointing Diuma as first bishop of the Mercians. As for Peada, Penda’s heir and Oswy’s son-in-law, he is represented as being content with adding the 5000 hides of South Mercia, that is to say Leicestershire, Kesteven, and Rutland, to his kingdom of Middle Anglia and as spending his time in making plans for a monastery at Medeshamstede, a site on the edge of the fens overlooking the country of the Gyrwe, well known afterwards as Peterborough.

Meantime in Northumbria the two most important events were the founding of the nunnery of Streaneshaich, afterwards renamed by the Danes Whitby, and the promotion of Oswy’s son Alchfrid to be under-king of Deira. With affairs thus settled in the south Oswy next turned his eyes northwards, and according to Bede subdued the greater part of the Picts beyond the Forth. Bede represents him in fact as the greatest of the Northumbrian kings with an imperium over all the southern provinces of England as well as over Mercia and the Picts and Scots. This may have been the case in 657; but if so, the quickly won supremacy was short lived, and in the south did not survive beyond the assassination of Peada in 658 and the accession of a more vigorous prince to the headship of Mercia.

The new ruler was Wulfhere, Peada’s younger brother and like him a Christian. Elected by some Mercian notables, he came to the throne determined to reconstitute, and if possible to extend, Penda's kingdom. Bede describes the rebellion in a single sentence, merely stating that Oswy's officials were expelled from Mercia; but really the revolt was an event of first-rate importance. For Oswy’s overlordship of the Midlands came utterly to an end. So long as he lived, he continued to struggle to regain it, but never with much success; and from this time onwards it grows every year clearer that Northumbria’s chance of dominating all England has passed away.

In Wulfhere the Mercians found a leader even abler than Penda, who steadily advanced his frontiers and at the same time thoroughly Christianized his people. On the whole he shunned northern enterprises, his aim being to get control of south-eastern England and even of Sussex, and to hem in Wessex into the south-west. In the latter kingdom considerable progress had followed on Coenwalch’s return from exile. Three events deserve mention. These are the assignment about 648 of parts of Berkshire and Wiltshire, reckoned at 3000 hides, to Cuthred, the prince who had helped to restore Coenwalch, a transaction which shows that the assessment system had been applied south of the Thames, the foundation of a second bishopric for Wessex at Winchester, and a successful campaign carried on against the Britons of West Wales. The latter opened with an attack on Somerset, and in 652 a battle occurred near Bath at Bradford-on-Avon; but it was not till 658 that Coenwalch was definitely successful, when a victory at Penn in the forest of Selwood enabled the men of Wiltshire to overrun most of Dorset and to advance the Wessex frontier in Somerset to the banks of the Parrett. Again we only have very meagre accounts of an important event, but it is evident that the settlement of so much new territory must have drawn heavily on the West Saxon population and made them less able than heretofore to withstand Mercian aggression in the Thames valley.

Here then was Wulfhere’s opportunity to seize the Chiltern districts. Nor did he lose it. In 661 he advanced out of Middle Anglia, and after capturing Bensington and Dorchester, till then the chief centres of the West Saxons, threw himself across the Thames and laid waste the 3000 hides, known as Ashdown, which Coenwalch had assigned to Cuthred. It would seem that Cuthred was killed; at any rate the West Saxons were completely beaten, and the “Chilternsaete” or dwellers in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, had to accept Wulfhere as their overlord. Their district, reckoned in the Tribal Hidage at 4000 hides, from this time forward may be regarded as Mercian, while the Thames becomes the northern frontier of Wessex and Winchester the chief seat of the West Saxon kings.

A further result of this campaign was seen in the submission of Essex, at this time ruled by a double line of kings, and perhaps divided into two provinces, Essex proper reckoned at 7000 hides and Hendrica to the west of it reckoned at 3500. This was a very substantial gain: for it gave Wulfhere London, even at that day the most important port in England. As might be expected, the Thames did not long set a limit to Wulfhere’s ambitions. Using London as a base, he next overran Suthrige, the modern Surrey, and shortly afterwards Sussex. In Surrey after this we hear of Mercian aldermen; but Sussex retained its kings, as Wulfhere found them useful as a counterpoise to the kings at Winchester. Finally we find Wulfhere attacking the Jutes along the valley of the Meon in south-east Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. This brought his arms almost up to Winchester. There is no record however that he attacked the West Saxon capital, but only that he detached the “Meonwaras” and the men of Wight from Wessex and annexed their districts to Sussex. The dates of these events are not exactly known, but clearly they constituted Mercia a power as great as any hitherto established in England. If the title “Bretwalda” means wide ruler, Wulfhere clearly deserves it as much as Oswald or Oswy, and perhaps more so; for he maintained his supremacy for fourteen years (661-675) and was also quite as zealous as they were to forward the new religion. Examples of his zeal are numerous, as for instance the suppression of heathen temples in Essex in 665, the final foundation of Medeshamstede, and the baptism of Aethelwalch king of Sussex, Wulfhere himself standing as sponsor; or again the encouragement which he gave to his brother Merewald to found a religious centre for the Hecanas or West Angles which led to the establishment of monasteries at Leominster in Herefordshire and Wenlock in Shropshire.

