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A study of the politics inside the Anglo-Saxon church in the Kingdom of Mercia during the reign of King Offa 757-796 AD


Published by Adam Freeman at Shakespir


11,500 words


Copyright 2016 Adam Freeman


Shakespir Edition


List of Illustrations

Figure 1 (front cover) – Image of St Alban’s Abbey. Image courtesy of author

Figure 2 – Map of West Midlands. Image courtesy of Google maps

Figure 3 – Image of Tribal Hidage. Image courtesy of www.finds.org.uk

Figure 4 – www.lichfieldheritage.org.uk Image of the front of Lichfield Cathedral

Figure 5 – Plan of Lichfield Cathedral [+ http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=42342&strquery=lichfield%20cathedral+] Plan of Lichfield Cathedral

Figure 6 – Photograph of Lichfield excavations, 2003. Image courtesy of Rodwell, J

Figure 7- Image of Lichfield Angel in the trench, 2003. Image courtesy of Rodwell, J

Figure 8 – Image of the Lichfield Angel after post excavation analysis

Figure 9 – Photo of the outside of Breedon-on-the-hill, Leicestershire. Image courtesy of www.leicestervillages.com

Figure 10 – Photo of the inside of Breedon-on-the-hill, Leicestershire. Image courtesy of www.breedonchurches.co.uk

Figure 11 – A distant view of Breedon-on-the-hill. Image courtesy of geograph.org.uk

Figure 12 – Photo of the Virgin Mary in St Mary and St Hardulph church. Image courtesy of [+ http://greatenglishchurches.co.uk/html/breedon-on-the-hill.html+]

Figure 13 – Front view of Repton St Wystan’s church. Image courtesy of www.reptonvillage.org.uk

Figure 14 – The development of Anglo-Saxon Repton, 2013, 402, Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes, Donald Scragg

Figure 15 – Image of the ‘Repton Warrior’. Image courtesy of [+ http://www.reptonvillage.org.uk/history_group/repton_early_history.htm+]

Figure 16 – Image of Crypt at Repton Church. Image courtesy of www.reptonvillage.org.uk

Figure 17 – Image of Crypt at Repton Church. Image courtesy of www.reptonvillage.org.uk

Figure 18 – Image of Offa with St Albans Abbey, from Thomas Walsingham, catalogue of the benefactors of St Alban’s Abbey [+ http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/illmanus/cottmanucoll/k/011cotnerd00007u00003v00.html+]

Figure 19 – Front view of St Albans Abbey – image courtesy of author

Figure 20 – Side view of St Albans Abbey. Image courtesy of author

Figure 21- Image of St Albans Psalter. Image courtesy of author

Figure 22 – Image of Brixworth church, image courtesy of Helen Gittos, 2013, 162

Figure 23 – Plans of Churches, comparing Deerhurst and Brixworth Church. Photo courtesy of Gittos, 2013, 163

Figure 24 – Image of the inside of Corvey Abbey (Saxony, Germany). Image courtesy of Coon, L L. Dark Age bodies Gender and monastic practice in the early medieval west, 139

Figure 25 – Howard, F.E 2007. The Medieval Styles of the English Parish Church, 27

Figure 26 – Plan of Deerhurst Church, image courtesy of Rahtz, Watts, 1990, 14

Figure 27 – Image of Deerhurst Church

Figure 28 – Deerhurst St Mary’s. Image courtesy of www.themcs.org

Figure 29 – The Anglo-Saxon boundary charter of Deerhurst, photo courtesy of Rhatz and Watts, 1990, 8

Figure 30 – Earthworks and villages of Deerhurst, photo courtesy of Rhatz and Watts, 1990, 3

Figure 31 – Carved stone of the Virgin & child (which would originally have the detail painted in) inside tower, ground floor. Photo courtesy of www.anglo-saxon-churches.co.uk

Figure 32 – Image of a angel outside St Mary’s church, Deerhurst. Image courtesy of www.coltsowlds.info

Figure 33 – Vicars choral of Lichfield Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Stocker, D.A Hall, R.A. 2005. Vicar’s choral at English cathedrals: cantata domino: history, architecture and archaeology. 62
























This paper will research on the mid eight century Saxon kingdom of Mercia, roughly encompassing what is the midlands in modern day England. Set within the golden age and high point of the Mercian dominance, in what has been called by later historian’s the ‘Mercian Supremacy’, centred on the most famous King of the time King Offa. For many people Offa is remembered for the wall he commissioned between Wales and England and his association with Tamworth, which would become the major administrative centre for him and in the later centuries for subsequent Earls of Mercia. It is the context of churches, the major building programme conducted in Offa’s reign along with a look at the motives for this policy that will form the main basis of this research.

The author will support the analysis into Mercian churches by focusing on four churches across the region; all are surviving to this day, although all have a range of surviving Saxon remnants. All Saints Brixworth in modern day Northamptonshire, The priory church of St Mary’s in Deerhurst in modern day Gloucestershire, St Wystan’s Repton in Derbyshire and Breedon-on-the-hill in modern day Leicestershire. The author will also extend a critical eye on Lichfield Cathedral and St Albans Abbey also within Mercia; whilst not built during Offa’s time their importance for his regional and national ambitions are important in this story.

The primary sources and contemporary accounts will be crucial to the study to put Offa, Mercia and the churches into their context. As well as analysing the relationship between Offa and other foreign powers like the Pope and King Charmalegne. The author will look at the Tribal Hidage, which is a contemporary account covering the seventh to ninth century of England’s tribes, this will be important in looking at the growth of the Mercian Kingdom and the different at times complex sub kingdoms that make up the large kingdom of Mercia, and the impact this had on the religious outlook of the region. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle that is a wide collection of manuscripts some that are contemporary and some wrote after the event, they are still crucial signposts to assess major events in Offa’s reign especially in regards to his foreign visits and his involvement in regional and national events.

As well as these wider sources, the author will also consult with specific sources from Offa and pieces of land and churches to assess the King’s motives and views on. One of these is a recording from 781 at the Synod of Brentford, the major church gatherings of the church, and one that still happens to this day in England. It details Offa’s claim against the church of Worcester, documents like this can help analyse the claim that Offa was the major player at these contemporary church synods and . The author will also look at letters exchanged between Offa and Charmalegne and Alcuin, as well as other grants of land and regional involvement, to look at how important religion was to Offa personally but also to his consolidation of power and political ambitions.

Whilst not the main aspect of this research, no study of church politics in Mercia can miss the elevation of Lichfield to an Archbishopric after 787 and becoming only the third English city to gain this honour. The author will research how Lichfield Cathedral looked at the time of Offa’s reign, the reasons behind its temporary elevation to an archbishopric and the impact this had on the country’s religious position within Europe.

Among historical sources there is also help and guidance from excavations evidence and architectural surveys that have been conducted during the respected time. This will be joined by the churches themselves, especially the ones that were constructed or important during King Offa’s reign, these are St Wystan’s Church in Repton which is also home to the Royal Palace which Offa spent periods of time in and is the burial place of former Mercian Kings St Mary’s Deerhurst in Gloucestershire and All Saints Brixworth in Northamptonshire are more southern examples in Mercia of churches that would’ve been key to Offa’s churches map and their great architectural richness must have been seen for contemporaries within the Kingdom and beyond.

