Foreword: November 15th has been taken by some modern Germanic Heathens to commemorate the life of the tirfast Mercian king, Penda; as it was on this day that this warrior-king fought in his last battle at the now lost Winwaed river in Northern England. I originally wrote this piece for Theod Magazine back in the 90’s and it represented the first detailed treatment of the life of Penda in modern Germanic Heathen literature.
Of all the kings of Anglo-Saxon England it is Penda of Mercia who stands out as foremost in my mind…
Penda came to power during the turbulent age of the heptarchy, when the Anglo-Saxon political landscape was dominated by seven rival kingdoms – Sussex, Wessex, Kent, East Anglia, Northumbria, Mercia, and Essex – each vying for supremacy over the others. Savage wars against the Brits remained common place, especially for Northumbria, and if only to complicate matters further, the cult of Christ had begun to work it’s way into Anglo-Saxon society, sped on by the Pope in Rome. By the beginning of Penda’s reign it was already well entrenched in the aetheling (royal) house of Kent, had a secure foothold amongst the East Anglian aethelings, and was being championed by the (in-)famous King Edwin of Northumbria. For the common folk this was a time of great confusion and unprecedented blasphemy, during which kings of sacral stock turned their backs on the elder ways and took an active role in their suppression. King AEthelbeorht of Kent, the first Anglo-Saxon king to accept baptism, was renowned for the favour that he showed to his Christian subjects, while the year 627 C.E. found Edwin of Northumbria consenting to a petition to destroy all the temples and holy steads within Northumbria. In 640 C.E. King Eorcenbeorht of Kent ordered the “destruction of all idols” within his own kingdom. Such acts as these would in time — up to 100 years after Augustine’s arrival in Kent! — be followed by the drafting of legislation aimed at driving those who would not take up the new faith into debt, and eventually, thralldom; with the implication being made in later “laws” that nonChristian men should be sold out of the country, ie. the law forebade selling Christian thralls outside of the country. While our Catholic-written history preserves little of the folk’s reaction to such wolfish behavior, in the case of Eorcenbeorht the reaction was so strong – two of his kinsmen were slain in retaliation! – that it earned a place in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. And of course, even amongst a folk whom otherwise love their kings, it takes only one white crow. In any event it is against this social, political, and religious background that King Penda shines forth with tirfast brilliance. Not only did he succeed in uniting Northern and Southern Mercia, along with virtually all of Northen England, but he was also a magnet for all men, regardless of race or religion, who yearned for righteousness, equity, and honour in a world gone mad.
It is unfortunate that the lays of this glorious king’s line have not survived the centuries, but according to the genealogical records it was fathered by the god Woden sometime during the 3rd century C.E.; though Saxo Grammaticus (History of the Danes) relates that it traces back to Angul, who gave his name to the Anglii (and which probably extends back earlier to the prolific priest-king god Ingui and their assignment as Ingvaeones by Tacitus, 1st century CE). No doubt the opening lay would have been similar to the Rigsthula, and told of how the god of kingship both fathered and educated young Wihtlaeg, the first of the line. And of how this first generation Wodenic aetheling established himself as the foremost of the Angles, thereby instituting the cult of Wodenic kingship I would gather. Thanks to the Danish monk Saxo Grammaticus we can safely say that Wihtlaeg’s son, Waermund, rose to power during the early 4th century C.E., when the coast of the Roman province of Britain was being harried by the Anglian, Saxon, Frisian, and Jutish forerunners of the “dreaded” vikings. Sometime around 360 C.E., by which time Waermund had grown blind with old age, it is told that a powerful Myrging (Saxon?) chieftain sent an envoy to Old Anglia demanding that the kingdom be handed over lest the kings frailty breed lawlessness and provoke foreign aggression. In lieu of this, the King was to produce an heir to decide the fate of Old Anglia in single combat, under Tiw, with the chieftain’s own son. As it was, poor Waermund did have a son, a lad of Beowulfian stature and brawn named Offa, but this son had always been so quiet, somber and dull that few folk deemed him to be worthy of much. As a result of this, Waermund rose to meet the challenge himself, but as old and blind as he was, the envoys merely mocked at him, saying that their chieftain would never engage in so disgraceful a combat. Thus, poor Waermund’s heart sunk, but it was at this point that Offa “unlocked his word horde” so to speak, chiding the Myrgings, saying,
“It is idle for your lord to covet a kingdom which can rely not only on the service of its ruler, but also on the arms and wisdom of most valiant nobles. Moreover, the King does not lack a son, nor the kingdom an heir. And you are to know that I have decided to face not only the son of your lord in single combat, but also, at the same time, whomsoever he should chose as his shoulder companion out of the boldest of your own folk.”