Wilfrid and the Synod of Whitby [664

While Wulfhere was establishing the ascendancy of Mercia an internal struggle of the greatest importance had arisen in Northumbria between those who looked for Christian guidance to Iona and those who looked to Rome. Though the work of evangelizing the country had been entirely carried on by the Scots, at first under Aidan of Lindisfarne, and after his death under Finan, there were none the less many clerics in the land who, having travelled abroad, were not content to see the Church cut off from continental sympathy by the peculiarities of the Irish system and the claim of Iona to independence. The leader of this movement was Wilfrid, a young Deiran of noble birth, who after studying at Lindisfarne had journeyed to Rome and finished his education at Lyons. Returning to England in 658, he had become abbot of Stamford in Kesteven, but had retired to Deira when Wulfhere revolted. There from the outset he steadily advocated union with Rome, and winning King Alchfrid’s sympathy got himself about 661 appointed abbot of Ripon, a newly founded monastery, in place of Eata, a Lindisfarne monk, who maintained the Iona traditions, especially as to the date of Easter. About the same time Finan died at Lindisfarne, and Colman was sent from Iona to succeed him. In Bernicia the Roman party had another powerful advocate in the person of Oswy’s queen, a Kentish princess. She eagerly pushed Wilfrid’s cause at court until at last Oswy and his son determined that a synod should be held at Streaneshalch to discuss the matter. This assembly, later known as the Synod of Whitby, met early in 664. It consisted of both clergy and laymen, the leaders on either side being Wilfrid and Colman. The test question was as to the proper day for observing Easter. The Scots kept the feast on one day, the Roman churchmen on another. The arguments were lengthy, but the final decision was in favour of Wilfrid; whereupon Colman with the bulk of the Columban clergy decided to leave Lindisfarne and return to Iona. So ended the Irish-Scot mission which for twenty-nine years had been the leading force in civilizing northern and central England.

The victory of Wilfrid’s party was of great importance in three ways. Firstly it restored the unity of the English Church, bringing all its branches under one leadership, and so made its influence in favour of political unity stronger. Secondly it quickened the spread of civilization by placing the remoter English provinces under teachers who drew their ideas from lands where the traditions of the Roman Empire were still alive, and where an altogether larger life was lived than among the wilds of the Scottish islands. Lastly it introduced into England a new conception of what a bishop or abbot should be, superseding the homely self-effacing northern missionaries, who despised landed wealth, by more worldly prince-prelates, who were by no means satisfied to be only preachers but demanded noble churches and a stately ritual for their flocks and extensive endowments for themselves with a leading share in the direction of secular affairs. It was this aspect of the Burgundian and Frankish Churches that had particularly appealed to Wilfrid and he meant to bring the English Church into line with them, if he could. The opportunity of making a beginning in his own person soon offered itself, owing to the death of Tuda, the bishop who had been placed over Lindisfarne after Colman’s withdrawal. To fill the vacancy the Northumbrian princes not unnaturally turned to Wilfrid, and he was quite willing to accept their offer but on the condition that the site of his see should be transferred to York, partly to show that he was more truly the successor of Paulinus than of Aidan, and partly in imitation of the urban Frankish bishoprics. He further stipulated that he must be consecrated abroad, as he regarded the English bishops as irregularly appointed. He accordingly went to Frankland, and the ceremony took place with great magnificence at Compiegne in presence of twelve Gallican bishops. After this Wilfrid is represented as moving about with a prince's body-guard of one hundred and twenty retainers; but so much state was hardly justified, for he found, on returning to England, that Oswy had quarrelled with his son, that Alchfrid had been driven from Deira and that as a result Oswy was determined not to have his son's friend as bishop of the Northumbrians. Oswy in fact had already appointed another man to Wilfrid's see, in the person of Ceadda, abbot of Lastingham, later known as St Chad. The motive of so anti-Roman a step is not quite clear, but its importance is obvious. It made Wilfrid a bitter opponent of the Northumbrian house and drove him to look towards Mercia. He still remained abbot of Ripon but in 667 we find him performing episcopal functions in Mercia for Wulfhere.

