MERCIA, one of the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England. The original kingdom seems to have lain in the upper basin of the Trent, comprising the greater part of Derbyshire and Staffordshire, the northern parts of Warwickshire and Leicestershire, and the southern part of Nottinghamshire. The name (Merce) seems to denote men of the March, and presumably was first applied when this district bordered upon the Welsh. In later times Mercia successively absorbed all the other territories between the Humber and the Thames except East Anglia, and some districts even beyond the Thames.
The origin of the kingdom is obscure. The royal family, according to Felix, Life of St Guthlac (Anglo-Saxon version), were called Iclingas. Icel, their ancestor, may have been the founder of the kingdom, but nothing is known of him. The family, however, claimed descent from the ancient kings of Angle (cf. Off a I. and Wermund). The first Mercian king of whom we have any record was Cearl, who apparently reigned about the beginning of the 7th century, and whose daughter Coenburg married Edwin, king of Deira. During Edwin's reign Mercia was subject to his supremacy, though it may have been governed throughout by princes of its own royal family. Its first prominent appearance in English history may be dated in the year 633, when the Mercian prince Penda joined the Welsh king Ceadwalla in overthrowing Edwin. According to the Saxon Chronicle, Penda began to reign in 626, and fought against the West Saxons at Cirencester in 628. In the Mercian regnal tables, however, he is assigned a reign of only twenty-one years, which, as his death took place in 654 or 655, would give 634 as the date of his accession, presumably on the overthrow of Edwin, or perhaps on that of Ceadwalla. During the reign of Oswald Penda clearly reigned under the suzerainty of that king. In 642, however, Oswald was slain by Penda in a battle at a place called Maserfeld, which has not been identified with certainty. During the early part of Oswio's reign the Northumbrian kingdom was repeatedly invaded and ravaged by the Mercians, and on one occasion (before 651) Penda besieged and almost captured the Northumbrian royal castle at Bamborough. At the same time he extended his influence in other directions, and expelled from the throne of Wessex Coenwalh, who had divorced his sister. Indeed, at this time nearly all the English kingdoms must have acknowledged his supremacy. The kingdom of Middle Anglia, which appears to have included the counties of Northampton, Rutland, Huntingdon, and parts of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire, was formed into a dependent principality under his son Peada. At this time also the territory corresponding to the modern counties of Cheshire, Shropshire and Herefordshire seems to have been occupied. The last of these counties is said some time later to have been under the government of another son of Penda, named Merewald. In 654 or 655 Penda again invaded Northumbria, with a huge army divided into thirty legiones, each under a royal prince, among whom were iEthelhere, king of East Anglia, and several Welsh kings. He was defeated and slain, however, by Oswio, at a river called the Winwaed. Mercia then came again under Northumbrian rule. Peada, the eldest son of Penda, was allowed to govern the part south of the Trent, while north Mercia was put in charge of Northumbrian officials. Penda, although he did not prohibit the preaching of Christianity, had remained a heathen to the end of his life. His death was followed by the conversion of his kingdom. Peada had embraced Christianity on his marriage with a daughter of Oswio, and under him the first Mercian bishopric was founded. Shortly afterwards Peada was murdered; but in 658 the Mercians rose under his younger brother Wulfhere and threw off the Northumbrian supremacy.