My overall contribution to this field is being the first author to analyse the role of religion in Offa’s reign, the unique analysis of the four churches which the author has chosen will allow this paper to stand out from the crowd. All four churches have been discussed separately but a comparison and analysis of all four together will allow this study to set new ground in Anglo-Saxon church archaeology. Anlaysing all pevious

hapter 1 – The importance of the geography and the tribal map in Mercia:

Image 2 – Map of modern day Midlands with the location of the churches marked. Image courtesy of googlemaps.co.uk

Helen Gittos remarks on the architecture in this period saying, “one begins to see Carolingian forms influencing Anglo-Saxon architecture, or at least new types of buildings which have features in common with contemporary Carolingian ones. In particular basilican forms, with several openings from the nave into side aisles or porticus, begin to be found. These were very much larger buildings than their predecessors had been” (Gittos, 2013,161). But to look at eight century England we must also appreciate the tribal groupings and their importance in all aspects of Saxon life, from churches to military, to government. For Mercia we have one of the earliest surviving documents available for us to study, for a society that was illiterate and was as a result at the mercy of ‘foreign’ kingdoms to offer their own history of the Kingdom in reference to English life and continental politics. The Tribal Hidage which is a document compiled sometime between the seventh and ninth century, consists of thirty-five tribes south of the Humber. The Tribal Hidage survivies in three sperate manuscripts , one in Old English and the other two in latin, known respectively as Rescensions A, B and C (Neal, 2008 18). For this study it enables the churches to be looked at in realtion to the tribe that they were positioned in, and therefore what message the local or administartive powers were wishing to promote.

Many early historians have studied the document and still the most knowledgeable and refereed to is Cyril Hart. He says, “there is good reason to believe that in the Tribal Hidage we have a complete, if corrupt account, not only of all the provinces of the Mercian Kingdom, but also of all its outlying dependecies at a time when Mercian domination extended from the Humber to the English Channel and from East Anglia right across to Wales. We have in fact, if only we can interpret it correctly, the basic framework upon which to build a complete reconstruction of the political geography of Southern England at the end of the eighth century. We only have to identify the names, locate their boundaries, and the jigsaw is complete” (Hart, 1970, 135). Names such as Wocenscetna, Westerna, Pecscetna, Elmedscetna, Myrcna have now come down to us as names of tribes, a rare moment where historians can actually term these tribes and groupings by their real names. Clearly this unbiased and factual document along with its later version Burghal Hidage, is of importance to historians, especially when focused on Mercian issues.

But what was the practical use of the documents to Mercian’s and Englishmen alike? Similar to its much larger cousin the Doomsday book of 1086, it tried to document the country in terms of size, geographical locations and the head of the different Kingdoms/tribes. Its written record of Offa and other Mercian Kings being in control of tribes and ‘satellite states’ is very important in understanding the inner political workings of the Kingdom. Farr and Brown analyse the context, arguing, “the Tribal Hidage would therefore seem to be a catalogue of Kingdoms and principalities, some of whom boasted their own royal lines, assessed in figures that were symbolic of relative status. The topographical progression of the list indicates that Mercia was at the forefront of the compiler’s mind and the fact that the list was used in some form of bookkeeping is suggested by the totals that are offered in the text. Whoever compiled the list was interested in the total hidation of Southumbria; however, it must be stressed that this information might be of use whether the compiler were levying taxes or merely taking a rough count of heads”. (Farr, Brown, 2005, 29) Although debated on its outcomes, the document proves helpful to Saxonists and to this study in giving a geographical context to the churches and their position in the landscape.

During the seventh, eighth and ninth century there was a monastic boom in England, at the same time as Mercia was emerging as the dominant power. It was the main church building area of England and even on a par with the continent. John Blair finds that the boom and change in the monastic sense can be traced back to the Synod of Whitby in 664 where the first post Roman council was held to discuss ecclesiastical matters in Northumbria and the structure of churches in England. Although it was largely of symbolic importance, it discussed many religious matters that were important to the attendees, from the state of the church and the structure of the church between York and Canterbury. Blair shows its lasting legacy, that “there were few areas of religious life (that) can have been left untouched by plague which struck England in the same year, and remained a feature of life for some decades… the real monumental change was not the triumph of ‘Roman’ and ‘Irish’ but the formation of an indigenous establishment which could stand on its own feet” (Blair, 2005, 79) These reference to Irish and Roman ideas show the foreign influence that was already apparent in English architecture and ideals in the seventh century. The synod of Whitby’s importance lay not only in its foundation but as Blair describes it lay the cornerstones for England and the Anglo-Saxon way of building and organising churches for the next few centuries. Its setting of Whitby in Northumbria is also an indication that in these early centuries it was Northumberland that was the dominant power in England, a position that Mercia would hold in later centuries.

The church that in this period, “the collapse of the Roman Empire, scattered Christian settlements may have survived in parts of the British Isles… the arrival of Benedictine monks from the continent in the 10th century led to the widespread rebuilding in stone of previously wooden structures” (Jenkins, 2012, 56) This excerpt from Jenkins 2012 book on England’s thousand best churches falls in between the period that this dissertation will be studying in what later historians referred to as the Anglo-Saxon era, and the type of churches that were being built during the time. John Blair continues and presents a hypothesis that the churches sometimes stand on or beside prehistoric Roman monuments. “This phenomenon, once seen as evidence for long-term ritual continuity, has recently been subjected to analyses which trend rather to stress the purposeful re-adoption of abandoned sites. .. it is an inherent problem of the evidence that ritual activity leaves clearer in some periods and in others. In particular, whereas prehistoric earthworks, Roman masonry, and medieval churches have a good chance of surviving Anglo-Saxon pagan activity is likely to be invisible to us. A church built on a stone circle, barrow, or villa was used as a pagan shrine in the sixth or seventh century is distinguishable from a church built on one which was not” (Blair, 2005, 184) As has been laid out by Blair there are a range of sites and areas for which a church is built and the reasons for this development. The tribal map is an important avenue to explain in the construction of churches being built in the different tribes, these tribal leaders would come under the command of the King of Mercia by the eighth century.

Image 3 – Section of the Tribal Hidage dealing with Mercia Kings (In red).Image courtesy of finds.org.uk

The Mercian Kingdom covered a number of smaller regions that each had their own identity. The Churches that are analysed as examples of Offa and Mercia’s ecclesiastical ambitions come from different regions and tribes in this varied Kingdom. From the Hwicce to the Angles these tribes have been shown through the analysing of primary sources to show the subjugation of these sub-Kingdoms to Offa, a letter from Worcester in Appendix 2 is a example of this. Moving on the geography and geology is important to understand “The (first) aspect is geography, the most striking fact is that important ministers founded before 680 concentrate heavily on the east coast and its river –estuaries. This is true of Northumbria with its great minsters at the mouths of the Tyne, Wear, Tees and Esk and inland as far as the Penines” (Blair, 2005, 150). John Blair continues further and crucially presents that “Anglo-Saxon communal activities must have taken place in the natural world and the open air. In the vernacular culture of early Christian England, landscape mattered more than architecture”. (Blair, 2005,183) This theme would be seen in early Mercia where churches were built in a place that was more important than they looked like, usually this comprised of a small barn shaped building for the local community to pray in. This provides an explanation of why so many Anglo-Saxon churches are not with us today and can only be mapped through scientific and archaeological data.

By 757 when Offa came to power more and more churches were being built in Mercian territory, this production was clearly to compete against the southern and northern Kingdoms from Mercia who had developed and consecrated a lot of religious houses. Sims-William in his 1990 book Religion and literature in Western England sets out the scene of Mercia during this early Offa period. “A good many monasteries founded in previous reigns were still in existence in the first part of Offa’s reign, up to 781. They probably included Wenlock, Bath, Gloucester, Hanbury, Evesham, Fladbury, Withington, Stour in Ismere and his grandfather Eanwulf’s foundation at Breedon. A few others, though possibly founded earlier, appear in the record of the first time in this period: Dowdeswell, Bishops Cleeve, Twyning and Berkely” (Sims-William, 2005, 155). Along with this, other religious houses were being built – abbeys, chapels and holy sites or even re-consecrated. This scene meant to Offa and to any noblemen in the Royal court that this was an important movement to support and associate yourself with politically and religiously to. The early promotion of a Mercian independence and Mercian own archbishopric to rival and compete against the northern and southern Kingdoms – show us that even in the eight century a sense of pride and nationalism was important and supported by Offa and his churchmen for these reasons.

