And indeed Offa was powerful. He acceded to the throne of Mercia in 757 AD, towards the end of the 350 year period following the recall of the last Roman legion from Britain in 410 AD. During this time, Germanic settlers from the plains of northwest Europe colonised the country in increasing numbers, moving inland and westward from the south and east coasts. Although culturally similar, they were separated by tribal allegiances which distinguished them as either Angles, Saxons, Jutes or Friesians.
Principally they were farmers in search of land on which to plant their crops and raise their cattle. The bland climate and light sandy soils of the south of the country must have provided adequate reward for their efforts as they embarked on the enormous task of felling the expanse of native forest. These frontiersmen of the Dark Ages gradually ousted the Romano-British inhabitants from their former lands, driving them westwards to the remote fastness of Wales and Cornwall. The invaders were heathens, worshipping local gods associated with streams and woodland glades and expressing a pantheism much in keeping with their agrarian way of life. The vanquished Britons, on the other hand had been Christian since the 3rd century AD and for 200 years these Celtic Christians kept the faith alive even though separated from the rest of the Christian world by their barbarian enemies
However, from the end of the 6th century, successive waves of Celtic missionaries went forth from their monasteries in Ireland carrying with them a religious fervour which enabled them to convert not only the Anglo-Saxons, but their continental neighbours the Franks. Saxon missionaries in turn converted the German speaking peoples of northern Europe. Meanwhile the Roman church attempted equally to win converts, bringing the two traditions into doctrinal conflict. By the time of Offa, these disputes had been resolved largely in favour of the Papacy.
At the start of Offa's reign England consisted of a number of small kingdoms in continual dispute with each other. Mercia was the largest of these small states and occupied a central position in relation to the others. To the north was Northumbria, to the south were the kingdoms of Wessex, Essex, Sussex and Kent. To the east was East Anglia and to the west was Wales. This gave Mercia considerable strategic advantage, an attribute which Offa exploited to the full.
In 760 AD, within three years of his accession, Offa led Mercia to a major victory over the Welsh at Hereford. In 774 AD, he subdued Wessex and Kent and shortly after proclaimed himself "King of England".
He began to mint his own coinage, and it is generally accepted that the penny was first introduced in Kent, under Offa, about 790-1, and for five centuries formed the fundamental structure of the English economic system. Except for an occasional emission of struck half pennies, and gold (under Offa), the penny remained the sole denomination until the appearance of a larger silver and gold coinage during the 13th century. Silver coins of Offa may be divided into two major groups. The earlier group consists of small thick flans with a weight of 16-20 grains. The newer group - the penny - was prepared on large thin flans of 22 1/2 grain weight. The penny coinage was completely dominated by the personality of Offa. Not only were designs and legends dictated by the crown, but the number and location of the mints too was carefully controlled by him. The use of the penny spread quickly through the areas he controlled. Thus the currency of Mercia, directly under Offa's control, as well as the currency under the kings of Kent and the Archbishop of Canterbury are all of similar style, suggesting that they were produced in a single mint, probably Canterbury (Needleman , Saul B).
In 782 AD, Offa completed the construction of a defensive earthwork to mark the border between Mercia and Wales. Offa's Dyke, as it has been known ever since, remains visible for much of its length but no longer marks the official boundary between England and Wales. While Offa may have been effectively King of England, in practice it was not so. To the east there was the independent kingdom of East Anglia, and although relations between the two states were amicable, these had chilled following Offa's victory over Kent. During the same year, events on the continent set the seal on a new political alliance which had the effect of undermining Offa's claims to the southern kingdoms he had annexed. This was the act by which Charlemagne confirmed the gift of territory to the Pope, that had been made by his father, Pepin. In return the Pope confirmed upon Charlemagne the title, Holy Roman Emperor. This formalised the doctrine that only the Pope could rule on the legitimacy of any territorial claims.
Fearing an alliance between East Anglia and the Franks, Offa took steps to foster good relations with the Papacy. He embraced Christianity and became a benefactor of the church, creating the Archbishopric of Litchfield in 787 AD and founding Saint Albans Abbey in 790 AD. However, so great was Offa's ambition that he commenced a campaign to annexe the territory when Aethelberht inherited the East Anglian crown from his father, Aethelred.
