King of Mercia (796-821)

Also known as Cœnwulf, sometimes Cenwulf or Kenwulf or even Kenulph.
Coenwulf is an Old English name derived from 'coen' meaning bold or fierce and 'wulf' for wolf; hence 'fierce wolf'.

The beginning of his reign

Coenwulf took over as king of Mercia after the death of Ecgfrith, son of Offa, whose reign lasted a mere five months. Coenwulf claimed to be descended from Pybba, through Cenwealh a younger brother of Penda, and his succession is viewed as somewhat remarkable as none of his direct ancestors had any connection with the Mercian throne.

Indeed the whole circumstances by which Ecgfrith died and Coenwulf succeeded are unclear; it may have been that Coenwulf's accession was an opportunistic move following the extinction of the previous line, or it may simply have been a coup effected with the usual violence. There are simply no records that explain the situation.

The early years of his reign were dominated by the issue of quashing a rebellion in Kent and bringing that land back under Mercian control. This Coenwulf achieved in 798 when he succeeded in capturing the rebellion's leader one Eadberht Praen, after which he appointed his brother Cuthred as sub-king in Kent.1

The defeated Eadberht Praen was dealt with in the typical fashion of the age, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported;

Coenwulf, king of Mercia, ravaged the Kentish people. Their king Praen was taken, and they led him bound into Mercia and had his eyes put out and his hands cut off.

Coenwulf and the Church

It was during his reign that Aethelheard, the archbishop of Canterbury, travelled to Rome to successfully petition Pope Leo III to reverse the decision of his predecessor to grant archiepiscopal status to Lichfield. Therefore in 803 Lichfield lost the archiepiscopal status it had gained under Offa, and reverted to being a mere diocese under the control of Canterbury- Coelwulf tried, but failed, to effect a compromise whereby the archdiocese was transferred to London2, and had to accept a return to the status quo.

Of course the reason why Offa had sought to make Lichfield an archdiocese in the first place, had been to assert greater secular control of the church within Mercia. Aethelheard's success in re-establishing Canterbury's primacy did nothing to lessen the tensions with the Mercian crown and Coenwulf became engaged in an protracted dispute with Wulfred, Aethelheard's successor as archbishop.3

The source of the disagreement was Wulfred's attempts to assert the freedom of the Kentish church from control by the Mercian crown. The dispute escalated when Wulfred sought to deny Coenwulf's claim for lordship of the Kentish monasteries at Reculver and Minster-in-Thanet and Wulfred was effectively suspended from office. Eventually Coenwulf and Wulfred reached an agreement in 821 just shortly before Coenwulf himself died.

The Mercian Hegemony

Coenwulf was involved in an inconclusive conflict with Eardwulf king of Northumbria in the years 801-802, but far more importantly, the year 802 saw Ecgbert returning from exile to seize power in Wessex. In the days of Offa, Wessex had clearly been a subject kingdom ruled by a Mercian placeman named Beorhtric; now Wessex was reasserting its independence and breaking away from Mercian control.

Although Mercia remained a powerful kingdom whose hegemony extended over Essex, Sussex, Kent and East Anglia, and therefore the stongest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England, its loss of control over Wessex signalled a decline in its fortunes

Coenwulf and Wales

For the year 797 the Annales Cambriae records the "battle of Rhuddlan", but in typical fashion the Annales tells us less than we need to know - we are not told who fought at Rhuddlan or the result of the conflict, but for the following year we are told that Caradog ap Meurig was "killed by the Saxons".

Later the Annales contains the following sequence of entries;

816 - And the Saxons ravaged Eryri and took Rhufoniog by force.
817 - In this year was the battle of Llanfaes.
818 - In this year Coenwulf ravaged the land of Dyfed.

Taken together these few facts could be interpreted as evidence of Coenweulf establishing his control over the Perfeddwlad (that is north-east Wales) in the final years of the eighth century, followed by a significant push eastwards by Coenwulf, presumably in an attempt to conquer Wales and absorb it within a greater Mercia. This latter move may well have been a reaction to the loss of influence over Wessex and the civil war that had broken out in the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd between the rival claimants of Hywel and Cynan ap Rhodri in the years 813-816.

Coenwulf was indeed poised to make another assault on Wales when he died at Basingwerk on the Dee Estuary in the year 821 (probably of natural causes). Since his only son had predeceased him he was succeeded by his brother Coelwulf.

Conclusion

Coenwulf was the last of the five great Mercian overlords4; he ruled a Mercia that was still arguably the 'top dog' in England and seem poised to overwhelm Wales.

But Wessex had shrugged off the Mercian yoke and was engaged in its own piece of westwards expansion directed against Cornwall; Mercia was simply not as dominating power as it had been in the days of Offa and Aethalbald. Coenwulf may not have realised it but the end of Mercia was approaching, the Welsh were about to rediscover a new vigour and repel the Mercian conquerors, and there was a dark cloud on the horizon coming from the direction of Scandinavia.


NOTES

1 Cuthred ruled in Kent from 798 until his death in 807, after which Coenwulf seems to have taken Kent under his direct control.

2 Since Canterbury was located within the kingdom of Kent, and therefore not as amenable to Mercian control as was London.

3 Wulfred, who was the archbishop of Canterbury between 805 and 832.

4 The others being, in chronological order Penda, Wulfhere, Aethelbald and Offa)


SOURCES

Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain (Seaby, 1991)

The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica at
http://49.1911encyclopedia.org/C/CO/COENWULF.htm

Some information on Coenwulf's religious policy from www.wmich.edu/medieval/rawl/keynes1/biblioe.htm
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Annales Cambriae

For the Charters of Coenwulf see the Electronic Sawyer at
http://www.trin.cam.ac.uk/sdk13/chartwww/eSawyer.99/S%20152-85.html

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