The following year a yet more important step in binding England to civilization and Roman culture took place when Pope Vitalian helped in filling up the archbishopric of Canterbury and selected for the post, not an energetic Englishman like Wilfrid, but a scholar and born organizer, who was well acquainted at once with Rome and Italy, and with the Greek world of the Byzantine Empire, then without question the most civilized part of Christendom. This remarkable man, called Theodore of Tarsus, from his birthplace in Cilicia, was already sixty-six when he landed in England in 669, and men must have thought that age alone would soon damp his zeal. If so, they were mistaken; for never was an archbishop so strenuous in every sphere, whether as administrator, legislator, counsellor, or peacemaker, so that for twenty-one years he kept himself foremost in every English movement, and by his ceaseless activity made the English understand what could be gained from unification and orderly government.

The work which Theodore set himself to do was the thorough organization of the English Churches upon a centralized system in subjection to Canterbury. Since Augustine’s day no archbishop had played any real part outside Kent, and Canterbury had enjoyed only an honorary precedence. Theodore on the contrary regarded all England as his province, and at once set out to visit all its petty kings and make himself acquainted with their peoples and their needs. In each diocese he required an acknowledgment of his authority; in York for example he re-established Wilfrid; and everywhere he inculcated the need of uniform machinery and ritual.

The subdivision of Dioceses. Death of Oswy [671-675

Condemning the merely missionary types of church organization as insufficient, he early decided that there ought to be a greater number of bishops and clergy, a greater number of dioceses and churches, and a substantial landed endowment, if possible, for each minister of the church, whether priest, monk, or prelate, to free them from the insecurity of dependence on lay charity. The central feature of this programme was the subdivision of unwieldy dioceses and the foundation of more mother churches, a somewhat hazardous adventure, as the existing bishops were naturally jealous of any diminution of their importance. The first step was to get the existing churches into touch with each other, and make them acknowledge the importance of uniformity and good discipline. For this purpose Theodore summoned a synod of bishops to meet at Hertford in 673, a memorable event; for though only four of his six suffragans attended, the meeting may be regarded as the first attempt in England at a national, as distinct from a tribal, assembly.

The chief work of the synod, as reported by Bede, was the adoption of certain canons for the guidance of the bishops, and this was followed up in 674 by the actual putting into force in East Anglia of the policy of smaller sees, the bishopric founded by Felix being partitioned and two new sees created, one at Dunwich for Suffolk and the other at Elmham for Norfolk.

A good beginning was thus made without opposition; but in his further progress Theodore soon found himself entangled in the political rivalries of Mercia and Northumbria and in quarrels connected with Wilfrid. Theodore had reconciled Oswy and Wilfrid, but in 671 Oswy died and Northumbria passed to his son Ecgfrith, an ill-fated prince, who quickly quarrelled with Wilfrid and about 675 reopened the feud with Mercia by again seizing Lindsey. Both events were made use of by Theodore, for they furnished him with opportunities for intervening. To subdivide the see of York had been quite impracticable so long as Wilfrid had political support; but now Ecgfrith himself came forward and offered to ignore Wilfrid and further the archbishop's reforms. Theodore at once announced that though he was willing to let Wilfrid continue bishop of a reduced see of York, he wished for four moderate-sized bishoprics in Ecgfrith’s dominions, proposing as their seats, in Bernicia Lindisfarne and Hexham, in Deira York, and in Lindsey Sidnacaes ter. Wilfrid obstinately resisted this proposal, declaring that Theodore had no power to divide his see and that he would appeal to Rome if any division was forced upon him. Theodore treated the threat as contumacious, declared Wilfrid deposed, and appointed the new bishops. Wilfrid replied by sailing for Frisia. In 679 he reached Rome and laid his case before Pope Agatho, being the first English bishop to appeal against his metropolitan to the papal tribunal.

675-680] Death of Wulfhere. Aethelred of Mercia

Ecgfrith’s attack on Lindsey, delivered about 675, at first was successful, for it coincided with the death of Wulfhere and the accession of Aethelred, his younger brother, to the throne of Mercia. This prince however soon proved himself even more capable than his brother. His first exploit was to overrun Kent and burn Rochester, and by 679 he was quite ready to attack Ecgfrith. No account exists of the campaign, beyond the fact that Aethelred won a decisive victory on the banks of the Trent and would have invaded Deira, had not Theodore suddenly interposed as a mediator, and effected a peace by which Lindsey and perhaps Southern Yorkshire once more passed to Mercia. This was a blow to Northumbrian prestige of such a deadly nature that for the next thirty-five years (679-714) no Northumbrian king dared to attack Mercia, and it was quickly followed by the acceptance of Aethelred's overlordship by Kent which gave him an even greater position than had been enjoyed by Wulfhere.

