Offa, King of Mercia, from 757 to 796, came from royal stock dating four generations back to Pybba who reigned in the early 7th century. One of Thingfrith’s sons, Offa became king after a short civil war following the assassination of Aethelbald, the dominant king of southern England for 30 years.
Offa married Cynethryth, and they had at least one son, Ecgfrith, and three daughters, Aethelburh, Aelfflaed and Eadburh, all of whom were married off for the sake of political alliances.
To secure Ecgfrith’s succession Offa, in his older years, exerted much power and indeed physical violence to have him anointed to royal ascendancy. Alas, Ecgfrith’s reign lasted less than four months. It was said later “You know how much blood his father shed to secure his kingdom.”
(image copyright M Taylor)
We think of Mercia as being the border lands, but during his reign Offa established the dominance of Mercia, from its original power centre in the west midlands, over other Anglo Saxon kingdoms south of Northumbria, even as far as the Isle of Wight. He held court at times throughout southern England: Hereford, Tamworth, Chelsea, St Albans among many other centres.
He wasn’t the first Anglo Saxon king to have coins minted with his effigy, but insisted on high quality, and introduced the refinements of naming the moneyer on his silver pennies and later gold coins. His wife was the first English queen to appear on coinage.
He promoted relationships with the ruler of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, who addressed him as ‘brother’ in one letter. He aspired to follow the Carolingian example but over a more modest empire.
There are few contemporary written references to Offa, and none to the Dyke. A hundred years after his death, Alfred the Great’s biographer, Asser, wrote:
“There was in Mercia in fairly recent times a certain vigorous king called Offa, who terrified all the neighbouring kings and provinces around him, and who had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea.”
Among later eulogies Henry of Huntingdon wrote:
“… a youth of the noblest extraction … Offa proved a most warlike king, for he was victorious in successful battles over the men of Kent, and the men of Wessex, and the Northumbrians. He was also a very religious man.”
A modern historian’s view:
“ Offa was driven by a lust for power, not a vision of English unity. And what he left was a reputation, not a legacy.” Simon Keynes.
And finally, of his daughter Eadburh who married into the Wessex kingdom, Asser wrote:
“She behaved like a tyrant after the manner of her father.”