After Waermund had recovered from his initial shock and disbelief, that this had truly been his son who had spoken, he asked the lad why he had held his silence for long? Offa replied that until this point he had simply been confident in his fathers might and wisdom. And when Waermund asked why he had challenged two instead of the stipulated one, Offa spoke of the death of the Swede-King Athisl; of how he had been slain unfairly by two Anglisc aethelings in days now gone, and of how this duel would come to counter that old shame. So, while there was some difficulty in finding Offa a coat of mail that would cover his massive frame, and a sword that would not shatter beneath his might, in the end he met the Myrging challenge and was victorious. The tirfast son of Waermund went on to become the King of Old Anglia, and, if not all of Saxony, then at least of the lands of these Myrgings. He also went on to become the most celebrated king of his age. He is mentioned in both the Anglo-Saxon poems as Beowulf and Widsith, the latter of which extols Offa’s unsurpassed courage and the breadth of his kingdom.
At this point in history, Penda’s ancestry becomes little more than a collection of names. It is believed that Offa’s great-grandson Icel was the first of his line with a mind for British soil. Near the end of the 5th century C.E., with the invasion of Britain already well underway, he led his warriors up the river Trent, killing, enslaving, and driving back the Brits as he went, eventually settling in the Trent valley area. His tribe of Angles came to be known as the Mercians, or Boundary Folk, and his dynasty as the Iclings.
For the next three generations it is believed that the Iclings fought as drihtens (warleaders) under the mighty kings of Wessex. Following the battle of Fethanlaeg in 584 C.E. however — a battle in which the Brits were dealt a crushing defeat — there was a falling out that gave birth to future Mercian-West Saxon hostilities. It was around this time that Penda was born. In what is believed to have been the fourth year of the reign of King Cearl of Mercia, the West Saxon King, Ceowulf, began to harry the Mercians. In 600 C.E. however, young Penda met this Ceowulf in battle and put him to flight. As a result, he won for both himself and all of Mercia the Avon valley. However, it is not until 628 C.E. that Penda emerges onto the stage of recorded history. His defeat of King Cyngils of Wessex was the deed that won him the kingship of the Mercians, not to mention Cirencester and all the lands along the lower Severn. This was the price of peace, and it may also reflect the recompense of some loss suffered by the Mercians as a result of Fethanlaeg! In any event, with this acquisition the descendant of Offa laid the foundation for those mixed Anglian and Saxon tribes that would become known as the Hwicce and the Maegonsaeton. And this would also seem as likely a time as any to place Penda’s attempt to seal the rift between the Iclings and the Gewisse by taking the West Saxon princess Cynwise as his queen, and betrothing one of his sisters to Cenwalh, son of Cynegils.
Now, as mentioned earlier, Edwin the Oathbreaker had become the champion of Christ by this time, but before I go on, it is worth noting that since the invasion of Britain those Anglii that had settled north of the river Humbre had stood apart from their sibs to the south. They themselves were “originally” of two separate kingdoms, Deira and Bernicia, each with its own aetheling house. The first to unite these kingdoms under a single kindred was the terrible AEthelfrith of Bernicia, who took the Deiran princess Aacha as his queen and drove the rest of her kindred into exile. Amongst those exiles was young Edwin, son of Ida. Of Edwin’s exile it is known that, for a time, he found asylum in Northern Wales, but eventually it came to pass that a dispute arose between himself and the Welsh aetheling Cadwallon, who vowed to cut off the Anglians head if ever the crown of cruel Northumbria came to rest upon it! From Wales the son of Ida moved on in his exile, coming to rest in Mercia around 610 C.E. It was during this time that he won the Mercian princess Cwenburh as his betrothed, suggesting, if nothing else, that Edwin was a very impressive young man indeed! Evidently, King Cearl was quite impressed with the Deiran aetheling. And we might even say the same of Cadwallon, though in a round about way. But I wonder, where did the mind of the rising star of the Iclings rest?
