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Mercia ( , ) was one of the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. It was centred on the valley of the River Trent and its tributaries in the region now known as the English Midlandsmarker. The name is a Latinisation of the Old English Mierce, meaning "border people".

Mercia's neighbours included Northumbriamarker, Powysmarker, the kingdoms of southern Walesmarker, Wessexmarker, Sussex, Essex, and East Angliamarker.

The name of Mercia is still in use today by a wide range of organisations, including military units, public, commercial and voluntary bodies.

Early history

Mercia's exact evolution from the Anglo-Saxon invasions is more obscure than that of Northumbriamarker, Kentmarker, or even Wessexmarker. Archaeological surveys show that Angles settled the lands north of the River Thames by the sixth century. The name Mercia is Old English for "boundary folk" (see Welsh Marches), and the traditional interpretation was that the kingdom originated along the frontier between the Welshmarker and the Anglo-Saxon invaders, although P. Hunter Blair has argued an alternative interpretation that they emerged along the frontier between the kingdom of Northumbria and the inhabitants of the Trent river valley.

The earliest king of Mercia of whom any details are known is Creoda, said to have been the great-grandson of Icel (see List of monarchs of Mercia). He came to power about 584 and built a fortress at Tamworthmarker, which became the seat of the Mercian kings. He was succeeded by his son Pybba in 593. Cearl, a kinsman of Creoda, followed Pybba in 606; in 615, Cearl gave his daughter Cwenburga in marriage to Edwin, king of Deira whom he had sheltered while he was an exiled prince. The next Mercian king was Penda, who ruled from about 626 or 633 until 655. Some of what is known about Penda comes through the hostile account of Bede, who disliked him both for being an enemy king to Bede's own Northumbriamarker, but also for being a pagan. However, Bede admits that it was Penda who freely allowed Christian missionaries from Lindisfarnemarker into Mercia, and did not restrain them from preaching. After a reign of successful battles against all opponents, Penda was defeated and killed at the Battle of Winwaed by the Northumbrian king Oswiu in 655.

The battle led to a temporary collapse of Mercian power. Penda was succeeded first by his son Peada (who converted to Christianity at Reptonmarker in 653), but in the spring of 656 he was murdered and Oswiu assumed control of the whole of Mercia. A revolt in 658 resulted in the appearance of another son of Penda, Wulfhere, who ruled Mercia until his death in 675. Wulfhere was initially successful in restoring the power of Mercia, but the end of his reign saw a serious defeat against Northumbria. The next two kings, Æthelred and Cœnred son of Wulfhere, are better known for their religious activities; the king who succeeded them (in 709), Ceolred, is said in a letter of Saint Boniface to have been a dissolute youth who died insane. So ended the rule of the direct descendants of Penda.

The first bishop of Mercia was Ceadda, also known as Chad, who placed his see at Lichfieldmarker which is around 3 miles north of Tamworth.

At some point before the accession of Æthelbald, the Mercians conquered the region around Wroxetermarker, known to the Welsh as "The Paradise of Powys." Elegies written in the persona of its dispossessed rulers record [source?] the sorrow at this loss.

The next important king of Mercia was Æthelbald (716–757). For the first few years of his reign he had to face the obstacles of two strong rival kings, Wihtred of Kent and Ine of Wessex. But when Wihtred died in 725, and Ine abdicated his throne the following year to become a monk in Romemarker, Æthelbald was free to establish Mercia's hegemony over the rest of the Anglo-Saxons south of the Humbermarker. Because of his prowess as a military leader, he acquired the title of Bretwalda. Æthelbald suffered a setback in 752, when he was defeated by the West Saxons under Cuthred, but he seems to have restored his supremacy over Wessex by 757.

The Staffordshire hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold was discovered in a field in Staffordshire in July 2009, within the area of Mercia. The artefacts have tentatively been dated to around 600–800 AD. Whether the hoard was deposited by Anglo-Saxon pagans or Christians is debated, as is the purpose of the deposit.

Reign of Offa and rise of Wessex

Great Britain around the year 800
Following the murder of Æthelbald by one of his bodyguards in 757, a civil war followed, which was concluded with the victory of Offa. Offa was forced to build the hegemony over the southern English of his predecessor anew, which he did so successfully that he became the greatest king Mercia ever knew. Not only did he win battles and dominate southern England, he also took an active hand to administering the affairs of his kingdom by founding market towns and overseeing the first major issues of gold coins in Britain, assumed a role in the administration of the Catholic church in England (sponsoring the short-lived archbishopric of Lichfield), and even negotiated with Charlemagne as an equal. Offa is credited with the construction of Offa's Dykemarker, marking the border between Wales and Mercia.

