King Offa

king offaOffa was an outstanding figure in Anglo-Saxon history, born into the Mercian Royal House circa 730, the son of Thingfrith, who was the son of Eanulf.

Offa obtained the throne of Mercia in 757, during a period of civil war which followed the murder of Aethelbald who had reigned over the kingdom of Mercia for 41 years.

In the early years of his reign King Offa consolidated his control of the midland tribes, taking advantage of instability in the kingdom of Kent, and established himself as overlord.

In the 780s King Offa extended Mercian supremacy over most of the south of England. Charters issued by King Offa from the years 785-789 makes his authority in Kent clear. Mercian control of Kent continued until his death in 796. He also exerted his authority over the Kingdom of Sussex.

It is believed Offa thought of himself as ‘King of the Mercians’ and that military successes were part of the transformation of Mercia from an overlordship of midland peoples into a powerful and aggressive kingdom.

In Anglo-Saxon England, some will argue that Offa was perhaps the greatest king of the English Kingdoms commenting that ‘ no other Anglo-Saxon King regarded the world at large with so acute a political sense’.  Many historians regard Offa’s achievements as second only to Alfred the Great among the Anglo-Saxon kings.  Offa’s reign has divided the view of historians, originally  regarded as a key stage in the transition to a unified England, many would say ‘Offa was driven by a lust for power, not a vision of English unity and what he left was a reputation and not a legacy.

The power and prestige that Offa attained made him one of the most significant rulers in Early Medieval Britain.  Much of this power can be seen at work in ‘Charters’ dating from Offa’s reign.

The title Offa used on most of his charters was ‘Rex Merciorium’ or ‘King of the Mercians’ though this was occasionally extended to ‘King of the Mercians and surrounding nations’.

Some of his charters use the title ‘Rex Anglorum’ or ‘King of the English’ and this has been seen as a sweeping statement of his power, although there is some doubt regarding authenticity.

Charters were documents which granted land to followers or to churchmen and were witnessed by the kings who had authority to grant the land.  A charter might record the names of both a subject king and his overlord on the witness list appended to the grant.

The best evidence for Offa’s use of this title comes from coins, not charters, there are some coins with ‘Of R.A.’ inscribed, but no guarantee this stood for ‘Offa Rex Anglorum’.

offa coinOffa’s coins were produced circa 790, these medium-weight coins were of high artistic quality and have been described as ‘showing a delicacy of execution which is unique in the whole history of the Anglo-Saxon coinage’.  The depictions of Offa on the coins include a ‘striking and elegant’ portrait showing him with his hair in voluminous curls and another with a fringe and tight curls.

King Offa's wife Cynethryth, believed to be a descendant of Penda, held the distinction of being the only Anglo-Saxon Queen consort in whose name coinage was issued.

King Offa and Cynethryth produced five children, a son Ecgfrith, who later succeeded his father as King of Mercia and four daughters, Æthelburh, Eadburh, Ælfflæd and Æthelswith.

Offa ruled as a Christian King but after conflict with the Archbishop of Canterbury, succeeded in reducing the power of Canterbury through the establishment of a rival archdiocese at Lichfield.This change in church organization freed the Mercian church from the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury in Kent.

Offa also issued laws in his name, unfortunately no details have survived other than mention made by Alfred the Great in the preface of his own law code that he has included those laws of Offa.

Offa’s diplomatic relations with Europe are well documented particularly his links with Charlegmagne, who exchanged letters and gifts.In 796 one of the first trade agreements between the two countries was signed, he is also believed to have established trading connections as far as Arabia.

There is evidence that Offa constructed a series of defensive ‘burhs’, or fortified towns which include Bedford, Hereford and Oxford.  In addition to their defensive uses, these burhs are thought to have been administrative centres, serving as regional markets and indicating a transformation of the Mercian economy.  These burhs are the forerunners of the defensive network successfully implemented by Alfred the Great a century later to deal with the Danish invasions.

offa's dykeKing Offa's Dyke

King Offa is perhaps most famous for the construction of Offa's Dyke.

A great earthen barrier that runs approximately along the border between England and Wales.  It is mentioned by the monk ‘Asser’ in his biography of Alfred the Great’ written in 893, a certain vigorous king called Offa…had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea.

The effort and expense that must have gone into building the dyke are extremely impressive and suggest that Offa would have had considerable resources at his disposal.

Forming the traditional boundary between England and Wales, the dyke was built during the 780s running, although not continuously, from the Dee estuary in the north to the River Wye in the south. In places, Offa's Dyke is up to 65 feet (19.8 metres) wide and 8 feet (2.4 m) high and is thought to have once reached the sea at Prestatyn.

King Offa’s Palace

A palace at Tamworth was built by King Offa, which was so magnificent in style and furnishings, that it was declared to be 'the wonder of the age'.

King Offa of Mercia died on 29th July, 796, and his body is believed to have been laid to rest in Bedford, in a royal manner outside of the city, situated on the bank of the river Ouse.

He was succeeded as King of Mercia by his son, Ecgfrith who reigned for only 141 days, most likely killed by Offa's opponents.

'Battle and Tribute'
The top floor of the Castle is home to our newest interactive exhibition which brings the area’s rich Anglo-Saxon history to life, including the role of King Offa. It also explores many exciting aspects of the Staffordshire Hoard, including themes of battle, kingship and the warrior culture in Anglo-Saxon Mercia. Read more here...