We are told that, "the valour of Aethelberht defeated Offa's attempts to annexe the country of the East Angles and peace was established", (Duncumb, 1812). Aethelberht's fame spread throughout the known world. He was known not only as a brave soldier, but also as a devout and handsome young man. Being unmarried, he was one of the most eligible princes in Europe. So when Aethelberht proposed marriage between himself and Offa's daughter Aelfrida, Offa was placed under great pressure to accept. The resulting union was intended to cement the peace between the two kingdoms, but it would have prevented Offa from achieving his lifetime's ambition - to be ruler of all England.
At this point the record becomes more fragmented. Like all murder enquiries, although hearsay and circumstantial evidence play their part in helping to piece together what clues there are, the exact sequence of events must always be a matter for conjecture. We know however, that Offa had a palace at Marden. It has been claimed that the site was on a hill known as Sutton Walls. This Iron Age hill fort dating from the 5th century BC lies in the neighbouring parish of Sutton Saint Nicholas. The settlement was put to the torch during the Roman conquest and its use prohibited during the occupation. There is evidence of Dark Age occupation (Kenyon), but nothing on the scale of a royal palace. Possibly Offa stationed troops there as the fort provides a commanding lookout over the entire valley down to Hereford and around to the bright uplands of Wales.
It is more likely that the palace would have been in the shelter of the valley where Offa's family could have enjoyed the luxuries appropriate to their rank. A place where water was plentiful and where dignitaries could be entertained in comfort. We are told of archaeological evidence of a large 8th century structure at Sutton Saint Michael, the hamlet at the foot of the hill on which Sutton Walls is situated. However from the map this does not look like the sort of place where a man like Offa could do business. Within a mile of Marden church is a triangle of lanes from which numerous others radiate in all directions. A few yards away runs the sleepy River Lugg over which passes a lane which joins the triangle midway along one of its sides. Regardless of what buildings stand on the site today, this triangle appears the perfect location for an 8th century palace.
Wherever the palace was, it was from there that a message was sent to the East Anglian court accepting the offer of marriage and inviting Aethelberht to wed the Princess Aelfrida without delay. Aethelberht's earls counselled against the match, preferring Seledrith, an elder daughter who had already inherited her father's lands in one of the southern kingdoms now controlled by Offa. But it seems that Aethelberht was determined to marry Aelfrida, whose beauty and charm distinguished her above all the other noble ladies in the land.
Many writers claim that the couple had already met and that it was a genuine love-match. Others maintain that the invitation was simply to a betrothal feast. Why else should Aethelberht have set out with such a small retinue of guards? For a marriage feast, surely all Aethelberht's earls and their captains would have been in attendance, and the treachery that followed could never have come to pass.
We are told that Aethelberht's journey to Marden was not without incident. At one point, "the earth shook beneath his horse as he attempted to mount [and] darkness fell suddenly at midday", (Lawrence-Smith, 1990 ). Undaunted, the devout Aethelberht urged his followers to prostrate themselves on the ground while he prayed. An educated man, Aethelberht almost certainly knew an eclipse when he saw one, and it was not long before the column was able to move on.
However, as they passed deeper into Mercia, the young king was plagued by nightmares. "He saw the roof of his own palace sinking and the corners of his bridal bed collapse. Next he glimpsed his mother standing near, weeping tears of blood. He saw a tree, growing up through the centre of his house and men chopping at the roots until a torrent of blood flowed forth". Finally he saw "a column of light more splendid than the sun, and a wonderful bird with gold tips to its wings soaring upwards into the sublime harmony of heaven", ibid.
Such is the optimism of youth that Aethelberht allowed his courtiers to convince him that the vision was auspicious. Indeed, it is suggested that he hurried on with renewed vigour. On arrival at Offa's court he was received with all the honour due to him. There was feasting and merriment as the betrothed couple began their first tentative encounters. The troubles of the journey and the former enmity between the two kings became but a memory for Aethelberht as the negotiations moved inexorably onward. There are a number of accounts of what occurred next. Duncumb ibid., places the blame on Offa's wife Cynethrida who, for political gain procured the death of Aethelberht. By placing a luxurious chair poised over a trap door in the young king’s room, Aethelberht was delivered into captivity by being tipped into a dungeon while sitting on it. He was then taken, bound and beheaded with his own sword.
A more titillating account occurs in a translation from the medieval Latin of the Hereford Breviary found in the Cathedral Library, (Howard-Jones, 1993). “The Queen, on seeing Aethelberht’s beauty was violently enamoured, and could not control her desires. She revealed her shameful thoughts by the expression of her eyes. The chaste youth, fearing God, abhorred so great a wickedness and fled from her." Outraged and distrustful of Aethelberht, Cynethrida went to Offa and convinced him that his future son-in-law planned to seize Mercia and unite England after Offa's days. After 37 years on the throne, the old king must have been aware that his days were drawing to a close. Drinking heavily through the night, his wife's counsel eventually prevailed and he agreed that it would be safer to dispose of Aethelberht. Cunning as he was, Offa recognised that this marriage of his younger daughter might advance his claims over East Anglia. But if the hand of fate moved against him, Aethelberht's heirs might inherit Mercia.