In due time Edwin bid farewell to his kind host in Mercia, and moved on in his exile, eventually coming to rest in East Anglia. There he was received with open arms by King Raedwald, who was also the reigning Bretwalda; a “floating” title originally used by the Anglo- Saxons to mark out the most powerful and influential king _south_ of the Humbre. In any event, while Edwin did enjoy the hospitality of this great king for a time, it eventually came to pass that AEthelfrith received good word of his whereabouts. Thus, the King of all Northumbria quickly sent envoys to the Bretwalda, at first kindly requesting, but ultimately demanding under threat of war, that Edwin be handed over. And so it came to pass the Raedwald summoned the East Anglian Witan to decide the doom of their honoured guest. It is said that while the Witan was in session Edwin sat outside in the night where he had a wondrous vision. In this vision he was approached by a tall, uncanny stranger who promised the aetheling relief from his current troubles, victory over his enemies, and fame far exceeding that of any of his line before him. In exchange, Edwin swore that he would hold as foremost the one whose counsels brought all of the above to pass. And so in the mean time the talk had gone against Edwin, and his doom had been all but decided when the historically nameless Queen of East Anglia spoke out; as she was wont to do. In years past she had seen to it that her king kept up the w worship of the native gods/goddesses despite his conversion, and now she chided him for this lack of kingliness! So moved was the Witan by their Queen’s eloquence, that they quickly reconsidered and decided, instead, that it would be best to meet AEthelfrith in battle. And so it came to pass that AEthelfrith, who had been unable to muster his full might, was crushed by Raedwald. And soon after, Edwin was hailed as the King of Northumbria.
In the same year as Edwin’s return to Northumbria, which was 616 C.E., there was a great collapse in the Catholic Church in England. In Essex for instance, the three brother-kings who ruled over those folk drove the missionary Mellitus from their kingdom for failing to show them the same simple courtesy he had shown their father; to break bread with them. Meanwhile, in Kent, the new king initially refused to accept baptism. These events, taking place as they did within the two original Anglo-Catholic kingdoms, nearly brought an end to the mission to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons.
Now, not only did the son of Ida manage to hold Northumbria together after his coronation, but he also went on to become the first king north of the Humbre to bear the title Bretwalda! Unfortunately, his vanity to have all of the kings of the heptarchy acknowledge his supremacy led to his betrothal to the Kentish princess AEthelburga, and ultimately, to Edwin’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. This in turn led to the suppression of the native beliefs within Northumbria, and one must certainly wonder what the Queen of East Anglia, Edwin’s true saviour, would have said about that? Then again, consdiering her dealings with Raedwald on this very issue, we likely already know what she would have said.
Moving right along, while the renowned historian Bede, a Northumbrian himself, makes no mention of the events that led up to the famous battle of Heathfeld in 633 C.E., other sources reveal that Edwin had himself launched a massive invasion into Northern Wales in 632 C.E. As a result of this act of Christian brotherly love, King Cadwallon, who was a Christian himself, vowed to exterminate, not every Anglian in Britain as Geoffrey of Monmouth would have us believe, which would have been far to idle a boast for so eminent a king as Cadwallon, but rather, every Northumbrian in Britain.