Image 4 – Image of Lichfield Cathedral. Photo courtesy of www.lichfieldheritage.org.uk

Image 5 – Plan of Lichfield Cathedral. Photo courtesy of [+ http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=42342&strquery=lichfield%20cathedral+]

The position of Lichfield to this study is of crucial importance, the cathedrals link to the politics of the age especially in connection with Offa’s aims in the latter part of his reign. The cathedral has been altered a lot since that time, and the building is now more of a medieval date. Primary sources tell us that a religious building was established by St. Chad, bishop 669–72. In 700 his remains were transferred to a funerary church, apparently dedicated to St. Peter. The two churches probably stood near each other. The cathedral may have been in the area later occupied by a side chapel on the north side of the presbytery of the Norman cathedral. The site of the chapel, which corresponds to part of the present north choir aisle, was believed in the 18th century to be the burial place of two Mercian kings (http://www.british-history.ac.uk). Although nothing of the Saxon date survives, the chapel has unearthed no Mercian Kings but archaeology has shed light onto the Saxon life, especially religious life in Lichfield, the fact that eighteenth century thinkers believed it had Mercian royalty underneath shows the importance that people have always attested with the cathedral and its place in Mercia.

The events of the promoting of Lichfield as an archbishopric, and the reasons in relation to the building of churches, position of Offa in internal and external matters and his personal aims are of the upmost importance. Additonal theory will be made on the subject of the churches themselves and the church councils in the following chapters. During the reign of Aethelbald, Mercia was growing its influence on its people, the church in the Kingdom and further afield was acknowledged and was promoted, but York and especially Canterbury were controlling their influence and the replacement of Bishops became less about the right man for the job but who each side was supporting as a candidiate.

Image 6 – Photograph of Lichfield excavations, 2003. Photo courtesy of Rodwell, J

Image 7 – Image of Lichfield Angel in the trench, 2003. Image courtesy of Rodwell, J

As Offa ascended to the throne at what we can see on hindsight was at the height of Mercian power he saw this issue as the premier one in the politics of his reign, hence once he used all his power to enact, as Dorothy Whitelock describes, “the later eight century saw one attempt to change the organisation of the English Church, by creating a third archiepiscopal province. It is a sign of Offa’s enormous power that he was able to force through a measure that ran so contrary to the traditions from the time of Gregory’s mission” (Whitelock). The sign of this expanding power of Offa and Mercia was the involvement he had at national church synods and continental relations with Charmalegne and the Pope.

Investigations into the history of Lichfield Cathedral have been perofmred over mnay centuries, but the most prominent and tatalising results has come over the last decade. In August/September 2003 an archaeological excavavtion was carried out in the nave of Lichfield Cathedral, to faciliate the construction of a rise-and-fall platform in the floor of the second bay west of the crossing. The site occupied a roughly octagonal area, some 7 m across, centered within the the bay; excavation was taken down to the required depth of 1.1m (Rodwell, 2004 [+ lichfield-cathedral.org+]). Led by Prof Warwick Rodwell, the excavation’s crucial discovery came in one of the last trenches unearthed. A carving of a Archangel was found, dated to the early medieval period as shown in image 8. Its preservation is astonishing and it soon gained the name, Lichfeld Angel. Further work has been done on the object and Professor Rosemary Cramp and Jane Hawkes say the Angel is “a remarkable survival – of European importance when considered in the context of Early Medieval sculpture…this carving is crucially important for the light it throws on the chronology of Anglo Saxon sculpture … panels of single or paired standing figures of angels or saints, or rows of the apostles with Mary and Christ under floriated arcades, are a feature of Mercian carvings which have usually been dated c800 and associated with the aspirations of King Offa to rival the artistic achievements of the Carolingian world” (Lichfield Cathedral. lichfield-cathedral.org.uk) This discovery has shown that we were not part of a dark Ages and similar to the Staffordshire Hoard found a few years later it shows the splendour and richness of Mercia during this period.

Image 8 – Image of the Lichfield Angel after post excavation analysis. Image courtesy of Lichfield-cathedral.org.uk

On Rodwell’s retirement he was asked what his greatest achievement during his time as an archaeologist was, he said ‘the Nave of Lichfield Cathedral in 2003. It was an interesting excavation in its own right but the discovery of the Lichfield Angel was the crowning glory. I had decided I was going to retire from excavation after 2003 work anyway but to end up on the last day finding the Lichfield Angel was pretty good – I can’t beat that’ (http://lichfieldlive.co.uk, 2009) Furthermore the question of where does the Angel fit into the wider landscape is analysed well by Catherine Karkov, the angel itself is depicted in motion, as if just entering into earthly space. On foot rests on the ground while the other is just in the process of stepping off a plant probably intended as a symbol of paradise. A similar sense of motion is conveyed by…the angel now set into the western tower of the church at Breedon-on-the-hill. Breedon, like Lichfield was part of the Kingdom of Mercia, and the Breedon angel is especially close to that of Lichfield in terms of the feathers of the wings, and the inclusion of a paradise plant – in this case a pomegranate (Karkow, 2011, 80) Both Lichfield and Breedon are a good distance from each other and although the Breedon Angel has been dated to the ninth century they are examples of the richness and splendour of Mercia.

Chapter 2 – The landscape of the churches. How important was the geography to the construction of churches:

St Mary and St Hardulph Breedon-on-the-hill

Returning to the issue of the tribal map, another church St Mary and St Hardulph situated on Breedon Hill gives us another opportunity to study a great early Anglo-Saxon religious building. The church was built in a monastic community. Some monasteries may have been founded close to centres of population with the purpose of converting the populace to Christianity. The foundation charter of Breedon-on-the-hill in Leicestershire, which is admittedly of dubious authenticity, suggests a missionary role. Twenty manentes (hides) of land at Breedon were given by a powerful patron called Frithuric (also known as Friduric) in the last quarter of the seventh century to Medehamstede (Peterborough) ‘so that they should form a monastery at Bredun and appoint a priest of good repute to minister baptism and teaching to the people assigned to him’ (Zalucyzi, 2011, 73). This look at the historical side of the construction of the church puts it to the reign of King Offa, who although not proven must have known of the monastery’s construction. Della Hooke assesses the territorial politics; she finds that “the Tomsaetan are known to have occupied the valley of the River Thame in Staffordshire, their territory extending north-eastwards at least as far as Breedon-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire” (Hooke, 1983, 85) the landscape now reinforces the historical evidence that Breedon was of importance in local Mercian affairs.