Wulfhere seems to have been a vigorous ruler, for he extended the power of Mercia as far as it had reached in the days of his father, and even farther. According to the Chronicle he invaded Wessex as far as Ashdown in Berkshire in the year 661. At the same time he conquered the Isle of Wight, which he gave to jEthelwalh, king of Sussex. Between the years 661 and 665 he was defeated by the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith and had to give up Lindsey. In 675 he again fought with the West Saxons under Aescwine, and shortly afterwards died. His brother AEthelred, who succeeded him, invaded Kent in the following year, and in 679 fought a battle on the Trent against Ecgfrith, by which he recovered Lindsey. After this, however, we hear little of Mercian interference with the other kingdoms for some time; and since it is clear that during the last 15 years of the 7th century Wessex, Essex, Sussex and Kent were frequently involved in strife, it seems likely that the Mercian king had somewhat lost hold over the south of England. In 704 AEthelred resigned the crown and became a monk, leaving his kingdom to Coenred, the son of Wulfhere. Coenred also abdicated five years later and went to Rome. Ceolred, the son of AEthelred, who succeeded, fought against the West Saxon king Ine in 715. On his death in the following year AEthelbald, a distant relative, came to the throne, and under him Mercian supremacy was fully restored over all the kingdom south of the Humber. .He reigned for 41 years. After his murder in 757 the Mercian throne was held for a short time by Beornred. He was expelled the same year by Offa, who soon restored the power of Mercia, which seems to have suffered some diminution during the later years of .( Ethelbald. Offa's policy was apparently the extinction of the dependent kingdoms. In his reign the dynasties of Kent, Sussex and the Hwicce seem to have disappeared, or at all events to have given up the kingly title. In 787 he associated his son Ecgfrith with him in the kingdom, and after his death (796) Ecgfrith reigned alone for a few months. On the death of Ecgfrith the throne passed to Coenwulf, a descendant of Pybba, father of Penda. In 821 Coenwulf was succeeded by his brother Ceolwulf, who was deprived of the throne in 823, being succeeded by Beornwulf. In 825 Beornwulf was defeated by Ecgberht, king of Wessex, and in the same year he was overthrown and slain by the East Angles. 'The supremacy now passed to Wessex.
In 827 Ludeca, the successor of Beornwulf, was slain in battle with five of his earls. Wiglaf, who succeeded him, was expelled two years later by Ecgberht, but regained the throne in the following year. He died, probably in 839, and was succeeded by Berhtwulf, who reigned until 852. Under these later kings Mercia seems to have extended from the Humber to the Thames, including London, though East Anglia was independent, and that part of Essex which corresponds to the modern county of that name had been annexed to Wessex after 825. Berhtwulf was succeeded in 852 by Burgred, who married ^Ethebwith, daughter of AEthelwulf. His power seems to have been more or less dependent on the West Saxons. In 853, with the assistance of .lEthelwulf he reduced North Wales to subjection. Again in 868 he called upon the West Saxon king ^Ethehred for assistance against the Danes under LoSbrok's sons, who at this time invaded Mercia after their overthrow of the Northumbrians at York. No battle took place, and the Mercians subsequently made peace with the Danes. In 872 the Danes occupied London on their return from invading Wessex, after which a truce was again made. In 873 the Danes encamped at Torksey in Lincolnshire, and although another truce ensued, they advanced in the following year to Repton, and Burgred was driven from the kingdom. He went to Rome, where he remained until his death. In 874 Ceolwulf, a king's thegn or baron, was made king by the Danes, and definitely acknowledged their overlordship. In 877, after the second invasion of Wessex, the Danes seem to have taken the eastern part of Mercia into their own hands. How long Ceolwulf reigned over the western portion is unknown. About the year 884 the most important person in English Mercia was an earl, AEthelred, who accepted the suzerainty of Alfred, and in or before the year 887 married his daughter .(Ethelflaed. AEthelred and ^Ethelflaed appear to have had practically regal power, though they did not use the royal title. In 886 London, which had been recovered by Alfred from the Danes, was restored to AEthelred. During the invasion of 893-97 English Mercia was again repeatedly ravaged by the Danes; but in the last of these years, by the united efforts of Alfred and AEthelred, they were at length expelled. With this exception, Watling Street, the Ouse and the Lea, continued to be the boundary between Mercia and the Danish kingdom of East Anglia down to the death of ^Ethebred, between 910 and 912. The government was then carried on by AEthelflaed, who built a number of fortresses, and in conjunction with her brother, King Edward the Elder, succeeded in expelling the Danes from Derby and Leicester by the year 917-18. After her death in the latter year her daughter .lElfwyn was soon deprived of the government by Edward, and Mercia was definitely annexed to Wessex.
From this time onwards its existence as a separate kingdom was at an end, though during the last years of Eadwig's reign the Mercians and Northumbrians set up Eadgar as king. In the last century of the Saxon period the earls of Mercia frequently occupied a semi-royal position. The most important of these were ^Elfhere under Eadgar,* Edward and AEthelred, Eadric Streona, under the last-mentioned king, and Leofric, under the Danish kings.
AUTHORITIES. Bede, Historia ecclesiastica (ed. C. Plummer, Oxford, 1896); Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ed. Earle and Plummer, Oxford, 1899); W. de G. Birch, Cartularium saxonicum (London, 1885-1893). (F. G. M. B.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)