The part played by Theodore in these developments reveals his far­sightedness. It would have been natural if he had seen his interest in preserving the independence of Kent. His policy was just the reverse. He saw that Mercia was the strongest English kingdom, and well able to help in a centralizing movement, and so he threw his influence on to Aethelred’s side. Hence arose a close connection between Canterbury and Tamworth, which was to last for over a century.

The first result of this alliance was the erection of three additional Mercian dioceses, the first for the South Mercians and Middle Angles at Leicester, the second for the Hwicce at Worcester, and the third for the southern branch of the Wreocensaete, the Hecana or Magesaete, at Hereford. Even so the mother see at Lichfield remained unwieldy, as it extended over South Lancashire, Cheshire, and Shropshire as well as over the lands of the North Mercians in Staffordshire, Derbyshire, and Nottinghamshire. Mercia thus obtained five dioceses, for Dorchester was also a Mercian see. The three new sees seem to have been created not simultaneously, but clearly at dates not far off 680, a year made memorable by a second great synod summoned by Theodore to meet at Heathfield to signify the English Church's orthodoxy on the Monothelete question.

Having achieved the reorganization of northern and central England Theodore might well congratulate himself. Wessex remained undealt with, but he now had fourteen suffragans in place of seven and each had a fairly manageable diocese. The problems which still faced him were the provision of permanent endowments on a sufficient scale and of parish priests and churches. As to the latter, time alone could solve the diffi­culty and no complete parochial system came into existence for several centuries. Parishes were only slowly evolved as the richer landowners built churches for their estates and most villages had for a long time to be content with the occasional visits of travelling priests. The most that could be done at once was to provide little groups of clerics, living a semi-collegiate life, in monastic cells scattered here and there in each diocese, and let these serve the neighbouring districts. Traces of this system of petty monasteries can probably still be seen in such village names as Kidderminster, Alderminster, Upminster, Southminster, and so on, a system very similar to that of the Welsh class but one that ultimately passed away as more churches were built.

681-702] Battle of Nechtansmere. Death of Theodore

Meanwhile a path was opening for Wilfrid’s return to Northumbria. On the one hand he became reconciled with Theodore, on the other the Northumbrian king was dead. After his defeat by Mercia Ecgfrith had turned his attention northwards and had been busy fighting the Picts and Scots. In 681 he set up a bishopric at Abercorn on the Forth, to minister to the lands he claimed to have subdued, and in 684 he sent a fleet to attack Ireland. In 685 his raids were even pressed beyond the Tay in pursuit of Bruide the Pictish king; but here he met with disaster, being slain with many of his nobles at Nechtansmere near Forfar. From this date onwards Northumbria distinctly loses its vitality and gradually falls into a chronic state of civil war. Ecgfrith’s successor was Aldfrid, a prince who had spent much of his time in a monastery and who was no fighter. He was willing to be reconciled to Wilfrid but would not restore him to his old position. He only offered him the reduced see of York, and the abbacy of Ripon. With this Wilfrid had to be perforce content, but not whole-heartedly, and he was soon engaged in a new quarrel with Aldfrid over a proposal to create a separate bishopric at Ripon. This question was just becoming acute when Archbishop Theodore died at the great age of eighty-eight in 690. The absence of his moderating influence soon made itself felt and within two years Wilfrid was again in exile, taking refuge with Aethelred who gave him the monastery of Oundle in Middle Anglia and later made him bishop of Leicester. The appointment of a new archbishop of Canterbury in 692 in the person of Berctwald, the abbot of Reculver to whom Lothaire had granted Westanae, did nothing to stop the feud, and Wilfrid remained in Mercia for eleven years (691-672). The most interesting notice we have of him at this epoch implies his attendance in 695 at the translation of the body of St Aethelthryth, the virgin foundress of Ely, formerly Ecgfrith’s queen, who in her life had played a considerable part in bringing about his original quarrel in Northumbria.