Image 9 – Photo of the outside of Breedon-on-the-hill, Leicestershire. Photo courtesy of www.leicestervillages.com

Image 10 – Photo of the inside of Breedon-on-the-hill, Leicestershire. Photo courtesy of www.breedonchurches.co.uk

Image 11 . A distant view of Breedon-on-the-hill. Image courtesy of geograph.org.uk

The church’s significance rose when it was transferred to the See of Lichfield in the early eight century. Ann Dornier in her classic 1977 book Mercian studies is seen as one of the very early followers of landscape archaeology, for example Breedon-on-the-hill has a commanding view in all directions and can be seen from several miles away. It was no doubt for this reason that a hill fort was constructed here in the Iron Age. Stray finds of pottery, tiles and coins ranging from the first to fourth centuries A.D point to continued use in the Roman period, although the nature of the occupation is unknown… about two-thirds of the hill have now been quarried away. The only structures that can be seen today are sections of the Iron Age ramparts and the church, of which the base of the tower is Norman and the rest is medieval or later, although it may incorporate reused stones from the Saxon monastery (Dornier, 1977, 155) The use and function of a former Iron Age fort as a base for a church is revealing, to the Anglo-Saxon local community it must have been seen as an important landmark and a good defensive position to protect the church from possible aggressive attacks from outside forces. To the hierarchy of Mercia it was the perfect location to build a religious building on a commanding hill, it gave them the opportunity to broadcast to the peoples of Mercia and the neighbouring Kingdoms their devotion to God through the continued consecration of the Medehamsteade community.

The church is rich in architectural splendour, which must have been of wonderment to the congregation of the church. It was truly a conquest of the minds. A picture of Mary the Virgin in what seems to be a Byzantine style as can be seen in figure 9 situated on the eastern wall was available for large groups of people to see, it supports the view that Carolingian and Byzantine ideas and forms were becoming more common in English eight century churches. Another less highlighted theme that is important to the story of churches and the iconography of early English architecture and ideals is gargoyles. “Breedon-on-the-hill church itself participated in Project Gargoyle survey work in 2010; it recorded nationally-important Anglo-Saxon friezes. Eroded medieval gargoyles decorate the outside. Exterior photographs include what might be eroded Anglo-Saxon frieze but are more likely to be natural weathering” (Breedon –on-the-Hill http://www.heritagegateway.org.uk ). For any local resident or pilgrim going to the church it would have been a perfect place to be close to God, to distance themselves from their pagan history and to show that Christianity was protecting them from the evils of the world.

H.M Taylor writing in the 1960s visited the church and remarked in his Anglo-Saxon England book, “Breedon is one of the greatest importance to students of Anglo-Saxon art and architecture since it provides not only unique examples of eight-century architectural sculpture in the form of about 80 foot of carved friezes, or sting-courses, but also a series of larger panels of figure-sculpture of the Mercian style” (H.M Taylor, 1965, 97) An example of this sculpture is shown in figure 9 where the image of the Virgin Mary is positioned on the church wall, something that the congregation must have seen on a daily or weekly basis, showing the church was closely connected to God and Christianity. This Mercian style would be characterised by its richness and similarity to the continent especially Carolingian forms. It was a relationship that was in its early form by trade and contact with the two Kingdoms, a relationship that future Mercia/Carolingian Kings would point to as proof of their shared vision and religious devotion.

Image 12 – Photo of the Virgin Mary in St Mary and St Hardulph church. Photo courtesy of [+ http://greatenglishchurches.co.uk/html/breedon-on-the-hill.html+]

Repton Church:

Image 13. Front view of Repton St Wystan’s church. Image courtesy of www.reptonvillage.org.uk

Going northwards from modern day Northamptonshire is Derbyshire. Derbyshire holds one of the great treasures of Anglo-Saxon church architecture, with much religious and political importance. The church is St Wystan’s in Repton it was built on the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery run for both nuns and monks, a history of religious devotion on the site is clear. Traditionally founded by St David in the sixth century, it was already an important church by the turn of the eight century as shown in Figure 13. During its early beginnings it was transferred to Lichfield as part of the recommendations from the seventh century council of Whitby. Michael Wood illustrates the areas importance arguing, “it is situated in the small province of South Mercia, made up of 50000 households, (they) lived west of the Upper Trent, and their main tribes were the Pencersetan, whose royal centre was Penkridge, and the Tomsaetan in the Thame valley. The territory of the Tomsaetan stretched from the church at Breedon-on-the-hill to King’s Norton south-west of Birmingham, a distance of over thirty miles. This was the heartland of the Mercian empire, with the royal church at Repton, the bishopric at Lichfield and the main residence at Tamworth” (Wood, 2005, 87) This look at the link between geography and the church substantiates the belief that there is a link between the construction of churches and the regional/tribal politics, thus strengthening the Kings power over the whole of Mercia, especially in the Tomseaetan where it was accessible for the King to travel around.

One of the greatest monuments of Anglo-Saxon England let alone in Mercia is the crypt in St Wystan’s church, as shown in figure 9. Sarah Zalucyzi says “it was begun in the eight century and started out as a simple square room with a recess in the middle of each wall, with access from the chancel by a short flight of steps in what is now the western recess. Over time stairs, whose rough walls contrast with the carefully dressed stone of the crypt, were provided on either side of the nave to provide access” (Zalucyzi, 2011, 70) The core of the present crypt was the burial chamber of Aethelbald and Wiglaf, built in the mid eight century, for Aethelbald the church was very important to him in his political and religious aims during his reign. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle helpfully says that in 757 King Aethelbald of Mercia was buried at Repton following his murder at Seckington, twelve miles away. The crypt was built during the reign of Aethelabld and was tuned into a mausoleum once he died (Swanton, M, 2010). Although further used as a burial for King Wiglaf in 827 and altered afterwards this shows the crucial link between royalty and the churches, the importance that the Anglo-Saxons saw to the afterlife and the site of holy significance.

Image 14 – The development of Anglo-Saxon Repton, 2013, 402, Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes, Donald Scragg


Image 15 – Image of the ‘Repton Warrior’. Photo courtesy of [+ http://www.reptonvillage.org.uk/history_group/repton_early_history.htm+]

Anglo-Saxon Crypt:

Image 16. Image of Crypt at Repton Church. Image courtesy of www.reptonvillage.org.uk

Image 17. Image of Crypt at Repton Church. Image courtesy of www.reptonvillage.org.uk

During excavations in 1979, inside a pit outside the church was uncovered a sculpture, it is thought to have been part of the shaft of a cross or other memorial. It may well represent Æþelbald, who was King before Offa from 716 to 757 and who termed himself “Rex Britanniae. Karkov follows on this and sees that “the location of its discovery, as well as its iconography have led to its identification as a memorial monument for one of the early Anglo-Saxon Kings known to have been buried at Repton. Style, iconography and the assumption that the fragment that remains must have been part of a cross shaft have led to its identification as a ‘portrait’ of King Aethelbald of Mercia” (Karkov, 2011, 102) Figure 13 shows the sculpture as it looks today, whether it is the King or just a warrior is a source of debate but its position in the church is used by way of propaganda to show to the congregation that the warriors/Kings troops are there to protect Christianity from the pagans.

St Albans Abbey:

In contemporary sources of the eighth century there is the news that Offa had been converted to Christianity by his wife who told him the story of St Alban. Although the story is unclear regarding Offa’s association with St Albans, what is clear is that the new religion that was spreading rapidly over Europe proved advantageous religion to be part of. For Offa it gave him access to other Christian leaders of most notable Charmalegne and the Pope. It also gave him the chance to disassociate himself from the other pagan kingdoms in England, that he wanted to exercise power over. As Simon Keynes describes “The king’s role in the foundation and endowment of St Albans is mentioned in some of the pre-Conquest charters in favour of the abbey, and was known to both William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon; but it was Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris, writing at St Albans towards the middle of the thirteenth century, who did most to establish the cult of the Mercian king” (Keynes, 1990) This look at the later sources is helpful, it is unclear how much Offa’s popularity increased after his death compared to his life, a answer any historian would find hard to prove. But it is clear that these later historians would have used contemporary sources from the eighth century to chart his life and actions, it must have been an important event to contemporaries to see their Kings devotion to Christianity shown through this impressive building.