Speaking of Geoffrey of Monmouth, he would also have us believe that Penda fell under Cadwallon’s power when the Welsh King beat him at the battle of Caer Exon. However, I for one find it quite difficult to believe that Cadwallon, who was still licking his wounds from the beating Edwin had laid on him, was in any shape to force a drihten the calibre of Penda, whose own strength rivalled that of Wessex, into submission. It must not be overlooked that this Icling’s prowess as drihten inspired awe amongst his contemporaries, so much so that the Christians attributed his success to the practice of “diabolical arts”. Furthermore, overlooking the fact that Geoffrey was writing centuries after the events he was describing, and given the strong relations that we know existed between the Mercians and the Brits by the end of Penda’s reign at the latest, I would suggest an alternative explanation. The King of Mercia, both secure in his own might and wise to Cadwallon’s, MET with his Welsh peer at Caer Exon. There, after much heated discussion, it was agreed that Cadwallon should lead the raid on Northumbria, due to the woe Edwin had brought upon the Welsh. Furthermore, it should be noted that “Penda” is not exactly the most Anglo- Saxon of names, leading one to suspect that one of his immediate ancestresses was of Welsh stock! This suggests that alliances, and avenues to alliances, already existed, and thus, would seem the safer way to bet. As for Penda’s justification for taking part in the raid, no doubt this was quite simple; Edwin’s power was ever on the rise, and when he forsook Cwenburh in favour of AEthelburgha that waxing might became a severe threat to the well-being of the Mercians. In any event, this much is for certain, Cadwallon did put an end to Edwin, with the support of Penda, in the year 633 C.E. at Heathfeld. And incidentally, Cadwallon did make good on that promise he had made in his youth!
Soon following the victory at Heathfeld, and after the obligatory pillaging, the Mercian King returned home. He was accompanied by Eadfrith, son of Edwin by Cwenburh, who had thrown himself upon Penda’s mercy. Of this aetheling Bede writes that he was “…compelled to submit to Penda, who subsequently, in breach of a solemn oath, put him to death during the reign of Oswald.” While something tells me that there was a little more to the matter than what Bede had to say, it is nevertheless true that the aetheling house of Deira was making a rapid advance toward extinction!
As for Cadwallon, he continued on ravaging Northumbria, apparently intent on fulfilling his other legendary vow! He held the field for an entire year, during which time Northumbria fractured back into it’s original kingdoms and the worship of the native gods/goddesses was taken up once more. In the summer of 634 C.E. King Osric of Deira, Edwin’s kinsman, is said to have had Cadwallon under heavy siege “…in a strong city…”, but it nevertheless came to pass that, when Cadwallon had grown tired of his state, he ordered the doors thrown open and fell upon the Deirans with a great fury. Osric and all of his men were utterly destroyed. Later on in the same year King Eanfrith of Bernicia, who was acting upon some very, very poor counsel, rode out with twelve hand picked warriors to seek an audience with Cadwallon and discuss terms of peace! Needless to say perhaps, they were all slain. Near years end however, Oswald of Bernicia, who had bided his time in Kent, hatching devious plots according to Bede with King Eadbeald of Kent, returned to Northumbria. He met Cadwallon at Heofenfeld, and there, the Welsh king’s fyrd was scattered, and his reign of terror brought to an end. The son of AEthelfrith went on to reunite Northumbria, under Irish Catholicism, and then to establish himself as sixth in the line of Bretwaldas.
In the year 635 C.E., Penda, apparently not all that impressed by Oswald’s might and authority, once again took to the field; this time against King Ecgric of East Anglia. Unfortunately, Bede tells us nothing of the circumstances that led up to the war. While Offa’s offspring most certainly had designs on the Swedish and continental trading routes that lay open to East Anglia, these do not seem to have been an immediate concern. I would suggest that this conflict involved the Middle Angles, who could boast no aetheling house of their own, who were situated between East Anglia and Mercia, and who were clearly under Penda’s banner by 652 C.E. at the very latest. It would seem to me that this Ecgric, who had only a weak claim to the East Anglian kingship, made a play for Middle Anglia in an attempt to get out from under the shadow of his predecessor, the devout Sigebeorht, son of Raedwald, and wrack up some “Christian glory” for himself. At this point, the Middle Angles responded by placing themselves under Mercia’s protection, leaving little choice but for Penda to go in and teach the East Anglians a lesson in good manners. Thus, Penda launched his first raid into East Anglia. While Ecgric stood in all ways ready to him, the East Anglian fyrd itself refused to fight unless Sigebeorht was brought forth from his monastery to lead them. At length, Sigebeorht had to be physically removed from said monastery and dragged by the East Anglians to the field of battle! At this point the battle was fought, both Ecgric and Sigebeorht were slain, and Penda stood victorious. Curiously enough however, at least to some trains of thought, Penda did not annex East Anglia. Rather, he promptly returned to Mercia, leaving the East Anglians to sort out their own affairs.
