Offa: Mercia’s Greatest King

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Offa is one of the most famous names in all of British history. He was a figure larger than life (and, some would argue, larger than death). He was king of Mercia during the turbulent 8th Century, and he was treated as an equal by none other than the great Charlemagne. Offa was also treated as a high king by the pope himself.

How did this happen? How did the cousin of Ethelbald, murdered in his bed in 757, come to be a giant among men? Simple: He was a great soldier, a magnetic leader, and a visionary politician (this before politics really got started in the Germanic kingdoms).

Offa inherited the mantle of Big Tough Guy from his aforementioned cousin, Ethelbald. He convinced enough of his fellow Mercians that he was worthy of the throne, and they let him keep it. The Wessex victory over Ethelbald in 752 had weakened Mercia supremacy in the south somewhat, but Offa went to work to repair that. And repair it he did, winning one great battle after the next, rattling the kingdoms of Wessex, Kent, and Wales and cementing himself as the Man to Pay Allegiance To in Anglo-Saxon Britain. It also didn’t hurt that he married his daughters to the kings of Wessex and Northumbria.

He had his own coins made, of silver, so everyone who traded in his kingdom would know the name of their glorious leader. This coin, the penny, would remain the basis for currency in Anglo-Saxon Britain for hundreds of years.

And as king and overlord, Offa played the part beautifully: He was magnanimous, he was shrewd, he was on top of everything. He courted the attention of the pope and the religious leaders in his newly conquered territory, yet insisted that he have his own archbishopric in Lichfield. That he managed to get all three of these things is further testament to his ability to get whatever he wanted while allowing others to think that they were delighted to give it to him.

This last was true of his fellow Germanics. However, the Welsh didn’t take so kindly to Offa’s ascendancy, invading Mercia four times in quick succession, in 760, 777, 778, and 784. Offa finally had had enough and directed the construction of what has come to be known as Offa’s Dyke, a massive earthwork that served as the western boundary of his kingdom. For a northern complement we have to look no further than Hadrian’s Wall.

The dyke building and realm building continued for several years, ending with Offa’s death in 796. His only son, Ecgferth, didn’t last a year on the throne. The line of Offa was ended. But the legacy of Offa has lived on.