Image 18 – Image of Offa with St Albans Abbey, from Thomas Walsingham, catalogue of the benefactors of St Alban’s Abbey [+ http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/illmanus/cottmanucoll/k/011cotnerd00007u00003v00.html+]

Image 19 – Front view of St Albans Abbey – photo courtesy of author

Image 20. Side view of St Albans Abbey. Image courtesy of author

Image 21. St Albans Abbey Psalter. Image courtesy of author

The history of St Alban’s Abbey is said to begin with “the visit of St German of Auxerre to the tomb of St Alban the martyr in 492. St German left relics of other saints with the body of Alban, and these are said to have been rediscovered in 793 by Offa, King of Mercia” (St Albans Abbey 2015, www.pastscape.org.uk). Hill and Worthington writing what they spoke about at the 2000 Manchester conference into Anglo-Saxon studies say that “the only pre-conquest mention of St Albans consecration are two documents held at St Albans Archive, a diploma of Etlhred II from 1007 provides some evidence of the status and origins of St Albans Abbey and Offa’s connections to it…it states… King Offa, once upon a time the King of the Mercian’s, held a certain part of these lands in the regala, and for such great love of the martyr who rested there, he granted it to the aforesaid monastery in eternal freedom by law” (Hill and Worthington, 2005, 51) There is also an effusion dedicated to St Albans through a poem. The fact that they are housed in the St Albans Archives shows to us that the Abbey is presenting these as proof of Offa’s consecration of the abbey, although a critical look is needed for both documents as they aren’t contemporary and are bound to fall under later prejudices and biased view points.

The question of why this area was decided by Offa to hold St Albans bones has become the subject of legend, with stories of Offa being visited by an angel as described in Roger of Wendover’s work and other such mystical happenings. What is true and what we can gage from the landscape, using historiography through Hill and Worthingtons 2000 book on the Saxons is that “Verulamium (modern day St Albans) had developed into a municipum on Watling Street in the Romano-British period indicates the strategic and economic influence of its site, (it was) on the main route between London and the North, a day’s journey from London…. The Thames Valley was within easy access along the River Colne and an ancient track way that forms the boundary between Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. From this area it was easy to reach or to keep a watchful eye on London” (Hill and Worthington, 2005, 8) an interest in London and the protection of his own lands can be shown from the consecration of St Alban’s. The event would not have been bad to strengthen his Christian support and align himself as the leader of the Christian kingdoms against the barbous Northumbrian’s. “The area was a perfect distance between his own lands and the lands of the West Saxons he won. A commanding spot on the hill on modern Hertfordshire, close to Watling Street – the old Roman road that was still an important gateway for trade and pilgrimage. The Blackwell encyclopaedia carries on this point and shows, Offa may have had in mind to promote a cult which would take precedence over the cult of St Augustine, at an abbey very well placed on the road leading from Mercia to London” (Lapidge, Blair, Keynes, Scragg, 1999, 341) Further adding to the discord and break down in relations with Archbishop Jaenberht and Canterbury it enabled the church to be used as a propaganda tool for Mercia and Offa’s richness as a warning to all those who dared to oppose him.

All Saints Brixworth church:

The county of Northamptonshire in what was then part of southern Mercia had within its borders two great Anglo-Saxon churches, Earls Barton and Brixworth. Figure 16 gives a great view of Brixworth church with the Saxon architecture along with the defensive tower and nave. The earliest surviving description of the church was in the twelth century by Hugo Candius and claims that a monastery was founded at Brixwroth some time after AD 675. As at Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire monks from Medehamsteade (Peterborough) probably formed the nucleus of the initial community” (Lapidge, Blair, Keynes, Scragg, 1999, 75).The church was of important for many Mecian Kings due to the size of the church and its positon in the mervcian geogrpahy, that would see it become the seat of a possibnle church synod. Due to a lack of primary sources it is unclear when the church was actually consecrated and who ordered it, it is however clear from archaeological evience that it was already around during Offa’s time as King.

Image 22 – Image of Brixworth church, photo courtesy of Helen Gittos, 2013, 162

The findings inside Brixworth show the rich architectural splendour that the church has in the saxon period. The church is not only important to Mercia but to the whole country, Helen Gittos elaborates, “it is the earliest clear example of an architecturally defined choir from Anglo-Saxon England,which may reflect the kind of monastic and clerical reforms being promoted in Offa’s Mercia and in the Carolingian empire. It also appears to be an early example of a building in which substantial rooms were provided at the west end” (Gittos, 2013, 164) Figure 17 shows the plan of Brixworth church in comparison with other early saxon churches, it is certainly of a good size for a parish church, with a large nave and apse, nearly on a par with Cantebury Cathedral. This innovation in Brixwoth’s design and the work done at the west end is characterisitic of european infleunce. F.E Howard elaborates further “Brixworth had a single arch opening into the apse and still retains its clerestory, the earliest now existing in England, though it has lost its aisles. It has also a crypt under the chancel, an indication of strong Italian inflence.” (F.E Howard, 2007, 21) This evidence shows the relationship between England and the continent in exchanging new architectural ideas especially through the use of the space of the church.

Image 23- Plans of Churches, comparing Deerhurst and Brixworth Church. Photo courtesy of Gittos, 2013, 163

Brixworth’s european appearance is very similar to Corvey Abbey which is situated in modern day Germany. LL Coon who has done a lot of research on this relationship elaborates further “The exterior of the westwork is marked by one of the great stylistic innovations in Carolingian building: intense verticality in contrast to the pronounced horizontal mass of the early christian basilica form. Corvey’s monumental front is set off by two soaring towers punctuated by slit-window openings, a four-story projecting central porch serving as the entryway to the westwork’s ground-level interior, and two curved arches on either side of the porch” (Coon, 2011, 135) Figure 18 shows the image of Corvey Abbey. The similarility to Brixworth is striking, this alone is another indicator of Mercia’s link to the continent that the Kings of Mercia promoted and expanded to new horizons.

Image 24 – Image of the inside of Corvey Abbey (Saxony, Germany). Image courtesy of Coon, L L. Dark Age bodies Gender and monastic practice in the early medieval west, 139

Supporting the architecutural and historical analysis of the history of the church is archaeology. The first such excavations were the large-scale investigations conducted in 1972 by the recently formed Brixworth Archaeolgically committee. The English Heritage database recorded the events, “in 1972 a large ditch to the west of the church dated to the late 7th century. It is possible that this represents an early monastic boundary. Six burials were also uncovered and the monks cemetery next adjacent to the ditch. The earliest plan of the church has been compared with Hexham and there is evidence of Kentish influence in the primary construction of the building” (pastscape.org.uk). Later excavations conducted in 1981 of two porticus and narthex proves that the two were constructed at the same time. Kent’s position on the coast would have made it a prime landing area for trade and contact with Europe; something that Mercia would have tried to gain from. This church is an example of such a relationship.

Image 25 – Howard, F.E 2007. The Medieval Styles of the English Parish Church, 27

St Mary’s Deerhurst Church:

Image 26 – Plan of Deerhurst Church, photo courtesy of Rahtz, Watts, 1990, 14

Image 27. Image of Deerhurst Church. Image courtesy of themcs.org

Image 28. Deerhurst St Mary’s. Image courtesy of www.themcs.org

Positioned in modern day Gloucestershire, Deerhurst, The priory church of St Mary, has a long history dating back to the Anglo-Saxon period. “A charter of c804 indicates that a monastery was already in existence. In the early ninth century it was expanded through a generous grant by Ealdorman Aethelric of the Hwicce” (Zalucyzi, 2010, 225). The document shows that the church was at least in existence in 804 only eight years after Offa’s death, it went through an extensive period of alterations from the eighth century to the eleventh century. Herringbone masonry was introduced in the ninth century and by the tenth century the porticos and nave were extended indicating the rapid growth of the community and participation in the church. Figure 26 shows the size of the church and a comparison with the European churches is striking, in was certainly constructed in preparation for either a large congregation filling it all for symbolic use. The fact that it was the first major church built in this tribal area with a relative low inhabitation is an example of this.