Wessex under Ceadwalla and Ine [685-710

In reviewing Theodore's achievements, it will be noticed that the only important English kingdom not touched by his activity was Wessex; but here also great changes took place in his later days. These were brought about by the rise to power of Ceadwalla, a young pagan princeling who is first heard of in 684 making an attack on Aethelwalch of Sussex. For some time before this Wessex had been ruled by a number of petty chieftains, no one branch of the house of Cerdic being able to control the rest, a weakness perhaps due to the loss of the Chilterns to Mercia and to the difficulty of assimilating the recently acquired Keltic provinces of Dorset and Somerset. Ceadwalla had been outlawed in these conflicts and seems to have been in the pay of the Kentish princes when he attacked Aethelwalch. Having slain the Sussex king, he next year turned against Centwine, the leading claimant to the kingship in Wessex, drove him into a monastery and got himself elected king. He followed up these successes by an attack on the Jutes in the Isle of Wight and round Southampton Water —districts which Bede describes as still ruled by their own king and still heathen. Ceadwalla quickly conquered them, and even tried to ex­terminate the Jutes and replace them by West Saxons. His savagery had evidently not been forgotten fifty years later. It is clear, however, that he himself was thinking of becoming a Christian; for as soon as he had the island in his power, he handed over a quarter of it to Bishop Wilfrid, and permitted the advent of Christian missionaries, thus bringing about the fall of the last stronghold of paganism in England.

Having thus secured his position in Wessex, Ceadwalla again attacked Sussex and overran it from end to end, and then pushed on into Kent, designing to set up his brother Mul as an under-king over part of that kingdom. For the moment the design succeeded, and it may well be that, as a result, Surrey was detached from Kent. Mul, however, was not favoured by fortune and shortly met a tragic death by burning. Ceadwalla at once made reprisals; but in the midst of his harryings he was seized with contrition for his deeds and determined to become a Christian definitely, and to abandon his throne and go as a pilgrim to seek baptism from the Pope. He accordingly left England in 688 and, reaching Rome, was baptized by Pope Sergius. He was still only thirty, but died almost immediately afterwards. No reign in Anglo-Saxon history is more bloodthirsty than Ceadwalla’s, but his meteoric career had the merit of putting new vigour into the West Saxons, who from this time onwards stand out as far more determined opponents of Mercia than hitherto. Sussex, too, from this date tends to become a vassal of Wessex rather than of Mercia, and so the first move is made towards the distant goal of the ultimate supremacy of the house of Cerdic in England. Ceadwalla was succeeded by Ine, a man of considerable force, who ruled Wessex for thirty-eight years (688-726). The greater part of his reign was devoted to extending his territories. In the east he set up his kinsman Nunna as under-king of Sussex; in the west he encroached year by year on West Wales. Details are lacking, but we may ascribe the conquest of West Somerset to the middle of his reign, Geraint the British king of Damnonia being driven from Taunton. In 710 a fight is mentioned in which Nunna also took part, and, though no results are recorded, an advance into the valley of the Exe may perhaps be presumed, as we find the West Saxons at Crediton near Exeter early in the next reign. Ine’s thoughts, however, were not solely bent on war, and the Church found him an active patron and eager to further the principles of Theodore. Among his friends were many notable ecclesiastics, such as Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury, the most learned classical scholar in England, Earconwald, bishop of London, the founder of Chertsey Abbey in Surrey and so in some sort Ine’s bishop, and Headde, bishop of Winchester. With the approval of men such as these, he pressed forward the endowment of the clergy both by generous grants of land and by formally enacting that the dues called “church-scots” should be compulsory and levied every Martinmas. The extant landbooks, however, which the monks of Glastonbury and Abingdon ascribed to him in later days, can hardly be regarded as genuine.

As his frontiers advanced westwards, the question naturally arose, “Ought the West Saxon see to be divided?” Nothing was done till Headde died in 705. The ideas of Theodore were then taken up and the overgrown diocese split into two. The seat of the new western see, sometimes called Selwoodshire because it comprised Wessex west of Selwood Forest, was fixed at Sherborne and Aldhelm of Malmesbury was consecrated its first bishop, while the reduced see of Winchester was given to Daniel. Some few years later the same principle was applied to Sussex, and Daniel permitted a new bishopric for the South Saxons to be set up at Selsey.

690-725] Kent under Wihtraed. Ine’s Laws

While Wessex was thus developing under Ine, Kent, though subject to Mercia, was not inactive. In Theodore's later years the kingdom had been divided between Lothaire and Eadric, joint rulers, who are remembered for some amending laws supplementing Aethelberht’s code. A period of anarchy however followed on Ceadwalla’s inroads in 685. This was terminated by the accession of Wihtraed, a particularly devout prince who ruled as Ine’s contemporary from 690 to 725 and who is claimed as the first English king to grant general charters of immunity to the churches of his kingdom, thereby freeing their lands from secular and royal dues. Whether Wihtraed’s so-called “Privilege” is really a genuine document will probably never be ascertained; but he also issued a code of laws mainly directed to making the status of the clergy clear and definite, which are markedly in favour of the Church.