In this same year, and no doubt encouraged by Penda’s acquisition of Middle Anglia, Oswald made a timely visit to Wessex where King Cynegils was about to accept baptism. The Bretwalda received the West Saxon King from the font, gave him his daughter in marriage, and in doing so struck an alliance with mighty Wessex. In effect, this rendered the Saxon kingdom neutral in regards to both Mercia and Northumbria, and no doubt created a certain aura of suspicion in the mind of old King Penda. Clearly enough, Oswald was not as secure in his station of Bretwalda as Bede would have us believe, and Mercia, so humble in its infancy, had at last come into its own!
And so things remained relatively quiet from this point until 641 C.E., the year in which Oswald launched a massive raid into Mercia. This was the first breach of the Mercian peace since the days of Ceolwulf! The great fyrd of Mercia was mustered and Penda rose to meet Oswald, but Northumbria was strong and its king hell-bent on victory. Nearly overwhelmed, Penda was forced to signal the retreat, with he and his men falling back into Wales. Oswald pursued of course, but when he at last caught up with old Penda, he found himself confronted by a combined Mercian-Welsh force at Maserfeld! And so it was there that Penda put an end to the son of AEthelfrith, cutting off the Northumbrians head and his hands and propping them on stakes for all to see.
Predictably enough, Bede contrasts this image of “heathen” brutality with a pious image of Oswald falling to his knees and praying for the salvation of his warriors just prior to the coup de grace. But in considering the brutality of this act we might also consider that, not only had the Mercian frith been violated for the first time in 41 years once again, and the King forced into retreat, but Penda’s younger brother Eowa had also been slain in this fight! As for the severed hands and head, it would seem that Penda considered Oswald a thief, while their display upon stakes would seem to go back to the elder Germanic belief (Tacitus, Germania) that the punishment for criminal activity should be displayed for all to see.
Following in Oswald’s footsteps was his inept brother, Oswui. While Bede credits Oswui with being the next in the line of Bretwaldas, it is at least somewhat curious that Penda dictated the terms of peace between Mercia and Northumbria following the war; taking Ecgfrith, Oswui’s youngest son, as a hostage, and betrothing his own daughter Cynburh to Alhfrith, Oswui’s eldest. In light of the “warlike heathen” stereotype we might consider the implication here; that Penda desired to bring an end to the rivalry that had began between Mercia and Northumbria during the reign of Edwin. And it goes without saying that he would have extracted oaths to this end as well.
Now, let us take a moment to consider that Mercian expansion into Northumbria, or Wessex for that matter, would have brought with it problems that far exceeded the rewards. The acquisition of East Anglia on the other hand, would not only bring few problems that the Mercians were not already familiar at dealing with, but that open port would also offer a considerable boost to the otherwise modest Mercian economy. So, it is with this in mind that I say, from the get go Oswui was bound and determined to make trouble.
And so it was in the summer of 642 C.E. that Oswui mustered a fyrd, rode out to Maserfeld, and reclaimed his brothers remains; something that good sense would suggest should not have been done, all things considered. As a consequence, Penda launched the first of three raids into Northumbria, ravaging the land and besieging the brother of Oswald in Bamburgh. And lest any wonder about Penda’s justification for this raid, it should be noted that both Alhfrith, and AEthelwald, son of Oswald and ealdorman of Deira, accompanied the wise old king on this raid! And consider also that, following the raid the Deirans forsook both Oswui and AEthelwald, and hailed Oswin, last male offspring of the aetheling house of Deira, as their king.