The church and the surrounding area were opened for excavations in the 1970s to 1984. Led by Wattz and Rratz the investigations led to a clear chronology of activity up to the tenth century with changes also being shown in later medieval England. Before the excavations and field walk and topographical survey was undertaken to discover what the parish of Deerhurst and the surrounding landscape looked in the eight /ninth century, this is shown in figure 20. “The estate was divided between two topographically and geographically distinct regions. To the east was a group of estates on the Cotswolds and the hills and marshes centred around Moreton-in-the-Marsh. Todenham, Bourton-on-the-hill, Moreton-in-the-Marsh and Little Compton were contiguous; not far away were Sutton-under-Brailes and Coln St Denis and, near the River Avon in Warwickshire, Welford-on-Avon Preston-on-Stour. These blocks of land would have given the monastery extensive sheep pastures on the high oolitic plateau of the Cotswolds and the wetter clay lands beyond” (Wattz, Rahtz,1990, 7) The look at the landscape surrounding the church nowadays and when it was constructed in the late seventh/eight century is very important, as we know from investigation at other sites that the position of monasteries, ministers and churches were situated in a good location – next to a river, political centre and set in a good defensive position.

Image 29– The Anglo-Saxon boundary charter of Deerhurst, photo courtesy of Rhatz and Watts, 1990, 8

Image 30 – Earthworks and villages of Deerhurst, photo courtesy of Rhatz and Watts, 1990, 3

The landscape that Deerhurst fitted into gives us a good explanation of the reasons for the construction of the church. Michael Aston looking at all the previous works on the landscape of the church, including Professor Finberg’s extensive work during the 1960s, finds that the topography of Deerhurst parish and the early estate suggests particular land uses for certain areas. For example, “there is a wide flood plain alongside the River Severn and a great embayment of flat land covered by drainage ditches south of Apperley in Deerhurst. It is most unlikely that either of these areas has been used for arable land in the last 1500 years … Much of Deerhurst parish consists of islands or near islands, rising above this floodable land. The distribution of ridge and furrow shows the extent of former arable land within the area, and where it is absent in the field or on the air photographs, it can sometimes be shown to have existed” (Aston, 2013, 62) This suggests that the church could be seen from a great distance. A recent study by GPS and GPR has shown how different the landscape is now as the marshland has disappeared and the area has been altered. A prominent figure on the landscape, it’s clear to see why St Marys became the principal church of the Hwicce tribe and attracted the interests of the nobility in the tribe and in Mercia alike.

The interior of the church is very interesting to archaeologists and historians as an analysis of the use of sculptures and spatial significance that the church had. Figure 31 is a picture of a carved stone of the Virgin Mary and child which is positioned on the wall near to the tower of the church. In the interior of the church this would have been seen at regular intervals by members of the congregation at service. The use of the Virgin Mary and the child are clear indicators that it is referring to biblical times; at the birth of Jesus Christ the founder of Christianity that their King, Offa and the congregation would have been members of. On the outside of the church is an image of an angel, still visible to this day as shown in figure 32. Its position is particularly significant as it is delivering a clear message; that the person who is approaching this image is entering a place of Christian worship. A warning to the pagans it is an early form of propaganda in support of Offa and the Christian faith in Mercia.

Image 31 – Carved stone of the Virgin & child (which would originally have the detail painted in) inside tower,

ground floor. Photo courtesy of www.anglo-saxon-churches.co.uk

Image 32 – Image of a angel outside St Mary’s church, Deerhurst. Photo courtesy of www.coltsowlds.info

Chapter 3 – The importance of the continental relationship to Offa and the link to the religious buildings:

Offa came to power during what later historians, notably K.B McFarlane, have termed the Mercian Supremacy. This was the period from the sixth to the ninth century when Mercia was the dominant power in terms of military capability, religious devotion and even the economic hub of England. This chapter will look at relations with the continent especially Charmalegne and the Pope. Secondly it will analyse how important Offa was to them and how deep the relationship between these sides went. D.P Kirby offers a snapshot into the period; “The 790’s are one of the most documented decades in Anglo-Saxon history and this enables the years of crisis which followed the establishment of Offa’s dominant position to be comprehended in some detail. The Carolingians maintained close contact with Offa’s court and Alcuin congratulated Offa in the late 780’s on his eagerness to encourage learning in his Kingdom” (D.B Kirby, 2000, 139) This crisis which would see their relationship break down between the two for a period of time brings into question the level of equality in the relationship. What is clear is the ability this level of support diplomatically gave Offa to fulfil his ambitions for Mercia, to have his son crowned as King during his lifetime, to chair and participate in church councils/synods and to give Mercia the crucial local archbishopric.

In my investigation to understand Offa and Mercia’s role with the continent a number of secondary sources are used to offer an insight into the world of Anglo-Saxon England. Barbara Yorke’s book Kings and Kingdoms of early Anglo-Saxon England has been of huge help in putting Offa in his position compared to other rulers in England. Abels and Godfrey’s older pieces of work have looked upon the continent viewpoint and helped to not over exaggerate his impact if he had anyway on the continent. Story’s Carolingian Connections: Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian, is the book with the most searching questions, it uses primary sources to analyse in her own words, the Anglo-Saxon contribution to the cultural; and ecclesiastical development of Carolingian Francia in the central decades of the 8th century. The main primary sources that are available originate from Northumbria and of a sense of biased and maybe understating on Mercia’s behalf must be expected, but Story compiles all the sources together and comes out with a balanced view that does ask more questions than it may answer but this could very well be a challenge to the historians she has analysed and not completely agreed with.

Early eighth century politics like its predecessor and successors, councils/ synods and later parliaments were crucial to legitimise a Kings ruler and also to discuss important internal and external issues. The council of Whitby as Richard Abels says “Bede portrayed the Council of Whitby as the decisive confrontation in his native Northumbria between the rival ecclesiastical traditions of Rome and Iona. For him the Roman triumph, the climax of the third book of his ecclesiastical book, signified that the Northumbrian church would no longer be guided by a ‘handful of people in the remotest of islands, but would rejoin the ‘catholic and apostolic’ Church of Christ. Oswiu’s dramatic conversion at Whitby was thus a crucial step in the growth of Christian unity in the British Isles” (Abels, 1983, 2). By the eighth century Church synods had become more common, they were called to discuss wars, church elections and the state of the church in England. These church councils were held in Brentford 781, this synod settled a dispute between Offa and the Bishop of Worcester, Chelsea 787 and Clovesho (possibly near to Brixworth Church, Northants) in 742, 747, 794 and 798.

To Charmalegne and the Pope, Offa was an important political pawn to have; his early conversion to Christianity in his reign put him in a good position to be looked upon favourably by Christian European powers, as Barbara Yorke shows “Offa was responsive to what was expected of a Christian ruler in the climate of the Carolingian renaissance and drew praise from Alcuin for his efforts on behalf of his kingdom” (Yorke, 1990, 116) Offa quickly saw that at church councils/synods where Mercia was a poor cousin of the southern and northern Kingdoms during the seventh and early eight century, therefore being a ally of the Carolingian Empire put him in a good position to enact real change for Mercia and bring the reforms that he wanted to pass. As E.G Stanley asserts that “to the Pope and to Charmalegne he represented England as no other previous King could have done, and so became a force to be reckoned with in European diplomacy” (Stanley, 1990, 187). This newfound power that Offa gained from bringing in measures followed by European Christian rulers, gave him the freedom to puruse local incidents that no other Mercian ruler had the opportunity to take.