The example set by Kent was not lost on Ine. Early in his reign he also issued a collection of written laws. As we have them now, they form an appendix to the dooms issued two hundred years later by Alfred, and it is not quite clear how far they have been abbreviated and subjected to revision. None the less they give most valuable evidence for the seventh century, for they seem to present a contrast to the Kentish dooms on many points, and also deal with a larger number of topics. The most interesting sections are perhaps those dealing with the conquered Welsh in Somerset and Dorset. Though it is usual to speak of these laws as codes, it must always be remembered that they are in reality no more than brief amending clauses, dealing only with certain sides of the law, more particularly with the penalties for important crimes, and with the status of the clergy. Family law and the law of property are only scantily touched on, and public institutions, even if alluded to, are never explained, but taken for granted. Moreover, the codes when all put together are extremely brief. Aethelberht’s laws, for example, are confined to ninety clauses, and Wihtraed’s to twenty-eight, while no laws of this date at all have come down to us from Mercia or Northumbria. It is clear then that any picture of society which can be deduced from them must be most imperfect, and that much is left to inference. They have, however, a superiority over similar codes produced by the conquering Germans on the Continent in that they are written in English and so give the native terms for the things of which they speak, whereas the continental codes being in Latin only give approximate equivalents which are often merely mystifying and misleading.

Death of Wilfrid. Ine abdicates [702-726

We must now turn back to the affairs of the North. Wilfrid, while in Mercia, had never abandoned his claim to be bishop of undivided Northumbria. In 702 a fresh attempt was made to deal with it, a synod being held at Austerfield on the Idle under the presidency of Archbishop Berctwald. As before, neither Wilfrid nor Aldfrid would give way; the upshot was that, in spite of his age, Wilfrid once more set out for Rome to lay his cause in person before the Pope. In 704, while he was still abroad, Aethelred retired from the throne of Mercia to become a monk at Bardney, and was succeeded by his nephew Coenred; and when Wilfrid returned in 705 with fresh papal letters, he found Aldfrid on his death-bed. Before a synod could meet, the crown of Northumbria passed to a child. This seemed to facilitate a compromise; Wilfrid, however, did not attain his object. He never regained even York and had to be content with the see of Hexham. He lived four years longer and died at Oundle in 709. His death brings to an end the interesting period of Northumbrian history. The northern kingdom from this time onwards is of little account, and its story one long record of faction and decay. The only bright spots in its annals are Bede's literary career at Jarrow and the development of the schools of York, and the only event of permanent importance the conversion of the bishopric of York into an archbishopric. This took place in 735, the year that Bede died, the first archbishop of York being Ecgbert, the prelate who founded the schools and who for thirty-two years devoted himself to their development.

For the whole of the eighth century the Mercian State clearly holds the headship of England. Wessex at first caused some trouble under Ine, and we hear of a fight in 715 at a place usually identified with Wanborough near Swindon. But Ine was entirely occupied with the internal affairs of Wessex and Sussex for the last ten years of his reign, and in 726 he followed the example of Ceadwalla and abdicated, being filled with a desire to see Rome and die in the neighbourhood of the popes. Coenred and Ceolred, who occupied the Mercian throne after Aethelred, may perhaps have feared Ine, but all doubt, as to which state was supreme, disappeared with the accession of Aethelbald, who ruled from Tamworth for forty-one years (716-757), only to be succeeded by the still more famous Offa, who ruled for thirty-nine (757­796). These long reigns are not filled with struggles for supremacy like those of the seventh century, and lend themselves to briefer treatment.

716-757] Aethelbald of Mercia 

Aethelbald’s reign is roughly contemporaneous with the career of Charles Martel, while Offa’s extends over a part of the reign of Charlemagne, with which prince he had friendly relations. Aethelbald calls himself in his landbooks “King of the Mercians and South Angles”; Offa is addressed by the popes as “King of the English” without qualification. This difference of style pretty well sums up the progress made in the period, so that at Offa's death it must have seemed to contemporaries that the domination of all England by Mercia was merely a question of time. As it was, Kent and East Anglia had already been practically absorbed. In spite of this development these reigns are usually held to be “an age of little men, of decaying faith, and of slumberous inactivity”; but this is hardly the whole truth and arises from the fact that we no longer have Bede's lively narrative to help us to fill out our picture, our materials being cut down to the bald statements of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle supplemented by a few lives of saints and some two hundred landbooks, more than half of which are under suspicion of being spurious. The Chronicle, too, being chiefly concerned with Wessex, gives a quite inadequate impression of the aims and activities of the leading Mercians.