Offa exerted himself to ensure that his son Ecgfrith of Mercia would succeed him, but after his death in July 796, Ecgfrith survived for only five more months, and the kingdom passed to a distant relative named Coenwulf in December 796. In 821, Coenwulf was succeeded by his brother Ceolwulf, who demonstrated his military prowess by his attack on and destruction of the fortress of Deganwymarker in Powysmarker. The power of the West Saxonsmarker under Egbert was rising during this period, however, and in 825 Egbert defeated the Mercian king Beornwulf (who had overthrown Ceolwulf in 823) at Ellendun.

The Battle of Ellendun proved decisive. Beornwulf was slain suppressing a revolt amongst the East Angles, and his successor, a former ealdorman named Ludeca, met the same fate. Another ealdorman, Wiglaf, subsequently ruled for less than two years before being driven out of Mercia by Egbert. In 830, Wiglaf regained independence for Mercia, but by this time Wessex was clearly the dominant power in England. Wiglaf was succeeded by Beorhtwulf.

Arrival of the Danes

In 852, Burgred came to the throne and with Ethelwulf of Wessex subjugated North Walesmarker. In 868, Viking invaders (from Denmark) occupied Nottinghammarker. The Vikings drove Burgred, the last king of Mercia, from his kingdom in 874. In 886, the eastern part of the kingdom became part of the Danelawmarker, while Mercia was reduced to its western portion only. The Danes appointed a Mercian thegn, Ceolwulf II, as king in 873 while the remaining independent section of Mercia was ruled by Earl Æthelred of Mercia, called an ealderman, not a king. He ruled from 883 until 911, in a close and trusting alliance with Wessexmarker. Æthelred had married Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great of Wessex. She gradually assumed power as her husband sickened after about 900, possibly as a result of his wounds gained at the decisive battle against the Vikings at Tettenhallmarker where the last large Viking army to ravage England suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the combined Mercian and Wessex army. After Æthelred's death Æthelflæd ruled alone as ‘Lady of the Mercians’ until her death in 918, when her brother, Edward the Elder of Wessex, became king over Mercia as well.In 911, immediately after Æthelred’s death, Æthelflæd freely gave London and Oxford, with the lands belonging thereto, to her brother in Wessex as a token of loyalty. She then concentrated on fortifying Mercia's existing borders – east towards Nottingham, north to Chester, along the Welsh marches, and down to the Severn estuary. In 917 she expelled the Danes from Derbymarker.

Loss of independence

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the end of independent political direction in Mercia following the death of Æthelflæd. Edward of Wessex took over the fortress at Tamworth and accepted the submission of all those settled in Mercia, both Danish and English. In late 918, Ælfwynn, the daughter of Æthelred, was deprived of all authority in Mercia and taken to Wessex.

References to Mercia and the Mercians continue through the annals recording the reigns of Æthelstan and his successors. In 975 King Edgar is described as “friend of the West Saxons and protector of the Mercians”.

A separate political existence from Wessex was briefly restored in 955–959, when Edgar became king of Mercia, and again in 1016, when the kingdom was divided between Cnut and Edmund Ironside, Cnut taking Mercia.

The last reference to Mercia by name is in the annal for 1017, when Eadric Streona was awarded the government of Mercia by Cnut. The later earls, Leofric, Ælfgar and Edwin, ruled over a territory broadly corresponding to historic Mercia, but the Chronicle does not identify it by name. The Mercians as a people are last mentioned in the annal for 1049.

Mercian dialect

J.R.R. Tolkien is one of many scholars who have studied and promoted the Mercian dialect of Old English, and introduced various Mercian terms into his legendarium – especially in relation to the Kingdom of Rohan, otherwise known as the Mark (a name cognate with Mercia). Not only is the language of Rohan actually the Mercian dialect of Old English, but a number of its kings have the same names as monarchs who appear in the Mercian royal genealogy, e.g. Fréawine, Fréaláf and Éomer (see List of kings of the Angles).