Other accounts do not involve the Queen. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records, "in the year 794, Offa, King of the Mercians commanded the head of King Aethelberht to be struck off." Such an imperious gesture seems more in keeping with what we know of Offa than the possibly misogynist accounts involving an unfaithful or ruthless wife. In any case, Aethelberht's fate was sealed and it is generally believed he was beheaded with his own sword wielded by one Gymbert, warder of Offa's dungeon. The crime may well have been committed within the palace. However, it may also have occurred near the river bank where the body was afterwards thrown into a marsh less than a mile from the palace. An irreverent piece of doggerel from an anonymous 18th century source claims;
"While dallying with his mistress, on a mossy bridal bed,
Poor Ethelbert lost his breeches, and later on, his head."
The effect of this on poor Aelfrida must have been profound. Osbert of Clare wrote in the 12th century that, "Offa's daughter mourned the young king, and expressing abhorrence of the wickedness of her parents vowed to give herself up to the service of God and live as an anchorite at Croyland." This refined account probably does not do justice to her reaction. As any father who has just murdered his teenage daughter's new boyfriend and thrown his body into a swamp will know, young girls fail to appreciate that often these things are all for the best. Offa quickly dispersed Aethelberht's guards and issued a warrant for the arrest of Gwynberht who had gone into hiding. We know nothing of Gwynberht's fate which suggests that he may have escaped, possibly across the Dyke to Wales where a man of his talents would have found immediate employment. To ensure the security of his eastern border, Offa proclaimed the annexation of East Anglia.
Offa was now master of England but the legitimacy of his claim was unsound. While this remained so, he began to fret about the consequences of his deeds. Some have inclined to the view that he was troubled by his conscience. Others take the more robust view that a pragmatist like Offa would have been more concerned with allaying the fears of his subjects and fellow conspirators than his own redemption. When rumours spread that the ghost of Aethelberht had been seen like a heavenly glow above the swamp where his body lay, Offa was moved to seek absolution from the Pope. The claim that Offa went personally on a pilgrimage to Rome is not credible. The length of the journey and the danger to his realm that his absence would have entailed suggest that Offa simply entered into negotiations by means of emissaries.
Whatever the means, the negotiations were successful not only for Offa, but also for Pope Adrian, who imposed a number of conditions on the grant of absolution. In a nutshell, it was that Offa should pay for the canonization of Aethelberht. First he was to build a church at Marden dedicated to the Virgin Mary at the place where Aethelberht's body was buried. Also he was to build a stone church at Hereford, dedicate it to Saint Aethelberht and translate the saint's body there. He had to provide also a virgate of land for the church at Marden and tithes for the support of the church at Hereford.
Offa was content with this and true to his word. Aethelberht was re-buried under the church at Marden and when his body was exhumed, a well formed at the site of the grave. This can be seen today in a small room dedicated to the saint at the west end of Marden church. It is said to be miraculous because it remains clear even when the nearby River Lugg is in flood. It is also recorded in the Hereford Missal for the feast of Saint Aethelberht that, while the saint's remains were being moved to Hereford, the head fell from the bier carrying them. Miraculously a blind man stumbled upon it and his sight was immediately restored.
Sadly the church which Offa built was put to the torch by the Welsh some 250 years later in 1055 AD. All the ornaments and relics of the saint were destroyed, except for the head which was later moved to Westminster Abbey for safe keeping. This did not prevent the cult from flourishing until well into the 12th century when Hereford became almost as popular as Canterbury as a place of pilgrimage.
So it was that Offa received an earthly crown and Aethelberht a heavenly one. Saint Aethelberht's Day is still celebrated on May 20th each year. But Offa's enjoyment of his earthly achievement was short-lived and he was succeeded in 796 AD by his son, Cenwulf. It was many years before England became truly united, but Offa had been the first to have that dream and his ruthless ambition succeeded in making it a reality for a short time. However, he was not the last for whom murder and treachery were merely tactics in pursuit of that most seductive of all prizes, the Crown of England.
Hereford Saint Ethelbert Probus Club o Stan Arms Honorary Treasurer May 2004