Aethelbald’s reign was clearly favourable to the growth of church endowments. The earliest Rochester and several of the earlier Worcester landbooks are ascribed to him. More important, however, than his actual grants of land, if we can trust it, is his general decree issued in 749, by which he conceded to all the ministers of his kingdom freedom from all burdens excepting only the duties of repairing bridges and maintaining fortresses. Here we have an important step towards the encouragement of feudalism; for clearly this concession does not mean that the peasantry on ecclesiastical lands are to be free from vectigal, but that what has hitherto been paid to the king will go for the future into the treasuries of the churches. Thus, as has been well said, the Church got “a grip on those who dwelt on the land”. It should be noticed too that in the grants of this period little stress is laid upon any consent by the Mercian magnates as a necessary condition required to make the grants valid. The king declares himself to be granting his own lands and his own rights. The magnates appear as a rule only in the attesting clauses as adstipulatores or witnesses. While Aethelbald was active in supporting the Church, there is also evidence that under him the clergy, led by Archbishop Cuthbert, made strenuous efforts to improve themselves, a synod being held in 747 at Clovesho in which thirty canons were drawn up for the reform of ecclesiastical discipline. These canons no doubt are good evidence that there were abuses needing reform and so bear out to a certain extent the gloomy picture of ecclesiastical decay which Bede has put on record as characteristic of Northumbria in his time. It would, however, be unfair to assume that the decay was as bad in flourishing Mercia as in declining Northumbria; and the acts of this synod point rather to progress and activity. As a warrior Aethelbald does not come much before us. Early in his reign he raided Somerset as far as Somerton on the Parrett, and towards the end of it the West Saxons, led by Cuthred, retaliated by a raid into Oxfordshire as far as Burford, an achievement which the Wessex chronicle makes much of. There seems no real evidence however that this reverse had any permanent effect on the Mercian supremacy. It may have rendered Wessex somewhat more independent, and more hopeful of regaining the Chilterns, but when Offa succeeded to the Mercian throne in 757 there was clearly no question as to his ascendancy in England.

Reign of Offa [757-796

Offa’s reign marks the culmination of the power of Mercia. All accounts admit that he was the most powerful of the Mercian kings and easily supreme in England. Among facts that illustrate this are the disappearance of the sub-kings who had hitherto maintained themselves in Essex and in the province of the Hwicce, and the appearance of landbooks in which Offa disposes of estates in Sussex, the kings of Kent and Wessex figuring as consenting vassals among the witnesses. The Kentish men rose against him in 774 at Otford and the men of Wessex in 777 at Bensington; but in both cases only to meet with crushing defeats, and for the rest of his reign he had no further troubles south of the Thames. In 778 he devastated all South Wales and again in 784, and it must be about this period that he ordered the great earthwork to be erected along his western frontier which later ages called Offa's Dyke. This work is still traceable between the Dee and the Wye, and marks, not so much an advance of the Mercians, as a final delimitation of their territory, all beyond it being definitely left subject to Welsh law and custom, even if occupied by the English. Finally, in 793 Offa put the king of the East Angles to death, and annexed his kingdom. On the Continent Offa had considerable renown and Charlemagne even negotiated with him for the hand of one of his daughters for his eldest son. In internal affairs he was also active. For example, he reformed the Anglo-Saxon coinage, introducing a new type of silver penny in imitation of Charles the Great’s denarius, a type which lasted almost unchanged down to late Plantagenet times, and also a gold coin, called the mancus, copied from the dinars used by the Moors in Spain. He also issued a code of Mercian laws; these are unfortunately lost, but they were utilised by Alfred a century later as a source for his own code. In church matters he is remembered as the founder of St Alban's Abbey (also perhaps of Westminster) and as a liberal benefactor to Canterbury and Worcester, but more especially for his determination to make the Mercian dioceses independent of Canterbury. For this purpose he applied to the Pope to convert the bishopric of Lichfield into an archbishopric. The Archbishop of Canterbury naturally resisted the design, but Hadrian I sent legates to England in 786 to examine the matter, and a synod was held at Chelsea which settled that Higbert of Lichfield should be put in charge of the seven dioceses of Mercia and East Anglia and receive a pallium. In return for this concession Offa promised to give the Pope an annual gift of money, and so inaugurated the tribute known to after ages as Peter's Pence. Offa died in 796, completely master of his realm, but his good fortune did not descend to his only son, a delicate youth called Ecgfrith. This prince only survived his father 141 days, and on his death the crown passed over to his remote kinsman Coenwulf, who once more had to struggle with Kent and who ultimately abandoned Offa’s scheme of a separate archbishopric for Mercia in return for the support of the archbishop of Canterbury against the rebels. This concession was undoubtedly a good thing for England, but it marks the beginning of the fall of Mercia.