In the year 645 C.E. it came to pass that King Cenwalh of Wessex forsook his Mercian queen, perhaps acting upon the counsel of Oswui himself! In prompt response to this diplomatic act of aggression, King Penda launched a raid into Wessex, defeating the West Saxon fyrd and driving his fellow heathen into exile. Within a year, Cenwalh had found his way into the company of King Anna, who had ruled in East Anglia since the death of Ecgric. There, under Anna’s encouragement, Cenwalh accepted baptism. I am reminded of Edwin’s high weofodthane Coifi…
For the next five years all of Anglo-Saxon England enjoyed a time of peace, and one that not even Cenwalh’s return to the West Saxons could breach. In due time however it came to pass that Oswui raised the fyrd in an attempt to oust Oswin and reunite Northumbria under his rule. Lacking confidence in his own might, luckless Oswin is said to have gone into hiding, only to be betrayed by a close friend. From there, Oswui ordered the death of Edwin’s kinsman, and the aetheling line of Deira met its end. In spite of this misfortune, the Deirans wanted nothing at all to do with Oswui, and so they proclaimed that their former ealdorman, AEthelwald, would serve as their new king. It might be telling, once again, that the son of Oswald lost no time whatsoever in placing both himself and his folk under the protection of Penda! This meant of course, that Deira was now effectively a part of Mercia, and whatever Oswui might have threatened upon his nephew, it now stood as cause for Penda to lay yet another beating on him. According to Bede, all of Bernicia was ravaged and entire villages laid to waste.
It was either soon after, or perhaps during this raid that Penda was approached by envoys from a number of Brit-Kings, who petitioned his aid in reclaiming a number of precious heirlooms Oswui had extracted as tribute from them. This led to a siege at what is believed to have been Sterling, and while Oswui initially refused to yield up the ransom, he quickly reconsidered when the King of Kings began tearing down a neighbouring village and stacking the debris around the burgh. And so, with Sterling on the verge of being reduced to cinders, the British treasures were handed over and returned to their rightful heirs. It is said that Oswui offered Penda many more treasures beyond those given to the Brits, but that the Icling wanted nothing of them.
In the year 652 C.E. it came to pass that the Middle Saxons, who, like the Middle Angles, had no aetheling house of their own, fell under Mercian influence. This is a rather odd event, and only a vague reference is made to it in one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; of which there are something like 5. This could have been a push towards Essex, which was constantly exherting internal pressures for a return for to the native gods/goddesses, which could also boast the important trading centre of London, and which would eventually fall under Mercian influence during the reign of Wulfhere. More on him later. While the chronicler may have simply confused Middlesex and Middle Anglia, the latter of which we know was awarded to Penda’s eldest son Peada in this same year, he may also have simply been more attentive than his fellows. It is possible that Peada somehow made this acquisition. And in a manner that so impressed his father that he awarded his son with the kingship of the Middle Angles. In this regard it is also worth noting that in this same year Oswui persuaded King Sigebeorht the Small of Essex to accept baptism, suggesting that Essex, for some reason, felt itself threatened enough to aline itself with a king who was a proven failure.
Be that as it may, the following year Peada became smitten with the Bernician princess Alhflaed, and asked her father for his consent in the betrothal. Now, not unlike many another Christian, Oswui saw this as at once strictly out of the question, as a useful evangelical tool, and as a useful political tool. So, after his atypical Christian posturing, Oswui conceded to allow the betrothal if Peada would in turn submit to baptism and aid in the spread of Christianity amongst his folk. As we might expect, Peada took the matter up with his father before committing to anything, thus setting the stage for Penda’s historic doom;
“I will not forbid the preaching of the Christian faith even amongst the Mercians, if any are willing to hear it, but I shall nevertheless hate and despise those whom I perceive to be without works of faith once they have received the faith of Christ. For they are utterly worthless, those whom scorn to obey the god in whom they trust.”
Thus, with Penda’s blessing, Christianity was introduced amongst the Middlefolk. Much to Bede’s credit, he did not fail to mention the old king’s broadmindedness and wisdom in regards to religious matters. While Penda was himself firmly “in the camp” of the native gods/goddesses, it would be foolish to believe that he was ignorant of British Isle Catholicism; a knowledge that he would have picked up from any one of the number of his allies. More than this however, it would seem (via implication) that he had actually built up his own ideas regarding how that faith was to be practiced. And here we get a glimpse of the Icling fulfilling one of his more sacral duties as king; acting as the voice of Heaven and stewarding over the spiritual well being of his folk. In fact, in honour of King Penda one might very well say, “the closer to Mercia, the better the Christian”.