The dialect thrived between the 8th and 13th centuries and was referred to by John Trevisa, writing in 1387:

For men of the est with men of the west, as it were undir the same partie of hevene, acordeth more in sownynge of speche than men of the north with men of the south, therfore it is that Mercii, that beeth men of myddel Engelond, as it were parteners of the endes, understondeth better the side langages, northerne and southerne, than northerne and southerne understondeth either other…

Subdivisions of Mercia

For knowledge of the internal composition of the Kingdom of Mercia, we must rely on a document of uncertain age (possibly late 7th century), known as the Tribal Hidage – an assessment of the extent (but not the location) of land owned (reckoned in hides), and therefore the military obligations and perhaps taxes due, by each of the Mercian tribes and subject kingdoms by name. This hidage exists in several manuscript versions, some as late as the 14th century. It lists a number of peoples, such as the Hwicce, who have now vanished, except for reminders in various placenames (see map at the head of this article). The major subdivisions of Mercia were as follows:

  • South Mercians
The Mercians dwelling south of the River Trent. Smaller folk groups within included the Tomsæte around Tamworthmarker and the Pencersæte around Penkridgemarker (approx. S. Staffs. & N. Warks.marker).
  • North Mercians
The Mercians dwelling north of the River Trent (approx. N. Staffs., S. Derbys.marker & Notts.marker).
  • Outer Mercia
An early phase of Mercian expansion, possibly 6th century (approx. S. Lincs.marker, Leics.marker, Rutlandmarker, Northantsmarker. & N. Oxon.). Once a kingdom in its own right, disputed with Northumbriamarker in the 7th century before finally coming under Mercian control (approx. N. Lincs.marker). A collection of many smaller folk groups under Mercian control from the 7th century, including the Spaldas around Spaldingmarker, the Bilmingas and Wideringas near Stamfordmarker, the North Gyrwe and South Gyrwe near Peterboroughmarker, the West Wixna, East Wixna, West Wille and East Wille near Elymarker, the Sweordora, Hurstingas and Gifle near Bedfordmarker, the Hicce around Hitchinmarker, the Cilternsæte in the Chilternsmarker and the Feppingas near Thamemarker (approx. Cambs., Hunts.marker, Beds., Herts.marker, Bucks. and S. Oxon.). Once a kingdom in its own right, disputed with Wessexmarker in the 7th century before finally coming under Mercian control. Smaller folk groups within included the Stoppingas aroundWarwickmarker and the Arosæte near Droitwichmarker (approx. Gloucs.marker, Worcs. & S. Warks.marker). A people of the Welsh border, also known as the Westerna, under Mercian control from the 7th century. Smaller folk groups within included the Temersæte near Herefordmarker and the Hahlsæte near Ludlowmarker (approx. Herefs.marker & S. Shrops.marker). A people of the Welsh border under Mercian control from the 7th century. Smaller folk groups within included the Rhiwsæte near Wroxetermarker and the Meresæte near Chestermarker (approx. N. Shrops.marker, Flints. & Cheshiremarker). An isolated folk group of the Peak Districtmarker, under Mercian control from the 7th century (approx. N. Derbys.marker). A disorganised region under Mercian control from the 7th century (approx. S. Lancs.marker). Taken over from Essex in the 8th century, including Londonmarker (approx. Middlesexmarker).

After Mercia was annexed by Wessex in the early 10th century, the West Saxon rulers divided it into shires modelled after their own system, cutting across traditional Mercian divisions. These shires survived mostly intact until 1974, and even today still largely follow their original boundaries.

Mercian regional consciousness

The term ‘midlands’ is first recorded (as ‘mydlande’) in 1555. It is possible therefore that until then Mercia had remained the preferred term, as the quote from Trevisa above would indicate.

John Bateman, writing in 1876 or 1883, referred to contemporary Cheshiremarker and Staffordshire landholdings as being in Mercia. The most credible source for the conceit of a contemporary Mercia is Thomas Hardy’s Wessexmarker novels. The first of these appeared in 1874 and Hardy himself considered it the origin of the conceit of a contemporary Wessex. Bram Stoker set his 1911 novel, The Lair of the White Worm, in a contemporary Mercia that may have been influenced by Hardy, whose secretary was a friend of Stoker’s brother. Although ‘Edwardian Mercia’ never had the success of ‘Victorian Wessex’, it was an idea that appealed to the higher echelons of society. In 1908 Sir Oliver Lodge, Principal of Birmingham University, wrote to his counterpart at Bristol, welcoming a new university worthy of:

the great Province of Wessex whose higher educational needs it will supply. It will be no rival, but colleague and co-worker with this University, whose province is Mercia…. At this period, prior to World War I, regional identities within England were being debated with the prospect of separate Home Rule parliaments being established.