A small number of primary sources from Charlemagne’s court have survived and give us a fascinating and valuable insight into the relationship and the correspondence that was in motion between Offa and Charmalegne. The sources are from the latter parts of Offa’s reign, so only a small and isolated part of the correspondence survives but they still show a lasting and long term friendship and trust between the two men on particular church reform and views on religious matters. This is vividly shown in one of the letters dated in 796 where Charlemagne writes to Offa about their friendship and shared vision of the church, “having pursued your brotherly letters, which have at divers time been brought to us by the hands of your messengers, and endeavouring to reply adequelty to the several suggestions of your authority, we first give thanks to the Almighty God for the sincerity of the Catholic faith which we found laudably set down in your pages; recognizing you to be not only a most strong protector of your earthly country, but also a most devout defender of the holy faith” (Loyn, H.R, Perceveal, J, 1979, 189). The two leaders acknowledge that they need each other to achieve the goals in religious and diplomatic life, the line ‘most strong protector of your earthly country’ is a sign that Charmalegne supports Offa’s invasion and pillaging in certain unholy/ pagan lands in England. This support must have given Offa encouragement to continue in his domestic ambitions enlarge his kingdoms power geographically and/or politically.

The success of Offa and Mercia is interpreted by some historians as a factor in his relationship to Charmalegne and the Pope and the apparatus it gave Offa to become a strong and powerful King. However some historians question this hypothesis and in fact see the two Kingdoms (i.e. England and Carolingian Empire) as successful in their own right and the closeness in this period as a result of the expanding and growing English influence and the Carolingian’s power on the continent. As Joanna Story analyses and interprets “ The fact that the Mercian supremacy in Anglo-Saxon England was contemporary with that of the Carolingians in Francia has inevitably encouraged historians to search for evidence that cross-channel contact was a factor in the sustained success of both regimes. This is particularly tempting for the later eighth century when, under Offa and Charmalegne, there is a quantative and qualative increase in political and economic contacts between the Anglo-Saxon and the Franks. The question is whether this increased visibility is a result of real change or a product of broader cultural developments that enabled the preservation of more primary sources” (Story, 2003, 170). Story’s interpretation offers a new look on the two powers of Europe, she says that the increase in stability and power was a factor for both country’s domestic policy’s and success in their own country/Kingdom that enabled them to become a force on the international stage. Whether both countries could grow on their own without the other Kingdoms trade or diplomatic support is a harder one to prove; certainly to Offa it offered new opportunities, not necessarily well documented like the exchange of information or influence at meetings/councils.

Another good primary source to analyse is a letter from Charmalegne to Offa dated between 793-6, a period where most of our sources survive and we must thank the archiving of the Frankian court for this. Referring to himself as Charles the Great this document covers the issue of pilgrimage, freedom of movement and the different cultures. An excerpt reads, “Your Scottish priest has been staying with us for some time in the diocese of Hildebald, bishop of Cologne, but has, it is said, been called to task by an accuser for having eaten meat in the season of Lent. Our clergy, however were unwilling to judge him because they were unable to find a full testimony of accusation against him. Nevertheless, they could not allow him to stay any longer in his usual place of residence because of the disgrace… It seemed to our clergy that he should be sent for judgement to his own bishop, to the district in which he made his vows to God” (R.H Loyn, Perciveal, J, source, 1979, 27) This document is very interesting as Charmalegne clearly sees Offa as the ambassador and spokesman for England and trusts that he wields enough power to sort out the problem. It is though unclear where the Scottish priest is from, ‘your’ meaning Mercia or elsewhere in the Kingdom. The fact that Offa’s the only King Charlemagne is in contact with from England during this time doesn’t narrow down the area. It is a sign of the close relationship between the two men that Offa as the lesser party would want to continue.

Furthermore Offa and his Mercian court wanted to transfer their growing power on the continental stage onto domestic politics. Like his predecessors Offa sought to put Mercian Bishops into Bishoprics around the country, this would enable Mercia to extend its diplomatic/soft power across all of Anglo-Saxon England. The model of Carolingian church affairs was one that interested Offa and many Englishman beside, as early as the 740’s Mercia was already making contact with Europe as Barbara Yorke elaborates, “in 747 Ethelbald received a letter from Bishop Boniface and seven other missionary bishops urging him to reform his personal morality and that of his subjects… One result was the synod of 749 in which it was agreed that Mercian monasteries and other holders of bookland could be exempted from all royal services with the exception of the building of bridges and defences; exemption classes from the reign of Offa add military service to the ‘common burdens’ which all land owners had to perform” (Yorke, 1990, 115/6) In many aspects a form of conscription was now in place in Mercia similar to the continent and its shows the importance that the monastic community had to Offa’s reign and the policy’s that he brought forward.

Image 33 – Vicars choral of Lichfield Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Stocker, D.A Hall, R.A. 2005. Vicar’s choral at English cathedrals: cantata domino: history, architecture and archaeology. 62

The issue of Ecgrith’s consecration fits perfectly into the timeline of the promotion of Lichfield into an archbishopric; these two events were interlinked as Offa needed the status of Lichfield as an archbishopric to act as a legitimate place for the historic consecration of his son Ecgrith. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle is very useful at this juncture and says, 787 – In this year there was a contentious synod at Chelsea, and archbishop Jaenberht lost a certain part of his province, and Hygberht was chosen by King Offa. When Ecgrith was consecrated King (Swanton, M, 2010, 52) Offa played Church politics at its rawest with Offa choosing Hygebreht. As the successor to part of Jaenberht’s lands, as part of the agreement to the promotion of Lichfield to an archbishopric; the council of Chelsea would be recommenced in 789 and probably 793 again. The continental links in this act is well analysed by Barrow and Wareham, “by the end of the eight century, religious ceremony was coming to be the means by which rulership was legitimised. Over the course of the ninth and tenth centuries Anglo-Saxon England followed Franciscan insisting that unction and coronation were needed for coronations for Kings to be Kings. The subject is central to the question of relationship between Anglo-Saxon Kings and the church of Canterbury from the time of Offa onwards” (Barrow, Wareham, 2008, 158) The importance of church councils to Offa in combating the Canterbury church and the Archbishop’s power has been analysed above, the breakdown of the relationship between the two men is one of the factors between Offa’s desire to bring across his views at these meetings to the benefit of Mercia.

This closeness continued when in 786 the Vatican sent a papal legate from Hadrian I to England. George Bishop of Ostia and Theophyclat, bishop of Todi were the two representatives in question and to the whole church this was important as it was the first visit by Vatican representatives during the whole Anglo-Saxon period, a clear indication of the growing importance of England and the church to the Vatican who must have been eager to see the church in action and to see how it conducts services and certainly to inspect further all the kings devotion to God and the capability of the archbishops. For this study on Offa the legates visit overshadowed a very interesting episode that came about from rumours, Sarah Zalucyzi recounts that rumours spread in Europe that Offa had suggested that Charmalegne depose Pope Hadrian I and substitute a Frankish Pope, “which caused understandable anxieties in Rome. Offa sent envoys to Charmalegne, then on to the Pope to explain that this had not been his intention at all, but a slur campaign had been was started by enemies of both Offa and Charmalegne in order to blacken their character’s” (Zalucyzi, 2011, 155) This rumour is a clear indication of Offa’s perceived power on continental affairs that he could even be mentioned in such an act. Brooks helpfully offers two good reasons for the rumours, one that it was orchestrated by Jaenberht and his Kentish kinsmen to sow discords between Offa, Charmalegne and the Pope in order to protect Janehberht and his see from Offa’s attacks. Another possibility is that there may have been those at the Mercian and Frankish courts who wished to threaten a pope who seemed to protect the independent archbishop. It is clear for both reasons that Jaenberht is at the centre of them and Offa’s and his relationship’s deterioration is only to be expected when you look at the strong discord on both sides to each other’s power and influence in the English Saxon politics of church and state.