In 654 C.E., having earned the respect and gratitude of the exiled East Anglian aetheling, AEthelhere, Penda once again launched a raid into East Anglia. With the death of King Anna, AEthelhere was hailed as king by the East Angles, and he in turn swore his troth to the King of Kings. At long last, Mercia had acquired her “gateway to the world”.
In the following year it came to pass that something so stirred the old kings ire that, as Bede relates, he assembled a terrible host and resolved to put an end to Oswui once and for all. As to what, specifically, caused the war we will never know. Bede states only that AEthelhere was responsible and nothing more. Certainly, Oswui was in no position to challenge Penda, although who knows what devious plots he might have been hatching with Wessex, Essex, and/or Kent. On the other hand, given that Offa of Old Anglia had ruled over all the Anglian folk in their Scandinavian days, and with only Bernicia standing between Penda and the elder glory of the Icling line, the idea of a new Anglia may have held some appeal. Whatever the case, AEthelhere was foremost amongst the thirty odd drihtens, of Anglo-Saxon and British, Germanic and Christian, extraction that assembled under the tirfast king’s banner. Ealdorman AEthelwald of Deira was also numbered amongst their ranks, but curiously enough, or perhaps not, Penda released the son of Oswald from his military obligations, and he acted strictly as a guide. The battle was fought in the month of November in a field hard by the now lost Winwaed River. In defiance of the odds, Oswui snatched the victory. Now, it may have been that Bede implicitly exaggerated the overall strength over Penda’s force, but in any event, I believe that Woden himself had come to fetch his kinsmen at Winwaed, which may have been the aged kings final battle whatever the outcome. With Penda’s death the kingship returned to eaven, the waters of the Winwaed spilled over the land, and the Mercian host was thrown into confusion. AEthelhere and his entire war band followed the King of Kings into death, as did the lion share of the other drihtens. The one notable exception to this was Cadfael of Northern Wales, who may have saved his skin, for as long as it would last, but whose name became synonymous with cowardice…amongst his own countrymen. In contrast, a great ship burial was dedicated to AEthelhere, whose body had been lost in the flood, by his folk in East Anglia. This ship burial has since gone on to be the single greatest archaeological discovery in English history! I am speaking of course of the find at Sutton Hoo.
Following the tragic battle of Winwaed, Oswui annexed Mercia and evangelised it by fire and sword. Although Peada was eventually appointed ealdorman of Southern Mercia by Oswui, it “just kinda happened” that he was murdered by his wife, Oswui’s daughter, over the following Easter-tide; at which point Oswui took control of all of Mercia. The Northumbrian held Mercia until 658 C.E., when he was forced out by three Mercian lords who had kept Wulfhere, the younger brother of Peada, in hiding. This Wulfhere grew into a mighty king in his own right, but he lacked his father’s high-mindedness and integrity. During his reign, he reconverted the East Saxons, whom had reasserted their native belief for the third and final time, and brought about the conversion of the South Saxons as well. By 658 C.E. the political conversion of Anglo- Saxon England was all but complete.
As for Mercia itself, while but a shadow of what it had been under Penda, it remained a dominant kingdom in the heptarchy up until the death of Offa II in 796 C.E. At this point, Wessex reassumed centre stage, eventually giving birth to that legendary king, Alfred the Great; Penda’s true successor. Northumbria on the other hand, went on to become a breeding ground for the ill-mannered and fanatical missionaries whom, in conjunction with the military might of the Carolingians, would bring a bloody end to the worship of the native gods/goddesses upon the continent; unwittingly setting off the Viking Age to boot!
In closing, by the time of Penda’s death in 655 C.E. he was not only king of his own Mercia, but also ruled over Hwicce, the Maegonsaeton, the Middle Angles, the Deirans, the Middle Saxons, and the East Angles. Included within his rice were two kings who had willingly entered his service, folk of three different tribes, and two extremely different belief systems, all of whom Penda brought together in harmonious accord. And without resorting to the “throw’em all together and let God sort’em out” mentality of a more “enlightened” era. Add to this Penda’s strong alliances with the many Brit- Kings and it must be acknowledge that Penda, more than any other king before him, was truly the Bretwalda. In regards to this magnificent king it could easily be said that what fabled Camelot came to represent in fiction, Penda’s Mercia represented in fact.