The British Army has made use of regional identities in naming larger formations. After the Second World War, the infantry regiments of Cheshire, Staffordshire, and Worcestershire were organised in the Mercian Brigade (1948–1968). Today "Mercia" appears in the titles of two regiments, the new Mercian Regiment (Which recruits in Cheshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Worestershire and parts of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands) and the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry.

The West Mercia Constabulary was created in 1967, combining the police forces of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire.

Telephone directories across the midlands reveal a large number of commercial and voluntary organisations using ‘Mercia’ in their names. In the early 1980’s, Mercia Television was an unsuccessful contender for the Midlands franchise, then owned by ATV. It was won by Central Independent Television. Mercia (formerly Mercia FM) is a commercial radio station broadcasting from Coventrymarker founded in 1980 as Mercia Sound.

There are currently two organisations campaigning for Mercian self-determination. Sovereign Mercia seeks independence for Mercia as a modern technological state, whereas the Acting Witan of Mercia advocates a return to an agrarian subsistence economy. Two other political parties are also in existence; the Mercian National Party and the Mercian Socialist Party. They have yet to compete in any elections and are not registered with the electoral commission.

Heraldic symbols

The Kingdom of Mercia predated the emergence of heraldry. Hence there is no authentic Mercian heraldic symbol. However, later generations have ascribed a variety of devices to the rulers of Mercia or to the land itself.

The eagle

The silver, double-headed eagle surmounted by a gold, three-pronged Saxon crown has been used by various units of the British Army as a heraldic device for Mercia since 1958. It is derived from the attributed arms of Leofric, Earl of Mercia in the 11th century. (It is worth noting, however, that Leofric is sometimes attributed a black, single-headed eagle instead.) The examples on the left are the official devices of the Mercian Regiment and the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry respectively (the latter, being a merged unit, also sports the Lancastrian red rose and crown).

The saltire

On the right are the arms of St Albansmarker City Council, and below them the flag known as the Cross of St Alban.By the thirteenth century, this latter device had become the attributed arms of the Kingdom of Mercia. The arms are blazoned as Azure, a saltire Or, or a gold (yellow) saltire on a blue field. The arms were subsequently used by the Abbey of St Albansmarker, founded by King Offa of Mercia. With the dissolution of the Abbey, and incorporation of the borough of St Albansmarker the device was used on the town's corporate seal, and was officially recorded as the arms of the town at heraldic visitation in 1634.

As a flag, the Cross of St Alban is flown from Tamworth Castlemarker, the ancient seat of the Mercian kings, to this day. It was also flown outside Birmingham Council Housemarker during 2009 whilst the Staffordshire Hoard was on display in the city before being taken to the British Museummarker in London. The cross has been incorporated into a number of coats of arms of Mercian towns, such as Tamworthmarker, Leekmarker and Blabymarker.

The wyvern

A wyvern is a dragon with two legs, as opposed to the usual four, and since its adoption as an emblem by the Midland Railway in the mid-19th century it has been associated with Mercia.

The Leicester and Swannington Railway, which opened in 1832, adopted as a badge the silver (white) wyvern that forms the crest of the Borough of Leicester as recorded at the heraldic visitation of Leicestershire in 1619: a wyvern sans legs argent strewed with wounds gules, wings expanded ermine (the term sans legs does not imply that the wyvern was legless; rather, that its legs are not depicted, being hidden or folded under). This was inherited by the Midland Railway in 1845, where it became the crest of its unofficial coat of arms. The company asserted that the "wyvern was the standard of the Kingdom of Mercia", and that it was a "a quartering in the town arms of Leicester". However, in 1897 the Railway Magazine noted that there appeared "to be no foundation that the wyvern was associated with the Kingdom of Mercia".

The wyvern in Leicester's crest was derived from that of Thomas of Lancaster, second Lancastrian Earl of Leicester. The seal of Thomas, who was executed in 1327, included a wyvern.

A similar theme was later taken up by Bram Stoker in his 1911 novel, The Lair of the White Worm, which was explicitly set in Mercia (see above). The word "worm", derived from Old English wyrm, originally referred to a dragon or serpent. "Wyvern" is derived from Old Saxon wivere, also meaning serpent (and etymologically related to viper).

