Book 2, Chapter 2, 597 AD to 827 AD – Kings Alfred and Ethelbald – Continued
After Alfred’s death there was a rapid succession of kings in Northumbria, and in less than a century fourteen ascended the throne, either by inheritance or by force, and of these, six were murdered by competitors, five were expelled by their subjects, two became monks, and only one died a monarch. The kingdom was given over to anarchy long before this, and the way was prepared for its absorption into one of the two remaining powerful states of Wessex and Mercia, concerning whose history during the same period mention as brief must be made. At first it appeared that the supremacy of Mercia would be established, for after several insignificant reigns, utterly devoid of anything worthy of note, Ethelbald became king of that state in 716, and reined for the long period of forty one years.
He was a man of elegant stature, a powerful frame, and a warlike and imperious spirit. His military abilities at first secured for him an ascendancy over the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, including the formidable rival of Wessex, but in 752 a bloody battle was fought at Burford in Oxfordshire, between the forces of Mercia and Wessex, in which the golden dragon, the standard of Mercia, was pierced, and the Mercians routed with immense slaughter. An ancient poem describes in warm terms the shock of the two armies, the shouts and efforts of the combatants, their murderous weapons, the spear, the long sword, and the battle axe, and their prodigality of life in the defence of their respective standards.
Ethelbald engaged for a time in a personal contest with the ‘ Wessex general, but at length turned and fled and his example were speedily followed by the Mercians. He did not long survive the defeat, ‘ being killed in a rebellion by some of his own subjects. Ethelbald was severely reproached and censured during his life by St. Boniface for his loose, unchaste behaviour, especially with nuns, whom he forced to leave the cloisters in order to gratify his passions, a practice to which many others of the Anglo-Saxon kings at that time were addicted, if the early records may be believed another illustration of the superficial religion of many of those sons of the Church.
The true character of some of these converts is shown in what is told of Offa, who speedily followed Ethelbald, and whom the monks never tire of praising in their histories for his benefactions, and pilgrimages, and the founding of churches. He is also eulogized as having bound himself by oath, and promised for his successors an annual payment towards the expenses of a college in Rome, and for the relief of indigent pilgrims. The money thus promised was raised by a levy of one penny upon each house possessed of thirty pence a year, and this was the origin of what is subsequently known as Peter’s pence, which, originating in a voluntary gift, came to be claimed as a right.
Alcuin, who was the preceptor of Charlemagne, and who lived at the same time with Offa, has recorded sufficient to give an insight into his real character, as a man of blood, vindictive, rapacious, and unscrupulous. Ethelbert, king of East Anglia, was murdered by Offa’s order in his palace whither he had come to be married to Offa’s daughter, and this foul crime was perpetrated in order that the kingdom of East Anglia might be annexed to that of Wessex. Retribution came, swift and sure. Offa possessed his ill gotten territory less than two years, when he died, chiefly from remorse, and one after another of his family were cut off, or perished miserably, so that ere long the race of Offa became extinct.
Two things only redeem his memory from utter contempt. For the protection of his subjects, he caused a ditch and rampart to be drawn along the frontier of Wales, commencing not far from the mouth of the Dee, and ending at the Severn, near Bristol. The remains of this work are still called Offa’s Dyke. He also corresponded with the emperor Charlemagne, with whom he made a treaty of commerce for the advantage of their respective subjects. One of the letters sent by Charlemagne sets his humanity in so honourable a light that it deserves to be quoted.
It is addressed to the Archbishop Ethelheard, in behalf of some exiles for whom he entreats the prelate to intercede with Offa, that they may have leave to return, their lord, with whom they went away on his banishment, being dead. “To escape peril of death, he fled to us, but was always ready to purge himself from infidelity. We kept him with us, not from enmity, but with the hope of producing reconciliation. As to these his followers, if you can obtain their peace, let them remain in the country, but if my brother answers harshly, send them to us uninjured. It is better to travel than to perish, it is better to serve in another country than to die at home. But I trust to the goodness of my brother, if you strongly intercede for them, that he may receive them kindly for love to us, or, rather for love to Christ.”
On the decay of Mercia, Wessex, which had been long the least and the weakest of the three rival states, had the field to herself, but prior to this, in 688, Ina had succeeded to the kingdom, and this ruler’s name is associated with a code of seventy nine laws, by which he regulated the administration of justice, fixed the legal compensation for crimes, checked the prevalence of hereditary feuds, placed the conquered Britons under the protection of the state, and exposed and punished the frauds which were committed in the transfer of merchandise and the cultivation of land.
Chapter 2, Ethelbert of Kent
Chapter 2, Kings Alfred and Ethelbald
Contest for Supremacy Between Mercia and Wessex
Chapter 2, King Egbert
Chapter 2, Invasion of the Northmen
Categories: Book 2