Penda: Middle Anglian Warlord Extraordinaire

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One of the two men in the alliance that killed Edwin, king of Northumbria, was Penda, who later became king of Mercia. Who was this Penda anyway? And how did a heathen become king of one of the largest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms when all around him were Christian churches, bishops, and kings?

To begin with, Penda had a strong desire for power. He stood up to the might of Edwin and found in his quest an unlikely ally in the Welshman, Cadwalla. The relationship between the two victors goes back a little ways, to a battle between them, actually. Conflicting accounts dispute the victor in that battle, but both leaders seem to have come away with a grudging respect for each other that waxed over the years into an alliance against the encroaching Edwin.

And after the great victory over Edwin, while Cadwallon was still ravaging and plundering Northumbria’s suddenly separate kingdoms (Bernicia and Deira) again, Penda was mending the fences of his own territory, shoring up his rule in Mercia, uniting North and South into one whole Mercia, and cementing himself as ruler of the suddenly united kingdom, the largest in all Britannia.

Almost immediately, he had border troubles. Ecgric, newly made king of East Anglia, wanted to prove his worth to his people and tried to claim part of Mercia for himself. Penda taught him a lesson by invading East Anglia, beating the defenders on their home turf, and then promptly withdrawing, letting them lick their wounds. Why Penda did not annex East Anglia is not known.

The next problem for Penda came in the person of Oswald, descendant of Edwin of Northumbria. Oswald had recently formed an alliance with Wessex and sought to avenge his father’s death. He led a massive invasion of Mercia, one that Penda reeling in retreat into Wales. But when Oswald pressed the attack, he found himself fighting Mercians and Welsh! The combination was victorious again, and Penda himself decapitated Oswald.

Things went on rather peacefully for awhile until Oswiu, son of Oswald, decided to avenge his father’s death. This descendant of Edwin was finally successful. After a few raids into Mercia, Oswiu pulled back and let Penda come to him. This time, the Mercian invasion was a failure. Penda himself was killed in battle in 654. Mercia was still strong, but it had lost its charismatic kingdom-builder.