The visit was twofold as it would show to the Pope’s representatives that the English church was free from all damnations and that there was an organised structure for religion in all of the kingdoms. For the Vatican they could investigate the rule of the English kings including Offa in combating ‘heathans’ and whether there bishops/archbishops were up to the task of ruling the English church. Like any meeting still to this day both parties had aims they wanted to achieve from the time together and aspects they wanted to broadcast and emphasise. Frank Stenton explores this, “no papal legate had visited England since the mission of Augustine, and the recent rumours about Offa’s hostility must have shown the danger of allowing England to pass beyond the range of the pope’s direct influence. On his authority over the English church. The most serious weakness in his position was the fact that the archbishopric that was the spiritual head of all the southern English had his seat in the Kingdom where resistance to the Mercian supremacy was strongest. There can be no doubt that, from the first, Offa regarded the legatine commission as preliminary to the establishment of an independent archbishopric in his own country” (Stenton, 2001, 216) Moreover this final section of the excerpt shows what Offa himself wanted from the visit and for this study on the importance of continental affairs to Offa’s reign, it enabled him to broach the subject of Lichfield to Mercia and possibly distance himself from Canterbury and the southern tribes who were trying to discredit his name.

Additional theory on the visit and its wider importance was the freedom it gave to Offa to broadcast his intentions for the church and for Mercia, Geoffrey Hindley focuses on the key issue in his 2006 book A brief history of the Anglo-Saxons. ”From Offa’s point of view as a ruler, the visit of the legates was chiefly important for the encouragement it gave to his project of a Mercian archbishopric. Though he had urged on Hadrian I the vastness of his dominions in justification of the scheme, his real motive was animosity towards the Kingdom of Kent. It was galling to his pride that his Mercian dioceses should be subject to the archbishopric of Canterbury” (Hindley, 2006, 105). To Hindley Offa is presented as at the extreme an egotistical war leader and at best a proud Mercian King, in the context of Anglo-Saxon courts and parliaments this could very well be a fair and reason view and it is clear that the views and aims he made and most he eventually achieved were to Offa reasonable and an expected progression on the dominance and power of the Mercian realm.


This paper has looked into five churches from different tribal regions that make up the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia. St Mary and St Hardulph on the top of Breedon hill, All Saints church in Brixworth, St Wystan’s church, Repton and the prior church of St Mary’s Deerhurst as well as the Cathedrals of Lichfield and St Albans. The research has aimed to assess how important the construction and endowment of churches were to Offa’s own religious ambitions during his time as King.

The great empires in the eighth/ ninth and tenth century of Byzantium and Carolingian are a crucial aspect of this dissertation. The works of historian’s especially Barbara Yorke, Simon Keynes and Eric John are helpful in setting it in a European context not just an insular look at English religious practices. Every church the author has chosen share a different history, some constructed later or before Offa’s time as King but all in Mercia and all can be shown to have a European influence. The use of sculptures, exterior and interior look of the churches is a clear indicator of this influence. The study has not tried to say that these changes are all down to one King or even one area of England but asserting that they were at their height in Mercia during the eight century

The use of sources from personal correspondence between Charmalegne, Alcuin and Offa to the more widely produced Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the recordings of various synods/councils is helpful in giving evidence to the claims that are made and points that are presented. For example the reading of the letters from Charmalegne to Offa is a good indicator that he saw Offa as the ‘ambassador’ of England and the first port to call on all matters ranging from pilgrims to trading links between the two kingdoms. The friendship between the two men can expand to wider contact between their respected populations.

This study has tried to show the importance of church synods/councils to Offa. The 787 Chelsea council resulted in Lichfield becoming an archbishopric and from this act a chain of events that were favourable to Offa were put in motion. The consecration of his son Ecgrith at Lichfield enabled Offa to protect his legacy and keep Mercia at peace from within and abroad. It put a Mercian/Offa sympathizer at the high table to church politics and enabled York and Canterbury to lose power and ground to Offa’s ambitions religiously and militarily. The availability of the Brentford Synod set before the Chelsea synod in 781 is key to show how quickly he progressed in terms of power and political power, and also the level of interaction between him and Archbishop Jaenberht at this stage.

The effects of King Offa’s reign were not long lasting and were similar to his own rise to power. Offa’s ambitions to have his son succeed him, even becoming the first King in recorded English history to have his son ‘crowned’ during Offa’s time still on the throne. Within five months of Offa’s death in 796 and his sons accession to the throne, King Ecgrith was murdered by his distant cousin Conewulf, who would reign for twenty five years, but Offa’s ambitions for Lichfield would be ruined as it had its archbishopric stripped early on in Ecgrith’s reign. A king who spent a major part of his reign dealing with regional infighting, he lost Mercia’s dominance on the international world, and its regional importance. Conewoulf is now seen as the last king of Mercia to exercise substantial dominance over other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The rise of Wessex and a dismantling of Mercia’s dominant political and military power would begin.

The current study has only examined Offa and Mercia and in this aspect is narrow in only focusing on a select amount of churches and locations. A further study looking at all the churches there were in use in the mid to late eight century at the time in Mercia and having a wider comparison to look at. It might explore/investigate whether the connection between the churches and Mercia during the eight century carried on into the later centuries, and if this saw any change depending on the ruler and political atmosphere of the period. Along with this, an extended analysis of the other Kings of Anglo-Saxon England in Northumbria, Wessex and Kent for example had with their own church construction ambitions, religious aims and their own relationship with the continent. Whilst this was set in the ‘Mercian Supremacy’ this came on the back of an earlier Northumbria golden age and this supremacy age would be succeeded by a major Alfredian age in Wessex, which saw similar expansion ideals and church


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This book will be set within the heart of eighth century England, focusing on the reign of King Offa of Mercia who reigned from 757-796 AD. For many historians and interested observers Offa is most famously known as the man who commissioned the building of a wall and dividing structure between his kingdom of Mercia and the barbarous tribes of Wales, it is known to this day as Offa’s Dyke. Over a thousand years on this structure’s survival is a testament to the engineering capabilities of the men who built It and the ambitions of the Mercian court. This book will be looking at the forgotten aspect of Offa’s reign, his religious views, his relationship with the Pope, Charmalegne and other major religious and political leaders of the time, through the support and promotion of churches and religious buildings he was able to promote a political statement within England and further afield. The setting of many church synods of England within the borders of Mercia during his reign, alongside the elevation of Lichfield to become an archbishopric and thus directly challenging York and Canterbury for supremacy is an example of Offa’s supremacy. Supported by primary sources from the period, through critical analysis of letters and correspondence from Offa this book is aimed to offer a crucial and forgotten period of England where Mercia was the dominant kingdom, Offa should be seen important to Mercia, as Alfred and Aethelstan are for Wessex and Oswald was for Northumbria.

  • Author: Adam Freeman
  • Published: 2016-09-16 21:35:17
  • Words: 12778