The ultimate source for the symbolism of white dragons in England would appear to be Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fictional History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136), where an incident occurs in the life of Merlin in which a red dragon is seen fighting a white dragon which it overcomes. The red dragon was taken to represent the Welsh and their eventual victory over the Anglo-Saxon invaders, symbolised by the white dragon. However, there is no archaeological or artefactual evidence that the early Anglo-Saxons used a white dragon to represent themselves.

Regional government

Government Office Regions: West & East Midlands.
With more restricted boundaries than the Kingdom of Mercia at its greatest extent and the traditional area known as the Midlandsmarker, two modern Government Office Regions together represent the latter: West Midlands and East Midlands. These are also constituencies of the European Parliamentmarker.

The West Midlands comprises the shire counties of (1) Staffordshire, (2) Warwickshiremarker and (3) Worcestershire (with their respective districts), the unitary counties of (4) Herefordshiremarker and (5) Shropshiremarker, the metropolitan boroughs of (6) Birminghammarker, (7) Coventrymarker, (8) Dudley, (9) Sandwell, (10) Solihullmarker, (11) Walsallmarker and (12) Wolverhamptonmarker, and the unitary boroughs of (13) Stoke-on-Trentmarker and (14) Telford and Wrekin. The East Midlands comprises the shire counties of (15) Derbyshiremarker, (16) Leicestershiremarker, (17) Lincolnshiremarker, (18) Northamptonshiremarker and (19) Nottinghamshiremarker (with their respective districts), the unitary county of (20) Rutlandmarker, and the unitary boroughs of (21) Derbymarker, (22) Leicestermarker and (23) Nottinghammarker. The two regions have a combined population of 9,439,516 (2001 census), and an area of 11,053 sq mi (28,631 km²).

See also

Further reading

  • Ian W. Walker. Mercia and the Making of England (2000) ISBN 0-7509-2131-5 (also published as Mercia and the Origins of England (2000) ISBN 0-7509-2131-5)

  • Sarah Zaluckyj & Marge Feryok. Mercia: The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Central England (2001) ISBN 1-873827-62-8

  • Michelle Brown & Carol Farr (eds). Mercia: An Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in Europe (2005) ISBN 0-8264-7765-8

  • Margaret Gelling. 'The Early History of Western Mercia'. (p. 184–201; In: The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. S. Bassett. 1989) (Western Mercia and the upper Trent being the probable cradle of early Mercia).

  • Simon Schama. A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World? – 3000 BC–AD 1603 Vol 1 BBC Books 2003


  1. Roach & Hartman, eds. (1997) English Pronouncing Dictionary, 15th edition. (Cambridge University Press). p. 316; see also J.C. Wells, Longman Pronouncing Dictionary and Upton et al., Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation for Current English.
  2. Shippey notes that Tolkien uses 'Mercian' forms of Anglo-Saxon, e.g. "Saruman, Hasufel, Herugrim for 'standard' [Anglo-Saxon] Searuman, Heasufel and Heorugrim" Footnote page 140
  3. Elmes (2005)
  4. Sarah Zaluckyj & Marge Feryok. Mercia: The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Central England (2001) ISBN 1-873827-62-8
  5. McWhirter (1976)
  6. Bateman (1971)
  7. Cottle & Sherborne (1951)
  8. Sovereign Mercia (website)
  9. Acting Witan of Mercia (website)
  10. Mercian National Party (website)
  11. Mercian Socialist Party
  12. A L Kipling and Hl king, Head-dress Badges of the British Army, Vol 2, reprinted, Uckfield, 2006
  13. Arms of the City of Coventry
  14. College of Arms Ms. L.14, dating from the reign of Henry III
  15. Civic Heraldry of England and Wales – Hertfordshire, accessed January 15, 2008
  16. Geoffrey Briggs, Civic & Corporate Heraldry, London 1971
  17. C. W. Scot-Giles, Civic Heraldry of England and Wales, 2nd edition, London, 1953
  18. A. C. Fox-Davies, The Book of Public Arms, London 1915
  19. Cuthbert Hamilton Ellis, The Midland Railway, 1953
  20. Frederick Smeeton Williams, The Midland Railway: Its rise and progress: A narrative of modern enterprise, 1876
  21. The Railway Magazine, Vol. 102, 1897
  22. Dow (1973)
  23. Clement Edwin Stretton, History of The Midland Railway, 1901
  24. John Hewitt, Ancient Arms in Modern Europe, Vol II: The Fourteenth Century, 1860

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