English Schools and Scholars 

Before closing this chapter a few words should perhaps be added on the spread of learning and education among the English, while Mercia was dominant. Something has already been said as to the immediate effect produced by the advent of the first missionaries; it remains to speak of the schools which gave lustre to the seventh and eighth centuries and of the writers trained in them. The most important schools were those of Wearmouth, Canterbury, and York. The first was set up by Benedict Biscop, founder of Wearmouth and Jarrow, who died in 690. He journeyed five times to Rome and each time came back with art treasures and a goodly store of books. These he particularly recommended to the care of his monks on his deathbed. The progress of his school can best be judged by the after career of its most famous pupil, the Venerable Bede. The school of Canterbury owed its efficiency, not to Augustine, but to Hadrian the African abbot, who first recommended Theodore to Pope Vitalian and then accompanied him to England in 669. Like Theodore, Hadrian was well versed in both Latin and Greek, and he also taught verse-making, music, astronomy, arithmetic, and medicine. Pupils soon crowded to the school and many afterwards became famous clerics, for example, John of Beverley; but undoubtedly the most considerable of all from the literary standpoint was Aldhelm, whom we have already spoken of as bishop of Sherborne. For his time Aldhelm's learning was very comprehensive. His extant writings comprise a treatise both in prose and verse on the praise of virginity, which had an immediate success, a collection of one hundred riddles and acrostics, and several remarkable letters, one being addressed to Geraint, the king of Devon, and another to Aldfrid, the king of Northumbria. These writings show acquaintance with a very extensive literature both Christian and profane, and also a great love for an out-of-the-way vocabulary. A considerable number of scholars took to imitating his style, the most important among them being Hweetberct, abbot of Wearmouth from 716, and Tatwin, a monk of Bredon in Worcestershire, who became archbishop of Canterbury in 731.

Bede. Alcuin. The Court Minstrels

Far the greatest and most attractive figure among the scholars of the period is Bede, who was born in 672 and spent his whole life of sixty-three years at Jarrow, never journeying further afield than York. His style is exactly the opposite to that of Aldhelm. It has no eccentricities or affectations, but is always direct, sincere, and simple. Year by year for forty years he worked industriously, producing in turn commentaries on the Scriptures and works on natural history, grammar, and history. For us his historical works are the most important, and of these the greatest and best is the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. This contains five books. The first is introductory and deals briefly with Christianity in Britain before the advent of Augustine; the other four books deal each with a period of about 33 years, or one generation, and bring the story down to 731. The success of this history was immediate, and copies of it quickly spread over the Continent, so that at his death Bede had secured a European reputation.

Bede's most important pupil was Ecgbert, already mentioned as the first Archbishop of York. To him Bede wrote his last extant letter, dated 5 Nov. 734, pleading for ecclesiastical reforms in Northumbria and denouncing pseudo-monasteries. Ecgbert partly answered this appeal by developing his cathedral school, forming it on the Canterbury model, and here was educated Alcuin, the second English scholar to gain a European reputation in the eighth century. His work, though it throws great lustre on York, was not done in England, but at the court of Charles the Great, with whom he took service. It is a sufficient proof, however, that England in Offa's day had attained to a literary pre-eminence in the West that the great Frankish ruler should have looked to England for a scholar to set over his palace school.

Besides these Latin scholars, there is good evidence that throughout the seventh and eighth centuries there were also many court bards in England who cultivated the art of poetry in English, handing on from generation to generation traditional lays which told of the deeds of the heathen heroes of the past and perhaps composing fresh ones in honour of the English kings and their ancestors. These lays have much in common with the Homeric poems and like them are highly elaborated. Both Aldhelm and Alcuin refer to their existence, but only fragments of them still survive modified to suit Christian ears. The most important example is the Song of Beowulf already referred to. This deals with Danish and Swedish heroes and extends to 3000 lines. English poetry was also cultivated in ruder forms by the common people; for Bede tells us that wherever villagers met for amusement it was customary for the harp to be handed round among the company and for English songs to be sung. A tale is also told of Aldhelm which points in the same direction, how it was his wont to stand on a bridge near Malmesbury and sing songs to the peasants to attract them to church. The best known maker of English Sacred Songs was Caedmon of Whitby.