Name: King Offa
Parents: Thingfrith (Father)
House of Mercia
Became King: 757
Children: Aelfflaed, Ecgfrith, Eadburh
Died: July 29, 796
Offa's reign of nearly forty years (758-796), is the first settled period in English history. Offa ruled over the subject princes with rigour, and seems to have made his power really felt. He drove the Prince of Powys from Shrewsbury, and carried his ravages into the heart of Wales. He conquered the land between the Severn and the Wye, and his dyke from the Dee to the Severn, and the Wye, marked the new limits of the Welsh and English borders; while his laws codified the customs of Mercia, as those of AEthelberht and Ine had done with the customs of Kent and Wessex. He set up for awhile an archbishopric at Lichfield, which seems to mark his determination to erect Mercia into a sovereign power. He also founded the great monastery of St. Alban's, and is said to have established the English college at Rome, though another account attributes it to Ine, the West Saxon. East Anglia, Kent, Essex, and Sussex all acknowledged his supremacy. Karl the Great was then reviving the Roman Empire in its Germanic form, and Offa ventured to correspond with the Frank emperor as an equal. The possession of London, now a Mercian city, gave Offa an interest in continental affairs; and the growth of trade is marked by the fact that when a quarrel arose between them, they formally closed the ports of their respective kingdoms against each other's subjects.
Nevertheless, English kingship still remained a mere military office, and consolidation, in our modern sense, was clearly impossible. Local jealousies divided all the little kingdoms and their component principalities; and any real subordination was impracticable amongst a purely agricultural and warlike people, with no regular army, and governed only by their own anarchic desires. Like the Afghans of the present time, the early English were incapable of union, except in a temporary way under the strong hand of a single warlike leader against a common foe. As soon as that was removed, they fell asunder at once into their original separateness. Hence the chaotic nature of our early annals, in which it is impossible to discover any real order underlying the perpetual flux of states and princes.
Offa, King of Mercia, was one of the leading figures of Saxon history. He obtained the throne of Mercia in 757, after the murder of his cousin, King Aethelbald, by Beornraed. After spending fourteen years in consolidating and ordering his territories he engaged in conquests which made him the most powerful king in England. After a successful campaign against the Hestingi, he defeated the men of Kent at Otford (776); the West Saxons at Bensington in Oxfordshire (779); and finally the Welsh, depriving the last-named of a large part of Powys, including the town of Pengwern. To repress the raids of the Welsh he built Offa's dyke, 150 miles long and roughly indicating for the first time what has remained the boundary between England and Wales.
From 776 Offa was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon king until Alfred the Great. He ruled over Kent, Sussex, East Anglia and the Midlands, and allied with Beorhtric of Wessex. His rule never extended to Northumbria but his daughter married the King of Northumbria. Offa died in 796.
The death of Offa marks the end of Mercian supremacy in England. His son Ecgfrith reigns for less than 6 months.
Offa's son Ecgfrith, the heir, was killed by Offa's opponents, because of Offa's attempts at ensuring Ecgfrith's succession. Offa destroyed dynastic rivals and any other possible heirs. This greatly angered his opponents, who assassinated Ecgfrith. Because of Offa's fierce attempts at ensuring his son's birthright, no close relative was left to inherit the now vacant throne. The successor, Coenwulf, was very distantly related to Offa.
Mercia and southern England at Ecgfrith's death:
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ecgfrith only reigned for 141 days. Offa is known to have died in 796, on either 26 July or 29 July, so Ecgfrith's date of death is either 14 December or 17 December of the same year. Coenwulf succeeded Ecgfrith as king. Coenwulf's father's name was Cuthberht, who may have been the same person as an ealdorman of that name who witnessed charters during the reign of Offa. Coenwulf is also recorded as witnessing charters during Offa's reign. According to the genealogy of Mercian kings preserved in the Anglian collection Coenwulf was descended from a brother of Penda's named Cenwealh of whom there is no other record.